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Long Distance Parenting

By Brent D. Gardiner

Staying in touch with your children is a particular challenge when they’re 5,000 miles away. Brent D. Gardiner has a few tips.

Six wonderful weeks with my eight year old son have just ended in the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles InternationalAirport.

As waves of sadness sweep over me and with tears streaming down my face, I wave goodbye while Graeme looks excitedly forward to the reunion with his mother, family and friends.

I am thankful at least that the forethought, planning and preparation for smoothing this transition is seemingly paying off. I had last said goodbye over four years earlier, at that time anticipating a separation from him of only six months.

Events however found me in the role of a long term, long-distance parent.

As I wait to ensure that the plane departs safely, (in compliance with the airlines requirement for children travelling alone) I remember two conflicting but influential bits of advice:

The first from a family therapist who guided me through the decision to return home to study in New Zealand and implement a career change following two years separation from my ex-wife: “The best thing that you can do for your children is let them see you getting on with your life”.

The other from Miriam Galper Cohen, family therapist and author of ‘Long Distance Parenting – a guide for divorced couples’: “For all the positive possibilities inherent in it, long distance parenting is the least preferable option to other custody arrangements, short of never seeing your children at all”.

It is the latter comment weighing most heavily at this moment.

As a family counsellor myself, my family, my career, my relationships and my lifestyle are in New Zealand now. My advice wherever possible then, is to let your children see you get on with your life without becoming a long distance parent.

For me the reunion has been joyous and rewarding. We have shared together the pain, sadness and anxiety of being apart, the memories of earlier times together and highlights of our contact while apart. We laughed and cried together, worked and played together. It felt almost as though we had never been apart.

We are bonded and connected. That is clear.

So how have we done this?

It has been a difficult yet exciting challenge. Most important perhaps is a commitment to not allow geographical distance to become emotional distance – to maintain connection no matter what the obstacles.

I have wobbled and wavered, let the rest of my life push my parenting role to nothing, become frustrated and angry and wanted to give up and forget it, but mostly I have stretched myself, worked at it and kept at it.

It is worth it.

I was perhaps fortunate during this time to be training in psychology and counselling and read a lot of current research on the impact of separation on children.

This in essence suggests that the two things we know to have a significant impact on outcomes for children are i) the adjustment of the custodial parent and ii) the level of conflict between the parents.

As a result I undertook to focus on three things.

Firstly to maintain a regular and consistent contact even if that felt very one sided at times.

Secondly to support and commend the superb and difficult single parenting that my ex-wife was doing, along with her successful efforts to move oil with the other areas of her life – I tried to let her know that I appreciated her consideration of my input and that I trusted her decisions concerning Graeme.

And thirdly to avoid exposing Graeme to the inevitable conflicts which we had to resolve and to endeavour to resolve them as amicably as possible without giving up what was important to me.

The most helpful things which I learned to do here were choosing which mountains I was going to climb, and listening very carefully to what her needs and concerns were.

The first of these three undertakings, maintaining contact, was facilitated greatly by modern communications – facsimiles, email and competitive and falling international toll rates.

Despite these however, it was difficult to maintain regular contact at times, especially when frustrated by the absence of feedback or reply.

Following are a few other ideas which might be useful for those of you involved in long distance parenting:
Contact the child’s school and arrange to receive school newsletters and other correspondence. This provides common ground for communication with both the child and the other parent.

Read the child stories on video or audio tape. Graeme went to sleep listening to my voice more nights than not while we were apart.

Telephone regularly as your budget allows but don’t expect too much. Some children may not be too interested in chatting even if it is Dad calling.

Go to a movie or watch a TV programme that your child will be watching -more common material for communication.

Try to find interactive activities to participate in with your child – we tried chess by email for example.

Arrange to visit or have your child visit you as often as resources and the situation will allow. Do everything that you say you will in connection with these visits and don’t give the other parent any reason to prevent you seeing your child.

As I plan for my son’s next visit, I am reminded of the hope, encouragement and advice offered to long distance parents in the following passage :

“As a long distance parent keep looking at the big picture and at what is best for your children. Your intention to know your children and have them know you requires firm resolve but if you have decided that your relationship with your children is central to your life, and you act accordingly, then you will be central in their lives. You will be rewarded by watching your children grow into healthy adults, and your life and theirs will be filled with intimacy and love.” – Miriam Galper Cohen.

It is worth it.

Next: Pulling Off The Bandages

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