ShouldersDadSizedThe economic situation in South Africa has dictated that many families are being disrupted with Dad (occasionally Mom) having to leave the family and go and work out of the country.

They may be absent for periods from 2 weeks to 6 months or more.

These are incredibly difficult times for any relationship, no matter how strong. At the very least, the strongest will be tested severely.

The most common and difficult aspect to overcome is the changes in roles and routine. Let me describe this common scenario generically. Dad is away for week, or a month or even 2 months at a time.

Mom now becomes the de-facto 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.

Dad on the other hand feels enormous guilt about not playing his traditional role. Whenever he comes home, he will tend to overcompensate and try to "make up" for the time he has been away. He will also try to emphasise that he is still the head of the household in his actions and even in the way he speaks.

When Dad comes home, the routine that the children have got used to is now put on hold, and a dimly-remembered routine is imposed again. 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 Dad 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 do we do long-distance family relationships better?

  • Firstly, give your wife the full authority to deal with matters until she asks for you to help. She has the responsibility, but she must have the authority. Business people will understand the futility of having the responsibility but no 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 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.
  • Come home determined to have loving time ENJOYING your wife and children. It is not good that Dad comes home and all he does is find fault because things are not as he would like them. Eventually they will resent Dad coming home.
  • Make sure you have at least two things to praise the children for when you come home. When you spend time with them individually, those should be happy times, emotionally uplifting 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 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, rather than you solving the problem for her.
  • It is completely understandable that when Dad has been away from civilization (they are often working in remote locations) they also miss their friends and former hobbies. At the same time Mom is feeling resentful because she would like to spend time with Dad or even some time on her own. Work out a schedule where you can both have "me time" and time together as a couple and as a family. Try and farm out the children for an occasional evening or weekend and spend time getting to know one another again.

It is tempting for Mom 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 suddenly told that they can't.

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