Families Overcome Long Distances

Families Overcome Long Distances

Between 14 and 15 million individuals in the U.S. are in a long distance relationship according to the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships. The latest data, from the 2005 census, suggested that more than 3.5 million of those were married but living apart for reasons other than marital discord.

FAMILY TABLE Senior Sarah Startz's family was separated twice because of her dad's job. Despite the sacrifice it has been, Sarah's mom says that her daughter's continued Hockaday education was worth it. PHOTO BY AUDREY KIM
FAMILY TABLE Senior Sarah Startz’s family was separated twice because of her dad’s job. Despite the sacrifice it has been, Sarah’s mom says that her daughter’s continued Hockaday education was worth it. PHOTO BY AUDREY KIM

These 3.5 million comprise 2.9 percent of all U.S. marriages. This percentage represents a 30 percent increase from the rate of long-dis­tance marriages in 2000. Given the economic downturn that began in Dec. 2007, the numbers have likely continued to grow.

These numbers include many Hockaday parents. Parents who are now in commuter marriages.

Two Times Each Way

Denise and Leroy Startz, par­ents of senior Sarah Startz, have experienced a commuter relation­ship–twice. Leroy took a job in Iowa in 2006, halfway through Sarah’s fifth grade year at Hockaday. At the end of the school year, Sarah and her moth­er followed him there, selling their house in Dallas and buying one in a public school district in Iowa that looked the strongest, since there were no private schools near her father’s job. In 2008, at the end of Sar­ah’s sixth grade year, Sarah and Denise moved back to Dallas. That marked the beginning of a commuter rela­tionship with Le­roy that lasted more than three years.

This was the second time her family had done this. When Sarah was very young, Leroy moved from Illinois to Texas. Sarah and Denise followed him as soon as they sold their house in Chicago, less than a year later.

“As jobs go, you’ve got to go where the job goes, and it pulled me from here to Iowa,” Leroy said. “Working for a company like John Deere–it was a pretty stable company, pretty big com­pany, all the signs lined up that that’s where we needed to be.”

However, in 2007, the financial crisis caused John Deere to restruc­ture, and it became unclear to the Startz family how stable Leroy’s job was. The Startz’s wanted stability and the best education possible for Sarah. Though Iowa public schools rank in the top five in the country, Hockaday challenged Sarah more, and Denise said, they did not like feeling that she was “backsliding.”

“We decided to make the sacrifice, both financially and distance wise renting an apartment here for Sarah and Denise,” Leroy said.

A Different Reason

REUNITED Senior Alexandra Villareal and her brother Nicholas visit their dad Andy in New York. PHOTO BY BOBBIE VILLAREAL
REUNITED Senior Alexandra Villareal and her brother Nicholas visit their dad Andy in New York. PHOTO BY BOBBIE VILLAREAL

Bobbie and Andy Villareal, par­ents of senior Alexandra Villareal, made the decision to have a commut­er marriage for different reasons. In Oct. 2009, Citigroup, the company for which Andy works, approached him with an opportunity for a promotion that required him to move to New York City. His family, including then eighth-grader Alexandra and then fourth-grader Nicholas, was fairly in­terested in moving with him.

“By the time they actually made the arrangements and got the papers done for the move, it was March. We really didn’t know enough about it to decide where we wanted to live,” Andy said. Rather than rushing into a de­cision, the Villareals decided to wait, and Andy began to commute.

For the first two and a half years, Andy spent weekdays in New York; he flew out of Dallas on Sunday and re­turned on Thursday or Friday. Then, in January 2012, he received a promo­tion that has allowed him to work about half of the month in Dallas, usually alternating weeks between the two cities.

Financial and career concerns are often the driving factors for deciding to accept job opportunities in other cities. “I’ve really been able to accelerate my career a little bit since I’ve been here [in New York],” Andy said. “Realistically, I knew that I had to move my ca­reer forward in order to be able to provide financially.”

But for the Startz’s the deci­sion was based more on stabil­ity and education quality.

Initial Adjustment

Both families reported that a routine is often established once they adjust to the change, but it can easily be thrown off by having the commuting par­ent home.

