Should I Stay or Should I Go (Home)
September 27, 2017 1:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm an American Academic Science Professor, on sabbatical in Europe. My spouse stayed in the USA with my teenage child, my grade-school child is with me here. The time apart (about 6 weeks now) has exposed what appear to be irreconcilable differences in our marriage. Should I stay here for 3.5 more weeks ahead of a previously-planned trip back to the USA, or should I pack up and head home now?

My grade-school child is unaware of what's brewing between my spouse and I, who had agreed to tell both children only when we were all back together again. However, my teenage child asked my spouse point-blank, "are you getting a divorce?" and my spouse told my teenage child that we were in crisis. So now my teenage child is really upset. If I returned home early, it would be to 'be-there' for my (early teen years) teenage child, and to a lesser extent to help support my soon-to-be-ex who recently started a very demanding job and probably needs help running the household.

If I depart early, I will lose the opportunity to complete experiments that were years in the making. This will negatively impact three graduate students who I advise, whose progress depends on my planned work here. I will also have to cancel some high-profile lectures that I'm slated to give around Europe. In other words, the next 3.5 weeks include many scheduled events that I've worked for some time to get into place. And still, I hate the idea of my teenage child not having me around right now. And I should be able to facilitate the experiments that I planned to do here, although this 'experimental Plan B' would involve inferior instrumentation to the 'Plan A' that brought me here.

If I stay here, I would text and FaceTime my teenage child daily. Denizens of MetaFilter -- especially those of you who have parents who divorced when you were in your early teens -- should I stay here for 3.5 weeks, or head home in the next 2-3 days?
posted by Doc_Sock to Human Relations (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any reason not to bring your daughter to Europe? You have your younger child with you and including your older daughter may not be as problematic.
posted by jadepearl at 2:04 AM on September 27, 2017 [20 favorites]

Hi. My parents started the long, convoluted process of divorcing when I was 13, and it continued until I was about 19.

13 year-old me would have kicked up a storm about one parent being overseas in the earliest days of the acute drama (especially if 13 year-old me decided that parent was culpable). There were a few situations that sound very similar to this one. With a few decades of distance, I can see that it was, in essence, a power play: I knew my household would soon be divided, and I wanted to see who was willing to go the furthest for me, as a proxy for who would be able to give me the most security.

As an adult, I know that's not how it works. I think that, had both my parents committed to regular communication (daily! For real! You do not get to check out of this!), I wouldn't have been clinging to every indicator of devotion.

If this were a holiday, I would "vote" for you to go home. Since this is more involved, I'd recommend you stay put, but make every effort to show your child that this is a disruption in your life, and that you take it seriously. This is an unimaginable disruption in hers.
posted by third word on a random page at 3:41 AM on September 27, 2017 [48 favorites]

Go home, your kid's welfare is more important than any of the stuff you've listed, or should be, especially at thisage.

The worst part of my parent's divorce to me at ages 13-16 was the feeling that I had suddenly become a lower priority in their lives, often at a time when I really needed them. This feeling will be unavoidable for your kid in the coming years rightfully or wrongly; no need to jump start the process now.
posted by smoke at 4:03 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would stay in Europe and (as stated above) keep up thorough contact. I'd think the quality of the contact is more important than you physically being there.
posted by mathiu at 4:12 AM on September 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

Stay put. You're in the start of a long family process. Keep in contact everyday as third word notes and think ahead to when you are going back in 3.5 weeks. You have your six year old with you. Don't suddenly disrupt them as well.
posted by biggreenplant at 4:13 AM on September 27, 2017 [13 favorites]

If I depart early, I will lose the opportunity to complete experiments that were years in the making. This will negatively impact three graduate students who I advise, whose progress depends on my planned work here. I will also have to cancel some high-profile lectures that I'm slated to give around Europe.

This sounds like it might negatively impact on your career, and therefore your ability to pay for therapists and college for your children.

