Like most parents and their kids, my two girls and I have had our share of epic arguments. We’ve had it out over screen time, tangled hair, homework, seams in socks and eating veggies if you want dessert. You know, the classics. As an at-home dad for a dozen years before their mom and I divorced in 2019, there was ample time and space to retreat to our safe corners of the proverbial boxing ring. The 18-year-old had her fluffy white cat Trixie, her books and a weighted blanket to help with anxiety. The 14-year-old could get lost in her plants, Pinterest and records. We’d cool down then come back together, hug, apologize and be right as rain.
That was, until spring 2020, when I left the nest I helped to build and moved 160 miles away, to a two-bedroom apartment in the East Village of Manhattan. Now I see the girls every other week. When they visit me in New York City, we spend about 48 hours together based out of my apartment, where there’s about 10 feet of distance they can put between themselves and me when I say something they find annoying.
If I try to broach difficult topics now, my daughters may march from the family room to their bedroom. When they do, the ticking of the clock gets louder as every minute we spend arguing or recovering from an argument is time wasted from already too-short visits.
To mitigate the damage, I have been biting my tongue, avoiding mention of their grades or any other controversial issue. In my effort to avoid losing time with them, I have accidentally created Dadland, a kind of stressless big-city theme park. There are no arguments, but there's also no real parenting either. When I moved away, I wasn’t prepared for this all-or-nothing Dad life.
Ever since my kids were born, I defined myself, personally and professionally, as a dad. But now it feels like, as a long-distance father, I’ve relinquished all but the title — I’ve become a figurehead dad, not a parent. The pain of this change is felt intensely. There are nights I hang up the phone with them or wave goodbye as they drive away, when I’ll just cry for hours.
With bands I love regularly playing four blocks away, tremendous cuisine from around the world literally at my doorstep, a diverse neighborhood with a great park, theater I can walk to and museums in abundance, living in New York City is better than I ever dreamed of. But being a long-distance dad is proving to be a nightmare. I’m still figuring out how to stay connected to my daughters when they’re not here, and how to be an actual parent when they are.
Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a parenting and resilience expert and author of Get the Behavior You Want … Without Being the Parent You Hate!, understands my predicament. “Parenting from a distance changes the dynamic in ways that can make it hard to feel impactful,” Dr. Gilboa, who often goes by Dr. G, says. “You'll understandably be hesitant to ‘waste’ your precious time with your kids by arguing, giving them consequences or talking to them about hard topics. It's much more fun and appealing to be to make sure that all of your time together feels easy or exciting. The problem is, that's not parenting. That's being a fun uncle.” She adds that not only does biting my tongue and avoiding the hard stuff put extra burden on their mom at home, I am depriving my daughters of having the full, complex and special relationship they deserve to have with both of their parents.
Dr. G says that kids need to know both their parents...
- ...care about them every day.
- ...will hold them accountable for their poor behavior and teach them to do better.
- ...will talk to them about hard or scary topics.
- ...want to enjoy them and have fun.
- ...are not afraid of their kid being mad or frustrated with them.
This is true whether kids live with both their parents or not. Thankfully, Dr. Gilboa doesn’t just talk about what kids need from their parents, she gives practical action steps to help dads like me continue being the parent my daughters deserve, even from a distance.
Spend part of every day with your kids.
For a parent doing the work from a distance, this will likely be virtual more often than not, but Dr. G. says that’s okay — it still counts and is valuable! “It won't be fun or easy or long each day, but it should be reliable,” she says, adding, “If you're not going to be able to make it one day you should let them know ahead of time and reschedule — show them they are a priority — even when they may say they don't need it. Every day!”
Along these lines, Andrew Chris, M.S., M.F.T. and author of Creating a Lasting Connection With Your Child, suggests the 7x7 Challenge. He advises that dads like me use technology to their advantage by taking at least seven minutes, seven days a week, to check in and connect with your child through messages, talking on the phone or chatting over online games, for example. There’s no wrong way to make that connection. Chris says a long-distance parent should “let their kids know they are a priority and that, even when you’re apart, they are on your mind.” Simple contact to let them know that you’re thinking about them or to tell them something specific you love about them goes a long way.
Trouble with mom means trouble with me.
I know that I cannot be a refuge or an escape from the trouble they cause or are in at home. Dr. G. reminds parents to not undercut the work your co-parent is doing to teach them how to be an accountable human, adding, “If you disagree with your co-parent, that is a conversation between the parents, but do not let your child or children play one of you against the other, intentionally or not.”
In my world, this manifests itself most often when it comes to the subject of missing school. I have a less strict attitude toward attendance, when it comes to an available experience that would cause them to miss a day or two. I believe that living a full life as a young person outweighs whatever lessons they would be learning that afternoon/day/days. My ex-wife, who has to handle the day-to-day inconvenience caused by our daughters having to complete make-up work at home, communicating with their schools and answering questions of absences, would prefer the oldest not skip classes to see a daytime concert in Philly or our youngest not miss a whole day of school to spend an extra day in NYC with me. And that’s fair enough, so I acquiesce to her wishes and we form a unified front when it comes to these divisive situations.
Don’t be the fun uncle.
I felt seen when Dr. G shared this next long distance parenting tip with me: When the kids behave poorly during their brief time with you, do not blow it off. In short, I can’t revert to being the fun uncle, I can’t laugh it off and I can’t ignore it. “Believe it or not, kids will see [you blowing it off] as you not caring about them, not you trying to preserve your time together,” she says. Not addressing the issues you’re facing together feels lazy, or like you've checked out on them and their lives.
I never thought that keeping it light and easy and breezy could have adverse long term effects. I now understand that while I may lose out on precious minutes of copacetic time with my kids today, parenting is all about the long game. I cannot sacrifice tomorrow for an easier today. What matters most is that I keep reminding them that I am all in for their ups and downs, and that I’m not afraid of their emotions. Which is true. I’m far more scared of my own! And yet in the time since I’ve spoken to Dr. Gilboa, I’ve begun to dismantle Dadland and inch back into real parenting, knowing that to once again be a dad in the truest sense, I may have to lose out on some purely joyful hours and days with my kids.