For the longest time, our children’s favorite family movie was ‘The Incredibles’, an animated story about a family of superheroes who – once they combine their strengths and unite their powers – defeat the evil villain.
Our children loved this movie for many years, mainly because of its relatable content: 'The Incredibles' is a family of five and (coincidentally) so are we. There is a strong dad and the 'versatile' mum. And there are three children, each possessing a unique superpower that makes them extraordinary - from lightning speed to creating a protective shield to shapeshifting (traits that our children also master to perfection, believe me!).
More than once, when the credits ran, Philip and I found ourselves seizing the opportunity to draw parallels between the movie and real-life: "Did you guys grasp the message of the movie?" we would ask our children. "Do you understand that there is nothing more important than living and loving your authentic super – self, whatever that may look like?", "Do you comprehend the importance of sticking together as a family? To always be there for each other - especially during challenging times?".
This was years ago. Little did we know back then that these movie characters would once find their way back into our lives – onto our mantlepiece in California, to be exact – symbolizing our journey from Europe to the Golden State as a family. Or rather, symbolizing what seemed to us the most challenging part of this journey: being separated as a family for four months.
When planning our move from Munich to Southern California, Philip and I quickly came to realize that there was no way around a temporary long-distance separation to make everyone's schedule work. Philip needed to be in Newport Beach on a designated date, and the children were required to complete their respective school years in Munich. In particular, our then nine-year-old son was eager to obtain his Bavarian certificate proving that he had completed his lower school academics.
Time apart - that was the only solution and a daunting one. Aside from preparing our children to leave the only home they had ever known in Munich to move across the globe to Southern California, we now also needed to explain to them that they would be without their father for over sixteen weeks! ... and then leave the only home they had ever known. Ok then.
Once again, Philip and I found ourselves back at the drawing board (or rather at our dining table with a glass of wine), devising yet another plan of how to prepare for a situation that had the potential to break our children’s hearts.
In the end, we had narrowed it down to a few key issues that - if handled well - would hopefully lessen any worries or pain the children might experience during the separation from their father. In hopes that some of the strategies we applied may serve as useful examples of how to navigate long-distance separation involving children, we are happy to share the second part of our moving story with you.
1. "Parents United":
First and foremost, we knew we needed to break the news of our' family separation' to the children in the same way Philip and I had told the kids about our move across the globe: together. At the same time, in the same room, side by side. It was important to us to display a united front in the very physical sense so that the children (especially our then- four - year old) could see our unity as parents who had come to a decision - albeit a difficult one - together. Also, we wanted the children to feel our combined - and aligned! - energy; to feel that their parents both stood behind this decision with unwavering confidence, optimism, and trust.
Presenting our children with this decision together, answering all their questions sitting side by side as mother and father (and as husband and wife!), was the best thing we could have done. It allowed very little room for any confusion, misunderstandings, or mixed messages. It provided our children with faith in their parents and their actions, with trust that their precious lives were in good hands and with a great sense of stability that whatever was to come, their parents would both be there for them.
While our conversation with the children laid the groundwork for a smooth transition ahead, how were we going to maintain the children's sense of faith, trust, and stability throughout the time when Philip was going to be away from us? When weeks had passed? When things got, though? The answer was tricky: we needed as much consistency as possible while leaving enough room to improvise and be flexible if need be. So here are some of the things we did:
Technology was our dearest friend during the time of separation. We figured out the best days and times for regular phone calls and video chats - and then made a great, great effort to stick to these times. Given five different schedules and a nine-hour time difference, that was not an easy task. Yet, the effort paid off: these scheduled ‘phone/video dates’ accomplished the following:
• they helped manage the children’s expectations of when they will speak to their father again (by gaining a better understanding of time, time differences as well as distances)
• they allowed the children to think about what they wanted to talk to their father about before the actual conversation (rather than an impromptu chat that usually resulted in the children's less informative utterance of the words 'fine' and 'good') - this made for more meaningful and memorable exchanges
• they gave the children something to look forward to - Vorfreude!
Unlike its English cousin ‘anticipation’ (sorry!), Vorfreude remains one of my favorite German words, most accurately connoting the feeling you feel when you are eagerly looking forward to something, and you can barely contain your excitement. Philip and I both quickly understood that in the challenging situation we found ourselves in - our children being apart from their father before moving continents - Vorfreude was our partner in crime, our secret weapon. We needed lots of it, and here is how we encouraged it.
