Family vs. Job: Separations Can Be Tricky

By Robert King
Updated: January 27, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Dungy’s decision to stick with the Indianapolis Colts next season, even as his family remains in Florida, pleasantly surprised many fans who thought he was about to ride off into the sunset.

But it also has brought attention to the difficult issues facing a fast-growing number of people who work in one state while their family lives in another: Do the benefits of a job outweigh the costs of temporarily separating the family?

Can a commuter parent still be effective? When can the strain of separation break a family?

The Dungy family calculus includes some unusual variables: a $5 million salary, access to a company jet — and the pressures of fame. But some universal elements play a role, too: young children who can’t grasp the big issues, a teen whose stage in life may be better suited to the arrangement, and a marriage that will need nurturing from afar.

Dungy’s use of his platform as an NFL coach to promote the importance of fathers in their children’s lives, and that family should always come before career, prompted some — including Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz — to question the choice. But many more folks seem to have faith in Dungy and see no disconnect between his message and his choice.

“You can live in the same house and be a rotten parent,” said marriage and family therapist Chris Falley, who directs the clinic at Christian Theological Seminary’s Counseling Center in Indianapolis. “I don’t think proximity makes parenting good or bad. I think it is the intention you have for parenting that makes it successful or not.”

Indiana Family Institute President Curt Smith sees no contradiction between Dungy’s choice and his fatherhood mantra. The institute, known widely for its role in opposing same-sex marriage, offers marriage education classes. Smith says long-distance parenting can work.

“Perhaps once again,” he said, “coach Dungy can teach a lot of us how to manage complicated careers without compromising on our commitment to our families.”

As many as 3.5 million Americans live apart from their spouses for reasons other than separation, according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s twice as many as in 1990. Pollster Mark J. Penn cites those numbers as a “microtrend” in a book bearing the same name.

In the past two years, Falley has seen an increasing number of couples seeking advice on how to cope with a commuter marriage.

“It is not just Tony,” she said. “I think we are seeing a trend for that happening more and more with the economy.”

Essential to making the commuter marriage work is spousal buy-in, she said — which Dungy says he has.

More than that, though, Falley says couples have to be good communicators going in, since that will only get tougher with distance.

The ages of the children involved should be considered: Infants forget people quickly, and that can affect bonding; preschoolers may struggle to understand the parting, yet can toddle through it; and teens, who are heavily invested in peer relationships, may cope well but still need to be reminded that they are important to the absent parent.

But Falley says not everything about the situation is bad: Families sometimes do a better job of spending quality time together when that time is precious; often, they can find new ways to show appreciation.

“There is an intentional focus on the family that is different than families who have seven days a week together,” Falley said. “In some ways, I think that is a benefit.”

People who have lived through commuter parenting situations say it is a doorway that shouldn’t be entered casually.

Mike Childers, 58, Noblesville, missed almost two years of his children’s lives, all tallied, while working apart from his family.

His data systems jobs for IBM kept him away from home for stretches of two or three weeks. At other times, he could get home only for weekends.
“You missed their shows at school, or you missed going to see their teacher, or you missed kissing them goodnight,” he said.

Childers was laid off last year — to his relief, he says, because it led him to a job in Indianapolis that doesn’t require the travel. But his twins are now 18 and his youngest is 14, and he laments how much time was lost.
“I wish I had put them first,” he said, “instead of the job.”

Still, Childers said the Dungys can make it work because of their closeness and their faith. It helps, too, that they see their sacrifice as part of what the coach describes as a “ministry.”

“They’ve probably said you can do a lot for humankind and for life and represent God by doing what you do,” Childers said.

Jennifer Stevens, 40, Indianapolis, also sees Tony Dungy as one of the “rare beings” who can make a commuter marriage work.

But as someone whose own marriage crumbled under the separation, she is praying for the coach and his family.

Stevens said her former husband, a hotel manager, spent more than 10 years commuting long distance to various jobs. It got so bad that her son cowered in his crib one time when a strange man — his father — came to comfort him in the night.

On their final attempt to make commuting work, her husband didn’t keep his promises about getting home weekly, she said.

“When he was home, there was so much disconnection. I didn’t know what to talk to him about,” she said. “He didn’t know how to talk to his kids.”
Stevens read Dungy’s best-selling book, and she is pulling for his family. But she expects trials in their future and a difficult time for Dungy’s wife, Lauren. Stevens hopes and expects that the coach will do it for one year, and one year only.

“You can talk about it, but then the reality sets in,” she said. “And it is tough.”

John Stewart, 41, took a marketing job in Noblesville in 2006 to reduce his long-distance commuting. Working away from the family enables you to do some great work, Stewart said, because that’s your entire focus while away. But so much is lost at home, he said.

“You miss all the small things that end up rolling into something significant — tucking your kid (into) bed at night, telling him to brush his teeth,” he said.

“When you are used to being a two-parent household, it just puts so much responsibility on the single parent that is left behind.”

Stewart tried to share the parenting through nightly phone calls home. But it wasn’t like being there.

And he says men who are apart from their families need to take precautions against the temptations of the road. He kept family photos prominently displayed in his hotel room.

“When you are in a bar and the fleeting thought of meeting somebody goes through your mind,” he said, “it is really comforting knowing that you have got pictures of your kids all over your hotel room.”

Stewart said he expects that the Dungys will endure — particularly if they see the coach’s job as the ministry he describes — and it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

“The only person he has to be able to answer to is the man in the mirror,” Stewart said, “and the wife on the other end of the phone.”