By BRIGITTE ROZARIO
Distance parenting is usually the last option for parents when they can't find a babysitter or someone nearby to help take care of their child while they go to work.
This is when they feel they have no other option but to send their child to live with family in another town or even a babysitter whom they trust but lives far away.
In such situations, the parents would see their kids on weekends or only on a monthly basis.
Family life educator Charis Patrick says that in such cases, parents need to be intentional in their parenting.
This basically means making an effort to communicate with the child regularly. The communication needs to be at a fixed time at regular intervals – perhaps daily phone calls every evening. It has to be persistent and consistent in order to build an intimate relationship with the child.
“Because you are separated by distance, you cannot leave things to chance. You need to be even more intentional so that it will bring about consistency and predictability. Once we have this in place, it's almost an anchor or a foundation in the relationship,” says Patrick.
According to her, when you are intentional, then the communication becomes consistent and predictable. It then becomes a priority and both the parent and child know this.
“At the end of the day, whether there is distance between you and your child or not, you are building a parent-child relationship which has to be strong and hopefully deep, which means intimate,” she adds.
By intimate, she means a relationship where the parent and child know each other well and accept each other for who and what they are.
Although parents will not be able to touch and hug their child during these regular connection times, they can still focus on talking and even seeing them (if they make a video call). As for connecting with the child through touch, this is something that will have to wait till they see the child in person at the next visit.
Using distance to your advantage
Patrick says parents can, in fact, use the distance to their advantage.
“Because of the distance you start to take each other less for granted, and it can actually work to your advantage.
“I think one good thing about distance relationships is that because you don't live together you get to connect with your child on a more positive front. Sometimes, if you're together all the time you will get on each other's nerves. So, try to connect with them in a positive way; don't nag them over the phone. Be the encourager; be there to empathise with them during exam time. So, you get to play the good guy. It's really nice. When you stay with them, you have to make sure the work is done. When you're away, you don't really have to. So, play it to your advantage,” advises Patrick.
She says that parents should reinforce the connection time with positive memories and vibes so that the child will look forward to receiving these calls.
What to talk about?
What can parents talk about when they do call?
Firstly, Patrick recommends parents doing their homework – find out from the primary caregiver what happened in the child's life over the past few days. This includes incidents in school or at home that made them happy or upset.
This way, when the parent calls up they can mention these incidents and either get more information or advice the child. By doing so, the child will know that although their parent is not with them 24/7, they are still in the know of what's going on in their life and that the parent cares.
Patrick also encourages parents to express their love for their child during these daily calls. She reminds parents not to call out of obligation because the child will be able to sense if you're not sincere in wanting to talk to them.
Parents could also share what's going on in their own lives. Don't leave out details, as long as it's something that makes them feel like they are still part of the family. Tell them about things that you saw or heard that made you think of them.
Another way to connect is to send little gifts that make the child know that the parent is thinking of him or her. It could be small but thoughtful gifts that remind the child that the parent knows what he or she really needs/wants.
“You can also come back when you can and be there for the important events in your child's life. You can work out with your child which events like sports day or canteen day is important to them.
“If the child can articulate and tell you that they wish you could be there, then I think that by hook or by crook, you have to be there.
“You have to pick and choose so that you don't have to do those things which are not needed and you stick to those that are really essential,” says Patrick.
Naturally, with infants the communication will be a bit tougher as they can't talk. If possible, get the primary caregiver to agree to video calls so that parent and baby can see each other. Parents may also spend the time reading to their infants or telling them stories.
If video calls are out of the question, then a phone call will have to do. The baby can still listen to the parent's voice and the primary caregiver can then tell them that is mummy or daddy.
“If the guardian or grandparent is diligent enough and you really want to make it work, I would suggest being intentional in sending photos, talk to the baby about the absent daddy or mummy and let the baby hear the parent's voice.
“It's fine if you probably can't make a video call to your baby, but go back to the two factors – predictable and intentional and it becomes a commitment. Just call for five minutes and talk to the baby. Don't think that the baby doesn't understand; the baby can recognise your voice. And the guardian or grandparent can tell the infant, 'That's your daddy (or mummy).'
“Even with infants that predictability can be most powerful.
“I would think the most lacking for infants is touch because for infants the key communication tool and the transfer of love is through touch.
“Just do the best you can and when you know that you're doing your best you won't allow guilt to come in to play with your emotions, because when you feel guilty you get out of sorts. Then the fear is that you overcompensate,” she says.
Patrick admits that you need a caregiver who is cooperative and committed to make effective distance parenting work, though.
If all you have is a babysitter or parents who are struggling to help you, then just ensure that the child's basic needs are cared for. That is the best that you can hope for.
Some parents don't want to call their child daily for fear of having to hear their child crying on the other end. Patrick says that although initially this might happen when it's time to end the call, it does get better.