So I strongly vote stay.
posted by Murderbot at 4:19 AM on September 27, 2017 [58 favorites]

You have made commitments and I don't think it would be right to break them. Tell your children you love them and will always love them and stay. Your presence might be some comfort but it's not critical.
posted by theora55 at 4:46 AM on September 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would stay put. Leaving all else aside, divorce with children is expensive and children tend to be less materially well-off after divorce. What you're doing now is for your career - it's not like you're jaunting round Europe sight-seeing - and that is part of guaranteeing your children material security down the road. Their material security underpins their emotional wellbeing.

Your daughter is going to be upset by this process in any case. There is nothing that you can do which will make it non-upsetting. There will be situations in the future where you will have to choose between two non-ideal things; this isn't the only one. I think it is best to stick with the professional commitments that will make a difference in your career down the road.
posted by Frowner at 5:14 AM on September 27, 2017 [36 favorites]

Talk to a lawyer immediately in your home jurisdiction where you are likely to file for divorce. Your decisions now might impact child custody and assets - if you're not living in the family home for example at the time of filing, if your spouse can clean out shared bank accounts, if the courts will look at your staying in Europe as bad parenting or good parenting, etc. Talk to a lawyer first - by Skype it should be possible. And you will probably also need to talk to a local lawyer in your European country just to double-check you are doing things properly.

The biggest thing for my teenagers has been reliability. They were able to come up with lots of rationales for why the ex didn't make an effort to stay more in touch that forgave him for months. What they wanted more than anything was to see a parent reaching out to keep in touch. Send cards in the mail, make regular daily Skype calls, set up a snapchat/whatsapp account to contact them, and keep track of what's going on in their life. Don't use them as emotional crutches but parent them instead. Brace yourself for being cold-shouldered or worse, but keep reaching out.

You're not overseas forever. There's a fixed return date soon, and you have one sibling with you. Connectivity means that you can be a lot more involved than even a decade ago. This would be different if you were permanently in Europe.

But definitely get a written agreement about custody that's fair and puts the kids first as soon as possible.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:18 AM on September 27, 2017 [20 favorites]

Also, dropping your professional commitments because your marriage is in crisis - that is likely to make the gossip mill and it won't do you any good. People talk and notice things, and especially if you're a woman scientist, some people will conclude (however erroneously and from whatever sexist premises) that you are a flake, which will have all kinds of knock-on impacts for you and your grad students. If you're important enough, it may not impact funding decisions or lecture invites, but I want to stress, as someone who has worked around researchers for my entire career, that people talk, and not always compassionately.
posted by Frowner at 5:18 AM on September 27, 2017 [39 favorites]

Maybe there is nothing you can do to make the situation not upsetting, but there are things you can do to make it less upsetting. Don't succumb to a false dichotomy. Maybe you can't come home right now, but you can, among other things,

- Make time for a _long_ call with your daughter;

- Don't tell your daughter about your domestic problems until you can be with her;

- Make time for several long calls with your daughter;

- Make it clear to your grad students, your colleagues, and your students that if she needs to talk to you, you will take her calls even if you're in the middle of something;

- Have a female personal friend whom you trust physically check in on her, and maybe have lunch, dinner, or tea with her, several times, so she has adults to confide in and social connections outside of her weird family;

- Do something demonstrative, and that takes time and effort from you, so that she can know that you're not avoiding her due to inconvenience. Do something inconvenient that would please her and make sure she knows about it.

- Make something physical that you can send to her - maybe a checklist with your photo, maybe a little dumb toy with recording of your voice, maybe some slightly custom jewelry, but spend more than 5 minutes on it - so that she will have some part of you with her.

- Choose a thing to send to her that you don't make, but choose it carefully, with her and her personality and dreams in mind, and send it to her along with a long le ter explaining why you chose it and all the things about her that you see and love that led to you choosing this particular thing.

