Loving Your Children Across the Miles
Parents and children alike hate to be separated by distance. It robs you of the close hour-by-hour relationship you always dreamed of having with your children. It strains the already-stressed trust between you. And let's be frank here: many of the steps you can take to make long-distance parenting more palatable involve a lot of money.
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, you find yourself separated from your children by distance, so what do you do? If you've spent a little time with DivorceInfo, it won't surprise you to hear you have options.
The easiest action by far is to resign yourself to being an uninvolved parent, enduring the semi-annual ritual of gift-buying without significance, visits without joy, and phone calls without feeling. Or worse yet, concluding that your kids are better off never hearing from you. They're not. Don't succumb! You need a close and loving relationship with your children, and more importantly, your children need a close and loving relationship with you. And there is so much you can do. Keep your promises.
Chances are you're feeling just a little guilty for being separated from your child. The temptation is so strong to promise your child when you will visit, or when he or she will visit you, or when you'll call or write. And unfortunately, we find it easier in divorce to make promises than to keep them.
Be aware that, although you may quickly forget promises you make to your child, your child rarely does. The best approach is to be very careful about making promises. Promise something only if you know you can and will deliver it.
By keeping your promises, you teach your child that he or she can trust you. And that trust can be precious, coming as it does in the context of divorce, when so many things your child has trusted have failed.
No brainer, huh? Well, yes it is, but it's surprising how few long-distance parents take advantage of this wonderful (and reasonably priced) opportunity to stay in touch with their children. Don't be afraid to be chatty. Children are hungry for any information they can get about how you live, where you eat, who your friends are, and anything else you can think about. The only caveat here is to remember that your children need to be your children, not your pals. So you'll want to be cautious in talking about your romantic relationships, for example. You don't need to be sneaky, of course, but concentrate as you write on those things that you know your child will enjoy reading about.
Be sure to include pictures of yourself. Most of us adults don't get much of a charge out of pictures of ourselves. Remember you're not doing this for you; you're doing it for your kids.
And if your kids send you pictures of themselves, make sure you let them know where you're using them ("I framed it and hung it on the wall on the way up to my bedroom" - "I have it on the shelf just above my computer screen at work").
Of course we know all about using the telephone to stay in touch. There's no substitute for a hug, but an unhurried phone call can make a real difference. The new calling plans can make it worth your while to coordinate vendors and schedules to keep the cost as low as possible.
When you call, always ask if this is a convenient time to talk. If you've interrupted mealtime or other family time, you may be forcing your child to choose between loyalty to you and loyalty to the other parent; and if you are, your child will appreciate your offering a graceful escape. The cost of calling back at another time is small compared to the strain of hurt feelings or stress on your child.
This holds doubly true for calling on holidays and special occasions. You'll want to make sure you interfere as little as possible with the family time your child is enjoying with the custodial parent. If possible, set a specific time when you will call, and stick to it. (See promises, above.).Keep a running list of things you'd like to cover with your child when you talk, and encourage your child to do the same.
Don't make the custodial parent pay for phone calls. Teach your children to use the new 1-800-COLLECT-style numbers. Many vendors now offer a personal toll-free number. You can give the number (sometimes with a short PIN number that must be used with it) to your child, so your child can call you anytime, from anywhere, and check in. Children appreciate this "special connection" to you. One of the vendors advertises with Whoopi Goldberg telling a child, "When I pick up the phone and you're there, it's like opening up a present."
Be forewarned, however: if you don't mind your children's using it, and tell them so, you may get phone calls from them at really odd times. You may hear from them when they're with their friends, on trips, or in the middle of a fight with the other parent.
If you are connected to the Internet, consider equipping your child so he or she can communicate with you by e-mail. Nowadays, more and more kids have access to the Internet at school, even if it's not practical for them to have access at home.
Once you and your child are both online, you can share not only news of the day, but also art, poems, and even sound files. With the right equipment, it's even possible now to carry on a voice conversation at Internet rates. Also, if you don't mind investing time every now and then to update it, look into a personal home page. Your internet service provider may enable you to set up and maintain a simple home page for a nominal charge, or for free. Your child will enjoy sharing "my Dad's home page" with his or her friends, and you can include references to your child in it.
Even if you don't have an Internet connection of your own, you can approximate the connection with a fax machine in your child's home. The cost of the fax machines has dropped dramatically, and if you and your child send faxes during off-peak hours, the phone connection charges may be quite affordable.
The more you know about your child's life, the more fun it will be to stay in touch. Take time to travel to where your child lives. Meet his or her friends, eat lunch in the school cafeteria, tag along to scout meeting, whatever activities are important to your child.
Ask your child's school to place you on the mailing list for the newsletter and other communications with parents. If your child attends church or synagogue, subscribe to the church or synagogue newsletter. Consider buying a copy of the textbooks your child is using in school, so you can act as a resource to prepare for quizzes, homework, etc.
Search for ways that you and your child can continue to enjoy the interests you have in common, even via long distance. For example, if both of you enjoy the same television program, make an appointment to watch it at the same time and then talk by phone about it. If you both enjoy chess, carry on a chess game by mail, phone, or e-mail. If you both love dolls, exchange dresses, magazines, photos, etc.
Plan your child's visits with you well in advance, so your child can adjust his or own activities around the visits. Ask your child to help you plan visits, even down to the purchase of tickets if possible. If at all possible, plan time when your child can come to see you where you live, work, and play, not just fun visits to vacation spots.
Here's a toughie, but important: encourage your child to bring pictures of the other parent, as well as pictures of step-siblings from home. And while your child is with you, encourage him or her to call home and talk to the other parent. Anything you can do to validate your child's relationship with both parents will make it easier for your child to stay connected with you when he or she is back home.
You can make your child's time in your home town more enjoyable if you help the child stay connected with it year round. For example, if your child spends time with particular children when he or she is with you, encourage those children in your home town to call or write your child regularly, and vice versa, to stay in touch. And if there's a particular church or synagogue your child attends when visiting you, ask that your child receive the newsletter or bulletin by mail, and ask someone from the church or synagogue to call or write your child periodically to check in.
As you read the newspaper or watch TV, look for reports on subjects of particular interest to your child, particularly about things happening in your community. When you pass them on to your child, he or she may feel a keener sense of belonging in your community.
Here's a special note about summer visitation. If you plan to spend time with your child over the summer (and most distant parents do), you can help your child immensely by pinning down the summer schedule several months ahead. Most divorce settlement agreements call for only 30 days advance notice about summer visitation, but the plans your child and the other parent have to make for the summer generally have to made months in advance. Do all you can to avoid disrupting those summer plans any more than necessary. Flexibility from you will make your child's life easier.
I saved this one for last, because I knew it might be toughest to accept. The key here is that the other parent can do so much to enable or discourage your long-distance parenting. Thank him or her regularly for any progress in keeping the lines of communication open. The more constructively you and the other parent can communicate with each other, the better parents both of you will be to your child.
I'm also a big believer in finding something good to say about the other parent - particularly compliments that relate to their parenting role. That is, "I still miss you every day" doesn't help; "I can tell you've been working well with Ronnie on his spelling" does. Don't be disappointed if the other parent responds to the first few compliments with suspicion. It probably will feel awkward to you to say them, and it will feel awkward to the other parent to hear them. Over time, though, they will seem more natural to both of you.
One more thought: when you pay compliments to the other parent, you may expect the other parent to reciprocate. Don't. Just continue telling them about the good things they do, even if you never hear a compliment from them.
One final note: you can click here to check out an example of standard visitation language to use when you and your child are separated by distance.