Ask the Grumpies: Flying into the department 2-3 days/week and family time

traveling parent query asks:

I have a preschooler, my husband has a stable government job he loves, and we just bought a house in our current city. I have a potential (who knows…academia is a dumpster fire) opportunity which is a short plane ride away. It’s an amazing post in my niche but not a city I’d want to uproot my family to given the lack of comparable job opps for my husband + our love of our current city. It is a very exciting job and might allow me to make a lateral move back eventually. I think given the changes in remote work, I’d need to be in 3 days a week during the semester, and maybe 1 week a month during the summer. Am I bananas for thinking this is totally doable given our financial situation, my husband’s overall competence, etc? I mentioned it on a mom site I read and people thought it would destroy my family, but like, my husband is an equally involved and competent parent, his job is very normal hours, my kid is easy going? Management consultants have kids and I could make up for term time travel with flexibility during the long (not in the US, shorter semesters) summers?

I thought in your careers, you might have met someone who has done something similar? Did they end up miserable?

I live in a location where it is difficult to solve the two body problem so I know a lot of people who spend 2-3 days/week on campus and the rest working from home (or from coffee shops in their home cities). As far as I know their family lives are fine, even those with children. Even those racking up frequent flyer miles. I am unaware of any divorces or delinquent children.

Interestingly, the person I know who did this with a preschooler is a woman (she was the next pregnant lady in our building after I had DC2, so she gets DC2’s outgrown clothes… I think we’re at the friendship level where I’d hear about problems, and if not, I’m really close friends with her mentor who knows everything in their department). The men generally have older kids or no kids.

The two in my building that rack up frequent flyer miles say that it is a good idea to get into the habit of using the airport and plane time to get work done.  It’s actually easier for them to focus because there’s no interruptions.  (This is not my experience with flights, but I guess if you’re taking the same flight over and over it becomes more automatic.)  My external friends who do long daily train commutes (think San Diego to LA or SF to Palo Alto) say the same thing– commuting when you’re not the person driving allows you to do focused work (their advice is to leave on an early enough train that you can snag a seat).

Alice offers this advice:

I’m not an academic, but can speak to the travel for work side of things a bit. Early in my career, I worked for a company whose business model involved heavy travel, and when I was pregnant/when our child was younger, my husband’s job required a lot of travel.

When I was the one traveling, I didn’t have a relationship or a child. Most of the people at the company were single or in relationships but only a scant handful had younger children. The travel was fly onsite early Monday/fly home on Friday afternoon, and videochat wasn’t the thing that it is now. I know one man whose wife and daughter moved to the onsite city with him even though it was a 1-year job because his toddler would forget him while he was away. She’d be shy and hesitant at first on Saturdays and then engaged and joyful on Sundays… and then he’d fly out on Monday morning and it would start all over again. He said the pattern was too heartbreaking for him to continue it. So that’s a negative potential with a very little kid.

However. When I was pregnant and until my daughter was about 3.5, my husband’s job had him away every other week or every third week, depending on what was going on with his work situation. His travel was usually Sunday-Thursday. We didn’t have the problem of our daughter forgetting him. We did do some videochatting, but not much. I made it a priority to make sure that he and I were communicating, generally via text, every day. And I made sure to send him a lot of photos, particularly while I was home on maternity leave. The travel was hard for him emotionally– he got tired of it and felt like he was missing R&R time that he would’ve had if he was home. But it didn’t wreck our marriage or our family.

From a family relationships and kid emotional development standpoint, what you’re outlining could be fine for all of you. In my opinion, it could even be good from a gender roles standpoint. For us, my husband’s travel really cemented the Mom Does Everything pattern. With you being the traveler, it might do the opposite. To me, that seems like a good thing. If your husband is already responsible for family logistics or if he’s willing to take them on, this could give your family a level of balance that mine doesn’t have.

