Can You Really Parent Long Distance?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Each week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and their savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about the distance many moms and dads have to overcome in order to parent. Some live far from their kids because of work, school, military service or custody arrangements. And that means you have to deal with some hands on challenges like potty training, discipline, even homework over the phone or online. It also means missing out on many of the rewards of parenthood like watching those first steps, reading bedtime stories, getting hugs at the end of a long day.
We wanted to hear more about the challenges of long-distance parenting and how to overcome them. We're joined by three guests who have been there, some of them still are there. Corey Dade - contributing editor for TheRoot.com, divorced dad of one daughter. Owen Kibenge is a freelance journalist from Uganda and dad of one. He was away from his son while he attended graduate school in the U.S. And Stacy Keyte is an outreach coordinator for Grace After Fire. An organization that helps women veterans. She deployed to Iraq as a member of the Texas Army National Guard, and she's a mom of two. Welcome to all of you.
OWEN KIBENGE: Thank you very much.
COREY DADE: Thank you, Celeste.
STACY KEYTE: Thank you for having us.
HEADLEE: So, Stacy, as I mentioned, you deployed in 2005 and you had just become a first-time mom, right? How old was your son when you deployed?
KEYTE: He was 15 months old.
HEADLEE: So what's - coming away from it now - it's been a number of years - what's the one thing you remember as the hardest part?
KEYTE: The hardest part of my deployment I think was to be away from him for so long and to come back and see all of the changes in him that had occurred while I was gone. For me, time had been put on pause, but, of course, for everyone else, you know, time had continued to move forward and it was hard to get it off of that pause button.
HEADLEE: And you described a moment in a restaurant with your mother right? What happened there?
KEYTE: Yes. There are basic things as a mom that, you know, we should know about our children. And at this particular instance, we had gone to eat and a simple question of whether they needed a high chair or a booster seat - it left me dumbfounded. I was completely blank and I didn't know how to respond and his grandmother stepped in to answer the question for me.
HEADLEE: So, Corey, your daughter lives in Atlanta. And you moved to D.C. just as you were separating from your ex-wife, right?
HEADLEE: So how difficult was that decision to not only go through a divorce, but to move hundreds of miles away from your daughter?
DADE: It was very difficult. I think any parent who is not putting their child first, has to do some amount of rationalization to get through it, at least in those early moments. For me, it was a professional opportunity - a career opportunity that I could not get in Atlanta.
And the lesson - not so much the lesson, but what I had to tell my daughter was that, you know, this helps us as a family, this helps you, this helps me to continue to support you. And what I've tried to do is tie the benefits that she has from my income to how - you know, to what works for her, whether it's clothes, whether it's, you know, piano lessons, etc. So she feels like she has an active role to play in the job that daddy is doing.
HEADLEE: How old was she when you moved away?
DADE: She was 6, and she's 9 now.
HEADLEE: So have there been moments when she said, dad, I'd rather not have the piano lessons, I'd rather have you here?
DADE: Not literally rather not have the piano lessons or any of the presents, of course, but, yeah, that is an ongoing conversation - her expressing, you know, frustration and at times anger about me being away. So it's something that I have to be patient with, continuously patient. And to never disengage. I mean, that's the challenge - to find ways to make our interaction as regular as it once was. And, for me, it was a stark contrast going to being a long-distance parent because I was the custodial parent.
DADE: I, you know, woke my daughter up, I did her hair, I fixed her breakfast, fixed her lunch, took her to school every day. So it has been an enormous adjustment.
HEADLEE: All right, so, Owen, you were like Stacy - you were thousands of miles away from your son. How old was he when you came to the U.S. to study?
KIBENGE: Well, we came with him the first time for my first graduate degree and he was 2 years old. But then the circumstances forced us to separate - my wife had to go back home. And she took with him - the boy - when I started my second graduate degree because she could not work and she couldn't do anything because of the laws of the country here. So he was 4 years old when I last - when he went and stayed away from me for a while. So...
HEADLEE: How did he handle that? Did he - number one - did he understand why you were gone, where you were, when you were coming back? Did he understand any of that?
KIBENGE: It was a little difficult because the first couple of years I was with him. I left in the morning and then went to class. Sometimes he can along to class and visited me and talked to my friends. When my wife was sick, I had the classroom - my other classmates - helping me babysit this kid while I'm hopping from one class to another.
And then suddenly he goes to another country and he does not see me for 18 months. And that was tough because, I mean, I would speak to him on the phone, but then I would not feel that I'm getting to know him or understand what his issues were at that time. And I recall a particularly symbolic moment when my wife told me that he can't use the bathroom correctly. He cannot aim. And he's...
