Work Travel and Mom Guilt
Ten tips to help navigate parenting and traveling for work
👋🏻 Hi there - Helen here with the latest installment of consequences of making professional decisions and dealing with what it means for your personal life.
Earlier this week, I was on a plane for work catching a 7:30am flight and returning a few days later. All the voices in my head were going strong that morning - am I a bad mother for leaving my kids behind, am I going to miss out on memories and experiences that they’ll form without me, what if someone gets sick and I’m not there, and why did I take a job where I feel the need to travel on a regular basis.
At the same time, I was also feeling the taboo of relief that I get a change of scenery, two whole quiet hours on a plane where no one needs anything from me, and the overall joy at having a chance to lead a “child-free” life for a few days.
It’s important to be able to hold these two truths at the same time - missing my family while also relishing the opportunity to be away. However, to make this possible, it has required Adam and me to set up systems and routines so that we can both have thriving careers, while also being present and engaged spouses and parents.
So in this post, I capture ten tips to make traveling, working and parenting be possible in our family. Share something that works for you and your family so we can support each other in working and parenting.
1. Agree on frequency of travel 🛫
Being based in the Seattle area, I never imagined that I would join a company that was headquartered elsewhere. But thanks to COVID, this became a real possibility when I had an opportunity to join Guild, which is based in Denver. As part of the discussion on whether or not this was the right move for me, Adam and I discussed what is our tolerance for travel is (for both him and me). By having a clear and direct conversation, it helped us set up the right expectations and norms so that we did not need to revisit this every time travel came up.
For my job, I need to be able to travel up to once a month for a few days at a time. However, Adam needs to travel once a quarter for a week at a time. Net-net - it’s about equal number of days for each.
We also agreed that since I travel more frequently, I will do my best to avoid weekend travel, however, since Adam travels abroad - he needs the weekend, and that’s ok.
We also discussed notice that we both needed and try to plan as much as possible. If it’s too last minute, the default is to not go. We both work to avoid any urgent trips. For me, that means I try to plan at least two weeks in advance. Adam plans even further in advance because his trips are longer.
2. Don’t keep score 🎯
Part of our nightly routine is taking turns putting kids to bed at night (alternating - where a parent does bedtime with one kid and switch the next night). When someone is out of town, the parent staying behind does bedtime for both kids. We have decided early on not to keep score - that means that you get right back to the previous schedule when you return. As our kids are getting older and their awareness grows of a parent leaving for work, they may request one parent to do both bedtimes and we adjust then as needed.
3. When to come back early ⏱
If you travel for work, there will be a day when something unexpected happens at home and you have to decide what to do - do you stay or do you cut your trip short. The short answer for us is - it depends.
When I broke my foot while pregnant with our second child, Adam canceled his trip to Norway. However, when the kids and I had the stomach flu at home and he was in Europe, it didn’t make sense to adjust the schedule and change plans. There was a time when I was in Denver and my work obligations ended early and sleep and logistics were hard at home, I moved my flight and came home early.
For us, it comes down to an honest conversation and an assessment of whether or not changing plans would actually be helpful. We try to put aside the heroics and get down to business - “If I got on the plane right now, would it actually help? Can anyone else help just as well?” If the answer is yes and no respectively, then it’s worth considering.
4. Suspend all expectations of what is happening at home while you are gone 🙈
When I go out of town, Adam gets to make all the calls on what they eat for dinner, what and how much TV is watched and how much dessert and fun is consumed.
When Adam travels, I also hold no guilt for getting a babysitter to come in so that I am able to go out and honor a social or professional commitment. While many of our roles and responsibilities are interchangeable, I am the primary parent who handles childcare, so I also support Adam when I am traveling if he needs a night out by finding a sitter ahead of time.
5. To bring or not to bring gifts home 🎁
We try hard to not set expectations that there will be a gift or souvenir brought home after each travel instance. However, the reality is nuanced. Since I tend to mostly go to the same place over and over again, bringing gifts feels redundant. Since Adam goes to international places and is gone for longer periods of time - he usually brings something home.
Our biggest goal is to not have our kids greet us with “what did you bring us?” - and to be honest, this is a work in progress. I think about The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies when this comes up and what are the ways in which we can tackle the expectation of gift giving.
6. Connect with the family on your partner’s terms 📳
While travel is hard and exhausting, it is undoubtedly harder for Adam who is at home holding down the fort (or me when the roles are reversed). This was especially true when our kids were younger so we agreed that the parent at home gets to dictate the convenient time to connect and the traveling partner tries to accommodate. The rationale is to be helpful, while away and not cause any harm or disruption to the routine or way of life that is going on at home.
7. Manage your sleep and exercise 🛌
I do not sleep well in hotels when I travel for work. My mind is going 100 miles an hour and I have a lot of things I want to get done that I am constantly thinking about. There is no off switch when I travel, no change of context with kids and family. So I make a special effort to meditate (I use the Peloton app as well as Calm) and to walk in the morning or exercise in some other way.
8. Give yourself grace 🙏🏻
I appreciate that Adam does not make me feel guilty about my travel or the times when things go sideways at home - someone gets sick, snags with childcare and unexpected logistics creep up.
What I actually need to remind myself of is to give myself grace and not feel bad about things that I cannot control that happen.
I was in New York on a girls’ trip a couple of months ago, and our youngest wasn’t having a good day in preschool. I got the call - please come pick your child up because she is not feeling well. As for many mothers, we are the default first call from preschool, school, camps, sports etc. (despite every effort that we make to balance that out) and there were no words to describe the guilt I felt for being out of town. I scrambled to call Adam and our nanny and arrange backup care as well as call the school back to inform them of the new plan.
No one asked me to do this and I am 100% positive that Adam would have handled all of this just fine without me going into “save the world” mode and needing to prove my worth as a mother. I can do it all is not a victory. It is unsustainable and harmful.
At that moment, I was grateful to my friend who was sitting with me - who helped me talk it through, make the calls I felt I needed to make, and ordered me another glass of wine. We talked about it and both made commitments to do less superhero cape-wearing and more delegating.
9. Enjoy the time 🥳
As many of us know, work travel is not restful and fun as you’d imagine it to be. The days are full of meetings and evenings with social obligations. However, it is also an opportunity to try new food, visit new places and push yourself out of your comfort zone. So despite the guilt and FOMO of not being at home, it is important to take the extra day or two if there is an opportunity to have a special experience. Adam and I try hard to encourage and remind each other to not let these moments pass us by.
For example, when I went to India a couple of years ago, I took the extra day to explore the markets and temples in the area rather than rush home (picture of me nervously smiling as I’m riding in a rickshaw with my coworker). It’s never easy to do and something I fight the urge to forego every time, but so glad when I don’t and make the effort to stay a little bit longer -especially if I’m in a faraway place.
10. Stay Strong 💪🏻
There is no harsher judge of ourselves as mothers than us. If you have a career that requires you to make compromises and sacrifices such as travel or long working hours or whatever else that makes you feel guilty - think about what you can do to manage it. Do right by those who matter most and teach your children that a working mother is someone to respect and look up to.
Whether you need to name it and make a plan with your partner, set the right expectations with your boss or meditate through it to let it go - I encourage you to figure it out, minimize the guilt and enjoy the ride.