Long Distance Parenting
January 3, 2008 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Looking for positive experiences where single parent and young child(en) were separated by great distances. Specifically, I am curious to know how it was made to work.

Just to give some background, I am a non-custodial parent. My son is 2. It is very likely that within the next few years, either I will move somewhere far off (many states away, possibly another country for a short period), or the mother will move somewhere far off with my son.

Both myself and the mother were separated by large distances from one of our parents when we were growing up and know all to well about how crappy the situation is. The parent can't be there for baseball games or school plays or for random visits to the ice cream shop. It sucks.

I wish my son did not have to experience that, but it is becoming more and more likely. I have to believe there is something better than the standard, summer and holidays. So how do we make it work?
posted by panoptican to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I am particularly interested in first-person experiences that worked pretty well, from the parent and child perspective. Thanks for your help.
posted by panoptican at 12:15 PM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: When I was growing up, my dad lived pretty far away - not a different country, but far enough to rule out spontaneous trips, and visits were a week during the school holidays and occasional weekends.

I think the important thing is to make sure that while you may live hundreds of miles away, he doesn't feel distant from you. For me this meant regular phone calls, and letters. Even before I was old enough to write and we actually exchanged regular letters, my dad would send packages every couple of weeks with a comic or book, or stickers, whatever, and maybe a packet of sweets. - It was fun to receive, and was a way of him being in my life, if not in person.

As he gets older, make sure you keep up to date with what's going on in his life. Even if you can't be there for his school plays, or team games, etc., make sure you know the date of every single important event in his life and ring him in the evening to find out how it went. It made me feel good that my dad remembered everything that I told him about things I was doing, and that I always got a phone call after an exam or concert or whatever to find out how it went. This is not to say that you shouldn't be interested in his life generally when he isn't doing anything special, of course, but I really felt like my dad was interested in my life and was a part of the stuff I was doing, even though he wasn't there to see me do it.

When you do see your son, for a week at the holidays, or whatever, sure, plan fun things - treats, and special trips etc., but make sure you do normal things too, because that is what will make you seem like a proper, normal parent, rather than a sort of fantasy figure that caters to his every desire, but doesn't do any of the normal things a dad does. As much as all the trips and treats, I remember normal things with my dad, like helping him with the grocery shopping, cooking, or taking the dogs for a walk.

Finally (sorry!) if you can plan a surprise trip or visit to where he lives (with his mother's permission, just secret from him), then do - your surprise arrival will make him feel like he doesn't just get to see you on organised occasions.

Hope this helps!
posted by schmoo at 1:36 PM on January 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, sorry, I forgot to say, when he is old enough to have proper conversations with you on the phone, call him on a certain night or day, every single week, without fail. Of course call him more often than that, but if he knows that Wednesday night is the night he speaks to dad, it makes you a regular fixture in his life, and give him some structure to the times when he doesn't see you.
posted by schmoo at 1:40 PM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: My good friend has two kids who live with his ex. As they were both military when they were married (he retired, she's still in), she must move where they station her--which has typically meant his kids are states and states away from him for much of the year. He copes in two ways.

1) Daily phone calls! He talks to his girls EVERY SINGLE MORNING as they are getting up and going to school and EVERY SINGLE EVENING as they come home from school. (It helps that he has a 1 hour commute to/from work each day, but he would do this regardless). He talks to them on weekends too. So he is as up-to-date on their comings and goings as their mom is. He also does a fair amount of parenting/disciplining this way, as he knows when homework is due, when one child isn't doing chores, or when they are fighting with each other.

2) He never hesitates to take the quick weekend trip to see them. It's a bit grueling on him to fly down to them on a Friday night and fly back on Sunday night, but I think it's worth for both him and the kids. I think it also enforces the idea that Dad can be there within hours, in case of emergency, which I think makes the girls happy. (These visits are in addition to planned visits or custody switches on school breaks, holidays, etc.)

He has the kids all summer, but I think in a long-distance situation like this, he is getting in as much parenting time as possible with those daily calls and the occasional 'just because' weekend visits.
posted by batcrazy at 1:53 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have to believe there is something better than the standard, summer and holidays. So how do we make it work?

Well, you could *not* move "somewhere far off" (maybe many states away, or maybe to another country) within the next few years. And then, if your ex decides to move, you could fight her petition for removal in court. Then, even if you lose, you'll still win because given that you seem to consider it desirable or inevitable that you will move "somewhere far off", you could just move to wherever she decides to go.

