Commuting coast to coast

One parent travels to a job thousands of miles away, while the spouse and children stay home.

It was a job offer Dan Berger didn't want to refuse - the chance to head a fast-growing Web company near Boston. At the same time, he was reluctant to uproot his two sons, ages 10 and 12, from the family's home near San Francisco and from their schools, sports teams, and friends.

After weighing their options, the family devised a thoroughly modern solution: Mr. Berger would become a cross-country commuter, working three weeks in Massachusetts, then return to California for 10 days.

"It's just difficult with a family to up and relocate," explains Berger, the CEO of SalesDriver in Maynard, Mass. "It's a real trade-off between accepting a fantastic job opportunity and uprooting the children."

In an age of frequent job mobility, decisions like this are becoming more common. Most families still relocate, of course. Yet for modern pioneers like the Bergers, the moving van doesn't come - at least not yet. One parent travels weekly or monthly to a job hundreds or thousands of miles away, while the spouse and children stay put, forging a brave new work arrangement - the commuter family.

No current statistics track these families. But anecdotal evidence suggests that their ranks, while still tiny, are growing. Nearly 40 percent of corporate relocation executives find that at least some employees in their companies have said no to relocation, according to an Atlas Van Lines survey. Nearly 90 percent give family ties as a reason. Three-quarters cite personal reasons, while two-thirds mention a spouse's employment.

Some families also keep their homes as an anchor in case a new job or a start-up company does not last.

Tethered to e-mail, cellphones, Webcams, two-way paging systems, electronic greeting cards, and even digital photos, family members find inventive ways to stay in touch.

Yet no one pretends the logistics are easy. As long-distance commuters spend hours in the air, eat dinners alone, and settle for high-tech connections with children and spouses, many face unsettling questions about the effects on children and relationships.

"The arrangement so far has been working pretty well," Berger says after 10 months.

Still, he acknowledges "an element of guilt," and says, "You have to look at the opportunity you're taking and ask, 'Is this really good for the whole family?' We think this opportunity is a good thing for us overall. It's not just my personal success."

Make sure everyone agrees

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and Family in Rockville, Md., emphasizes the importance of a "buy-in," an agreement by both parents that this is the way the family will live.

She speaks from experience. Five years ago her husband, a civil engineer, was offered a "project of a lifetime" in New Zealand. After thinking "long and hard" and talking with their son, then 9 years old, Ms. Essex agreed to the arrangement. The couple expected it to last nine months at most.

"I bought in for nine months," she says. But the project stretched to 16 months. Even though her husband came home for a week every month, and Essex and their son traveled to New Zealand twice to see him, the separation proved difficult.

"We definitely noticed that my coping ended at the nine-month point, when my buy-in ended," she says.

Even so, Essex and her family found a silver lining. The experience helped them figure out "how we were going to choose to live our lives and what our priorities are."

She and others agree that it takes a special job to justify the sacrifices. Terrie O'Hanlon, who commutes weekly from Columbus, Ohio, to Atlanta, calls her position as senior vice president of marketing for CheckFree "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." She has been making the weekly trek for 2-1/2 years.

"It's not for everybody, but it sounds harder than it is once you get in the groove of it," she says.

Every Sunday evening, Ms. O'Hanlon kisses her husband and three children, ages 11, 8, and 7, goodbye, then flies to Atlanta, where she maintains an apartment. She returns to Columbus on Thursdays.

During her absence, a live-in nanny gets the children off to school and is there when they return. O'Hanlon arranges to be home for family birthdays but misses school activities such as "Donuts With Moms." Her nanny accompanies the children to those events.

Spending time with the kids

O'Hanlon devotes Friday evening to the children, saying, "Whatever else is going on in their life, they know Mom is going to do something fun with them." Every Saturday night she and her husband, Peter, also plan a "date." Sometimes they include the children for a sports event or movie.

O'Hanlon emphasizes that she and her husband also talk with the children about the reasons behind these decisions, "rather than just have them wonder why Mommy goes to Atlanta every week."

But even the best reasons can't assuage the loneliness that sometimes besets family members at both ends.

One Midwestern wife in a commuter marriage, who asks not to be identified because "we don't want people to know I'm here alone," remains in Indiana with their two children while her husband spends the workweek at his public relations firm in Washington, D.C. The family stays in Indiana, she says, "because of the kids."

Even so, the children, ages 10 and 13, "miss their father a great deal. Right now it's Cub Scout pinewood derby time. That's a dad project. He does it on weekends, but it's still hard on them."

