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Long-Distance Commuting as a Momma

Here’s what I have learned so far.

January 7, 2019
 
 

A la Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, I will simply tell you that it is hard commuting across states! Add a spouse and a couple of children, it is even harder. Add a new job at the executive level, you can raise the order of magnitude by a few more exponents. Physically and mentally, it is trying, though very rewarding, at the same time. The people who bear the brunt of it are those who love us the most and are willing to sacrifice for us.

I began my tenure as president of Greenfield Community College in August of 2018. Greenfield is six hours from the New Jersey city where my husband and two kids live, and about two hours from Boston where we have friends and family. Growing up, I had spent time living in Haiti with my grandmother and siblings while my parents were in the U.S. So, going into the long-distance commuting this year, I figured that it wouldn’t be as hard. No visas needed. It’s ephemeral. I can always drive, fly, or take the train home. Plus, we have technology to help bridge the distance. This will be easier than it was when I was a kid, I thought.

The plan was for me to come down to New Jersey every two weeks while hubby held the fort down until the end of the academic school year. Traveling with two kids and a dog means stops along the way, extending the drive. It made more sense for me to drive down. That was the plan! We know what they say about best laid plans…

The Kids Are Alright

As I write this at the six-month mark, I can say that I made it to four of our son’s soccer games. Two games a weekend helped. Luckily, his team won all of them. I was able to witness how he had grown as a soccer player. He has been playing since he was five, but this year, he came into his own and it was special to witness that. The boy is also beginning to form his identity as a pre-teen. A few days ago, he asked me for clothes. He has never cared about clothes until now. So, I put a call out for some hand-me-downs for a growing 12-year-old.

With our daughter, it was more of a mixed bag. I missed her first violin concert. I missed all of her gymnastics meets and her first show. I got to watch the videos and shared with her how proud I was of her. Our daughter, her dolls, and I did make one tea time with her New Jersey adopted grandma. Despite the distance, our daughter and I got closer this year as we got to spend lots of time chatting on the phone. Our big breakthrough was that I learned to accept the puppy she loves so much and calls her sister. (I insist on “adopted sister,” as I did not give birth to a dog). Coming from a culture where animals have a utilitarian function, rather than an emotional one, my daughter has taught me to embrace the dog as a member of our family. (Maybe “embrace” is a little strong here, we’ll settle for accept).

Commuter Lessons

First, it’s helped to have landed in a new community, a new home in Massachusetts where it’s nearly impossible not to love everything about the area. The beautiful, idyllic rural landscape, the rivers and lakes that run through the Pioneer Valley, and the mountains that surround the Valley make living there almost fantasy-like. It’s akin to inserting oneself in a postcard. Almost surreal! The people are the icing on the cake, within and outside of the College.

If you are contemplating commuting, the new environment can help assuage the challenging downsides. Below are some of what I have learned thus far from commuting half a year:

  1. It is harder than you think. I also think that it is harder if you are moving into an executive role, as those tend to be more solitary.

  1. #1 is made harder if you don’t have your spouse/confidant to bore to sleep with your unloading, especially at the end of a challenging day. It’s just not the same by phone.

  1. Air travel is tricky and too rigid in the unpredictable first year of a college president’s life. Same is true with train travel. Driving is my very tiring solution.

  1. The travel takes a mental, physical, and logistical toll. I do fall behind on emails as I try to maximize time with my family, and consequently spend the next two weeks trying to catch up.

  1. The sad reality is that you end up going home on fewer occasions than planned and the distance between visits is hard. (I learned that I am softer on the inside than I thought).

  1. Yes, get your spouse and the kids those iPhones! FaceTime has become my favorite tech companion. I can take my children to work with me any time and get to see what they are up to also.

  1. Christmas comes at every visit. I had to learn to put aside my obsession with not promoting a consumerist culture at home and cave into buying a few new dolls for my daughter over the course of the first semester.

  1. I saw my kids and heard their voices everywhere. I even missed my daughter criticizing me!

  1. I carry the mama guilt, even though hubby has almost always been the parent-in-charge. I worry about people seeing how many days she has gone without her hair being washed and braided because hubby has so much on his plate.

The Upsides:

I guess it depends on how you define upsides. For me, these are the upsides

  1. You can work around the clock with less guilt of missing out on things. (The guilt comes in a big rush). The first year of the presidency is all-consuming. In some ways, being alone is a blessing in disguise.

  1. I was lucky to have met some women who immediately welcomed me into their sister circles, some of whom had walked in my shoes and all offered support.

  1. I embarked on a mission to earn my diving certification and am doing the hard part while my family is not here yet. My husband, son, and I will all get our certification this year. I carved out time to do two fun things for myself this year and this is one.

  1. Our kids learned to become more responsible at home. They care for the dog and do their part of the chores.

  1. Hubby learned to accept help from the kids and from nearby neighbors and friends.

Transitions and change are never easy, especially with a family. I cannot imagine how military and other families that move frequently do it. While moving and starting over bring their own challenges around stability, friendships, schools, etc., we hope that our children will be more resilient in the long-run.

Yves Salomon-Fernández is President of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She writes about women’s issues for Inside Higher Ed’s University of Venus from the perspective of a Generation Xer, a mom, and leader of color. Her Twitter handle is @PrezYves

 

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