When one parent is absent for a while

2014-07-17 00:00

THE economic situation in South Africa has dictated that many families are disrupted, with the father (occasionally the mother) having to leave the family and go to work out of the country. They may be absent for periods from two weeks to six months or more. These are incredibly difficult times for any relationship, no matter how strong.

The most common and difficult aspect to overcome is the change in roles and routine. Let me describe this common scenario generically. The father is away for week, or a month, or even two months at a time.

The mother becomes the defacto parent and authority in the home. She deals with all situations that arise, making decisions and implementing them. She is now the authority. The children get used to turning to her when they need anything.

The father, on the other hand, feels enormous guilt about not playing his traditional role. When he goes home, he tends to overcompensate and try to make up for the time he has been away. He tries to emphasise that he is still the head of the household.

When he is home, the children’s new routine is often put on hold, and another dimly remembered routine is imposed, except that the old routine is different; it is often more harsh, due to the guilt and overcompensation.

The most damaging part of this scenario is that the father, in his attempt to show that he cares and is supportive, is in fact, giving his wife a vote of no confidence. “I will sort things out for you!” The intention is good, but the result is unintentionally destructive.

So how can fathers handle long-distance family relationships better?

• Firstly, give your wife the full authority to deal with matters until she asks you for help. She has the responsibility, but she must have the authority.

• Don’t tell her what to do, unless she asks for help or guidance, no matter how much you think she is doing something wrong or you could do it better.

• During phone calls, don’t interrogate her about the progress on certain things. “I am here if you need me,” is a vote of confidence.

• Arrive home determined to have loving time with your wife and children. It is not good if you arrive home and all you do is find fault because things are not as you would like them. Eventually, they will resent you coming home.

• Make sure you have at least two things to praise the children for when you go home. When you spend time with them individually, they should be happy and loving times.

• Develop some code words that serve as warning or caution signs that this is a no-go area at the moment.

• Most importantly, and many men never learn this — if your wife tells you about a problem she is facing, or something similar, do not solve the problem for her. Listen. If she asks outright for help in solving the problem, spend time together discussing how you can solve the problem together.

• It is completely understandable that when fathers have been away, they will miss their friends and hobbies. At the same time, wives feel resentful because they would like to spend time with their husbands, or even time on their own. Work out a schedule where you can both have “me time” and time together as a couple and as a family. Try to farm out the children for an occasional evening and spend time getting to know one another again.

It is tempting for the mother to become reliant on the children, particularly if they are teenage boys, and let them play “Dad”. This results in role confusion and resentment. It can become a real problem when the teenagers are expected to play an adult role and then when they want to go out and have fun they are told that they can’t. — LivingADDventure.

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