The homecoming blues

Do you suffer from the ‘Home-comer’s blues’? Or are you the one at the kitchen sink with two babies in your arms desperately waiting for some light relief after two weeks of single parenting? Instead of open arms and open hearts, many couples find themselves caught up in a dance of grumbles and nagging. The one who held the fort feels taken for granted, and the one coming home feels unwelcome. Welcome to the world of partners who travel and stay home.

stork nestMy father was naval officer and my mother a very independent and self-sufficient naval officer’s wife. She told me, “When your father would come home from a sea voyage there would be 24 hours of joy followed by at least a day of bad tempers.” She termed it the ‘second day blues’.

Not long ago, I was in the company of four very strong, very independent and capable friends. One of our husbands was due home and the wife in question remarked; ”he missed the children’s chicken pox, he missed having to go and do the parent evenings, and now he expects me to be waiting for him with a smile on my face and my legs shaved?” The next half hour was filled with a chorus of empathic and mirthful moans of recognition. Of course we know we’re not being fair, but we all shared the sentiment that our spouses needed to earn their place back into the tribe.

There are many couples that share a similar experience. The online resource, Circle Of Moms, even has a special section for mums with husbands that travel. Today, of course, there is also a growing population of house husbands who experience the same when their wives travel for their work. It seems that most of the time neither the traveller nor the one staying at home feel happy with reunions. Maybe, as my mother seemed to think, it is just par for the course, you know it’s coming, and you know it will pass.

I’m curious to explore what lies at the base of these homecoming hiccups? Is it about generosity, not taken the other for granted, love, or not being in love… or all those other things we make it about in that second day quarrel, or is there some other interplay between the one who goes out hunting and gathering and the one that holds the fort?

An added ingredient for expats

For expats or partners living away from their support networks, even within their own countries, your are not just the partner who was ‘left behind’, you are left behind in a foreign place, often without a social network, families, or even work to fall back on. Robin Pascoe, one of the internationally renowned expat guru’s says in her book a Broad Abroad that she has known so many women who, (having) coped and coped while the men are away… lose it the minute their men come home and then put the cutlery in the wrong drawer. While she was conducting interviews for her book A Moveable Marriage, she found many couples had similar issues; the travelling partner is not a part of the daily routine any more and when they do call from abroad to demonstrate their involvement, it is invariably at an inconvenient time for the rest of the family leading to discordance, frustration and misunderstanding.

Group dynamics

From group dynamic theory we learn that whenever a group member leaves or returns, the group dynamics change. Group members might be ‘tested’ in their loyalty to the group. Roles may have shifted, and newcomers to the group may even have usurped the place of the one who left, even temporarily. There may be a fleeting resentment, not expressed, for the fact that the one who leaves and comes back has caused upheaval, or even feelings of loss. A good group facilitator will be able to address those group dynamics and help everyone express what they need to re-establish harmony.

My friend Alice is part of her local church choir in Boston. Because she is married to a European, she divides her time between the U.S and Europe. Whenever she’s been away for an extended period of time, she has to reintegrate into the choir group and is often not made aware of special events and personal dramas that she has missed out on. Sometimes she feels as if she has let them down by not being totally committed to the group and often feels ‘tested’ to see if she can still belong to the tribe. Sometimes she considers not returning to the choir at all. And I am sure that if they knew how she felt, or if someone could point to the subtleties in their tribal behaviour, they would be sad to know it.

A family unit is a group in its own right and so the same dynamics are likely to apply. Exploring this topic with others, there seems to be a common experience that before the children came along, absences of the other partner were borne very differently; reunions used to be romantic and happy occasions. For the one staying home, time apart would be an opportunity to socialize with friends or spend some quality time with our immediate families. But when children come along, a new group is born; a new tribe. And this little tribe develops its own rules and culture, including the role-division between the two partners.

