Survive your time away: Tips for traveling moms (and dads)

Overseas travel is one of the perks of international development work, but it comes with challenges especially for parents leaving their families behind. Photo by: Phillip Kalantzis Cope / CC BY-NC-ND

International travel goes hand-in-hand with a global development career. It is often a necessity of the work, and many view exploring new countries and cultures as one of the perks of their job.

But the perk doesn’t come without its challenges, as professionals attempt to juggle their travel schedule with life at home. This can be especially true for parents leaving little ones behind, perhaps even more so for mothers who statistically take on the brunt of child care in most cultures.

In ”Challenges affecting women’s advancement in global development,” I discussed how lengthy travel and overseas field work requirements contribute to a gender gap in international development institutions, particularly at the leadership level.

As a mother of two little girls who travels frequently for work — and just got back from a long overseas trip — I know all too well the disruption travel can cause in an already busy family schedule.

Here are some tips my family employs to survive the time away.

1. Schedule regular call times

With technology like Skype and FaceTime, it’s now easier than ever to stay connected with your loved ones while on the road. However, depending on the difference in time zones, finding a time where you are both awake and not working or in school can still be a challenge.

Before you head out on your trip, calculate the time difference and set a time where you will touch base each day (or whatever regular interval works for your family). Sometimes there may only be an hour or two of the day that will work for both sides, so make sure you take advantage of this narrow window.

2. Call in the troops

In the spirit of “it takes a village…” build a community of friends and family who can help in a pinch. For example, our neighbors will often pick up extra shifts in the carpool when I am away and we are sure to always return the favor when they need the same.

We also have reliable sitters on call should my husband have a late or early meeting one day or just need a break himself for a few hours. Budgeting for this extra help has become non-negotiable for us, and a necessary expense for maintaining sanity as a dual-career couple.

Even if we end up not needing the extra help, knowing they are there as back-up provides a sense of security while I am away.

3. Know your limit, and plan travel accordingly

Not all travel is essential. Knowing your personal limit to how frequently or how long you can tolerate being away is important to not over-extending yourself. For example, my personal limit is 10 days. My kids, husband and I can tolerate the time apart up until this point, but anything beyond it just feels like too much.

Even with a supportive employer, it can be a challenge to fit my travel, particularly to far-off places like Asia, within this limit. However, this limit also forces me to make the most of my time away, scheduling flights that will maximize my working hours overseas and minimize my weekend time away from family. I also have to be extra efficient in how I schedule my work time abroad, putting in extra long days if I have to.

Having a personal limit helps bring a sense of security and control to me and my family. It also means if I ever veer from it, it will have to be for a very good reason.

4. Appreciate your co-parent

Work travel is hard on both parents. In Sheryl Sandberg’s widely read book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” she advised women who want to juggle family and career to choose their partners wisely. I am fortunate to have a husband who supports my career and shares an equal role in household and childcare responsibilities.

However, that doesn’t mean it is easy for him when I’m away. When I return from an overseas trip, exhausted and jetlagged, I remind myself that he is exhausted, too. Scheduling a much-needed massage, encouraging him to head to the golf course or out with friends and always verbalizing my appreciation goes a long way in showing him that I don’t take it for granted.

If you are a single parent traveling, the same goes for whoever stands in as the primary child care provider while you are away.

5. Enjoy your ‘me time’

I am always an absolute mess kissing my two little girls goodbye. Leaving them is one of the hardest things I ever have to do. However, the minute I sit down in my seat on the plane, I let out a little sigh of relief.

Parenting is a full-time job and one where we rarely get time to ourselves. Those hours on the plane, where I have the choice of reading, watching a movie or taking a nap, feel like a rare luxury.

I’m also amazed at how quickly I can get ready for the day without two little ones nipping at my feet and enjoy the more leisurely pace my mornings assume when on my own.

As my husband says, it doesn’t change anything for them if I am having a wonderful or miserable time, and if I’m going to be away, I might as well try to make the most of it.

6. Share your adventures

My older daughter is of the age to get excited about my travels. She attends a bilingual school where learning about other cultures is a regular part of the curriculum. My travel helps to bring some of these places to life and the pictures, stories and little souvenirs I bring back serve as a connection to the big outside world she is trying to understand.

Sharing in these stories and knowing that mommy is doing her small part to try and improve the lives of others — including kids like her — around the world helps put my time away in a positive light.

As hard as it is to leave my daughters behind, I am proud to show them an example of someone who can be both an attentive, loving mother while also pursuing a career they love. I know that no matter what they want to do, they will know that all options are on the table for them, too.

How do you manage travel and time away from your family? Please share your tips and comments below. If you have any questions about managing your career in international development, tweet me @DevexCareers.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.