I can’t speak to the financial side of things, but would advise being really thoughtful about your flight timings and keeping a sharp eye on weather forecasts if you get the job. Never book the last possible flight you’d need to catch in order to make it to your first commitment, and if the weather is predicting something big in your home city (blizzard, hurricane, etc.), consider getting to or staying in your work city before it hits. For my husband and myself, the companies had planned and paid for the travel, so if flights were cancelled or if there was a delay, missed time at work was accepted, even if something important was missed. If you’re doing a more DIY traveling for work setup, travel-related flight/weather complications may not be okay in the same way.

Grumpy Nation– have you seen families where one person travels a few days a week work?  What advice do you have for someone about to embark on weekly journeys?



14 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Flying into the department 2-3 days/week and family time”

  1. traveling parent Says:

    Oh thanks so much for posting this – the initial replies provided lots of helpful insight and encouraged me to think a bit more broadly about my job search as I had, pre-pandemic, restricted my search to my region. Obviously, this is quite speculative, given the immense competition in academia, but it is helpful to think through the broader options. My research focuses on my current region so it gives a bit of an “excuse” to maintain a home base here.

    For some additional context, the travel would all be DIY but crunching some numbers, it wouldn’t be a huge budgetary drain. My husband also seems to be a more active parent than many of my friends’ partners, so I don’t think he’d struggle from that side. He does equal amounts the day-to-day caring to the point that my child is not convinced that mama knows how to run a bath. I do more of the mental work of buying clothes, signing up for swim lessons, etc, but that can be done on my phone in airports. We have a good network of friends nearby, but no family.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I was a heavy travel person for most of my career. I have two children. At one point my husband also had a heavy travel schedule when my 2 kids were toddlers (that was hell). We never had a nanny or even a regular babysitter. We had a house rule that one of us would always be home with the kids if the other was on the road.

    Here’s what I’ve learned. The kids are fine, great even. My husband can do everything and is very hands on. The kids are also independent and we rely on them to do their fair share of chores and housework. It Is however very difficult if one spouse does not have a flexible schedule where they can work from home and stay with the kids when they are sick or have doctors appts. These days my husband has an office job and is home by 5 every day. He took a big pay cut to get this lifestyle. It allows him to help the kids with homework, coach soccer, etc and just be there. My job will require travel again soon but if a kid is sick, it’s easier for me to rearrange my schedule and stay home as needed so I take on that duty. Most of my travel mamma friends also agree that when a kid is sick, they want their mom to fuss over them. I stayed home with them during the pandemic for example.

    My retired mother in law moved to town about 5 years ago. She’s allowed my kids to be able to do after school activities that require rides. Before that, the kids were only able to do stuff that started after 5pm or on the weekends. Ironically, by the time she moved here, we needed her much less. I had a much harder time finding rides for the kids when they were really small because now they have established friend groups and other parents we can carpool with.

    In the pricey town we live in, most families have two working parents, so we are all in the same boat and help each other. It was harder to establish ride shares with SAHM’s in my last town because I couldn’t always reciprocate and a lot more stuff was scheduled during the workday. Not sure what your city is like.

    Best advise I ever received from a male peer when I was feeling mom guilt. “If you want to be there for your kid’s field trip, just take a day off from work and go.” I organized science fairs for 5 years, I coached robotics twice, my husband coached soccer. I cross trained with my sons crew team and taught spinning classes with them. I did science experiments in the classrooms and at their after school place. I hired animal people to come to the schools and do demos (that’s only one day/year and has a big impact). You can still have a travel job and be engaged in you kids life. It takes effort to plan things but if you make it a priority, it will happen. In the early days I had a goal of one thing a year and that was good enough. I just organized those activities on my home office days or took days off. I didn’t list all that stuff to brag but to show that over the 13 years a kid spends in school, even if it’s just one or two things a year, the engagement adds up over time.

    Last thing I’ll say is that almost anything is doable if you know it’s a temporary setup. If you think in 2-3 years you can transfer back home to the job you want, you should at least take a shot at it so you’re not wondering “what if” later.

