A will spend the months of February and March in Siberia. I am not kidding. For his job, he has to spend nine weeks (really from late January through the first week of April, if he’s lucky and his flight home isn’t postponed by days and days due to weather) in the middle of nowhere in the Russian far east.
This will suck for him. He’ll be living in a thing that sounds a lot like a semi truck container converted into a bunk room; he’ll be working 12-hour overnight shifts, and the temperature will be below zero almost all the time, probably as low as minus 70. Worst of all, nine weeks in the life of a toddler or preschooler is a long time, and there’s no way to get back what you miss. He’ll likely have access to a shared, text-only e-mail account, so we’ll be able to write (and I will, every day). But no photos, no video, and no way for him to kiss those little cheeks.
Those weeks aren’t going to be a piece of cake for me either, although I’m starting to feel a little guilty about the sympathy I’m getting from people I tell about it. Exhausting as two months on my own with the girls sounds, it’s nothing compared to actual, long-term, for-real single parenting. Still, I’m spending a lot of time these days anticipating his time away—fearing it.
If you have some experience with a traveling spouse, you know the period of separation isn’t the only hard time; the mountain of the time away casts shadows on both sides. A has been away somewhat frequently (though never on a trip this long or remote), so we know that the period just after he returns, while joyful, delivers its own special kind of unhappiness. We (and the kids) are unused to each other and have to readjust to being a family of four. He feels left out; I become even more bitter and petty than usual. We get over it, but we have to plan for some tough days on his return.
The shadow on this side—before the trip—is about preparation. We tie up loose ends, we keep from arguing even when we want to, and we pull away from each other a little. We worry about the time away, and we shore ourselves up.
Since November, boxes have been coming in the mail for A—hard core outdoor gear he’s ordered from specialized arctic travel companies in Canada. When they arrive, I carry them to the basement, not wanting to think about it too much. There are mittens the size of legs of lamb, a pair of steel-toed boots almost as heavy as Iris, a down coat that makes A look four times wider.
At first, carrying those packages down the stairs, I grumbled, Where’s my survival gear? I’ve figured out that my job right now is to assemble it: a membership at the Y, where there’s free babysitting, so I can work out a couple of times a week (plus, we can all go swimming in the fun kiddie pool). Friends who’ve offered help; lists of people I can call when I start to lose my shit. And (most expensively, most guilt-inducingly) we’ve signed up for an extra day per week of day care for both girls, beyond the two days I have to be at work. Partly, this is necessary so I can get done the work that I usually do at home during time that A’s hanging out with the girls. Partly, it’s a way of taking the pressure off of all of us; I’ll have more time to stay caught up on the business of life (pay 2008 taxes, keep dentist appointments, deal with unexpected household crises), and there won’t be such an unbearable backlog to deal with when he returns. Partly, I think that whenever I can I’ll spend the time lolling around on the couch, sleeping and reading the New Yorker.
Beyond assembling his wardrobe, A has been channeling his jitters into a wonderful masculine form of nesting: he’s organized the dry goods in the kitchen (beans, grains, nuts) in new glass canisters, upgraded our smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and thought through fire escape plans for every room. He spent many evenings in December enhancing our house’s weatherproofing, filling holes with blow foam and caulk. (This was the best part of the whole preparation period: In my dialect of American English, caulk sounds just like cock, and blow foam is funny no matter how you say it. Nothing takes the edge off a nine-week trip to Siberia like a passel of cock and blow foam jokes.)
So we’re newly draft-free and safer than ever from fire and other freak household disaster. A’s cold weather gear is assembled in the basement. I’ve got about as much support lined up as I can imagine. Now we try our best to enjoy January together without flinching too much about what’s coming.