As any parent knows, building a relationship of love and trust is important to rearing a child. For the parent who does not live with the child, this can be an especially daunting task. When the child lives a long distance away, the task may seem overwhelming.
I understand this feeling of helplessness. My son and his mother live a full nine hours drive away. At first, I was afraid that we would never be able to have a strong, loving bond between us. How could I possibly be an active and involved dad when I could not see my son every day?
That was ten years ago. Today, I am happy to report that in spite of the distance, my son and I do have a strong bond that no amount of distance can break. Our situation may not be conventional, but it works. Along the way, we identified ways to be father and son. At times, I came up with ideas that worked. At other times, it was my son who provided the basis for an idea of how to stay in touch between my visits.
If you are facing the challenge of being a part of your child's life even though you do not live in the same town, some of these same ideas may work for you. Here are five of the strategies that have worked for us.
1. Make Use of the Postal Service Often
A simple fact of life is that little ones love to receive cards and letters by post. Receiving mail addressed specifically to the child makes him or her feel important and valued. Don't think that the mailings have to be the most elaborate cards or long drawn out letters written on the most exquisite of paper. In fact, I found that in the early years, my son took great delight in receiving a simple card made with construction paper and crayons. He would proudly show everyone what his dad had sent him.
The stream of mail was not one sided. Thanks to the support of my ex-wife, my son would routinely create drawings and mail them to me. As he began to learn the alphabet and to write words, he also gifted me with short letters that he laboured on with great dedication. I still have them today.
While old-fashioned, letters and cards serve as tangible expressions of love between you and your child. Both of you can read and enjoy the mailings over and over again, helping to fill in the time between visits.
2. Establish the tradition of a weekly telephone call.
If at all possible, call on the same day of the week and time of day. Doing so will make it easier for the two parents to determine a time to chat that will not be inconvenient. Fixing a regular appointment also gives you and your child something to look forward to each week.
Over time, you will find that your child will have all sorts of things to tell you during those calls. It was on these regular calls that I heard my son's thoughts on his first day at school, the name of his current best friend, and how it felt to receive his first excellent grade on a spelling exam.
As he has gotten older, we still talk about what how school is going. But we also now talk about other things that are on his mind. That simple weekly phone call has helped us be a part of each other's life even if we can't see each other every day.
3. Take a family holiday.
Going away together may be tough to arrange when mum and dad do not get along. However, most of us can manage to set aside ill feelings for two or three days if it is in the best interests of our children. Making this effort allows your child to enjoy being with both parents at the same time, just like other kids.
Keep in mind the holiday does not have to be elaborate or expensive. The time may be spent at an amusement park, at the beach, or roughing it at a campsite. Whatever the setting, the idea is to have fun together and create memories that your child will remember fondly in the years to come - memories that include both parents.
If at all possible, the holiday should be in addition to your regular visitation privileges. This will make the time even more memorable for your child, as it is not bundled into weekends when there is already an expectation of being together.
For us, this was not hard to manage. My ex-wife and I have a friendly relationship and are entirely comfortable around each other. We've gone to beaches, taken camping trips, and gone to several holiday spots as a family. If one or both of you have remarried, make sure to bring along the new spouses. After all, they are part of your child's life as well.
4. Go Electronic with Email and WebCam Time
Eventually, your child will be old enough to handle the responsibility of having an email address and using a web camera. When both you and the custodial parent feel the time is right, set up an email address for your child.
Make sure both parents have access to the email account so you can monitor and delete any inappropriate spam emails that find their way to the inbox.
Sending emails may compliment sending cards and letters through the post, or even replace them as your child gets older. In both scenarios, emails make it possible to drop a quick note that the recipient will see in a matter of hours rather than days.
Once both parents are convinced that using a web camera is a viable option, set aside time each week to 'visit' for ten to fifteen minutes. The web camera session makes it possible to not only verbally communicate, but also to see each other now and then.
5. Always Be There for Birthday Celebrations
Most custody arrangements allow children to spend alternate holidays with one parent or the other. However, there are rarely any prohibitions when it comes to birthdays. Make it a point to never miss your child's birthday if there is any way at all to be there.
Depending on your circumstances, this may take some careful planning, such as arranging time off from work and saving money several months in advance to cover the travel expenses. Consider those efforts to be an investment in your child's well-being. Having you near on a special day will mean a lot in later years, even if the attention seems to be more focused on the gifts, cake and the friends attending the party.
Decide for yourself that the only reason you will not be a part of your child's birthday is if ill health makes travelling impossible. Even if you are sick, make it a point to call your child and personally extend birthday wishes and greetings.
Living far away from your child does present particular challenges. However, keep in mind that parenting under any circumstances comes with obstacles that must be overcome. As my son has taught me, distance does not mean the end of a close connection.
Take a hard look at your circumstances and identify ways to maintain and deepen your relationship. You may be surprised at how many good memories the two of you create.