Balancing travelling for work with family life

What are the different challenges for the parent at home and the one working abroad?


As a self-described “corporate widow”, Carmel Brennan believes in normalising the fact that her husband, John O’Shea, has been commuting abroad to work for more than 10 years.

She doesn’t do the “daddy’s home” high at the end of the week as she thinks it could have a corresponding “daddy’s gone” low, for their three children. “I keep everything as easy-going as possible.”

A human resources director for a multinational company in the UK, John is away from early Monday morning until late on Thursday night. The drive from their home in Faithlegg, Co Waterford to Dublin is only the start of his journey and one he often does the night before Monday’s early flight to Manchester or London, otherwise he has to get up at 2.30am. He may also have more hours on the road at the other end, travelling within the UK.

Like any of the increasing numbers of families who have one parent away travelling in what is now a global workplace, they have to cope with the challenges this brings.

For young children, if a parent is not around, it really doesn’t matter if he or she is down the road or in another country. But for the partner, distance increases the sense of being the sole parent in charge.

“There is a very big difference between commuting when there are babies at home and when there are older children at home,” says Carmel, a law lecturer at the Waterford Institute of Technology, who is familiar with both scenarios.

When their children, Éabha (12), James (11) and Méabh (five), were younger, she can remember the “enormous sense of responsibility that you are the only parent there and the only one to get up”. She would sleep with one eye and one ear open, “but that’s not sustainable in the long run”.

Now the children are older, they go to various after-school activities and she is out and about with them, having reduced her work to five mornings a week.

“I have cut back on work in favour of family but not everybody has that luxury of choice,” she acknowledges. It is much more stressful if your partner is commuting and you are in a full-time job.

Coping strategies
What works for their family is that John rings at a fixed time every evening, usually between 8pm and 8.30pm and they can all chat. They have also learned as a couple to cope with John’s departures and returns.

“When somebody comes home, there is a rebalancing of authority in the house,” says Carmel. “You have to readjust. It is very important, especially if it’s a man coming home, that he reasserts his authority in the home place.” That may sound very traditional, she says, but that is not the way she views it.

“The buck stops with me during the week but I am only one parent.” At the weekends she would never challenge John’s authority on something he does with the children. He may not know the way they do things during the week but she will run with what he says. “He needs that support when he comes home because he is not here all the time.”

She also draws back to allow the children to have time with their father. For instance, he goes horse-riding with Éabha on Saturday mornings. “I nurture that by staying away from it.”

Unsurprisingly, John is not interested in going out on weekend nights. “We just sit in together and have our chats,” says Carmel.

Neither she nor John is into “contrived specialness”, she explains. “You can have your togetherness weeding the garden or whatever.”

Carmel feels they are very lucky that John has a “sane kind of commute” and is home at weekends, whereas she sees women living around her whose husbands are working much further away and for longer stretches of time. She stresses that such women shouldn’t feel that they are alone.

“There is a whole community of corporate widows out there in Ireland and we don’t have to be miserable – we can be merry corporate widows. We have to help each other and keep an eye out for each other.”

On balance, Carmel prefers her routine to John’s – although she muses about what it would be like to get up every day and just have work to focus on, whereas she is constantly juggling family and work in her head.

“But I have all the joy of the moments as they happen and all the laughter . . . I think John most likely has the harder role, as he is excluded during the week from the [family] routine. It is hard in different ways.”

Not swapping places
Corinna Moore is constantly on the go with her five children, ranging in age from 16 months to 11 years, but would not swap places “for all the tea in China” with her husband, who travels around Europe and sometimes over to the US for his job with a large multinational company.

“He struggles to find time for himself,” she acknowledges. She misses him most at the end of the day when she is running out of steam, as he always takes charge of the bedtime routines when he’s there and can collect the older children from early evening activities.

The food shopping is also something her husband looks after. “He is far better at it than me,” she says. “I definitely do feel more frazzled when he’s not around” – something the older children are learning to understand.

However, she doesn’t know how he manages to balance the pressure of a very demanding job and the need to hit the ground running with the family when he’s home in Dalkey, Co Dublin.

“It’s no good him coming back to me exhausted,” Corinna laughs.

New technology has made this way of working and living a lot easier for her husband and one upside is that when he is not travelling, he can usually work from home.

He and Corinna keep in touch mostly by text while he’s away, rather than chatting on the phone as it can be hard to find a good time for both to talk. And sometimes she loses track of his movements.

“Last week,” she adds, “I thought he was in Madrid and Milan and in fact he was in Amsterdam.”