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The Long-Distance Family: New, and Made In America

My husband works two weeks per month in Eastern Europe. When I mention this to people, they give me the sad-eyed look. "It's fine," I say, and, really, it used to be more than fine: I was actually enjoying myself the first year.
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There's a new kind of family being forged in these tough economic times: the long distance family. I'm ecstatic that mine is one of them, because there's this crazy little thing called food on the table. My husband travels abroad half the year for his architectural practice, since real estate is dead in NYC but on fire in developing countries (China, Brazil, India, anywhere but here). Friends, too, report partners amping up their road warrior lifestyle just to bring home the do-re-mi. The global economy has families separated by states, oceans and continents, and the long distance family is taking its place among nuclear, extended, single parent, step and commuter families in the American landscape of how we live today.

My husband works two weeks per month in Eastern Europe. When I mention this to people, they give me the sad-eyed look. "It's fine," I say, and, really, it used to be more than fine: I was actually enjoying myself the first year. Surprisingly, friends also admitted they felt secretly liberated when their husbands took (short) business trips. But, somewhere during my husband's second year on the road, as the novelty wore off and his "absents" outnumbered his "presents," the loneliness of the long distance family set in. It used to be called making sacrifices, I guess, which my mother's generation knows something about. In fact, long distance families aren't all that new, when you consider the immigrant breadwinners who toiled at blue collar jobs and sent money home, sometimes for decades -- not to mention those who ventured out west, built the railroads, etc. The new and scary thing is, we're now emigrating out of the land of opportunity instead of immigrating to.

The long distance family has its upside -- and other times, not so much.

The big benefit, of course, is being able to pay the mortgage. Ginormous. Huge.

Plus... it can be freeing to uncouple. Can I come right out and say that? When you're the sole child rearer, home maintainer, bill payer, financial planner, and social ties keeper, you can say anything you like.

I worried that I had a bad marriage, given that I enjoyed my husband being out of the house, but in recent years, forthcoming friends have assured me that I'm not alone: it's a respite from the doldrums of being a partner (especially a female partner), when a husband has a five-day tour of the Southeast or an overnighter to Ohio.

After the initial separation anxiety, which can reduce you to a clingy five-year old on the first day of kindergarten, there is the heady realization that:

You don't have to get dinner on the table: "Cereal, kids?"

No one hogs the covers or floods the sink counter.

You can have mom, sisters, and aunts over. And gab on the phone to girlfriends. All at the same time.

You can see the movie you want to see, wield the remote, catch up on reading.

You can unmake and make only one side of the bed. Pile books and magazines on his half. And of course clothes (clothes everywhere).

You don't have to conduct a conversation at 11 pm about cash flow, contracts, or ball busting developers.

There are fewer dirty underwear and smelly socks in the hamper.

You don't have to wake up to his alarm, or be rendered insomniac by his tossing and turning.

You don't have to buy his faves at the supermarket (Green Machine Odwalla juice and mesclun salad in my case -- if I never eat the latter again, I'm good).

You can attend the theater or the opera and not have to elbow him awake.

You don't have to feel all rejected when he comes home drained from the office and can't talk, much less rip your clothes off.

You don't have to argue -- with adults.

In short, you have one less person to take care of. The brain space and time dedicated to the care and feeding of a husband are freed up. (Oh the places you'll go.)

Sometimes, of course, being a long distance family has its drawbacks.

Sex is an obvious problem. Snow removal is not fun. Garbage disposal, the lone chore on my husband's to do list, has migrated over to mine. A mouse under the sink. Noises in the attic I don't even want to think about. Teenager meltdowns, accompanied by "Mom, we're just together too much!" (K, sweetheart, I'm the only parent you've got.). Taking said teenager to visit the in-laws. Putting up the Xmas tree. Car maintenance. Mortgage refinancing. Driving -- I want to sit in the passenger seat again (not beside my soon-to-be licensed kid). Printer jams. Computer crashes. Toilet plunging!

The loneliness of the long distance family is heavy at times. Our daughter comes out with it unexpectedly: "I miss Daddy, he's been gone forever, is he ever coming home?"

There's Skype (always a good way to tell if I need a haircut). And Google Earth, to figure out where on earth he's sleeping tonight.

Thank goodness he works in ex-Soviet bloc countries that still take serious time off for the holidays. They'll be clinking vodka glasses and whooping it up for weeks, so he'll be home for Christmas.

I'm grateful. I do not look a gift horse in mouth. I set the house alarm, and for good measure, plant his car keys on my nightstand, so I can sound the car alarm if a mass murderer breaks in.
I avoid old (or new) boyfriends on Facebook. And so far, I haven't adopted a baby or a dog.
Finally, I take heart in something Joanne Woodward once said, when asked the secret to her 50+ year marriage to Paul Newman: long breaks apart.