The Hardest Part About Having a Traveling Spouse

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From time to time I mention that my husband has some various elite status levels (mostly hotel) that he gets primarily through work travel.  I’m sure you can all put 1 + 1 together to come up with the fact that means he is gone a fair amount from the home for work travel.  For the most part, I choose to view the situation in a positive manner and focus on the facts that:

A. He is gainfully employed.  Paychecks are good.

B. His work travel means “free” miles, points, and elite status credits for us to use on family vacations.

C. Slumber parties with my snuggly four year old.

All of those are 100% true, but there is another side to this frequent travel, and that is a level of underlying chaos from the frequent transitions in and out of the home for the family.  There are families who have a parent (or both parents!) deployed or working overseas for long periods of time.  There are families who have a parent that is gone for pretty much the whole week traveling around doing consulting gigs.  There are families who have a parent who works several days or even weeks “on” at a time at a location like an oil rig where they are away from home.  There are single parent families.  Basically, there are families that successfully endure much more time apart than we do, but some of the issues we face from having such a frequently changing home dynamic aren’t easy regardless of whether others have it tougher.

There’s a laundry list of challenges that families face when one or both partners are away from the home frequently including: practical and logistical challenges since one is doing the work of two, emotional challenges, potential jealousy or resentment, and simple loneliness.  However, the hardest part of having a traveling spouse are the frequent transitions. 

When you live life as we do, pretty much every week has at least two transitions in it.  We have to gear up and transition to having one of us leave (most often him), and then function essentially as a single parent household for a period of time, and then transition to having both parents home again working as a cohesive unit.  I have done this both before and after having a kid, and I can say that (like most things in life), it is harder with kids in the home than without.

Before we had our daughter, when one of us was gone, the other could spend that time catching up with friends, going to happy hour, working out, reading a book, getting a massage, or participating in whatever other hobby they wished.  Sure you still missed the traveling partner, but having a little time to yourself was almost nice from time to time.

Once a kid is in the picture though, the time home alone looks much different.  Instead of having more time for yourself, you have none.  You are the 100% sole caregiver for the child(ren), and as a result will be making every meal, doing every school drop-off/pick-up, taking them to every activity, reading every book, giving every bath, cleaning up every mess, washing every piece of clothing, etc.  While your spouse is away at expensed dinners out, seeing movies in their free time, sleeping in quiet hotels (the horror!), and working with other adults, you will be home doing the opposite.  There can be some resentment, and certainly exhaustion, that seeps in due to this, but I don’t think that is the hardest part.

The hardest part actually comes in when they get home.  When you are the one running the show alone at home there is certainly more work you have to do, but you get to do it your way, with your system, in your time.  Chances are this looks and feels a bit different than when both parents are home.  You may think you handled things perfectly, or you may think that you all survived by the grace of God or simple good fortune, but you did it your way.  Once that other spouse arrives back at the front door, things are supposed to immediately shift.

They will likely be tired from their trip, and you will likely be tired from running the show in their absence.  You have been self-sufficient and self-reliant getting things done alone, but have to immediately switch back into making collective decisions and dividing and conquering with all the household tasks.  Your kids have been used to going to you for everything and may either be more than ready for the returning parent, or want very little to do with them since they are pretty used to you.  To put it another way, the transitions in all these different areas can lead to an underlying level of chaos that is if nothing else, exhausting.

We have noticed this over the years and at the very least now know to expect it.  A homecoming should be the best part of being away, but it is actually the hardest part of the transition in some ways.  All of the factors at play can lead to simple things blowing up if you aren’t careful.  I’d be a liar if I said that hasn’t happened at our house.  Tired people + lots of responsibilities + rapidly changing routines and expectations = potential for problems.

I could make a bullet pointed list of ways to mitigate this risk, but it really all comes down to recognizing it can easily happen, and utilizing space and patience as needed.  The default deciding factor in most anything should be given by the person who has been at home running the show.  This means when I am returning home from a trip and desperately want to immediately get the house cleaned up when I walk in and see toys everywhere, that I either need to just be patient with it and trust it will get done in the next day or so (or do it myself without complaining).  This means if my husband is returning from a trip and just wants to eat at home that night, that he sucks it up and heads out to dinner with us because we are tired of cooking (or he cooks and cleans up dinner without complaining).  Most of it is easy stuff in a vacuum, but hard stuff to transition in and out of so frequently.