Problem solved! I hate to sound like a jerk, since I've got nothing but sympathy for a non-custodial parent who has to live far from the children.... but from the information you've given it sounds like all of this is optional.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:09 PM on January 3, 2008

Video chat.

Also, not to be harsh, but everything moxiedoll said.
posted by Enroute at 6:57 PM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: I am doing what I can to keep it optional for myself, but as in the situation described by batcrazy, military is dictating my actions to some extent. And the idea about fighting for his mother to stay seems unnecessarily confrontational to me. We have a very good relationship that is beneficial to our son and it has been built on a cooperative nature. Part of my desire to find a workable situation is to allow her the liberty to pursue her desires while not hurting my relationship with my son.
posted by panoptican at 7:09 PM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: Don't fight with the other parent unless there is a war you know you have a chance of winning. Trust me, and I am glad you have a good relationship with her and plan on keeping it that way, with your child being so young, many things can happen under her control. At the age of two, communication is not really something they understand. I would suggest you send care packages. Little toys, perhaps a little dvd video of you talking to the child that the mother can play when he opens the box so he can associate who it is from. Also, he will begin to associate that you are someone who is in his life, even though you are not physically present, and as he gets older, with his mother's help, know that you are "Daddy."

The toughest thing about being a single parent, especially a non-custodial one, is that we consider things from our point of view, or get heated and pissed at the other parents....and we overlook the world from our child's eyes. I suggest cater to his needs according to his age. Keep in touch with his mom, talk to her as much as you can and find out what his favorite foods are, his favorite movies/shows, toys, characters, etc. Perhaps the two of you can come up with an agreement that when a dvd comes out, or something to that nature, you can send it with again, either a picture or little video of you, so that he knows that you KNOW him. Kids love attention. When there is someone who sends them things they like at a constant basis, they think of you. I am not suggesting have a purely materialistic relationship with your son, but at the age he is now, that is all he knows.

My parents did not get to meet my daughter until she was 5, but they sent her things for her birthday, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and even Mother's Day. They would send pictures of themselves and I would explain to her who they were (that helps!). Once she met them, she said "thank you" on her own for all the things they sent her and for thinking of her. Just keep reminding him that you are thinking of him. Sending him things such as a simple little Hallmark card that says "I miss you" or "Daddy loves you" will make him special and hopefully his mom can keep those things for him so that as he gets older, he knows you were not an absent father.

As he does get older, yes, I agree with what others have said, use the phone like it is going out of style. Call on specified days or call multiple times. Either way, make a habit and tradition of it so that it becomes something they are used to and look forward to. This is again part of keeping a good relationship with the mom, so please continue that. If the boy is in sports or in school, ask his mom when he has a big game or a test. Call the night previous to the event and wish him luck and tell him you are proud of him.

There have been many cases when the parents were physically there for the child, but the child still felt neglected. Consider parents who are busy and plant their kids in front of the tv to babysit. You do not have to be with your child to let him know he has a father who loves him. As a parent who knows what you are going through, in more ways than you know and with a difficult other parent, THINK OF HIM.

Whenever we have to do a custody switch, I write little letters for my daughter when she is gone so that when she comes back home, she reads them. I have the unfortunate situation of having a high stress, very tense relationship with her other parent, therefore sending things to my daughter either ends up getting "lost in the mail" or not even given to her. You are doing a great job by prioritizing how important it is to have an amicable relationship with his mother. She is the primary person in his life and I hope for your sake, she is a mentally stable person who will not bad-mouth you to him and will make the same efforts to continue progress in your parental relationship. It is key.

Good luck!
posted by dnthomps at 10:46 PM on January 3, 2008

My parents divorced when I was seven years old. My dad stayed in New Jersey to manage his business, and my sister and I moved to California with our mom, who had family here to help her get on with her life. My sister and I flew back East for the summers, and either Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Lots of phone calls are indeed key. In this day and age of "free" long-distance calling and broadband internet, you're much luckier than my dad was; you shouldn't have any problems keeping in touch. Send lots of emails. Get an account on Flickr or some other photo-sharing service and exchange lots of pictures. Try IRC or even the built-in Chat application in GMail.

The most important thing to me was knowing that my dad wanted to be with me and would have been if he had had a real choice. It still sucked being so far apart, but as long as you can make your son feel that you are there for him regardless of the physical distance between you, you should be just fine.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 2:25 PM on January 4, 2008

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