HEADLEE: And she says I'm a female, I'm out of my league?
KIBENGE: Yeah. What went through my head at that point was, well, I can't even call upon a friend to come and show him how to do it. I cannot expect my wife to know how to do it. And I'm like, OK, now how am I going to work this out? So that, for me, was symbolic in the sense that it said to me, dude, you have to be around this boy because it's not just this, but it's several other issues.
You are the lens through which he sees the world, that he understands the world, and without those lenses he's lost. He doesn't get it, he doesn't know what to do. He can't even lift the toilet seat, let alone aim incorrectly. I have to be there to show him how to do that. So, for me, that was a symbolic moment.
HEADLEE: Stacy, I mean, I understand that - I mean, were you at least able to talk to your kid while you were away? See - I mean, I don't know how much he was talking about point - but see your kid? Did you Skype?
KEYTE: I didn't have the Skype capabilities where I was. I did get to do a video teleconference. And when my family traveled to a base I got to see them during the holidays on that. And I got to use the phone a lot to call home, so that helped.
HEADLEE: But your child wasn't talking yet, right?
KEYTE: Not to where we could actually hold a conversation. I could get him on the phone for a few minutes and then, you know, he was off playing and doing whatever was going on around him he was involved with.
HEADLEE: I wonder, Stacy, whether it was made worse or better by family and friends. In other words, was there an element of guilt that got introduced by other people that a mom should be with their kid?
KEYTE: Absolutely not. My family was very supportive and they made it a lot easier for him and for myself. His grandmother was really great about taking pictures and videos and mailing me a CD so that I could open them up on my laptop that I had. So I wouldn't say that there were any negatives that came from my family or anyone else.
HEADLEE: Well, at least that. If you're just joining us, we're talking about parenting long-distance with mom Stacy Keyte, who you just heard. Also dads Owen Kibenge and Corey Dade. Let me send that to you guys - Corey, did anybody feel like, wow, this shouldn't be that big of a deal, you're a dad - like it's - you know, dads aren't always around and with their kids?
DADE: Well, you know, it's interesting. People I would meet, when a conversation gets to the fact that I have a child and the fact that, you know, I'm long distance from the child, I think because I am the father - because I'm the male - I think many people just kind of wrote it off - oh, OK, I understand. You know, like it's - it's almost like they're implicitly saying it's OK. In my head, I'm like, no, no, it's not OK - like, I'm not cool with it at all.
You know, I was raised in the so-called nuclear family. My father and mother were married and they raised the three of us in the same household. So I'm used to having both parents there. And that was my expectation too, as a parent. I think that what counteracts that is having, to Stacy's point, having other family - in this case, my daughter's grandmother and her mother - who reinforce my relationship with her, my relationship with my daughter.
So they backstop, they make sure that, you know, they're encouraging her to make sure that, you know, when something fun or whatever happens, she's calling me. But also I'm in on the discipline side too. When, you know, I am the - you know, I'm often the trump card when she may not be doing what she's supposed to do. You know...
HEADLEE: We're going to call dad.
DADE: OK, we're going to have to call daddy.
HEADLEE: Yeah, right.
DADE: And then, you know, the behavior changes suddenly.
HEADLEE: Or the waterworks begin. Owen, what about you? I mean, what would you say for somebody who is in this situation? You're no longer away from your boy now.
KIBENGE: Yes, I'm no longer away from him, but then it changed. Then my wife went to graduate school.
HEADLEE: So your wife then became the long-distance parent.
KIBENGE: She was in New York, I was in Washington. So...
HEADLEE: What did you learn from your time as the long-distance parent that helped you make it easier for her?
KIBENGE: It was the most stressful moment for me because I had to make the switch. One from putting down my entire career to support my wife pursue her education and probably her career. But then now start making doctor's appointments, start preparing him for bed, making dinner for him - I mean, all of that process. I recall a particular day when I brought him back from school and then I made him dinner, we played with his toy cars, I read him a book, I took him to a shower - I mean, I had him have a bubble bath. We kind of led it well, I thought I had done everything that is supposed to be done by any parent, there's no need for mom here.
And then when we're going to bed, the boy is like - I want mommy. And I'm like, wait a second, why would you want your mother when I've done everything that your mother would probably have done for you? And the next day, the same story. And the next, the same story. So Friday, I'm like, well, you know what? I need to go on the bus. I get on to Megabus and there we go into New York City. And I'm like, the boy wants to see you. And he's - hi, mom. And that's it. But then it made me discover that...
HEADLEE: And he was done after hi, mom - and then, OK, let's go home.
KIBENGE: He was done.
DADE: Yeah. That's fine.
