Long Distance Parenting
“Go away, Daddy. I hate you. Go away.”
Those were the words ringing in my ears as I sat at the airport waiting to catch my flight back to Singapore after a flying visit to see my wife and daughters in Bangkok. Emma, my six-year-old, had shouted that at me as I climbed into the airport taxi, her tiny face crumpled with emotion and tears streaming down both cheeks. What had brought about this visceral reaction? I had hugged her 11-year-old sister, Bee, first. Emma had thought that I was getting into the taxi without hugging her too. She was venting her feelings of rejection and anger at situation which she couldn’t fully comprehend yet, which, since August 2017, had been a very real part of our lives.
There I was sitting in the soulless departure lounge of Suvarnabhumi airport, waiting for a flight that was delayed, surrounded by excited people about to embark on a holiday.
My mind was reeling with the sadness and anger that my decision to work abroad was having on our family.
So how did we get here? My wife Lara and I have been married for almost fifteen years (but we really count it from our first date in 1998) and have barely been apart since. There have been the occasional work trips, but for the most part, we’ve been inseparable. From the rain-swept streets of North London, to Belgium, Dubai and most recently, Vietnam, we’ve been a pretty inseparable unit - adding to the initial pair with Bee and then Emma. Then, in February 2017, things changed: Lara got a dream job in Bangkok and after a lot (a lot!) of discussion, signed a two-year contract.
The girls and I were as excited as she was. There was no job for me but I had some plans to use the time tutoring and perhaps writing another textbook for the International Baccalaureate Organisation. Then, two days after she signed, an email came from the head of my (our) dream school in Singapore. “So… are you still interested in a job here? Something has just opened up.”
And that was it. After a lot of long discussions, I was all set to start work in Singapore while Lara and the girls would be heading to Bangkok. After all, how hard could it really be? The two cities are a two-and-a-half-hour flight apart. It would only be a two-year contract and then we’d reassess the situation and decide next steps. People do this all the time. In Dubai, we regularly met low income workers from the Indian sub-continent who had left their families for a full two years. People in the armed forces are constantly being deployed away from their families. My dad did the same thing in the seventies - moving away from my mum, sister and I to study for his masters. I really had no grounds to complain - especially as Lara had painstakingly compared our school calendars and already highlighted the holidays that overlapped. I, we, had no excuse to be a cry baby about this.
August came too soon. Lara and the girls spent the summer with her folks in Belgium, while I stayed in Vietnam to pack the last few things and oversee the shipping of our stuff to Singapore. Then I met them at the airport in Bangkok on the day they flew in. The girls were surprised - lots of happy tears and cuddles. Kind of like one of those scenes from a really cheesy American movie. From the way, Bee and Emma threw themselves onto me, you’d have thought I was a returning war hero.
These moments - these fleeting moments of reunited joy - are powerful and come from the same place as the bitterness, anger and sadness that I began this article with. And that’s the essence of what I guess I’m trying to write about: the roller-coaster.
Our decision to split the family like this was not taken lightly and, in all honesty, has proven to be far harder than we anticipated. Lara works a brutally demanding job while having to be a single mum to two girls whose welfare and development she doesn’t want to leave in the hands of a nanny or maid. She rushes from a day filled with parent-meetings, teaching and counselling kids to making sure that Bee can return from her daily after school sports practice to a cooked meal. She cooks it while helping Emma with her reading or Math. She makes sure the girls have dinner together, and they have time to discuss the day and connect as a family. She makes sure they have all the benefits of being part of a loving family and that their home is a sanctuary of warmth and care.
When possible, she’ll arrange a FaceTime call for us so that the girls can tell me about their day and I can read Emma a bedtime story. After Emma has gone to bed, Bee and I chat briefly and sometimes try to watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica together. (It’s really not easy to synchronise the moment we each hit play on our devices.) Then, once Bee has gone to bed and if she hasn’t got too much work, Lara and I FaceTime, and chat for a bit. Usually one of us will be too tired or too inundated with work to hold a conversation but it is nice to have that time and hear her voice.
Of course, this is not how it always goes. More often than not the girls are wrecked from a particularly brutal day and are being too feral to go on FaceTime. Or Bee’s got a stack of (meaningless!) homework that she’s convinced that she absolutely has to do before school the next day. Or I’ve promised some of my students that I’ll go watch a play they’re performing in or I have another late meeting with one of the boarding house students to help with writing essays. Or Lara has an absolute tonne of emails and references to get through for her students’ university applications or write-ups from her counselling sessions. More often than not, one of us will end up texting to say “Sorry. Can’t do FaceTime tonight. Tomorrow?”
And that’s the point. There’s always tomorrow. We know this and it makes it easy to get through the loneliness. I put a lot of faith in ‘tomorrow’ and trying not to get despondent about the let-downs of ‘today’. Feeling like a latter-day Lady MacBeth, I often sit there amidst a seemingly never-ending pile of marking with the conviction that ‘tomorrow’ I shall be a dad. It’s okay to mess it up today because tomorrow shall bring forth another opportunity for me to be the dad I know I can be.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a total emotional roller-coaster. There are the high days and the low ones. Today - as I type this - is a bit of a low one. Because I’ve had seven days with Lara and the girls but I know that tomorrow afternoon I’ll be sitting at Suvarnabhumi Airport, ignoring the happy excited people all around me who are off on the start of their holidays while I am heading back to my empty flat and my gigantic pile of marking. And it’s not like these seven days together have been idyllic… the girls have all been at school and I’ve sat there churning through the piles of work that I brought with me. Then, when they come home each evening, they had their routines and knew what to do, leaving me feeling a bit lost as I tried to fit into the well-oiled machine that Lara had established. It helps, of course, that Lara is (as our best man said in his speech) ‘freakishly efficient’. The girls know what needs to be done and how. Although, as last night proves, they are more than happy to conveniently ‘forget’ the routine when Lara has to go out for work and I’m doing the bedtime routine on my own…
A former Royal Marine once told me that the hardest part of his job was returning to the family and trying to find out where his place was in things. That’s how I feel. A bit like a spare wheel.
However depressing that may sound, I’d hate to end this on such a bleak note. Not for any reason but, it would be misleading and self-indulgent to do so. For all the downsides of being apart like this, there are the upsides too.
The brief weekend visits when I fly in on a Friday night to see the girls for Saturday and then fly back on Sunday morning (thank goodness for budget airlines!). The look on Bee’s face when I’m there on the side-lines to watch her play her heart out on the football pitch. The giggles from Emma as we practice her jab-cross combinations on the escalators in shopping malls. The cuddles on the sofa as we read Harry Potter or some awful book about Chip, Kipper and Floppy (aside: that dog is a liability!). The chuckles (and bickering!) as we play a game of something like Zeus On The Loose or, our latest discovery, Dungeons & Dragons.
Yeah, this is not an ideal situation but it’s certainly not a disaster. It’s all down to perspective. Do I want to sit here wallowing in self pity about not being there all the time? Or do I want to relish the spectacular and fun moments that I get to share with these awesome little people? Do I mope about how lonely I am or do I shut up and watch with awe as my wife makes a perfect life for our girls at the expense of her own happiness and (for her, incredibly) precious sleep?