It was almost 7:30 by the time I checked into my oceanfront hotel. Normally, I wouldn’t be prone to such extravagance on a business trip, but the chilly February temperatures drop the price of Virginia Beach hotels well under the limits set by my employer. The man who checks me in is convivial and polite. He smiles warmly as he looks at the loyalty points I’ve accrued over the year. He decides to comp the valet and parking charge.
I make a brief phone call home. My toddlers are too distracted by Daniel Tiger to have much interest in me. My exhausted wife, having played zone coverage the last few days, does her best to draw them toward the phone. I settle for a few distracted “I love you Daddys” and tell my wife I’ll text her later on that night.
A lengthy conference call that I had admittedly forgotten about had put me behind that day, and I had to work through lunch to catch up. I had carefully routed and planned my day to squeeze a seven day work trip into five days. I was tired and hungry but the prospect of searching out a quality dining spot seemed daunting at that point. The hotel bar it would be.
I ordered a stiff drink to precede my sandwich. I wasn’t really feeling up to making small talk with the bartender, so I conspicuously popped in my headphones and fired up Netflix on my phone. Third night in a hotel, which meant we were on the third James Bond movie this week. Tonight, it would be one of Timothy Dalton’s admirable attempts. A mediocre meal later with my second drink in my hand, I headed up to my hotel room to get some sleep.
That’s when my wife’s face popped up on my phone, an incoming Facetime call.
I answered the phone, somewhat unsurprised, looking into the sleepy eyes of one of my two year olds. “What’s up buddy?” I say, before I shift my focus to his mother’s eyes. She had been crying. In a shaky voice she assured me everything was ok, but she told me that the paramedics had just left. The son, currently fighting off sleep in our bed, had woken her up coughing in a sound she had never heard before. He had been struggling to catch his breath and was straining to breathe. Home alone and terrified, my wife had called 911.
By the time the ambulance had arrived, my son’s breathing had returned to normal. He wasn’t making the awful noise, but when she told him that the doctors were going to check and make sure he was ok, he got worked up again and back it came. The paramedics assured my wife that everything was ok, and it was probably just croup. Shaken up and embarrassed at having called an ambulance, my wife thanked them wholeheartedly, and they left.
She was fighting back tears as she apologized for calling the ambulance. I did my best to assure her that she made the right decision. After all, it’s better to overreact and have it be nothing then not react and have it be something, especially when it comes to the health of our children. After it was established that everything was going to be all right, she told me she was going to put him back to bed. We hung up.
Then it was back, the familiar guilt of being a parent who travels for work. My job requires me to be away 15-20 days a quarter on average. Every 3 months, I miss roughly a month of my children’s lives.
At that moment, in the late hours of the evening, I felt it more than ever. I felt guilty for not being there when my son was sick. I felt guilty for not being there to comfort my wife as she recovered from the evening’s scare. I felt guilty knowing that while I slept comfortably in my hotel room listening to the faint crashing of the waves outside my window, she would be sleeping fitfully through the night with her ears straining to hear any abnormality in my son’s breathing. I felt guilty for enjoying my job and feeling fulfilled by the work that I do.
My mind raced through the options of the evening. Should I drive home? It was about a 7 hour drive, but I had flown down there. What would the rental car company charge me to turn in the car in Pennsylvania versus Virginia? How would I explain to my boss that I had not only canceled my appointments but also would miss my flight? Did I really need to do this? The paramedics had said it was no big deal, hadn’t they?
Driving home wasn’t the only thing I felt compelled to do. As I laid there awake, I wondered if I was being selfish. I thought about firing up my laptop and updating my LinkedIn profile. Should I look for a job without the travel requirements that my current one has, knowing that probably means changing my career path altogether. I had been miserable in my previous job, but surely I love my children enough to sacrifice my own professional goals to be home more.
That’s the plight of many traveling parents. The guilt and questioning never really goes away. I feel it every time I lay out the monthly schedule for my wife. I feel it every time I volunteer for an optional assignment in an attempt to be a team player. I feel it every time one of my sons gets sick while I’m gone. I feel it every time my wife feels the added stress of having to figure out how to get the driveway cleared from the snow with twin toddlers in the house. I feel it every time my in-laws have to pick up the slack because I have to work four states away that week. I project forward to missed tee-ball and soccer games. I often wonder, at what point will my children look back and think of me as an absent father.
The guilt swings the other direction, as well. I find myself often wondering if parenthood is affecting my performance at work. The exhaustion of parenting with the added stress of constant travel can easily wear on a person’s psyche. I question if I am doing my job to the fullest of my abilities. I wonder if my superiors look at my performance and the lengths I go to ensure a proper work-life balance as lazy and entitled. I wonder if my dedication ever comes into question.
Despite it all though, I enjoy what I do. As someone who never really knew what they were going to do with their life, I feel like I have find my niche in the world. The travel is not ideal, and that guilt will always be there, but I also know that there is a lesson to teach my children about the importance of finding enjoyment in your career. I truly hope that I make the time that I am with them worth it and memorable, and it is enough to carry them through until I make it back to them. I hope that I continue to provide my wife with the kind of love and support that she needs to be able to hold down the fort while I’m gone.
More than anything, I hope that they know that no matter where I am, they are always with me.