“It's a little bit like when you send your child to kindergarten for the first three days. There will be separation anxiety and things like that but you realise it's a process. Maybe the first week it's difficult because it's even more heartwrenching. If you don't call, at least you don't hear your child cry.
“But we are talking about establishing a routine. If you give it time and you are persistent and consistent and you push through the comfort zone, I give you a maximum of one month. Give it one month and if you have put in enough concerted effort, the child will get used to this new routine and you yourself will get used to it.
“If you do it for 30 days and still find that your child is crying, then it is a call for concern. Then maybe you have to re-evaluate if you really need to be separated from your child.
“I think if you are committed to this and stick to it and establish it as a routine then it becomes a very healthy habit, both for the parent and the child,” advises Patrick.
Question of authority
Often when the primary caregiver is not the parent, there is the question of authority – who should the child listen to? Sometimes, parents and caregiver end up in a deadlock as both are determined that they know what's best for the child.
If the primary caregiver is the child's grandparent and your child is staying in their home, then it might be a bit tougher as it can get territorial.
“If the child is a bit older, then I would suggest bringing the child to your room the moment you go back to your parents' house. Straight away you define the boundaries there and then; create your own territory. It's very effective.
“When you talk to them, say something like, 'I'm back. I know all this while I asked you to listen to grandpa and grandma. We will still respect them but there are certain things that I, as your father / mother, do differently and I want you to listen to me. When I'm around, what I say, goes.'
“When you bring them in to a room and talk to them, you are establishing boundaries and you are telling them that you are their parent.
“Children submit to authority. They only become unruly when nobody wants to take authority. Once you establish that and you follow through, that means when you give instructions, you make sure they do it or face the consequences. When you do that, they can read your signals very fast and they will follow suit,” says Patrick.
If the grandparent undermines your authority, then you need to speak to him or her. Thank your parent or parent-in-law for helping you look after your child all this while. You could say something like:
“Thank you so much for helping me take care of the children. When they are with you, I have no say, they will listen to you, but now I'm back and I have already told them to do their homework first and that later they can watch TV. I want to go now and tell my children to finish their homework first - if you can please help me.”
Patrick warns parents against using words like “if you can respect me” when talking to their own parents or parents-in-law. Instead, ask them to help you as you are only back for a few days or a week.
She reminds parents that as their time with their child is short, politics and emotions should be played down. They should instead focus on maximising the time in connecting with their child in a meaningful way. This includes picking which battles to fight over with the primary caregiver.
Parents thinking of distance parenting must firstly know why they are doing it. The objective and the amount of time involved must be clear.
If the focus is clear – for example, only until the maid comes, or just for two years – then there is hopefully less guilt and anguish.
|Patrick: 'If you know the reasons, it will help you resolve a lot of guilt issues.'
“When you make a decision to be away from your child for a season of time, you need to be very clear. If you know the reasons – perhaps you need to provide for the family or upgrade your lifestyle or set a certain goal for you and the family – it will help you resolve a lot of guilt issues and you know it's only for a time period. It's tough to make this decision but it is for a certain goal. When you fulfil that goal, then the time is up and you resume the normal and regular parenting.
“At least you must know it's only for a fixed time frame. After that you can review it. Within that time frame, you will know if you should extend it or if you need to move your child back with you,” says Patrick.
She explains that it becomes difficult if the parent is half-hearted in distance parenting. Then, there will always be anguish and guilt and the parent will always be questioning why they have to be away from their child. If that is the case, then Patrick recommends reassessing the situation and finding other options so that parent and child need not be separated.
Patrick says parents shouldn't worry about losing their children – that the child will love the primary caregiver more - as long as they keep building the relationship with their child. They can do this by committing to spending time communicating with the child regularly.
“If you are gripped by fear that you will lose your child, it is an alarm to tell you that maybe it's time you did something about it. Maybe you are not intentional or maybe it's time for you to re-evaluate and see if you still need to be so far from your child.
When to bring the child back
Parents should take their child back as soon as they can and as soon as they want to. Sometimes for convenience, parents may not want to. So, it should be as soon as you can, as soon as you want to or as soon as the situation shows that you need to. It could be because the primary caregiver can no longer care for your child.
Patrick explains that in addition to being intentional, you need to want it. If you don't want it, there will be 101 excuses or reasons why you say you can't call daily. If you don't want it, then it cannot be done; but if you want it, it can be done.
“The day you make the decision to leave the family to go to work, the children need to understand that you're not abandoning them and that you're leaving for a greater good and only for a season of time. It's better if you are able to clearly express that rather than say 'it's because of you.' Then, they can understand it's not just for them but for the greater good of the family. Together, it's almost like a family mission.
“If you don't know what you want, you will be affected by things that others say. If you don't know what you want, then I think don't take the option of distance parenting because there is a price to pay. If you are not prepared, then you will really feel very hurt. I would think distance parenting is not for everyone. If you think it's not for you, then you just need to create other options,” advises Patrick.