Juggling work and family life is a perennial source of stress, especially if you’re a mum! Women traditionally still take on the bulk of household work, child-rearing, and what is sometimes called ‘emotional labour’ – that is, the work women tend to do in maintaining the household, such as keeping track of the kids’ medical appointments, sports days and all the small-but-crucial elements which make up family life.That’s tough enough when you’re actually on the ground. But what happens if you’re not around much? How do you cope if you’re working away, or – even trickier – abroad? The working mother on an international assignment often finds herself having to undertake all the work she’d typically do at home, but from a distance. What if the kids get sick? What if there’s a problem at school, their dad can’t deal with it for some reason, and you’re separated from your child? Suppose you’re in a different time zone? Having to cope with a child’s crisis in the middle of their school day but the middle of your night isn’t easy.
This is doubly difficult if you’re away for a long time. There are a great many women in this world who have made the tough decision to work abroad (for instance, coming from developing countries to the West) to provide a better life for their children. If this is you, you’re not alone.
The key to managing your work abroad in combination with your home life is the presence of a good support network, plus organisation. You’re probably doing this already, but the following tips might help:
• make sure everyone who is in contact with your kids (your partner, your parents, their school, childminders and so on) have your full contact details and, if possible, your schedule – especially if you’re moving from place to place.
• make sure they’re aware of time zones so you don’t get woken up by a 3am phone call.
• ensure you have a copy of everyone else’s schedule. School play coming up while you’re away? Check your partner is aware of it and double-check with them the night before.
Having said this, don’t micromanage too much – it’ll just stress you out. A couple of evenings when the kids are fed pizza and chips won’t kill them.
Take your own emotional temperature, especially if you’re away for a lengthy period and if your children are very young. You will miss your kids and your partner. You may well feel guilty. You may feel like an inadequate parent – particularly if something goes wrong. All of these feelings are entirely natural. However, you need to be firm. Don’t let anyone else guilt trip you, something which is an occupational hazard among mum’s groups, particularly online. You’re working abroad for good reasons and it’s also good for your kids to see that mum has a life apart from them; you will be a great real model for them. It’s also an opportunity for your partner or family to appreciate exactly how much you do – and for them to bond a little further with their offspring.
Make sure your tech is working to your advantage. Social media apps such as WhatsApp or Skype are a godsend. Keep in touch, but also don’t let the convenience of technology prove too distracting. It might be a good idea to schedule a ‘big’ call or Skype session once a day when your work is over (or, if you’re an early riser, before you start), and then check in briefly throughout the day. Modern technology is great but it’s also a time sink and an attention splitter, so work with it to ensure it’s making you less stressed, not more.
Enlist local support: make sure your colleagues in your host country are aware you’re a parent. Many countries are supportive of families, and you may find that your colleagues can provide emotional support and practical back-up if, for example, you have to dash out of a meeting and take an urgent child-related call.
Teacher Donnabeth Aniban says there are advantages, too:
“I get to enjoy my coffee while it’s hot. I take a bath as long as I want. I work out now. I can teach full time, write, and tutor part-time. These are small perks compared to the pain of being away. But I cherish them, just as I want my children to have their own happy moments even without me. Being away also revealed to me all the things I have taken for granted. It made me more grateful and more present. I used to be with them 100% of the time but I wasn’t really fully present most of the time. Now if we have a video call, it’s only them I see. I fully listen. I fully engage. No TV, no multitasking, no calculations on what I’m going to do next, no pretending to be listening, no yes answers that are half-meant.”
Bear in mind that if you were a man, you probably wouldn’t be facing half the questions – both internal and external – about the viability of taking time away from your kids. Western culture still has all sorts of tacit and explicit expectations about the role of women and childcare.
And finally, have you considered the possibility of taking your children with you if you’re going for a long period? This is logistically complex and will obviously mean taking them out of school – but a period spent in another culture can be as educational (socially, linguistically and academically) as time spent in their local school. If this is an option you haven’t been considering up till now, check out the escapeartistes blog, which is all about travelling with kids.
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