When I was young, my father traveled frequently for work. When I was very young, he prided himself on never spending the night away from home—but that rings hollow to a child whose father arrives home after she’s in bed and leaves before she wakes up more often than not. When I was a little older, his trips became international instead of regional, so not staying overnight wasn’t an option. For a while, he would be gone for one week out of every month. During another while, he only traveled every other month, but he was gone for two weeks at a time. Either way, it boiled down to him being gone 25% of the time.
My father’s travel was not extreme in the grand scheme of things; after all, military families endure much longer separations, and several professions require more frequent travel. But I still didn’t like it.
I remembered that dislike when Jeff and I were considering marriage. At that time, Jeff was traveling a lot, sometimes for months at a time. That didn’t matter for our dating relationship; we were long distance anyway, so his travel meant only that we’d talk every few days rather than every day and with a worse connection. But I wanted to marry him, and eventually have children with him … and then his travel would become a very big deal.
Even then, I knew that the time for me to decide whether I wanted a life with Jeff, with all the positives and all the negatives, was before the marriage—even then, I believed in covenant marriage, with divorce a possibility only in the case of adultery. If I married Jeff assuming that he would stop traveling so much after we had children, and then he chose to continue the travel, I would be stuck. There would be nothing I could do about it. In my worldview, when a woman marries, she hands virtually all the power over to her husband. Overall, I had no doubts that I was willing to give Jeff complete authority over me. But the possibility of having children and raising them without the daily presence of their father … that was a scary thought. So I talked to him about it.
I don’t recall all the details of the conversations that Jeff and I had about his travel, though there were several. I do recall that Jeff was very clear on two points: (1) “Once I have a wife to come home to, I want to come home to her,” and (2) it was impossible to eliminate travel completely and still continue on a career path that would allow him to meet his goals. Eventually Jeff decided to leave his current position—a difficult decision for him, because he truly enjoyed his job—and move to a position that involved less travel and also better positioned him to take advantage of any future opportunity to make the jump to the State Department. I appreciated his sacrifice and the importance he placed on my needs and desires. He embraced the move partially for my sake and partially because it was a good career move for him, albeit one that he’d have been happy to delay for a few more years.
For the first four years of our marriage, there was very little travel. I think he went away for a week or two maybe once a year. We both were happy with the situation—we were together almost all the time, and on those few occasions when he had to travel, I viewed it as a cloud with a silver lining: I didn’t want to be apart from him, but at least I could spend a whole weekend day watching the long version of the BBC’s production of Pride and Prejudice.
Then Alexa was born. We had accepted that there would be a period of time (it turned out to be two months) in which Alexa and I had to stay in the States on our own while Jeff had to return to Egypt. That just goes with the territory when a child is born into a diplomatic family. Still, it was hard, despite all the help that I received from my mom and the rest of my extended family. It may have been during that time apart that I first uttered the phrase “I was not made to be a single mother.”
I would have opportunity to say it again many more times.
First there was the evacuation that resulted from the Egyptian Revolution, when Alexa and I unexpectedly spent another three months living in my mom’s house while Jeff was in Egypt. Once our family was reunited after that, life was chaotic for a while, but at least we were together. I was grateful all over again for the wonderful husband and father that Jeff is.
Not too long after we arrived in Cambodia, Jeff told me that there may be a need for some travel during the coming year. Jeff’s office here isn’t large, but it’s well staffed, and it can afford to loan people to less fully staffed offices in other embassies. A call for volunteers had gone out, and it would be a good career move to volunteer. He would be gone for a month in spring 2012. I wasn’t thrilled, but I knew that Jeff was right—this trip would benefit our family in the long run, even though it wouldn’t be fun for any of us in the here and now. Jeff didn’t need my agreement, but he does consider my opinion, and I reluctantly voiced my approval. Twice more this year, Jeff and I agreed that he needed to travel. The last two times were for training, the first for three weeks, the second for four.
Each of this year’s trips has gotten harder. During the evacuation last year, it was hard on Alexa, but that was due to the stress I was unable to keep to myself, rather than from her own understanding of being apart from Daddy. This year, she’s old enough to know that Daddy is gone. The first trip, this spring, was ok. She didn’t much mind that he was gone, and she didn’t much care that he’d come back. The second trip, early this fall, was harder. She displayed some sadness and asked for him a few times. When Jeff returned, Alexa was thrilled. When he left again just a couple of weeks later, she was heartbroken. When he returned, she was over the moon with joy.
Alexa’s reactions verified that my instincts were right all those years ago when I decided that my children deserve a father who is present. This year, I saw the sadness with which Alexa told me that her father was “at work” in some faraway city. I saw the hopefulness that turned to sorrow when she thought her Daddy had returned in time to participate in her bedtime routine, only to be told that he hadn’t. I saw her choose to skip her favorite part of the bedtime routine because Mama just doesn’t do it quite like Daddy. I saw the joy with which Alexa greeted her father’s return—and I heard the fearful cry of “No Daddy go work!” when she didn’t understand that “work” today is at the embassy, not in some distant city. I see, since his return, Alexa’s insistence on Daddy being the one to read her a story every night, to help her dance in order to make her body tired enough for sleep, to play with her and draw with her and watch “Uh Oh Curious George” with her. I see the appreciation that Alexa has for her father, for his presence, and for his attention. I’ve seen the negative effects that come with his absence, and I see the positive effects that come with his presence.
Jeff was the one who first called his trips “divorce insurance,”* based on my repeated declarations that I was not designed to be a single mother. And he's right, though not because of my comfort level with single motherhood. Even if I were to decide tomorrow that I'd be a great single mother (I wouldn't), even if I were to decide that I don’t care that God hates divorce (I do), even if I were to decide that Jeff isn’t the one for me after all (he is), even if I were to decide that I’m not happy and never will be so long as I’m married to Jeff (I am, and I will continue to be), one fact, overwhelmingly demonstrated this year, would trump everything else: My daughter needs her father.
Hopefully next year will provide fewer opportunities to prove it.
*I know, “divorce insurance” isn’t really the best phrase—insurance is something that helps you pick up the pieces after something bad happens, and I’m talking about preventing the something bad from happening at all. Still, I couldn’t come up with a better phrase. If you can, tell me in the comments. And Jeff wants me to point out that every time we use the phrase, we always add the disclaimer "not that we need it."