We aren’t usually disappointed anymore when the first few hours or day back together as a family aren’t amazingly harmonious.  We know that the transition part isn’t that much fun, and we also know that it doesn’t last long.  Usually by a day or two everything is “back to normal”.

I don’t share this as a “tale of woe” or to scare other families who may have a frequently traveling spouse in their future, but just as a piece of the reality that comes with frequent travel and a family.  I think I’d be painting a false picture if I never mentioned some of the others costs of frequent travel when you have a family.  I’m sure every family experiences this differently, and some probably handle it much better than we do.  Some probably handle it much worse.  On the whole I think we do pretty well, but that doesn’t mean it is always cake and roses.  Though we do make lots of cookies when Daddy is away….

How does your family manage with one or both of the spouses frequently traveling?  Are the transitions the tough part for you?

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  1. […] Trying to keep a normal family life when one spouse travels for a living sucks.  And, not just a little bit.  I can echo everything Mommy Points is saying here and more, especially with two kids at home.  It’s why I regard my wife as such an awesome mother.  She’s faced with challenges lots of parents don’t have.  But, there are plenty of people that have it tougher than us. […]


  1. Aren’t you a United 1K? Which in itself is an extraordinary amount of travel.

    One spouse traveling a lot is one thing. Both traveling a lot with a child involved and no nanny is another level of challenge.

    • Greg, indeed. I also have more than my fair share of travel at times. Counting nights away from the crew he had me beat by more than double but it all adds up for sure…and there is certainly no nanny ( though grandparents are invaluable). 😉

  2. This really resonates with me. As a dad of a 7 year old, I hate being gone but I love what I do and it requires travel. I am caught in a paradox of not wanting my wife and daughter getting used to my absence on one hand and getting into a rhythm of me leaving and coming home on the other.

    At the beginning of this year, I will be traveling every other week for the first few months. This was after I was home almost all of November and December. It has been a big shift for my daughter and she took it really hard when I left the first time. For her (and my wife), I Skype every night (even if it means excusing myself from dinner or staying up late due to time zone differences). I send my daughter a post card every day I am gone. It keeps us connected (even though I arrive home before the post cards). She looks forward to them and she learns about the areas I visit.

    With my wife, I have learned to go with the flow. I may have eaten the last 15 meals at a restaurant but if she wants to go out, one more won’t kill me (hopefully). I try to prepare myself to be “on” when I get home.

    • Nurse traveler, so understand. My husband was home a lot toward the end of 2013 as well and the shift back to travel isn’t easy. Sounds like you are doing it all the right way! Love the postcards. 😉

  3. Interesting. my husband is a traveler but I can’t say the transitions are a problem. We generally do most things the same whether he is here or not. It helps that I have no work or travel obligations I guess. My kids are so used to dad travelling that I don’t think they ever realize that it’s not the norm. Some days dad is home, some days he isn’t. Life goes on.

    Not to say that having a traveling husband is easy (though it does have perks like lots of miles and points…). I guess the hardest part is just wrangling 3 kids and getting everything done by myself when he is gone. Not having help with getting the kids dressed and fed in the morning or having an extra set of hands at bathtime. My parents live next door so they help out a bunch when he’s gone which is a lifesaver.

  4. Thank you so much for this post! Honestly I thought that it was just my family! When my husband travels every other week, time seems to slow down at first. You spend time adjusting to his absence and try to make a plan to have everything done by the time he returns at the end of the week. Inevitably it comes down to me rushing around the night before he gets home getting the house to sub living conditions to eliviate the stressful home coming. I always dread the “what did you do while I was gone” scenario. I know he would never ask that, but you want to be the perfect mother/spouse/housekeeper/and provider. Those weeks as a single parent are stressful leading up to the homecoming, but I love our family time after he is home and things slip back into routine. One daddy-daughter day reminds him of everything I go through daily when he is away. Thank you thank you thank you!

  5. I have the same experience as Emily E – we don;t really have any transition issues. I think the time apart is most difficult. When either of us return from a trip, our family somehow falls into our regular routine.

  6. Very nice post. My wife was away last year for six months and we have a teenage daughter (not the easiest age). The hardest part for me other than missing my wife was thinking about what I should cook for dinner each night without boring my daughter-it took a month before we started eating out most nights.

