“Will Daddy be home tonight?” or “When will Daddy be back?”, these are the two most often asked questions by my children. Daddy and I are married, we are not a ‘modern’ (alternative) couple as we still inhabit the same property to raise our children in partnership. I am not a single Mum. So, why are my children asking these questions? Daddy has a job which entails lots of travel, international overseas travel, which means that he can be away for one night here and there or ten days here and there. He is just coming to the end of a seven week period of which five weeks have included at least four nights, and at most seven nights, away and will be entering a quieter month of just being away one or two nights a week. I am not a Single Mum but there are many occasions when I feel like one. I am a wife, but there are many occasions when I don’t feel like one. I have christened myself a Single Wife.
I know that there are families that have it harder than we do. The oil rig workers. The military families whose significant others are sent on six month tours with limited contact and more than a whiff of danger hanging over them. Remembering this helps to make things a bit more bearable, there is always someone worse off than yourself after all. This way of living is still something that I have found to be unusual, that was until I became an Expat Wife. All of a sudden there are women, and indeed men, who are in the same position. I have found that they understand. They get it. Having a partner that works late a few nights every few months, or who has to travel away once a week is not the same as the relentless travel schedules of international business. My husband missed my daughter’s second, third and fourth birthdays due to travelling work commitments. I experience loneliness that isn’t to do with not seeing anyone but which is more tied up with not being able to communicate properly with the one person that I have chosen and committed to spend my life with (when travel plans allow).
Being a Single Wife brings with it challenges that are similar to being a Single Mum. During periods of Steve’s absence I have to be Mum and Dad to the children. However, it’s not just me raising the children, my husbands values need to have some bearing on their upbringing even when he is not there. I have to remember to think about what Steve might do in certain circumstances and try to correlate this with the actions that I take. When Steve is absent there is no one else to call on, even more so now that we are expats. If one child is ill I still have to get the other one to school. When Daddy is away the children invariably sleep poorly, my daughter wakes early and my son has nightmares, there is no one else to get up and comfort them. There is no one else that can amuse the children for half an hour, or cook their tea whilst I have some time to myself to get back on track. We then have the daily (when meetings allow) phone call, or FaceTime where Daddy invariably calls at just the wrong moment – when tea has just been put on the table or half way through a child’s (or Mummy’s) temper tantrum. Our attempts to stay connected during his absence always seem to wind up in unsatisfactory conversations. He doesn’t want to say how wonderful San Francisco (or Shanghai or Dubai) is because he knows I’d like to be there too, I don’t want to tell him every naughty thing that the children have done because then he’ll feel guilty for being away, the children want to talk to him but are too tired to do so in an engaging way; it is too forced, too fake. The evenings that I sit by myself turn into hours that stretch into time wasting, channel hopping, internet surfing, flicking through already read books and magazines. I stay up later than I would do if Steve was here and then kick myself the following morning when Tilly wanders in at 6am.
There are also challenges for when my husband returns from his travels, one of my expat friends calls this period ‘reintegration’ and it is the perfect way of describing the process. When Steve is away for one of his extended trips the children and I get into our own rhythm, and I notice things that I wouldn’t necessarily have done with Steve there. The children change so quickly that even though they were cleaning their teeth and washing faces together when Steve went away, when he returns they are no longer doing this to avoid the daily pre-bed arguments. But Steve doesn’t know this. I’ll forget to tell him about the change in routine and then I’ll get cross when the kids start their squabbling because Daddy has allowed them to wash together. Daddy feels justifiably cross with me and hey, welcome home darling! As the children are getting older, their brains are getting quicker and their mouths are getting smarter and we have noticed that after a lengthy period of absence they take less notice of Daddy’s word. His ability to reprimand diminishes and I find myself having to step in and back him up, where once upon a time it was the other way round. The family rhythm ebbs and flows along with Daddy’s travel schedule.
Admittedly though being a Single Wife does have some benefits. I can leave the bed unmade for three days running. I can leave the house with toys strewn all around the house. I can give the children fish fingers for tea and not worry about having to cook another meal. I can do all of this – until the day Daddy comes home because then I have to revert to being a Wife, a homemaker and, well, let’s be honest, a grown up.