    It’s not going to be all rainbows and puppy dogs though. Air travel is a lot harder than a car commute because flights do get delayed for various reasons on a regular basis. Not having COMPLETE control over your schedule can be really draining, so if you go, do it with eyes wide open. For example, If you have class on Monday afternoon you may have to leave on a Sunday to guarantee arrival In time even if there is a Monday am flight. This isn’t always obvious until you do it a lot. Taking the last possible flight before you have to be somewhere or the last flight of the day can burn you and I’ve been stranded a bunch of times. But I’ll also say that my days away from home were also the only time I ever had to schedule self care stuff like pedicures so it can be a nice break too. Eager to see what other commenters have to say.

    • traveling parent Says:

      Oh that is really helpful, thanks! I get 7 weeks of PTO a year and academics have significant flexibility in the summers, which would allow me to be present for things. I love that you got animals to come to school – one of my fondest memories was my dad bringing a pig (not our pig) to farm day when I was in kindergarten. My husband works 8-4 and will WFH 2+ days a week when things go back to normal, which cuts out the commute (less than 10 minutes to school on the bike).

  3. First Gen American Says:

    One more thought. 2 days a week away is much easier than 5. The leave Monday come back on Friday routine is tough.

    And…forgot to mention, you will have to give up some control and do more things your husband’s way if he will be home the most. He will be the primary routine maker and if you try to take over and mess with his process when you are home, it can be disruptive.

    I’ve also been told it can sometimes be more work when I am home if I am gone a lot because my luggage is everywhere and I am tired and don’t want to unpack or cook or clean the first day back. I just want to recover from a crazy week.

  4. Alice Says:

    Some more logistical advice related to frequent travel, not parenting-related:
    * Have a second set of toiletries and critical chargers (phone, etc.) that you keep in your second location or in your suitcase. If they’re in your suitcase, try to never take them out of the bag when you’re at home
    * If your second location is set up for it, leave your work clothes there and some sleep and hanging-out clothes as well. The less you have to haul back and forth, the easier.
    * Avoid checking baggage as much as you can. Checked baggage, at least in the US, can add an hour or more to the in-airport time. Also, sometimes being able to say “no checked baggage” can get you onto a new flight more easily if you’ve been bumped or they’re trying to get everyone onto different flights due to a plane issue.
    * Dress and pack strategically on travel days. My ideal travel outfit was something I could move quickly in, a backpack (easier to maneuver in crowds), and the bare minimum of stuff in the backpack.
    * Think about how to set things up for happier and more comfortable travel days for yourself. You may not always be as in control of it at home because your family is there, but you can in your second location. I always made sure to have at least a frozen meal in the freezer and a clean space. If I had a day with travel complications, I wanted to feel like I was heading somewhere I could stop moving, eat if I was hungry, and be at peace.

    This may be less of a concern for you since you’re non-US, but–my travel and my husband’s both meant being multi-state, which carried with it some tax implications. If there’s anything special you need to document or file for taxes, it’s useful to know ahead of time so that you’re tracking what you need to track.

    Oh, and: if you have any prescriptions that you take regularly that aren’t getting refilled by mail, it can be helpful to get them filled somewhere that serves both locations. (My husband forgot to refill something over the weekend one time and we were able to transfer the prescription to his work location.)

    • Cloud Says:

      I second the suggestion to have a second set of toiletries, makeup, chargers, etc. I started doing that back when I traveled a lot for work (many years ago, before kids) – and it makes packing so much easier that I still do it even though I travel much less often now.

      The other tip I got when I traveled a lot for work was to have two “trip folders”: one in which you put all your reservation details so that if you arrive and there is a problem you have the details at hand (this used to be physical but could now be online since the advent of smartphones) and one for all the papers you need to make sure you have on hand for your work. The advice was to have these be special colors so they’d be easy to find and remember. I made my trip info folder green and my trip work folder yellow and I still make these folders for trips, almost 20 years later! As soon as I know a trip is going to happen, I make a green trip folder because I’m old and I like physical copies of things.