  7. We don’t experience this much so getting a few extra points due to company travel is a bonus. However, I can see how it would rapidly become a challenge for people. In particular, I don’t enjoy eating out 3 meals p/day. We are pretty old school and cook most of our meals at home. When we eat out, it is a treat. On a recent week long cruise, I was very sick of all of the over the top restaurant food!!! My friend resents her husband for work cruises he has been on. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sipping mai tais and they held the work convention on the cruise cause it was a cheaper option for the company he worked for. It’s called work. Just because it is “on a cruise” doesn’t make it fun.

  8. With 1 kid, especially with him/her being 4 or older playing single parent is a piece of cake. We now have 3 kids (8, 5 and 18mo). Thats when its hard.

  9. The transitions were harder for me when our daughter was younger (3-4 years old) than my wife, but I was also something of a less capable dad back then. With two kids it’s much harder on Michelle when I’m gone, hence the reason she gets my vote for Mom of the Year!

    We’re dealing with some anxiety issues with our daughter, now 7, related somewhat to transitions (not just me leaving, but school, etc). Even though it’s not just travel, there’s a large part of me that wishes I could take 6 months off the road and see if it would fix the issues (and give Michelle more of the help she deserves).

    The kids also tend to have a lot of trouble getting to sleep the first night I’m gone on a trip.

    I feel your pain, Summer. I hope it gets better for you. We’re still waiting for it to improve. 🙂

  10. Ditto! (my hubs doesn’t travel but his 12 hr manual labor shift works basically the same) I’ve found that making out the menu plan for the week is key for me. Transition day is always delivery pizza or quick spaghetti and even though I’m a stay-at-home super mom. The 2 oldest kids get kitchen duty that evening. Start teaching little bit now and she’ll be transition day spaghetti cook by 8! YeeHaw!

  11. Awesome post. You really described this well. My kids are now 8 and 10, and we have definitely noticed a huge shift in the way this plays out. We used to experience a LOT of challenging transitions around homecoming, but these days we can usually just take it in stride.

    For example, my husband is returning from a 5-day business trip this afternoon and I don’t even know what time he’s getting back! The kids and I will likely be at swimming lessons.

    Then, my husband is turning right around and driving up to Tahoe with the kids to go skiing while I stay here (I hate the snow).

    So I guess my point is – this too shall pass 😉

    Sounds like you are doing a great job. Hang in there! Great idea to make lots of cookies.

  12. The hardest part for my husband, Pizzaman, is that I spend more money when he is gone. Shopping feels a void and releases the stress I have endured throughout the day being on my own. 😉

  13. Love all the thoughts here. I totally imagine that with multiple small kids the actual process of just getting through the day is much harder. It was harder when our one daughter was a baby.

    Michelle, I am sure I have done that myself. 😉

  14. Great post! For us, it’s not the transitions that are hard, but rather the time my husband is away. I am a SAHM to an almost 3 year old, so when my husband is on a work trip, I am with my son pretty much all day, except for preschool 2 mornings per week. Sometimes I do get a little resentful when I hear about his nice dinners or whatever, but I try to remind myself that I’m very fortunate to get to travel with him sometimes. Anyway, I try to get all the household stuff done while my son is awake, so that I can have a bit of downtime while he sleeps. Evenings are the worst time (as are weekends), when I just want to relax a bit and have someone to talk to (my kid is not the greatest conversationalist!). So we go out in the evenings a lot: to dinner, the library, movies, the bookstore, Target…if only so I can be around other adults and not feel so lonely! And yes, we bake a lot of cookies too!

  15. Thank you for writing this post. I really identified with your situation. I have a 4 & 2 year old and a husband who averages travel 2 weeks out of every month for about ten months of the year. I always remind myself that many others have much more time away. We rely on daily Skype sessions and definitely try to enjoy the extra miles he gets.

  16. I’m a work widow a few times a month and though this has been the way of things for our 2-year-old’s entire life, it didn’t click for me until I read this post that Daddy’s homecoming is the hardest part for a reason. Sometimes our son bursts into tears and rejects him, which is hard on everyone (my husband for the obvious, me because I need a break). Thanks for the bit of clarity!

  17. Glad I stumbled across this post. I have 2 kids and a husband that travels every other week. Sometimes I get in a “woe is me” mode but this helps me realize that I’m not alone, that this is not uncommon, and lets me know that what I’m feeling is normal. I’m thinking joining a support group or some type of similar network would be helpful so I don’t feel so I can vent to others who can relate.

  18. I am so glad I read this article…you truly explained how I feel…I wish I felt different, but it has been 20 years of this scenario…I’m truly growing tired!

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