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The Frequent Flier's Kids : Out-of-Town Parent Can Create Turbulence at Home

July 29, 1987|JOAN LIBMAN

Cathy Reed Gormley had just finished a conversation with her husband, Michael, a record-company executive who traveled constantly. Hanging up the kitchen phone, she was startled to hear her 2 1/2-year-old son, Brendan, yelling, "Hi, Daddy!" "Hi, Daddy!"

Gormley raced to the backyard, fearing an intruder. Instead, she caught sight of her toddler son waving frantically at an airplane overhead.

"All the times I told my husband he was on the road too much and it was affecting the children meant nothing. But that story shocked him," Gormley recalled. In short order, Michael Gormley started his own company and stopped traveling.

Although the incident happened 10 years ago, the situation has become far more familiar in the 1980s when, increasingly, Dad or Mom is likely to be out of town.

In 1970, women didn't show up in business travel statistics. In 1986, however, 21 million men and 12 million women logged business trips, with 24% of the men and 44% of the women leaving children at home, according to the U.S. Travel Data Center in Washington.

Parents taking off for business travel are finding that the friendly skies are creating turbulence at home.

"Frequent travel can result in exhausted parents, strained marriages and a great many tears over missed ballgames and birthday parties," said Los Angeles psychologist Elisabeth Clark, who conducts therapy sessions for spouses of traveling executives.

Although there are no long-term studies on the children of frequent fliers, some professionals believe that the absent parent may pose more difficulty than the clear-cut loss that occurs with death.

"A parent who is gone creates what I call 'ambiguous loss,' " said Pauline Boss, a family-stress researcher with the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science.

"The father (or mother) is psychologically absent from the family system. The child is confused, because society treats him as part of an intact family. He thinks, 'I have a daddy,' but in reality, his daddy isn't there for bedtime or the school play. This produces very high stress," she explained.

To help young children cope, many families are developing survival strategies. Traveling parents tape-record favorite bedtime stories and songs, send post cards and telephone regularly.

For children who enjoy the airport, some arrive an hour prior to departure to watch the planes take off. When possible, some families actually take children on a short trip to see where Mom or Dad is working.

Frequent travel is especially hard on very young children, who don't understand the concept of returning, said June Solnit Sale, director of child-care services at UCLA.

"I always tell the spouse at home not to clean up when the partner is gone. Leave Dad's robe on the chair and leave Mom's running shoes near the door. It's reassuring to young children," she said.

Sale also advises keeping pictures handy and giving children an article of Mom or Dad's clothing to wear. "With very young children, we try to keep something around that smells like Dad or Mom, like a hat or a T-shirt," she adds.

When a spouse travels, the adult at home becomes a single parent. Toby-Ann Cronin, a senior administrative analyst at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, is the mother of Brendan, 10, Justin, 6, and Daniel, 3.

Her normal routine requires interrupting her work day twice, once at lunchtime, when she takes her youngest child from nursery school to his day-care site, and again after school, when she makes a 45-minute round trip to deliver the older boys to sports programs.

Her husband Carl's work as a safety-equipment salesman often requires him to leave town with little notice.

In his absence, Cronin arrives home with the boys at 6 p.m., and single-handedly prepares dinner, supervises homework, baths and bedtime before doing laundry, completing leftover office work and falling into bed at 11 p.m.

Travel has changed family life. Toby-Ann Cronin has taken over all bill-paying. And when the couple decided to remodel a bathroom recently, she became the general contractor, a chore that formerly would have been her husband's.

Although generally cheerful, she expresses some regret "because my husband is gone so much, the children look to me as the authority figure. I would prefer the boys had more of a sense that their dad and I share responsibility," she said.

For divorced parents, leaving town can be exasperating. When Marty Behrendt, a single mother, started her paralegal firm two years ago, she hired an au pair to care for Gretchen, who was 12, and Todd, 14. Before her first trip, Behrendt wrote detailed instructions, outlining meals, emergency phone numbers and car pools to school, swimming and the church youth group.

After several days, when home life was in shambles and the car pools fell apart, Behrendt fired the employee. Her motherflew in from Ohio until Behrendt could return and hire a replacement.

Behrendt thinks traveling mothers have a difficult time.

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