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So, you’ve been solo parenting for a bit, and now your spouse is home. Life should immediately get better, right? Not so fast. My friends and I refer to this phase as re-entry, and it’s tough for everyone involved. As with everything in life, looking at things from everyone’s perspective can be helpful.
Parent at Home: I’ve done everything while my spouse was away. I made every peanut butter sandwich. I read every bedtime story. I wiped every little butt. Now, my partner in crime is here. Surely they’ll just pick up and jump back in to help, right?
Kids: AHHHHHHH!!! WE HAVENT SEEN YOU IN WEEKS! Will you help me build this plane with Legos? Will you play a game of Sleeping Queens? Look what I can do!
Traveling Parent: It’s so great to be home with my family after all that time away and that 14-hour flight. I just want to sit down on my couch, drink a glass of wine, and chill out for a bit.
After about five minutes of this group interacting, trouble starts. The kids have been refused their game of Sleeping Queens by Traveling Parent, who isn’t really sure what time of day it is and needs a minute of breath-catching time. One kid is throwing a tantrum about it, the other is jumping on the couch looking for attention. (Which he gets when both parents snap at him not to jump on the furniture). Traveling Parent makes some comment along the lines of “you didn’t let them start jumping on the couch while I was away, did you?” which makes Parent at Home a little ticked off.
The day goes along. Parent at Home has been waiting for days for help on a little project. It’ll only take a minute. When Traveling Parent is asked for help, though, a little argument ensues. Traveling Parent is exhausted, jet-lagged, and completely out-of-practice dealing with all the noise and mess that comes with a family. Parent at Home can’t understand why X-number of days away wasn’t enough time alone. Parent at Home would kill for a break and was kinda hoping to get it today.
It’s easy to see how all of this can breed resentment fast. Everyone feels unappreciated, overwhelmed, and ignored. Little incidents turn into arguments or tantrums. Playing a little game together or having sex can feel really forced as everyone gets reintroduced to each other.
If your spouse has been away for awhile and is rejoining the family soon, here are some tips for dealing with re-entry:
Let go of expectations
It’s really hard not to have an idea in our heads for how things are supposed to go. We pre-plan unplannable things and imagine joyful reunions before they happen. We romanticize our partners and our kids. Then re-entry happens and the reality doesn’t jive with our perfect fantasy.
A recent study at the University College of London found that happiness is less a result of how good or bad a situation is, but rather if it is better or worse than expected. The takeaway: try your best to experience your partner’s homecoming as it is without any ideas about the way it ‘should’ be.
Take a breath
Everyone is a bit on edge, and we can often get annoyed at things that we’d normally let go. We might snap at comments that we’d typically ignore. Do your best to take a breath and wait a beat before doing or saying something that makes the atmosphere in the room negative.
Try to see the situation from another’s perspective
As we did above, try your best to see the situation through the eyes of your loved ones. Remember, no one is right, no one is wrong, and everyone is entitled to his perspective on the situation.
Often as a mother, I think back to my theatre-training days. Whenever we did improv, we were taught to say ‘yes, and…’ This means that you enthusiastically took the information your partners on stage gave you to work with and then expanded on it. Someday, I might have to write about what an awesome metaphor for life this is, but for now I’ll just urge you to try to practice this when you’re dealing with re-entry.
Is it so hard to say yes to a 10-minute card game, a chance to take a quick nap, or a request to take care of a 5-minute chore? It may not be your first choice of activity, but for the people you love most in the world, couldn’t you take one for the team and say ‘yes’?
Make a ritual
Consider making an easy ritual that happens every time your family comes back together. Make sure it’s doable for everyone in the family. Maybe you make a giant bowl of popcorn and snuggle up to watch a Pixar film on the couch. Maybe you order a pizza or pull out a favorite meal from the freezer and eat it on paper plates. Maybe everyone piles in bed together for a game of 20 Questions.
Rituals not only give us something to look forward to while one parent is away, they also provide a script for how things will go once everyone is reunited. This helps everyone to both manage expectations and know what they will need to do when they are back together.
Let everyone have a few days to readjust
It’s tempting to want to jump right back into the life you were living the day your partner left. Realize, though, that in addition to the fact that everyone is a little worn out and on edge, schedules and ways of doing things at home might have drastically changed since you were all together last. Give everyone a few days to find the new normal.
A friend of mine who solo parents regularly has found that re-entry works best for them when Traveling Parent spends a few days being the ‘quality time with the kids’ parent while Parent at Home does more of the chores. This gives Parent at Home a break from constantly interacting with the littles while giving the Traveling Parent a little breath before jumping back into tasks and routines.
Another friend says they switch right away into pre-travel roles and routines, but they clear their schedule of anything out of the ordinary for a few days, knowing that things will take a bit of time to adjust.
With a little trial and error, your family will find a system that works for you. Remember as you find your footing that everyone (including the kids) needs a bit of recovery time from living apart.
There you have it—some ideas for making re-entry from solo parenting as smooth as possible. I hope that my suggestions are helpful for your family.