Child-Care Solutions for Parents Who Travel

When a father in Pennsylvania learned that he needed to leave on a business trip at 4 a.m. the next day, he faced an urgent problem: His wife was away on a business trip of her own, and he had no one to care for their two children, ages 6 and 11. Desperate, he called a child-care resource and referral agency, The Partnership Group, in Blue Bell, Pa.

"We snapped into action and located child-care providers whose staff would go to his house at 4 a.m.," says Linda Sterthouse, vice president of development. The agency also arranged for someone to care for the children until he returned at 11 p.m.

As the number of two-career and single-parent households grows, travel-related challenges like this are becoming more common. By 2000, women are expected to account for 50 percent of all business travelers, up from just 1 percent in 1970, according to Penn State University. The impact on family life can be so great that nearly a quarter of employees - men and women - have refused jobs that require increased travel, a study by Dupont reveals.

"A supportive partner and reliable child care are crucial to the success of business travel," says Leah Potts Fisher, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Berkeley, Calif.

Whichever parent travels, she notes, faces similar challenges. "Moms and dads both say, 'I miss my kids.' Travel is exhausting, and it's lonely." Men are more likely to be lonely than women, she finds, while women are more apt to feel guilty about being away from their children.

"Husbands, too, are concerned about their kids and have guilt, but it's less, because traditionally, being a provider is part of a man's identity as a good father," Mrs. Fisher says. "For women, being a good provider feels as though it's taking away from their role as a good mother."

Until last year, Lori Meagher of Weston, Mass., the mother of two children, ages 8 and 5, traveled frequently as a district manager for Xerox. Her husband, James, also averages two weeks a month away. She describes the challenges at home as "anything and everything," including missing school functions or having to leave on a trip when a child is ill.

Eventually, the couple made a hard decision. "We've really come to the conclusion that we can't both travel," says Mrs. Meagher, who now heads LRM Consulting. "Even with live-in help, which is great, it's too much."

Since live-in help is not an option for most business travelers, finding reliable child care remains paramount. More companies now reimburse employees for child-care costs incurred during business trips, including subsidies for overnight care. Others will pay for a grandparent to come from out of town to stay with children. Sometimes, when a new mother must travel, employers will pay for her baby to come along. Many major hotels offer on-site baby-sitting. Prices typically range from $11 to $15 an hour.

Companies make changes

Businesses are making other changes as well. "Some companies have become sensitive to not having people travel on Sundays," says Dana Friedman, senior vice president of Corporate Family Solutions in Nashville. Others avoid sending parents on trips during the first two weeks of September, when school starts. "I've also tried to make companies sensitive about Halloween," Ms. Friedman says. She describes a "revolt" at a week-long seminar. "People who had young children were upset that they would miss Halloween. They formed a committee to get the company to swear off Oct. 31 as a travel date."

In another sign of progress, Xerox is publishing a handbook of tips for employees, "Xerox Business Travel and Your Family."

To make business trips easier, Fisher and her co-director, Chris Essex, conduct one-day workplace seminars called "Coming and Going: Business Travel and Couple Relationships." The hardest part of such travel, Fisher finds, may not be the separation but the reentry. "Sometimes the anticipation of the reunion doesn't match the reality. There's a bunching up of practical needs and emotional needs when you get back together."

The traveler, she explains, "gets back home and is thrilled at the idea of a home-cooked meal, while the parent who's been home, holding the fort, would love to go out. The traveler doesn't see enough of the children, and the parent left at home may be seeing too much of them. The traveler gets a break from routine chores, whereas the partner is often shouldering added responsibilities. The traveler often comes back with a real sense of accomplishment, while the partner at home may feel that things have been put on hold."

Mrs. Essex knows firsthand the challenges business travel can present for the family left behind. For 16 months her husband commuted to New Zealand from their home in Oakland, Calif. During his absence, Essex gave their son, then 8, "lots of reassurance about what Daddy does, and pictures of what he does." When her husband returned every five weeks, father and son would start a project, usually Legos, then finish it on the next visit. These "bridging activities," she says, "became almost sacred" as a connection.

Even for couples without children, travel schedules make special demands. Carol Searles, director of business development for Work/Family Directions in Boston, says, "My husband and I both find that the main challenge is trying to maintain a close relationship when sometimes you're two ships passing in the dark."

To preserve their limited time together, the couple try to avoid professional work on weekends. "My husband came back from a business trip last Thursday and went right to the office from the airport," says Ms. Searles. "He also worked late on Friday, so we could at least have Saturday and Sunday before he disappeared again for two weeks."

They also call each other every night during trips. "Sometimes it's just, 'How was your day?' 'Fine. I'm going to bed.' Calling once a week just doesn't do it anymore."

Help from technology

For some employees, the solution goes deeper than finding perfect child care or carving out weekends together. Instead, they want companies to reduce the need for travel. "In the past, if there was a meeting, you traveled to it," says Meagher. Now businesses can ease the travel burden by using conference calls, voice mail, and video conferencing.

At Xerox, Meagher worked on a team with a staff member in Denver, one in Phoenix, three in Rochester, N.Y., and one in St. Louis. "We worked as a virtual team," she says, with partners relying on technology rather than travel to connect them.

Such benefits are not limited to employees with families. "We hear from single people as well," says Jackie Church, a senior consultant at Work/Family Directions. "The boss says, 'You're single - that's why we give the travel to you.' They say, 'I'm never going to get married and have children if I don't make connections in my home town.' "

To change the corporate culture, Ms. Church suggests that companies consider these questions: Could workers alternate six months on and six months off in those types of assignments? Could they pick an alternative track that was internal while their children are young? Could they work part-time if they wanted to spend more time with their family or travel less?

She concludes, "Why couldn't any of those things be options that won't torpedo your career?"


Leah Potts Fisher and Chris Essex, co-directors of the Center for Work and the Family in Berkeley, Calif., offer these tips for parents who travel on business:

*Use phone calls, faxes, or e-mail to keep in close touch with your family during business trips.

*Leave your hotel telephone number with a spouse but not with young children, who might call too often.

*Give young children a photo of the parent who is traveling. Talk about time in concepts a child can relate to, such as, "I'll be home after three bedtimes."

*For slightly older children, use a wall calendar to mark off each day that passes. Also use a map or a globe to show them where you are going, and add a little geography lesson about it.

*Consider making tapes to leave for children, such as reading a bedtime story or singing the songs they would normally sing at bedtime. The person caring for them at home can play the tape.

*When you return from a business trip, it's useful to spend special time with children to reconnect, both in a group and one-on-one. This also gives the at-home parent a break.

*Lavish gifts are unnecessary. Instead, traveling parents can start a collection for children, such as postcards, small soaps from hotels, or charms from different places.

*Children love to participate in welcome-home celebrations. Some families hang up balloons or make banners to welcome a returning parent.

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