I have been on TDY (temporary duty) this week, attending a training course in Tampa. It’s the equivalent of a business trip in the civilian world. Although I would much rather be on a weeklong trip staying in a hotel room than a months-long deployment in more austere conditions, the shorter absences are not without their challenges.
While a deployment or training detachment is mandatory and non-negotiable, the short but frequent trips typical of staff duty (or the business world) are often a nebulous requirement: the dates may be negotiable, or perhaps no superior has actually told you to make the trip. Instead, in the course of your duties, you have recognized that an opportunity has presented itself in the form of a conference that holds the promise of long sought after professional knowledge or connections. Perhaps a simmering issue has come to a boil and the best course of action is to visit the higher or adjacent headquarters (or company office) to sort out the particulars. Such discretion makes the time away from family difficult to swallow, for it puts at odds our competing desires for career accomplishment and quality family time.
As I wrote in an earlier post, however, the demands of work and parenthood are not always mutually exclusive. Succeeding at the job may require long hours and frequent absences, but there are benefits besides the prospect of bringing home a bigger paycheck. It is important for our children to see us devoted to our jobs, to know that our careers give our lives fulfillment and purpose. They may not fully grasp it while they are young, but it will set an inherent standard they will seek to emulate when they are older. By our very actions and example, we can help instill a work ethic based not on monetary reward but the sublime satisfaction of making the sacrifices necessary to perfect one’s craft.
Such philosophical outlooks can be cold comfort in the near term. The key to surviving any absence from family (be it one week or 52 weeks) is all about attitude. My father’s adage of “don’t whistle while you pack your sea bag,” is good advice for maintaining a healthy marriage, but that doesn’t mean you need to speak negatively of your trip, either. If I have a positive attitude about my trip, that helps set the tone for the entire family. That begins with taking the time to explain why the trip is so important. We told my daughter I was going to Afghanistan last year because there were people there that needed my help. In her own way, she understood that she was also helping simply by sharing me with them. When my own father was out to sea for months at a time, my mother made it clear that he was doing a job few other people could do, and that important things wouldn’t get done quite as well if he weren’t there.
Another key to surviving the time away is to make productive use of whatever free time is available. Communicating with the home front is easier than ever these days thanks to smart phones and Wi-Fi that enable texting, email, and video chat in almost any location. Beyond that, in spare moments I try to accomplish tasks on the road that would otherwise take time way from the family if I did them at home: professional reading, long-term planning, writing, or more grueling workouts, to name a few. Longer absences such as deployments demand larger projects, such as a correspondence course, learning a language, or losing a certain amount of weight. Nothing makes time go by faster than having a deadline for accomplishing a goal.
Finally, it helps to not underestimate the difficulty of the transition back to home life when you return. Even after only a few days away, habit patterns change. The children have not been waking me up at night or interrupting my thought processes with snack requests. When the initial joy at being back home fades and I find myself getting annoyed at the smallest things, I try to take a step back and recognize what I am feeling. It helps to remind myself that I’ve had it relatively easy while I was away, and now that I’m home, the real work begins.