Keeping Warm

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.

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8 thoughts on “Keeping Warm

  1. I wonder what it is about this time of year. My husband will be spending about half of each month in Belgium this spring. Half on, half off. Sometimes just one week a month. Just!

    Anyway I know just what you are talking about with the way it affects the relationships. It can be a challenge. I’m so sorry.

    Seriously, Siberia? Wow.

  2. Wow, I feel for both of you. I switched jobs last year so that I wouldn’t have to travel so much, and my old job only made me travel for a week every few months. Part of what I couldn’t stand was the preparation- extra pumping to leave enough milk, etc. But the biggest part of what I couldn’t stand was being away from my daughter.

    And the single parenting thing- yikes. Ever since I had Pumpkin, I’ve been a bit in awe of single parents.

  3. I can’t imagine :\ Add me to the list of support if you want to “chat”. If I was closer I’d certainly offer a day of babysitting.

  4. Yikes, that is a long time. I think it’s great you’re setting up some systems to make your life easier while he’s gone.

    (Ahh, geologist! C was guessing he was involved with oil somehow.)

  5. Yikes. I can’t believe that –“my husband is in Siberia for nine weeks” sounds like a joke! I think you’re making smart plans (for which you should NOT feel guilty!), and please add me to the list of people ready to hear from you for whatever you need. Lets talk about how we can help while he’s gone, OK? We’re certainly available for emergency sitting, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask. Maybe we could whip up a few lasagnas together before he goes and then have a few “thaw-and-a-salad” nights here? I could do the thawing, clean-up and make the salad. Or we’ll at least have you guys over a couple of times. Have you thought about a Children’s Museum membership? Both your kids are at a great age for it, and it’s so nice to get them some large-motor time in the winter. We have one, an often skip the more crazy, crowded areas in favor of the craft area, the ant hill, and the book nooks.
    This news of yours kind of puts my annoyance with beard clippings near my toothbrush in perspective…

  6. I hadn’t told you about this until now? How on earth can that be? You’d think we were never able to say more than a sentence to each other at a time. Thanks for offering to help! Let’s talk about what we can do.

    (And the Children’s Museum has always kinda given me a headache, but maybe it’s time to give it another try.)

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