- Explain why you're staying put, and that, while it's hurting you (don't compare your hurt to her hurt, just say it is hurting you), you hope that it will lead to a better life for both of you than the other option.
posted by amtho at 5:27 AM on September 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

I also vote stay, because it's a long process, because your career matters to you and your family as well as your grad students, and because you'll be home soon enough that skype and calls can work now. Also, interrupting everything to fly home this second actually communicates to your young teenager that yes,this is a crisis! emergency! right now awful thing that makes normal life impossible! You don't want to do that, you want to support her feelings while performing normal routines and normal plans.
posted by flourpot at 5:49 AM on September 27, 2017 [20 favorites]

I'm married to an academic and 1000% understand the feeling of despair that comes with the academy always being prioritized. That said, if there are only 3 weeks left, I would reassure your child that you will be back soon and prioritise Skyping/texting/WhatsApping/etc until then. I commend you for considering this, but it is not a life-threatening emergency and if multiple grad students depend on this work and multi-year experiments are hanging in the balance, it seems unwise to leave now. If it were another three months that you'd be gone, I'd recommend some sort of compromise, but less than one month seems doable.
posted by stillmoving at 5:57 AM on September 27, 2017 [18 favorites]

Person who has both divorced and broken up a long-term blended family here: stay. Absolutely stay. Right now, you are feeling a false sense of urgency. Your marriage is ending, one of your kids is upset, and you rightly feel the need to DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING. But this does not mean that you should abandon your duties and responsibilities. There is very little that could be accomplished in person that you could NOT also accomplish remotely. There are some excellent suggestions upthread for ways to be supportive from afar - implement these, post-haste. And don't go. One area of your life (your marriage) is currently in crisis; you don't need to throw undue stress into OTHER areas (e.g. work).
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:18 AM on September 27, 2017 [20 favorites]

Wow, what timing from your spouse! I would really strongly recommend reading this.

I think what is really important right now is that you demonstrate to your kiddo that they matter to you and that you are there for them, which you seem to be already doing and does not require you to come home early. Emotionally present is so incredibly important, being physically present for them is comparatively trivial. that is particularly compared to a sabbatical at this level, which so fucking important and irreplaceable for both you and everyone you are professionally responsible for.

Your kids really don't need you physically present to feel you being emotionally present, and your marriage will still be ending 3.5 weeks from now just like it is now, but is your sense of urgency coming from how much you trust your partner to be a good parent? If you feel that your partner would put them at risk for long term harm of some kind then that could change this equation considerably. If need be is there some family member like a grandparent they could stay with?
posted by Blasdelb at 6:28 AM on September 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Stay don't mess up your career at this point, you're going to need it. Have private skype/phonecalls with your teen daughter without Dad around so they feel they can talk to you. Text them numerous times a day even, kids now a days talk over text more than anything anyway. Keep up a countdown of when you'll be back, hell greet them everyday with only x days until I'm home. Hammer home the returning until they roll their eyes. This is a chance for Dad to step up & show teen kiddo he's still there for her. Also if you are divorcing it is no longer your responsibility to make his life easier, I mean it's still nice to be nice and all but he needs to step up & work on making her feel more secure too.

Does she have an aunt or grandmother she's close to? That could take her out for a girls lunch/dinner a few times. Just knowing extended family is there for you can be a big help too. Just because her immediate family is changing it shows that there is still continuity of family. It might also give her a chance to talk if Dad is busy with his new job etc.
posted by wwax at 7:10 AM on September 27, 2017

As someone who was recently a grad student, I would vote for stay -- if it were just a matter of cancelling a few lectures, it would be one thing, but interrupting years-in-the-making experiments with the potential to derail the careers of people who are just starting out and very vulnerable is a huge deal. If you're supervising grad students on a big project, I'm guessing maybe you have tenure so a six-month delay or whatever may not have a huge impact on you -- but it can have a really serious impact on grad students. I would only consider that in the case of a much more serious crisis (i.e. severe health emergency, etc.).

Definitely keep up the daily contact with your teenager, and also talk to your spouse about the household stuff -- if new demanding job + solo parenting + relationship stress is making things tough, perhaps you guys can throw some money at a cleaner, a plane ticket for grandma to come visit, healthy prepared meals, etc. All of those things will probably be cheaper than two last-minute plane tickets from Europe + whatever career-related losses you might suffer.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:29 AM on September 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

Does your teenage child have Columbus day off of school? what if you flew them to you for that week, they would only miss 4 days of class. The ticket wont be cheap but it seems to fix a few of your most pressing problems.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:35 AM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another divorced academic chiming in: stay. Do all the things others wisely suggest about keeping in meaningful, daily contact with your teen. And, like others imply, this will be a marathon -- not a sprint.