Families as tribes

When an important member of the tribe leaves for a period of time, the whole tribe experiences a sense of loss. On the Circle of Mums forum there was a long thread about children acting out when one of their parents left for an extended time, putting an extra load of pressure on the one holding down the fort. Other children reacted by shutting out the travelling parent when they came home. A common way of dealing with this sense of loss is to (temporarily) fill up the absent person’s space. This ‘closing of the ranks’ has been described by some as an almost a purely energetic experience, like water flowing into an empty space to create a new equilibrium.
I myself I would close the ranks by putting my husband’s toiletries away in a drawer until he returned; out of sight, out of mind and therefore not so desperately missed. Consequently, when the traveller comes home, it takes time and effort to redirect the new tributary you’d created.

While the traveller may feel like the tribe is freezing them out, what’s really happening is that, energetically, your space needs to be inhabited by you again. Some of those staying home have more trouble giving up this ‘territory’ than others. When the visit home is already overshadowed by the next trip away, it is sometimes easier to just keep the barriers in place. It’s not nice, but it does need to be recognized as part of a coping mechanism that makes it easier for the one or the other to maintain self-sufficiency and independence.

How to stay connected in a thoughtful way

In my parents’ day the only way they could stay in touch was through snail mail. News was inevitably always weeks late, but at the same time, there was a sense that they could digest and enjoy the other’s experience at their leisure. Today, we are more used to having on-demand contact via our various technological gadgets. This brings up the issue of differing needs when it comes to maintaining contact; some would happily let days go by without getting in touch, whilst others feel the need to connect on a daily basis. There is no right or wrong, there’s just their way and your way, and that means finding a compromise. Communication becomes even harder when there are different time zones involved and conversations can end up being very predictable or one-sided, reinforcing the sense that the traveller is having all the fun, while back home it is ‘same old, same old’ except with added stresses.

Communication needs to be planned and negotiated, even though it may feel unromantic and lacking in spontaneity. Despite feeling lonely and wanting to connect, the travelling partner could help by showing respect for the daily routine back home and work around time zones, corporate dinners and meetings to ensure there is consistent communication at predictable times, rather than make the family fit around the travel.

But what the one who stays at home needs to remember is that the travelling partner, in most cases, is not abroad to party. They are probably feeling lonely, out of touch and yearning to be included and involved. They are there for their work, which in itself is providing for the tribe. My husband felt unseen in his role as the provider who sacrificed being at home to look after the material needs of his family. “All we want when we come home is an easy life, a quiet life… and then all hell breaks loose.” It made me sad to realize that my husband has felt unwelcome and that he needs to ’earn’ his place back into the tribe. Sure, maybe he’s not a hunter dragging a reindeer off the plane from Arlanda with which to nourish his family, but his travels were part of his care-taking role and a little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.

Step into their shoes

So maybe the second day blues are part and parcel of any couples life where one of the partners travels on a regular basis. But if each half of the couple can be encouraged to see the other and show respect for their contribution, we may have a less infected reunion. Perhaps each one of us needs to show a little humility and restraint in believing we had the tougher part of the deal.  And also, not to turn healthy group dynamics and group behaviour into anything other than what it is… a group responding to change and adapting and adjusting in its own way, in its own time.

So yes, despite her telling you on the phone about just having had a 1500 euro a head dinner with champagne and eight courses while you are sitting there nursing a baby with a 40 degree fever, remember: it was part of her job, which is ultimately benefiting the tribe. And for the home-comer, remember it may not be smart to immediately try and ingratiate yourself in the child rearing by commenting on why Junior doesn’t eat his peas. You weren’t there when he had gastroenteritis and puked a whole can of peas all over your partner… hold off on the advice, however well intentioned and wait for the subtle cues that show you are welcomed back into the tribal energy.

Understanding the way both sides feel is a huge step towards making the second day blues less painful. And, when all else fails, why not apply the ingenious tactic employed by one of my young friends: meet up with your travelling partner for a few days before they’re due home while grandma looks after the children. That way you have a chance to reconnect, share stories, relax, rekindle and come home as a team.

Now I wish I thought of that when mine was growing up.

Lysanne is the mental health contributor to Your Living City where this article first appeared.

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