Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Christopher “Topher” Hunter, describes what it’s like to be a long-distance parent and strategies he uses to keep a good relationship with his son.
My 10-year old son is named Daniel. I love him as much as any parent possibly could. He looks like me, acts like me, is soft-hearted and intelligent like me, and is an absolute joy to be around. He loves dinosaurs, baseball, cooking, Lego, and Star Wars.
And he lives 1500 miles away from me in another country.
I can’t reach out and hug him when he’s sad. I can’t cuddle with him while watching TV. I can’t kiss him goodnight, help him build a Lego creation, see him in a school play, or see the excitement on his face the moment he discovers something new and amazing under a rock. I can’t discipline him when he acts out. I can’t protect him from all the scary things in the world. I live in fear of the day I get a call saying he’s been hurt.
Imagine all those little moments you have with your child, which you probably barely even notice, and take 80% of them away. Now take 15% of them and reduce them to a phone or video call. Now take the remaining 5% and cram it into a few exhausting days of visits every year. Try to cram all the love and attention and teaching and nurturing you can into those brief moments. It’s mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting beyond belief.
I remember when I first interviewed for this new job. I felt like a complete ass even considering moving so far away from my boy. Then a handful of soldiers boarded the plane, obviously either just heading out or just returning from deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq. These men and women were able to be parents despite the fact that they didn’t know if they’d be coming home in a box. I was considering moving to a very safe little town a few hours’ secure flight from him. At that moment, I knew I could make it work.
It hasn’t been easy. For almost four years, I’ve commuted to see him for a few days every three months or so, and we’ve talked on the phone or Facetime almost every other night. We’ve laughed and shared stories and exchanged loving words, and I believe that he truly understands that I love him. And yet he cries and breaks my heart every time I leave to fly home. There are moments when I want to curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep, fearing that I’ve screwed up his life forever.
(Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” is a horrible song. It’s gut-wrenchingly cathartic. Just remember to put on “The Cave” afterwards to regain some mental balance.)
Yet it’s all worthwhile. You know how most parents leaving for work get a quick peck and a hug and a “bye” thrown over the shoulder during breakfast? Well Daniel came up with a little routine that plays out at the end of every phone call or video chat. He calls out, “big hug!” and I respond, “big hug!” He then calls out, “big kiss!” and I respond, “big kiss!” It’s become our ritual, and even though it’s a reflex pattern, there’s a lot of love behind it.
How do you co-parent through a phone? How do you let him know you love him when you only see him every three months? How do you teach him that you’ll always be there for him when you can’t even kiss him goodnight every evening?
Here are a few things I’ve learned through trial-and-error. If you have other thoughts or ideas, I’d love to hear them.
- Commit to yourself to call on a regular schedule; Daniel and I talk about every other day, and I’m careful to leave a message every time I miss him, so he knows I made the effort.
- On that note, when you leave a message, no matter how bad your day, throw everything you have into tone. Even if you want to strangle your ex over some issue, leave the happiest, most loving message you can.
- Use the technology at hand. If you can get your child a tablet, phone, or laptop so you can talk over Facetime or Skype, do so.
- Never, ever, ever force your child to talk. If they are busy and just want to say, “hi I love you, let’s talk another time,” then let it be. I watched Dianne’s (Daniel’s mother) previous ex-husband try to force calls with his girls for years, and it never did anything but engender anger and resentment on every front. You can’t control the situation, so don’t try to. You’ll gain a lot more in the long run by simply making it clear that you are always there and always available for them.
If you’re in a similar situation, even if you just have to cross the street to see your child, I bet you have moments of fear and sadness. I won’t try to say that my situation is somehow worse than yours; I’m actually pretty lucky, in that my son seems to have adapted well, and my ex and I have an amicable relationship. But every day is still a challenge, and probably always will be. I suppose the best I can offer right now is to remind you that you’re not alone. Parenting is always hard, and distance parenting has unique struggles. If you need to talk about it, there are plenty of us out there in similar situations. You’re not alone.
Christopher “Topher” Hunter is a nerd, scientist, bioengineer, photographer, costumer, dog trainer, beer brewer, and a lot of other nouns. He has too many degrees and too many hobbies because it’s all fun and interesting, and … squirrel!
Featured image credit: Christopher Hunter