I'm a little concerned, however, about the fact that the other parent broke this news, despite your agreement not to do so. I get that teens can be hard to dodge when they really want to know something and fear they are being gaslighted, but I think that you and your soon to be ex need to get a script in place.

This script, to my mind, would affirm that both parents love the children and will work hard together to make sure the children are supported in the way they need to be throughout whatever happens next, but that for the next month...the adults have some things to work out, and the children should do their level best to carry on being their awesome selves and focusing on their awesome lives.

Try to buy some time, is what I'm suggesting, and save these conversations with the kids until both parents can be present. I just hate the idea that your soon to be ex might be using your child as an emotional confidant in this situation. I also worry that there's a lot of room while you're gone for your soon to be ex to shape the narrative of the breakup. I hope your ex is willing to work with you, then, to come up with strategies for limiting any "processing" of this sad news with your teen before you can be there, too. Given all that, it might not be a terrible idea to suggest that the other parent find a counselor for your teen right away so that if these conversations need to start now, they can at least start with a neutral third party in the room.
posted by pinkacademic at 7:39 AM on September 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

The time apart (about 6 weeks now) has exposed what appear to be irreconcilable differences in our marriage.

I feel like you're burying the lead here. You have a 13- year old child, but the 6 week time apart has exposed irreconciliable differences, even though two years ago you expressed being very happy in your marriage? How are you both sure these differences are irreconciliable if they just arose in the past six weeks? Is this initiated by your spouse or by you, and if so, can you wait the 3.5 weeks? Waiting a month to move forward on a divorce after 14 years doesn't seem like it's that great a difficulty.
posted by corb at 7:42 AM on September 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

Your spouse needs to apologize to your teenager ASAP and walk back this bullshit of divorce RIGHT NOW.

Spouse needs to take responsibility for saying something shitty in the heat of the monent + reassure the teenager + admit that parents sometimes get angry with each other and that THEY handled it poorly by dumping on the teenager.

Your spouse is a piece of work. Stay. Placate. Family therapy for when you all get home, or start sessions now over skype. YOUR KIDS NEED TO KNOW THEIR PARENTS ARE STABLE MATURE RELIABLE FEATURES IN THEIR LIVES and your spouse blew that stability up. No blame, just insist on counseling and tabling any talk of divorce until you're all in the same place again.

Ignore the drama and try to be a reasonable advocate for calm and maturity, accessing resources like family therapy right away, even if you do it by skype. Stay and finish your work. That's what adults do. This is manufactured bullshit, ignore the drama and reassert your position as a stable calm figure in your child's life. Inspire your spouse to get it together and do same.

I'm sorry this happened. Your spouse has issues that eclipse your children's wellbeing. Spouse needs to address their issues while still being a stable parent. Be kind and acknowledge their pain, but do tell them this is the plan for the next 4 weeks.
posted by jbenben at 8:19 AM on September 27, 2017 [13 favorites]

How crammed is your schedule? Depending on where you all live, could you fly over for a weekend visit or two during these weeks?
(I have no opinion on whether or not you should, but wanted to point out you might have more than two options.)
posted by trig at 8:22 AM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Aside from maybe giving the kid a hug, how would your physical presence make a real difference to the child?
"to a lesser extent to help support my soon-to-be-ex" this is utter BS since up until the crisis they were fine alone.

It's not like there is a life or death situation, no one is in the hospital. If you leave you may be doing a great deal of damage to your undergrads, AND to the FAMILIES or partners of the undergrads since this can derail their career.

