As I’m transitioning away from an academic/personal life of long-distance commuting, I thought this would be a good time (or perhaps the last good time?) to share some of my tips for how to help one’s marriage/partnership survive two academic careers in two cities.
Of course, I only have this last year as experience with faculty life (although my husband has been a faculty member for 5). But before that, there was 4 years of my commuting as a grad student (a 3.5 hr commute), and 1.5 years of LDR (a plane trip) as an undergrad. But that was a long time ago, and I was a different person then. But any way I slice it, commuting between 100 and 200 miles every week or every-other week between two houses was a trial. Here, in no particular order, are some of my more recent suggestions for making it more manageable:
- Have a teaching schedule which facilitates traveling on Mondays and Fridays. This was CRITICAL. It meant I could leave work Thursday night (at least, before it got dark too early) and spend Friday and Saturday at the other house, leaving Sunday to come back, or Monday if the weather was bad (in the winter). It also helped that, as an academic, I could largely set my own schedule during the week.
- Keep a travel box in the house. As I remembered I needed to take such-and-such with me to the other place, I would put it in the box, and then when I left, I would take the box with me. I still needed to think about needing such-and-such, but at least I didn’t have to remember it all at the end of the weekend when I was trying to leave.
- Develop some weekend rituals, like having date night. One of the nights I was at home we tried to take “off” — going to see a movie at the downtown municipal movie theater, going out to dinner Friday nights after we’d traveled, or curling up together on the couch with the crossword were all options. We also had other rituals, like a cooked breakfast on Sunday, going to the farmer’s market on Saturday, or making a huge pot of food Sunday afternoon that each of us could split and eat the rest of the week.
- Invest in a web cam. I cannot tell you how much of a difference it makes to be able to see the person you’re talking with, especially when you’re so tired that you can’t really talk. Some nights we would just pop open the video chat and leave it in the background and do work elsewhere on the computer, but we could chat about what we were doing like we were in the same room. It was a big help.
- Make technology work for you, such as getting cell phones (hey, we started this commuting a while ago!), fuel-efficient cars that have bluetooth (helped with the cell-phone conversations while driving back and forth) and an iPod jack, an iPod that can store umpteen podcasts or audiobooks, a radio dial of NPR stations that you can move along as you drive, and so on. In addition, get a laptop for work, and take it with you to the other place. It is also helpful for storing things like recipes you want to use, or photographs you might want to show wherever you may be.
- Plan out your travel a month in advance so you can accept or delay dinner with friends or visits with family. Then plan in some of those trips and announce them so it’s harder to back out of them. Otherwise, you’ll be so exhausted you’ll never be social again.
- Make sure you share the travel. While it may not be possible to spend one week at one place and another week at the other, it should average out over time. And it helped that we were flexible about the other person’s anxiety/work schedule/exhaustion – so if, around Wednesday, I started freaking out about how much I had to get done before the next week, my husband drove over to me for the weekend.
- We kept a family blog to help family and friends keep track of where we were which weekends, and cell phones and instant messaging helped keep us in touch.
- When we had larger chunks of time together, such as over holidays, we tried (sort of) to limit the driving we had to do – staying in one place when we could was the plan, anyway.
- We tried to have lower expectations about what we were going to accomplish on the upkeep of the houses, although this was pretty hard. But it’s going to be the reason we use for not putting in a vegetable garden this year (except for my row of tomatoes in IN).
- We kept a list on the fridge of the things we needed to do when we were leaving the house for the weekend, which included: empty teapot; empty compost bin; turn down water heater; turn down heat/AC; water plants; empty dehumidifier; pack laundry; close curtains (but not around plants); stop mail and newspaper (if necessary); turn off powerbar strip plug thingies (to stop that vampire energy use); set lights on timers; pack a cooler with food from fridge that will go off during the weekend; check toilet has stopped running before leaving.
- Hire someone to mow the lawn and shovel the walk, at both places if you can afford it. This helps with making sure your whole time together isn’t spent doing such individual labor, plus if you happen to be at the other place when it snows, it will be taken care of by the time you return.
- We were never very good at going food shopping before the other person arrived, so (for example) I would buy milk in WL, and then arrive in IL to find we needed milk there too. I tried using RTM with my husband, but it didn’t work very well. Good luck keeping track of two fridges and larders!
- Give your neighbors all your phone numbers and your email address, so they can get a hold of you if your house burns down. You may snicker, but it was always a relief to me when I turned the corner after a weekend away and saw the house safe and sound.
- Keep a complete set of toiletries and other essentials at each house. It was hard to keep two sets of clothes and shoes and stuff so I usually took those back and forth with me, but it helped I didn’t have to remember my toothbrush or facial cleanser etc. Also, it helps to use a national chain pharmacy so if you find you’ve run out of a prescription over the weekend, you can get it filled wherever you are.
So, running the gambit between the philosophical and the mundane, there are some thoughts for those of you contemplating or in the middle of your own commuting life. I tell you, I won’t miss it one bit. I think. (Although I do worry – I hope we still like each other as much when we see each other every day as when we see each other only on the weekends! One hears such horror stories…)
For those of you with your own commuting experience, what tips do you have to share that helps keep your lives (both with your significant other, and with your two locations) together?
Note: of course, we don’t have kids. I don’t know how people with kids do the long-distance commuting thing. A whole other ball of wax, that’s for sure.