KIBENGE: But for me, that showed me that there's certain emotional needs I cannot fulfill for him. There's that absence of it. There's nothing I can do about it. And I just don't know what it is to this day. And I'm like, even if there's no extended family that I had to rely on or a sister or an aunt, it seemed that even the female figures around him just could not meet that need for him.
So, for me, that left me puzzled. I was like, well, I can't fulfill that emotional need, it's probably his mother that can do it. And then when I walked in to see whether he was going to be spoiled, you know, (unintelligible), it didn't happen. He said hi, mom, and then he's off, you know.
HEADLEE: So, Stacy, what's your response to that anecdote from Owen? I wonder if there was a bond that you had to catch up on or didn't get created while you were deployed and your child was so very little.
KEYTE: He was little and there are differences, you know, depending on what their age is. And I was the one that, you know, I took my son to daycare every day. I picked him up. You know, we would always dance around, listen together - you know, I'd play country music and we'd dance around the room to just kind of decompress from our day together. When I would pick him up before I left, it was always such a big show of, you know, run to mommy, the hugs, the kisses.
And when you come back, for me, I was gone almost 16 months, and he had changed so much. And, you know, he had literally doubled his age from when I had left. And it was working on trying to get that bond back. He was at such a young age, he didn't understand why mommy had to leave, why I was gone for so long. And, for us, it was just trying to relearn each other again with the ways that we had changed while we were gone from each other.
HEADLEE: Well, let's - in the time that we have left - let's get to some practical advice 'cause I'm sure there's perhaps millions of parents all around the world who are in this situation for one reason or another. So, Corey, let me get from you your best advice for either a mom or dad in this situation?
DADE: I think the best advice for starters is be on the same page with your child's other parent about engagement. So whether it's rules as far as discipline are concerned, etc. And making sure that you insert yourself, even when the child may not say so - depends on the age of course - you know, the child may not be saying I want daddy or I want mommy, but you have to basically insert yourself and find creative ways to stay engaged.
For my child who was 6 or 7 years old, you know, she wasn't hopping on the phone on a regular basis to talk to daddy, so I had to make that happen. I had to make it more interactive. So doing FaceTime or Skype. We also started doing pen pals because she loves to write. So it's a way that we had this intimate communication. But I think finding creative ways to stay engaged with your child, even when they might not be asking for it.
HEADLEE: Owen, your best advice?
KIBENGE: Well, for - my example is a little strange because we come from a different disciplinary culture.
HEADLEE: You mean in Uganda.
KIBENGE: In Uganda. And then we have the American culture where it's timeout. In Uganda, it's either leveling an anthill or felling a hardwood tree as a punishment or even being caned, you know, being spanked, you know, something like that. Here it's a totally different matter, where you have to give the child a timeout. But then we also had to set different disciplinary parameters, but at the end of it, we have now combined because my wife was studying early childhood and special needs education.
So she brought in her educational part and I also brought in my exposure here. And in terms of discipline, we have agreed that - what do we need to do is to have him to negotiate and explain whichever decision he takes. He has consequences - there are consequences for his actions. And as parents we need to reinforce that because we want him to be able to negotiate with institutions once he gets out into the world. And he has to learn that from us.
We say if you're not - you're going to the doctor tomorrow - why am I going to the doctor? To get a shot. Why am I getting a shot? Because we don't want you to get sick. Why would I get sick? So we have to explain all that. And when he has disciplinary issues we tell him, you know what, you're not going to have this because you have done X. They are consequences for your actions. But all this has - we found this is the beauty that we've - this is the only thing that we've taken out of being apart for a while...
KIBENGE: We have combined different cultures and different learning and different atmospheres to have a hybrid form of discipline. So it has kind of worked out for us.
HEADLEE: All right, Stacy, we have about a minute left, but would you have advice for others in this situation?
KEYTE: I do. Some of the things that we've utilized are we do the voice recordings inside of stuffed animals. We have countdown jars that we've used for more recent deployments so that they have a visual of how much time it is until they see their parent again. As my son's aged, it's open communication and talking about them and what they're feeling.
And most importantly was maintaining a structure, you know, where they have a certain time that they get up, they go to bed. The structure really helps them in times of changes like that.
HEADLEE: Stacy Keyte, a former member of the Texas Army National Guard, mom of two. She joined us from Dallas. Owen Kibenge is a freelance journalist from Uganda and dad of one. And Corey Dade is contributing editor for TheRoot.com, dad of one as well. Both of them joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks to all three of you.
DADE: Thank you.
KIBENGE: Thanks, Celeste, for hosting us.
KEYTE: Thank you.
HEADLEE: That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.