Seasons of Change: Helping a Child When Work Takes a Parent Away

By Pam Stone, co-leader of API of Merrimack Valley, New Hampshire

**Originally published in the Summer 2007 Secondary Attachments issue of The Journal of API

Pam and Sophia
Pam and Sophia

Our week begins when I first utter the phrase, “Daddy’s coming home this sleep!” to our three-year-old daughter Sophia. Our “weeks” vary in length. Sometimes, they are as short as four days. Other times they are as long as ten days. This variation creates challenges for developing a true “routine,” but each week flows through four “seasons.”

Spring: The Anticipation of Daddy Coming

The family dynamic instantly changes as we smell the first hints of the week’s spring air. I repeat the phrase “Daddy’s coming home this sleep!” often over the next 24 hours, and we play a fun game of words where she’ll ask slyly, “When is Daddy coming home?” just so that I must say it again and we can sing and dance and run happily around the room. She asks me to call him on the phone, and if I can catch him between flights she’ll ask him, “Daddy, when are you coming home?” and then giggle wildly when he says “This sleep!”

It’s hard to settle for bed this night knowing the excitement the next day will bring, and we don’t get nearly enough sleep. If his flight doesn’t arrive until the afternoon, the morning is a difficult struggle to understand why we can’t leave “RIGHT NOW!” and we often leave several hours early for the airport, running every errand I can conjure “on the way.”

As we approach the airport, Sophia is giddy. She cranes her neck to see if his plane is parked at the gate, and if it is, she strains to see him through the glass of the terminal window. We call from our cell phone to say we’ve arrived, and then begin making loops around the airport, each time watching for Daddy to appear at the curb.

Summer: Daddy is Finally Home!

When we see him, summer arrives! Tired from a long trip, I’m sure, my husband would like to relax and transition slowly back into the routine of home life. No such luck! My daughter and I chatter away, competing for his attention and pummeling him with questions and requests: “Daddy, do you know what we did yesterday?” “Sweetheart, the sink is dripping again.” “Daddy, can we play the ear game?” “Sweetheart, your sister is coming to visit tomorrow.” He barely has time to change out of his uniform when we arrive home before being engaged in a game of run-around-the-ottoman or build-a-tent-fort.

I take this opportunity to relax, let the stress slip away, and to begin catching up on all of the tasks that have accumulated over the winter.

Summer is wonderful. Sophia receives lots of undivided attention from her father and me, I receive plenty of personal and friendship time, and we have fun family outings and events. We eat real home-cooked meals, have clean laundry to wear, and broken things get fixed. Sometimes, we take a quick trip to the mountains or to the beach, or during longer summers, we sometimes travel to places farther away.

The rhythm of our days feels natural and unrushed. We love this time and linger in the warmth and connection it brings.

Fall: Knowing Daddy Has to Leave Again

Fall begins with the phrase, “Sugar Pie, Daddy goes to work this sleep.” We can see the quick flash of pain on her face, but she doesn’t acknowledge the statement. She returns to her play, clinging a little more tightly to Daddy and pushing me a little further away. Fall is spent nurturing the bond between father and daughter. They spend every moment together, soaking each other up and savoring every moment.

I spend the time preparing for the winter to come. I make a big dinner, with plenty of leftovers. I catch up on phone calls and e-mails, and schedule any winter activities. I take a few extra moments to myself, knowing that my daughter will need every ounce of my energy in the days ahead.

The drive to the airport is too short. My husband and daughter sit in the back while I drive, playing games and chatting away. As we approach the airport, the mood becomes sullen. Sophia holds her father’s hand, gazes out the window, and doesn’t say anything. When she sees his plane parked at the gate, she sighs and swallows.

When my husband gets out of the car, she refuses to look at him. She won’t give him a kiss goodbye, or even a wave. She reaches for her mommy. We drive to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street and pull into the parking lot. She crawls into my lap and we eat chocolate munchkins in silence. After a few minutes, she begins talking again. Soon, she laughs and begins to play. We finish the drive home and spend the rest of the day missing Daddy and settling into the winter routine.

Winter: When Daddy is Away

We do have fun during winter. We have playdates and visits to the park, we go to local events and museums, we play and sing and dance. But I also must make meals, get ready for bed, answer the phone, and do various other things that require me to devote my attention to adult tasks. My daughter doesn’t receive as much undivided attention, and she misses her Daddy. My husband calls often, and sometimes she will talk to him, pulling him into whatever game or activity she’s currently doing.

By the end of winter, I’m often feeling unbalanced and frazzled, and my daughter is craving more attention than I can provide. We lie in bed and talk about Daddy, and how many sleeps it will be before he comes home. It is in these moments that I deeply appreciate single parents, who can’t put off laundry, fixing the sink, mowing the lawn, and cleaning the house “until Daddy gets home.”

Fortunately for my family, our winters are short. Within a few days after they’ve begun, I utter the phrase, “Daddy’s coming home this sleep!” and spring returns to the air. My daughter and I discuss all the things we’re going to tell Daddy, show Daddy, and do with Daddy when he gets home. And before long, we’re on our way to the airport, and the last dark clouds of winter fade gently away.

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