“I wanted my dad back, but now our whole routine is a complete disaster,” Sarah said.

Bobbie, who considers her­self “a strict rule follower,” had to give their nanny more con­trol and had to give her children more responsibilities. Some­times, the nanny would leave before she could be home from work, for example.

“I would never have left my children by themselves six months before [Andy began commuting], but I realized that they had to be home by them­selves,” she said.

Communication

Communication is an im­portant part of a commuter re­lationship. Andy said that while he calls his family often, he avoids being overly connected to them.

“I actually think that the people who struggle the most with a long distance relationship are the ones that are al­ways calling at night or skyping at night or re­ally trying to stay overly connected,” he said. “It’s almost the exact oppo­site of what you’d expect; they don’t feel the pang of you not being there, and you don’t feel the pang of not being there. You’re not constantly re­minded of it every day.”

There are still times, however, that he is re­minded of his absence.

“We’ve always re­ally made an effort to put the whole family together for dinner, so when I call them or reach out to them dur­ing that time, I realize I’m missing that,” he said.

Other than day-to-day com­munication, Sarah said there was one thing that made deal­ing with her father’s absence easier.

“The best thing was that he would go on trips and he would find souvenirs,” Sarah said. “We would go to the P.O. Box, and it was always the best when there was a little key—that meant you had a big box. It was like T-shirts and postcards and all this ran­dom stuff.”

Many other factors have a role in how well families make commuting work. The parent at home may have more stress­es dealing with daily life, but the commuting parent must make an effort to make life work in different ways. Andy suggests that the commuter parent must be committed to being a part of life at home when they are there.

“You’ve got to re­ally come back and focus your energy mentally and really make them realize how important they are to you when you’re in town, and you’ve got to be ac­tive,” he said. “You’ve got to participate in putting up the tree, decorating the house for Halloween and those things.”

Andy also suggested that it is easier if a life can be built in both cities. He has developed new friendships in New York, which contribute to the cre­ation of a life there.

Changed for Good

But not all commuter mar­riages work. Junior MaryFran­ces Dagher’s father began trav­elling to Ghana when she was eight-years-old, often spend­ing a month or two away from home. His mining and resource trading business was in both the U.S. and Ghana, but as it be­came clear the market was bet­ter in Ghana, he began working there more exclusively.

“[My relationship with my dad] was pretty normal in the beginning,” MaryFrances said. “I have friends whose parents travelled, so I didn’t think any­thing strange of it until it start­ed being longer periods of time.”

In 2011, however, her par­ents filed for divorce. The pro­cess is ongoing. MaryFrances also has not seen her father since that time.

“I loved having my dad at home. I didn’t have any rela­tionship issues with him until recently,” she said. “It was hard for me having him away.”

Overall, she said, his trav­elling probably did contrib­ute to the problems in her relationship with her father. However, she believes the ex­perience has been a good op­portunity to learn from some­one else’s mistakes.

In contrast, Andy believes his commuting has had a more positive effect on his family than he anticipated.

“I thought that it would be hard for them to have me gone, and in a way what it has really done is it’s made me closer to both my kids,” he said. “As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.”

Andy recognizes that this structure only works for some families.

“I do see examples of where it works pretty well, and I’ve seen others where you can just tell that the family is not happy with it, and the person who travels is not happy with it,” he said.

Andy believes that the ac­ceptance of commuter relation­ships within companies is on the rise.

“I think it’s great,” he said, “and I think it’s going to be in­teresting to see how companies adapt to it and how families be­gin to adapt to it.”

Life for the Startz’s has changed now that Leroy no longer commutes from Iowa, though he still travels a sig­nificant amount. For the Villa­reals, the commuting life still feels normal.

“I don’t have the same, tra­ditional house or home life, but I feel like I do,” Bobbie said. “I’ve been married to the same man for 20 years, we both are very active in our kids’ lives, we talk every day, we sit down for breakfast every morning, we sit down for dinner every night.”

Sarah is also comfortable with her family’s commuter re­lationship.

“It’s never something you would choose for your family, but if that’s how it works out, then you make it work, and there’s something to be gained from it,” she said. “I would never change my family story.”

– Emily Wechsler