If there is a nasty custody battle, their side could do you a lot of damage by showing that you are unstable, willing to jeopardize your job and ruin your employees lives just because you wanted to manipulate your older child.
posted by Sophont at 9:23 AM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I may be totally off-base here, and if so, ignore me--but reading between the lines of your question and also inspired by some of the great points raised by many commenters here, I'm wondering if the irreconcilable differences are your being both an academic and on a sabbatical abroad? If this is at all the case (and since your spouse did not join you there), it seems to me like this is a ploy to get you to return ASAP on the part of your spouse. This would explain the inappropriate venting to your teenager, and also, potentially, why you feel like dropping everything and rushing back is the right course of action. It feels, on its face and with limited details, very manipulative on the part of your spouse (and attention-seeking), and for that reason I suggest you stay and finish the few weeks that remain before going back and deciding on the best course of action as a family.
posted by nonmerci at 10:45 AM on September 27, 2017 [16 favorites]

Chances are, if you go home now, within hours your daughter would be off at the mall and hanging out with her friends and it would feel like you came home for nothing. I think that if you can articulate the reasons why you want to go home (to demonstrate that you care, to be a support) then you could satisfy most, if not all, of those things while you're on your trip.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:05 AM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Stay. Bring your child over for the long weekend if you can, talk to them everyday. Your spouse just started a new full time demanding job, you're away from home doing work that impacts both your and your grad students careers, you both are effectively single parenting. This is stress cooker all around and if it were me I'd try to put of making any decisions about the marriage right now. Encourage your spouse to get extra help if you can in terms of meal prep, house cleaning, etc. while they adjust to their new employment. Like other posters I'm a bit suspicious that some of this is 'acting out', perhaps brought on by stress of the new job and resentment of what you're doing atm.
posted by littlerockgetaway at 11:35 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Chiming in as another academic who generally thinks you should stay.

I too am very confused by the idea of "irreconcilable differences" popping up, not after 12 years of child rearing, but after 6 weeks apart with you and the younger child in EU... and I suggest spending some time thinking about all the things you didn't tell us about who/why/what is the real nature of this crisis.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:37 AM on September 27, 2017 [19 favorites]

I think the consensus here is pretty clear, but chiming in since you specifically wanted the perspective of people who, in their early teens, had their parents divorce. My parents separated when I was around 9-10 and divorced when I was 12-13. I also vote stay. My situation was pretty different, so it's not possible to make a direct comparison -- my parents fought a lot and one of them was mentally ill -- but projecting my feelings about my parents' presence during that age onto your situation, your coming home would not have been terribly helpful, and I would have felt guilty forever if I learned that you derailed your career to be home with me during that time. The exception would be if you believed your child were actually in danger (i.e. your spouse was neglecting or abusing them), but it doesn't sound from your description like that's the case.
posted by phoenixy at 12:24 PM on September 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am also the child of parents who separated in my early teens, and, once I knew they were thinking of divorcing, I wanted the parent who wanted to leave to just GO. Not to cut off contact with me, but so we could have an end to the drama and shouting and screaming and recriminations and tears.

He, however, sucked at prioritizing me, listening to my feelings, especially angry ones; and making me feel heard. If you do those things, your child will know you still love and value them, even if you aren't in the same house anymore.
posted by dancing_angel at 12:33 PM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

My parents separated when I was in middle school and divorced when I finished high school. That's where my "stay in europe + project calm, stability, and maturity" advice was coming from.
posted by jbenben at 12:50 PM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

this is utter BS since up until the crisis they were fine alone.

there's no reason to assume that the spouse was either fine alone or fine with the initial trip plans.

The several comments attacking the spouse for giving a "probably" weasel-answer instead of a straight "yes" or a straight "no," which would have been a lie -- what exactly could they have said that would have been better? there isn't any fourth option. "We'll talk about it when your other parent gets home" means the same as what they did say, and any child old enough to ask the question would know it. agreeing not to announce a secret is a far cry from agreeing to lie directly to someone to whom you have obligations of trustworthiness and honesty.

OP, don't fuck over the grad students if your marriage is over either way. If you're a man, you might not ruin your career over it but that's all the more reason why you shouldn't. The only circumstances where you should go home early would be if you were having an affair, your spouse just discovered it, and has told you that if you don't come home right away to work things out, the marriage is over. and if that were the case I expect you would have said so.

and even if that's the situation, you still have to figure out something for your grad students.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:54 PM on September 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

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