I was introduced to the concept of separate lives more than fifteen years ago, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband, fresh out of graduate school, took a job as a consultant – in Paris. During the half year that I had left to finish my own degree, I stayed on in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an interesting, thankfully short time with a lot of transatlantic back-and-forth, lonely weekends, long letters and emails, even a marriage proposal (I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder). When I graduated and moved to France to join him, I was convinced that things would
improve dramatically. I didn’t suspect that this back-and-forth would become a
permanent feature of our common life.
His job meant that between Monday morning (usually at some ungodly hour) and Thursday evening (at an equally ungodly hour) he was out of town. I hated Monday mornings. I was lonely and I missed him. He was often overworked and tired from all the travel. At the end of his consulting stint of six years, I was, again, convinced that things would improve with the next job. But the next job ended up being in London, while our family was based in Vienna. That became a pattern: while my jobs were stable location-wise, his were not. Somehow it was never possible to have both work and family life in one location. Fifteen plus years and three kids later, our family qualifies for the title of cross-border commuting veterans. Managing our disjointed existence has become a habit; not one any of us is particularly fond of, but one which we have gotten good at.
It is not just our habit. My daily news feed on Facebook is strewn with postings from friends who are not where they are supposed to be – where their families live. Cross-border commuting is a fact of life. Sometimes it’s a good deal, sometimes a necessity. An opportunity may be so good that you are willing to tolerate the commute; or local jobs may be scarce. Often, working abroad is cheaper and simpler than moving your whole family: you don’t have to uproot them, disrupt your children’s education or take them away from extended family. It is less stressful to be able to devote yourself completely to your work during the week, when no one is waiting for you at home, and devote yourself completely to your loved ones on the weekend.
But it is also a demanding life – both for the commuter and for the ones that stay behind. If you are the commuter, your belongings are scattered across two places and a suitcase.
You are neither fully here nor there. You miss your family. You are often exhausted. If you are the “stationary” partner, most of the family responsibilities fall on your shoulders. Add to that a full-time job and career of your own, not to mention what happens when children are in the picture. You have to manage alone during the week and on the weekend you get what a good friend of mine called “a leftover spouse.”
Despite all the nice sayings about absence and its effects, this kind of lifestyle, especially when it is prolonged, can strain a relationship. Resentment and frustration can build up. People can grow apart. Your partner may resent the fact that you are not around when they need you; they may go up the wall when you come back and want to have a say on every decision (don’t they manage perfectly well when you are not around?); you may find being a “weekend parent” terribly frustrating. Sound familiar?
Have you lived the commuter life – on either end of it? Was it a good thing, a necessary evil or something you would rather never have to go through again?