Sciencewomen

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgAs 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Thinker
    August 12, 2008

    I am in a long-distance relationship since several years, and while it certainly has its drawbacks, we find that there are also advantages: the daily grind that can really wear a relationship down gets replaced by having time together feel special, even when doing the most mundane of things. Acknowledging and nurturing that feeling is key in my mind to making it work. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I think I can read it between the lines of your post as well.

    Also, it seems to work best when we just “let it happen” instead of ratcheting up our expectations for weekends unreasonably high.

    Another pitfall is that while you manage your lives well on a day-to-day (or week-to-week) basis, you can easily find yourself postponing or not even talking about things that are more long term. As you point out, planning what happens next weekend or month is important, but you should also create opportunities to discuss “Where are we in five/ten/twentyfive years from now?” and ensure that you do things linked to that long-term view of where you are heading. We find it helps in avoiding the feeling of being stuck in a rut.

  2. #2 Cherish
    August 12, 2008

    I’m not looking forward to doing this myself. I do, however, appreciate any tips you’ve got. Unfortunately, I’m going to be the one doing most of the commuting since my husband is writing up his dissertation to defend in the fall. After that, hopefully, we’ll be able to go back and forth.

    I have no idea how this is going to affect the kids. :-/ Fortunately, my older one’s school schedule is such that he has 3/4 of the Fridays in the school year off. I don’t know if I’ll be so lucky in my class schedule…but at least we might be able to be home by dinner on Friday night.

  3. #3 Lab Rat
    August 12, 2008

    Wow, well done you for getting all this working. I am not in a long distance relationship, but I am currently living in a different house to my partner which means things like toothbrushes and hairbrushes and boxers tend to get passed back and forth on a regular basis. I should get round to buying a second set of ‘essentials’ at some point and just keeping them there.

  4. #4 DRD
    August 12, 2008

    I’ve been doing this for 2+ years. Thankfully we are getting a break this school year with a visiting position for DH. All of these are great suggestions.

    Anyways, my suggestions, particularly if you are both academics, is to make sure that each person has a (stocked) desk space in each place. Let’s face it – we all work at least 4+ hours on the weekend in academia. So, just like the toiletries, make sure you don’t have to think through whether you have your favorite book markers/stickies at both places. You arrive with your laptop and you are ready to go. We also, to cut down on the luggage (we were flying every other weekend), checked out books needed for research and teaching for the other person at the beginning of each term.

  5. #5 Bright Star (B*)
    August 12, 2008

    I have had a long distance “commute” (long plane ride) for my relationship for about 2.5 years, and I think your points here are great! It only took one time of lost luggage (the first trip out) to realize that I needed my own toiletries and other essentials out at his place.

    I agree about giving neighbors contact information. My neighbor also does things like takes down any fliers left near the door so the place doesn’t look empty. (For some of my trips, I am gone for weeks at a time.) This neighbor mows my lawn, too. I also give a friend a key when I’m gone for some of the longer trips.

    We haven’t tried the webcam yet. That’s a good idea. It’s true that sometimes you don’t feel like talking, but you do want to connect and be together.

    We like having several months of trips scheduled in advance, too. I agree that it helps for planning time in each location, plus it helps us look forward to seeing each other again.

  6. #6 Propterdoc
    August 13, 2008

    For the couple of months Dr R and I were on other sides of the earth, web cam chats were a lifesaver, as was using a VOIP phone to keep call costs down (North America – UK calls are not cheap). The time difference made everything very hard because I had to call him at lunchtime NA time, evening UK time. Making time in the working day and finding a private place to call from were both difficult.

    B* – we used Skype with webcams, the quality of which depended on the quality of the internet but it was better than nothing!

    Now Dr R drives 120 miles/day to and from his work, and that is a killer. 60 miles is not enough to do a two-house travel at weekends thing, but is just over the limit of a decent commute when you take traffic and stuff into account. It means we travel as little as possible at the weekends which I find difficult because I want to get out of town and explore.

    I’m thankful we didn’t have to do the intercontinental LDR for longer than two months, and I don’t know how you all do LDRs for any length of time. The commuting thing is draining and I can only recommend that anyone doing it works out a way to work from home one day a week, or can keep working hours to avoid the traffic in general.

    But, in a few months that will be over too, when he starts a new job in the very same department as me! We can travel to work together, no more long commutes and can choose to take the bus if we want. Yippee!

  7. #7 El Fields
    August 14, 2008

    My current relationship was long distance for a stretch of four months (which is small fry compared to what others have gone through, but it still felt like a long time). We spent a ridiculous amount of time on the phone every night, and I found that every once in a while we’d run into a point where we really didn’t have anything left to talk about for a few days. Whenever that would happen, we’d have a ‘date’ night where we’d both rent the same movie and watch it together (or even better, find a movie on tv so we didn’t have to try to synchronize our DVD players).

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