    • Traveling parent Says:

      The doubles of things and always having a comforting meal is really helpful advice, thanks. I’d likely rent a room in the work city so could go back and forth with just the basics. I’ve done quite a bit of work travel in the past and like to have the routine, I tend to have the same meal at the same spot in the airport (well away from the tannoy)

  5. Retired Academic Mom of 3 Says:

    It’s doable even if challenging. My (also academic) spouse worked at a place 2 hrs’ drive from my place for two years, during which time we had one kid. His basic drill was drive down early early Tuesday morning, drive back very late Thursday evening. The dept was open to consolidating his teaching on Tues/Thurs. He had a studio apt there so never had to take anything but work-related materials back and forth. Agree that using commute time to get work done is wise (he couldn’t since he drove). Also if you have a credit card that allows free use of some airport lounge, for example, that might be worth it…

  6. Academic mom of two, commute veteran Says:

    We did this for seven years, with no kids, and it was awful from top to bottom. What looks like doable prices now inevitably change, academic jobs inevitably have extras that require you to be there (talks, search committees, a last minute teaching schedule change, service, whatever), and travel just generally sucks so much – flights get delayed or canceled, your car will act up just when you need to get to the airport, weather, security issues – we did them all. By the end I was willing to quit my job to make it stop. We were very lucky to have my dept. hire him in the end, but it was so so horrible and I can’t imagine doing it with kids. Which is to say, if you want to do it, more power to you, but I wouldn’t go into it thinking that it would be fine. If it were me, I’d stay where I was, or find a way to move the family to Dream Job City. (sorry to harsh the buzz; I just hate commuting so so much).

  7. xykademiqz Says:

    Get a place at the second location and spend half a week there. It will work out. My colleague and his wife did this for years (she was the one driving to the second city 1.5 hrs away). They had two kids, with whom he stayed. Eventually, after 6-7 years, she was able to get a position here. Both colleague and wife have great careers and the kids are fine (in high school and college now). So definitely doable, so don’t be afraid and go for it. Semesters are only 14 weeks or so, so you really have 28 weeks with travel, that’s 7 months, and 5 months at home with no teaching. (I personally would love that setup now, as maybe it would give me a chance to finally have some real alone time.)

  8. Matthew D Healy Says:

    I’m not a parent myself but I’ve known people who had long distance commuting situations.

    When I was a postdoc at Yale I occasionally took the hop from Tweed-New Haven Airport to DC. When that happened to be on a Friday afternoon I would usually encounter at least one Faculty member whose spouse was at NIH or something else in the DC area.

    They seemed to make it work OK. But those with kids who did that mostly had a full time childcare person in whichever location was where the kids lived.

    • Matthew D Healy Says:

      One thing I did a lot when my job required frequent travel was stop at a supermarket or restaurant salad bar on my way to my hotel room so I could have a QUIET and healthy meal in the room. On the road I always needed more unwinding time before I could sleep.

      If the weather was nice then I’d take a walk after eating. And I try to pick a hotel where it was pleasant to take a walk.

  9. 4n6 Says:

    Wow, this is a very similar problem that my wife and I are going to be running into shortly. Currently, we have a toddler where live in a HCOL on the East Coast. However, our family lives in the Midwest and we have older parents. My wife has a job that is fairly flexible and she could transfer those skills remotely or work for another company easily. I am a tenured, full professor, who is currently chair and trying to figure out how to get back to our home state. We want to return because our parents our older and that is where most of our support network is. But tenured positions just don’t grow on trees and I don’t want to get give up the position of where I am at. So I figured my choices are:

    1) Move back to our home state soon and commute by flying in for 3 days a week and being home the other time, including breaks and over the summer. My worries about the cost of flying and renting a room or even buying a two bedroom condo to rent out.

    2) Make a lateral move into administration and hope there is a job in administration in greater proximity to our family
    3) Pray for the potential that I could take a lateral position with tenure at an institution near our family
    4) Start over by taking a tenure/track position (if available) or even a lecturer job (hopefully full-time) near family.
    5) Get out of academia and find something else to do.

    While I don’t think that this will be an issue for the next 2-3 years it certainly will be after that. Frankly, I am not sure what to do. I don’t mind the idea of commuting, but pulling it off is another thing. Hearing stories of others who are contemplating similar plans certainly helps. And would love to hear feedback from others.

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