When it comes to working away, how long is too long?
By Virginia Heffernan
When Steve Scott was establishing a new marine geology lab at the University of Toronto, his research frequently landed him on a ship in the Western Equatorial Pacific, thousands of kilometres from his home in Toronto.
He was chair of the university’s department of earth sciences at the time – but he was also the father of two teenagers. And his wife Joan, who managed those teenagers singlehandedly in his absence, would implore Steve to limit his trips to three weeks.
Any longer than that, she says, and the wheels would start falling off the family bus.
“If Steve was away just one or two weeks, we didn’t have time to reset our schedules. But after three weeks, we had to find other ways to deal with the issues that would come up,” she says. “We got used to dealing with things without him and there was always a readjustment problem for all of us when he got home.”
The longer jaunts also affected their marriage. After three weeks of preparing popular but uninspiring meals such as pizza and spaghetti for the kids, Joan would be craving a night out at a good restaurant. But when Steve returned from extended travel – often involving a bounty of wonderful dining experiences – he just wanted to cocoon.
The dilemma of “how long is too long” to work remotely affects so many families that when the New York Times Motherlode posed the question on behalf of a travelling parent, the column generated 85 responses.
The parent (whose gender was left intentionally ambiguous) was concerned primarily with the toll that longer trips of three to six weeks would have on an 18-month-old child, but readers agreed that most of the concern should be for the parent left behind and the difficulties they would face.
“The kids are fine – I think it actually broadened their horizons and provided some wonderful learning and travel opportunities for them. The marriage did not survive the travel and stress that causes. That’s what you need to work on and worry about,” said “M” from San Diego.
And although the discussion formed no real consensus on what the maximum time for business travel should be, many came to the same conclusion as Joan Scott: that shorter trips of one to two weeks are considerably more manageable than longer trips of three weeks or more.
“When you are gone for weeks, by necessity your family will come up with routines that don’t include you. When you return, there may be some grumbling and animosity for a day or two, especially jealousy that your spouse’s attention is now divided between the kids and you,” says SCD of New York, whose father travelled extensively when she was a child.
Typical FIFO rosters average about two weeks on and one week off, but some remote mining sites might demand up to a month on the job and exploration can require even longer absences.
If you are wondering what sort of toll a longer stint will take on your family and your marriage, check out the responses to the NYT column. They come from all points of view (mothers, fathers and children) and are remarkably varied and enlightening.