Absent parents

by Heather Rae


Once again this year my son will have his uncle stand in for the ‘Fathers’ and Special Person’s Night’ at kindergarten, because his father will be overseas for the Fathers’ Day celebrations.

However, this is not a sad tale of a split marriage, simply the reality given today’s international business world.

More and more parents spend a large percentage of their time away from home and children. But the sense of separation is generally nowhere near as great as it used to be.

Email and phones, internet and text-messages make distances less relevant for absent working parents and their children. The tyranny of distance will always be painful for parents who travel regularly, but ‘Show and Tell’ takes on huge new dimensions for these children who take international time zones and destinations for granted.

“Dad is in New York, so we can only talk to him before school.”
“Mummy goes away on the plane, but we sing nursery rhymes on the phone together.”

Grade One is not too early to learn how to send an SMS when one of your parents is often away from home, wherever he or she might be.

John travels constantly all over the world. He is away at least once each month, often more, and trips may last a few days to several weeks. Despite the fact that he likes to travel, he describes leaving the family as one of the most emotionally difficult experiences, becoming harder as his children become older.

“I hate being away from my family, and I think they feel the separation more as they mature emotionally.”

When he is away, John calls his family at least once a day, and is in virtually constant email contact. His children have quickly learned how to use technology and they are able to exchange emails and photographs easily.

John explains, “There is no doubt that the liberating power of communications technology makes the separation from family almost bearable.”  

Natalie travels regularly to China to help prepare for the Olympic Games, but despite a gruelling work schedule overseas she sets her alarm early to call her sons every morning before they go to school, and again in the evening to wish them good night.

“My six-year old son reads his reader to me, and I send emails in a large font about what I am doing. He reads them aloud to his pre-school brother.” Natalie looks forward to when the boys will be old enough to write emails back to her.

The limitations on keeping in contact are becoming steadily less as mobile telephones spread across the world. War zones for defence personnel and business in much of the less developed world no longer mean long periods when a parent seems to ‘disappear off the radar’. Wireless systems have allowed network coverage across vast territory which could never have been crossed by conventional systems. The dramatic drop in the cost of a PC and internet telephony, like Skype, means that many more families are able to keep in touch.

Antarctic Dad, a children’s book by Hazel Edwards, shows how easy it is for a child to have an actively involved parent, even if that parent is away in Antarctica. Written after her 2001 expedition to the Antarctic base of Casey Station, Edwards describes how she was interested in the relationships and motivations of the highly-skilled expeditioners, who were isolated in the ice from March through to November.

A toy kangaroo accompanies the ‘Antarctic Dad’ and appears in most emails and photographs. His son back home is able to explain the geography and wildlife of Antarctica to his class, and they gain a realistic hands-on understanding of weather across the globe.

Our son loves Paddington Bear, and so a pint-sized Paddington travels around the world and sends messages and photos showing all the places where Daddy works. Paddington has visited a gold mine in Peru, attended lavish jewellery trade shows, eaten in weird and wonderful restaurants, or just relaxed at this lap-top in an otherwise soulless hotel room. Paddington even writes a picture book diary for Christmas describing all his adventures for the year.

Almost every parent who travels describes how their children appear to benefit in their schooling as an indirect consequence. Not only do the children tend to become very technologically aware, but they have the perfect opportunity to discuss world affairs, compare and contrast cultures and put classroom learning into a practical context.

Ally’s husband, Steve, travels internationally and within Australia, so their family makes a game of his travel.

“We look up the place in the atlas, and often joke that he is going to the middle of nowhere.”

They always look up the weather where Steve is, and discuss where the weather would be better. Ally helps her daughters to look up the news in Steve’s country so the family can talk it over on the phone.

John’s children love looking up the atlas too, and the family talks about each destination.

“This entails geography and history lessons which they enjoy as much as us parents.” 

John says it helps them to place the continents in some order and to begin to understand the relationships between nations – particularly in a globalised world where commercial activity is so universal and borderless.

Natalie describes how her boys are often excited about going to school when she is away. “Their ‘Show and Tell’ becomes more interesting as they share some of their cultural learning about the places I have travelled.”

Her son’s teacher says his knowledge of geography for his age is excellent. He knows continents, countries, hours of travel to destination capital cities. His creative writing has also improved. “He writes stories about my travels and about the knowledge I have passed on through travelling.”

Each of the absent parents worries about the burden on the parent remaining home. Like so many single parent families one parent becomes both Home Mum and Dad, ensuring routines continue. But contact through emails and web cam, SMS and phone makes the guilt and worry easier to bear.

Professional sportspeople are often forced to maintain punishing schedules that keep them away for months at a time. Nicole’s husband Michael is a professional baseballer who travels to the USA from February to October every year. Nicole says Michael gets extremely homesick for his family and it is only the daily phone call and SMS messaging that gets them through.

“Obviously the biggest difficulty for us is the time difference in the US compared to Australia.” It is not always easy to match Australian school hours to international time zones.

There have been times when it has been very hard for Nicole and her daughter, knowing that Michael is so far away for so long. Their daughter “has had to deal with a lot of people asking her when she is moving to the US and she has worried about leaving friends and changing schools.” They talk to their daughter about all their plans and the organisation of trips to join Michael. At school she is able to compare both countries and talk about America with confidence.

“She is very unaffected a lot of the time as it's been happening since she was a baby. She simply views it as normal.”

Absent parents can be very inventive in bridging the gap caused by demanding work requirements, but the pain for many parents is often far greater than the loss of separation for their children who are growing up in a technology-savvy world.

Natalie says, “Sometimes when I call in the evening, they don’t want to talk to me because they are too busy building Lego, reading or playing. I am delighted when this is the case as I know they are fine.”


© Heather Rae

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem