“Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind blows out candles and fans fire.”
Our family spent the better part of the 2016 – 2017 school year apart.
The girls and I lived in Chicago while Stephen stayed at his parents’ house in the Milwaukee suburbs.
This was on purpose. Our long-distance living arrangement was planned and intentional.
In August 2016, Stephen started a new job at a company in the Milwaukee area. That summer, we had a choice to make. We could either make a fast decision – sell our condo and move to Milwaukee ASAP – or we could stay in Chicago and take our time with the sell, with the move.
We hashed out the pros and cons of both options and decided it made the most sense for the girls and I to stay in Chicago for another school year.
Not only did we love our home in Logan Square and our life in Chicago, but the girls attended an incredible magnet school and were thriving there. In Chicago, it’s challenging to get a spot at a coveted magnet school – gaining entrance is akin to winning the lottery. (Here’s my story on that).
We knew that once the girls left their school, there was no chance they could re-enroll. We wanted to be sure that his job was a good fit before we gave up their spots.
This is how we made the decision to live apart during the work week.
The year had its normal ups and downs, as years do. But at times, life overwhelmed me, it frustrated me, it plain exhausted me. There were days when I was so burnt out that I wanted to quit my job and just put my head down for a few days.
I’d take a long bath and then I’d put one foot in front of the other and march on toward June.
Here are the Ways I Kept on Keeping On
Recognize the Situation for What It Is. Yes, our family was not intact during the week, but on the weekends we were reunited. We were apart during most of the week – and that had its challenges – but this was a choice that we made, together. We decided upon and committed to an academic year apart. This was not forced on us, it was our choice and it was temporary. If living apart for a year was our greatest struggle, then really, I couldn’t complain. I was reminded to be grateful for what we had and to just do what needed to be done.
Focus on the Now: I’m a planner, but this year I focused more on what was right in front of me. One week, nay, one day at a time. If you asked me one week what I was up to the next, I probably couldn’t tell you. One week, one day at a time. Yes, most weeks Stephen was gone from Monday morning to Friday evening. But there were other weeks that he would surprise us with a mid-week visit. There were a dozen Fridays when he worked from home and a handful of week nights he was in town for an event at the girls’ school. We lapped up those extra times together.
Carve out Alone Time. I made plans for “me” time. Sometimes it was a Saturday morning coffee, other times it was a night out with girlfriends. This helped me from griping, I was alone a.l.l. week. Woe is me! I needed time alone, but so did he. I called this the re-entry – it’s when you both have needs and how do you decide whose gets dibs. I had to be intentional about remembering that although he had been away from us, he had also worked all week and needed to reset – and that may mean alone time for him.
Remember Wellness. Eat healthy. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Exercise. Drink less beer. Manage stress. These cornerstones to wellness fueled me. I aimed to take care of myself because if I ran on empty, then I was less of a mom, a wife, a teacher, a friend. Maintaining wellness on a day-to-day basis also kept me stocked for the times when life threw a wrench in the routine: Stella was out sick for three days and I couldn’t work, a team meeting ran into the lunch hour and I didn’t get the time pay bills or return personal emails, my workout was cut short because Veronica took the bus home instead of going to her after-school guitar lesson. Boy, did I have to scramble that afternoon to make sure she wasn’t alone at the bus stop in Logan Square. Life throws curveballs, but I found when I regularly took care of myself, I could handle them.
Be flexible. I tried to keep a steady course and stick to our routines and activities, but there were days I had nothing left in the tank and said #$%& it, we’re skipping gymnastics tonight. In February, the year started to grind – not only had the day-to-day load pressed down on me, but we also needed to get our condo ready to sell. My head was barely above water. That month the girls and I read less at bedtime and watched more episodes of Fixer Upper. All I could do to maintain sanity was to put my feet up and snuggle with my girls while watching Chip and Jo work their magic.
Focus on Family Fun. This was the easiest part. We spent most of our time on the weekends together, as a family. We leaned on modern conveniences – weekly Instacart allowed us to play a game on our deck or go for a bike ride instead of one of us schlepping to the grocery store while the other had fun. (Here’s how we prioritize fun and here’re our favorite games).
Set Up Date Nights. We needed to maintain our relationship. This meant pulling ourselves away from the girls and hiring a babysitter so we could go on a date or out with friends. We also checked in with each other on the phone most mornings. This made so the distance didn’t swallow us up.
Establish Priorities. I’ve shared before that I send Stephen a weekend report. This was especially important this year. I’d send it to him before the weekend to ask for his input. Then I’d update the list with his weekend wants and print two copies – a his and a hers. This “le week-end” doc helped us to make the weekends more about fun and connections versus errands and to-dos. When we set our wants and priorities before we reunited, it made for less quarrels on the weekends.
Get Up Early. As much as I wanted to slam the snooze button – I was really! tired – it was critical that I woke up before the girls. Thirty minutes of alone time was sufficient, but an hour or more was better. Being ready first was key. If I failed on this, it wasn’t a good scene. If I overslept, the morning started off key. Arguments broke out at bathroom sink if I was draining my sinuses with the Neti pot in the kitchen. It was best if this mama was supervising the girls as they put on their coats and shoes. (Here’s more on why I like to wake up before everyone else).
Organize the Morning. #1 was to be up first. #2 was the timer. It’s very taskmaster, but the timer was my bestie. There was 45 minutes from the time the girls got up to when we left home. It was very regimented, I admit. But within the timer, there was flow and ease. I woke the girls at 6:30. It usually took five minutes or so for them to arouse their sleepyheads. Then I’d set a timer from 6:35 – 6:50 for breakfast. When the timer beeped at 6:50 it was their signal to get dressed, fix their hair, brush their teeth, and make their beds. Then second timer when off at 7:10, which signaled our departure.
Be Organized Part Deux: The last bullet point only covered the morning. Organization. Organization. Organization. It made this year smoother. I was spread thin, so I needed to be as streamlined as possible. We prepared for the morning the night before. Stephen made a bunch of lunches on Sundays to get us through the first three days. I kept it together by having routines. I knew that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I could go to the gym because the girls had after-school activities. I paid bills on Fridays and typed up our weekend plans on Thursdays. I kept it simple by having only one or two to-do items per day. I think I saved my sanity with Post-It notes. (See how here).
Last year was a challenging one, but we made it through and we’re stronger and closer because of it.