She also finds the separation harder on her husband than it is on her. "He comes home at the end of the day to an empty apartment. He knows he is missing some milestones with the kids."

To help him stay connected, she takes a cellphone to school concerts that involve her children. She holds the phone up so he can hear, and says with a laugh, "It's a given that Dad's on the other end of the line."

For them, relocating remains an option. "We discuss it," the woman says, "and I can see at some point in the near future that we would move out East."

When Michael Strait, of Rockville, Md., began looking for a new job last year, he and his wife, Johanna Potts, had several friends whose spouses were commuting. As Ms. Potts recalls, "I very generously said, 'Oh, don't limit yourself to the Washington area. We can work it out.' I was thinking New York."

Instead, Mr. Strait found a job 3,000 miles away, as director of assessment and testing for California State University in Hayward. He comes home every three or four weeks to spend the weekend with Potts and their two teenage sons.

"The most difficult thing is the time-zone difference," she says. "It's never the right time. When he's at the end of the day, ready to relax and talk to us, we're ready to go to bed. That's why e-mail is so nice - it's asynchronous."

She and others emphasize the value of community support. "My son has wonderful friends. That's been really helpful to him, to have that support and connection." Her own friends also pitch in when necessary.

The couple plans to reevaluate their situation when their younger son graduates from high school in two years. In the meantime, they find compensations. Potts and her sons spent the winter school break in California, visiting Strait.

Even the most dedicated commuters find that constant travel can be wearing. Says Berger, "Sometimes I look at that flight and think, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to do this again.' " One recent cross-country trip took 15 hours because a connecting flight was cancelled.

For the Bergers, as for other commuter families, cherishing small moments becomes essential. "You really end up treasuring the time you spend together," Berger says. "Even if it's just walking our dogs around the park, we find that when we do have time together, we actually spend it together."

During separations, his sons call his cellphone "the Dad hotline," because they can reach him anytime. But even technology can't meet every need.

Berger recalls one "fairly intense family issue" that tested the limits of bicoastal parenting. To his great disappointment, his older son, an avid skateboarder, did not want to continue in Little League. "There was definitely some campaigning going on with Mom, seeing what he could get away with," Berger says.

During his next trip home, Berger explained the value of team sports. His son agreed to continue playing this year.

One veteran road warrior, Omar Leeman, has been commuting from his home in suburban Houston for 10 years. Whenever he had a chance to relocate, his family voted to stay put. "My kids would say, 'Dad, just enjoy your airplane rides.' "

Mr. Leeman, now CEO of Talk2 Technology in Salt Lake City, asks his four children to send him an e-mail every day. "It gives me a chance to stay in touch with them. It also helps them to learn how to put their thoughts in writing." He saves all their e-mail, which he likens to a journal.

Since last October, when Ray Kingman began a new job as CEO of TopicalNet in Woburn, Mass., he has commuted weekly from suburban Washington so his 13-year-old son, Matthew, could finish the school year. The family will move next summer.

Mr. Kingman sees one benefit: "Matt's gotten a lot closer to his mother," he says. "And he's taken it on himself to do his part."

While his mother and mother-in-law are "entirely supportive" of the temporary arrangement, kingman notes that they are "very guarded about making sure that it doesn't go on longer than necessary."

He adds, "I subscribe to this - making sure that the family is reconnected on a weekly basis, and that the commute thing doesn't go on indefinitely."

Echoing the sentiments of other long-distance commuters, Berger offers this advice: "When you are together, make sure you spend time together. When you're back on the work side, you'll find that you have great memories that can help to offset the disadvantages of separation."

Long-distance commuting tips

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and Family in Rockville, Md., offers these suggestions for families considering a long-distance commuting arrangement:

Be sure you have a well-thought-out plan that considers the needs of every family member. Both partners need to "buy in" to the idea.

Try to include children in the process. Tell them, "This is what we're thinking of doing. We'd like to know what you think about it, and what questions you have."

After the commuting begins, monitor children carefully. Don't kid yourself if things are not going well for them. These arrangements do not fit the needs of some children.

When the commuting parent comes home, be sure he or she is home mentally as well as physically. Work can easily intrude on family time.

Reevaluate the pluses and minuses regularly. Drawing on her own experience and that of other commuter families, Ms. Essex says, "I can't say that it's recommended. I really think it should be a last resort. My preference would be for families to move together."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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