There are endless fun ways that help children count down the time until a special day x in their lives. We have found that the most creative, loving, and useful ones are those thought up by the people who really know what long-distance means: military families (there are approximately 300,000 children in the US currently missing their deployed parent!). Our favorites include the ‘countdown jar’ (filled with Hersey kisses it can literally sweeten the time apart) and the ‘dadvent calendar’ (which can be personalized for each child and is therefore so special).
* The countdown - calendar*
Our family opted for the countdown calendar - where you cross off each day gone by and which we hung right next to the children’s beds. We loved the idea of the calendar as
• it allowed the children to see exactly how many days, weeks, and months they would be apart from their father. There was no confusion or misunderstanding, the information was right in front of them, and since our children were old enough to understand it, they needed to have access to it.
• it provided the children with a sense of power over the situation: crossing off another day each night meant that the children had successfully (and most of the time happily) spent (survived!) another twenty-four hours without their father - this was something to be proud of! And what better feeling for a child than to fall asleep feeling content and proud? And what better way to start the next day feeling like that? See what I am getting at?
• it displayed all the additional events going on in the children's lives. We had marked visits from grandparents, important soccer games, sleepovers, and playdates. This was important! Seeing the small highlights of the weeks displayed on their wall allowed the children to see just how full their life was - and that it included so many people who also loved and cared for them dearly.
Another wonderful idea with which Philip surprised us all was letters. Good, old letters. Before his departure, Philip had secretly written personal notes to each one of us for every Sunday we were apart: 64 messages. My only instructions were to place each the letters on our breakfast table every Sunday.
This was not only a profoundly loving and meaningful (and time-consuming, dearest hubby!) gesture but one that definitely encouraged Vorfreude in all of us each week. It was also an incredibly thoughtful way of how Philip stayed connected to each one of us. The letters were not only very personal (and at times one of the children chose not to share daddy's words) but also tangible. Unlike anything technology had to offer, the children could hold the letters in their hands and feel them, they could read and re-read them as many times as they liked, they could carry them around, and they could keep them. We each still have every letter Philip wrote last year and will forever treasure them as unique records of our memories with all our hearts.
Both the countdown calendar as well as Philip's letters provided the children with a great sense of stability: their daddy's love was omnipresent, even if dad himself was not there. This, in turn, allowed for the desired consistency we were hoping to maintain in the children's lives during these exciting times.
With the children's internal wellbeing under control, it was also essential to keep their outside world as stable as possible. By sticking to regular chores, dinner times, bedtime hours, and family rules, we aimed to preserve the structure that our children had always known and needed to feel safe.
With all that said, there were days when I didn't even try to pretend that we had any structure. Days on which bruises, cuts, and falls disrupted our schedule and called for flexibility, improvisation, and yes, more than once, a doctor. Days on which temper tantrums or a particular heartache needed all of my undivided attention, compassion, time, and energy. Days on which I was immensely grateful for a family member, a friend, a neighbor and yes, more often than not, a stranger extending a helping hand. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Back then, this saying never felt truer.
4. Accept the difficult days
I am the first one to admit: it was not always easy dealing with the physical aspects (hello, logistics!) of caring for three children by myself, let alone carrying the emotional weight. Was I doing enough at home in our daily life to protect my children from the pain of the separation? Was I making enough effort in trying to fill the role of mother and father during this time? Was I even supposed to be both? Despite all our efforts, would there be any consequences or repercussions to our decision to be apart?
5. Faith, trust, courage
No matter where I turned for answers during that time, in the end, it always came down to 'The Incredibles.' Yes, you heard right.
Before his departure, Philip had given each one of us their respective 'Incredibles' figurine and asked us to place it next to our bedsides. He wanted them to serve as reminders of our superpowers and of the responsibility we each carried to ensure the wellbeing of the entire family during this challenging transition. If we wanted to defeat the evil villain - in our case time - we had to stick together.
The children loved this analogy as well as their figurines and cared for them with unmatched devotion; again, they felt that they could play an active part in making this move - with every challenging aspect it contained - a successful one.
As for me, I would be lying if I said that with 'Elastigirl' on my nightstand, all my worries about our family separation and the impending move to the other side of the globe evaporated into thin air. I will admit, however, that there were moments when her sight reminded me to slow down, quiet my mind, and to have faith in my biggest superpower as a parent: to do what I think is right for my children - and to do so with everything I've got.
Looking back on this time a year later, now in the midst of our incredible California adventure, I can honestly say that this was all our children - and our family - needed and will always need to survive: everyone's commitment and dedication.
I am happy to report that, on 2 May 2019, not only the Bufe family but Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack Parr were all successfully reunited.
And if this experience has taught our family only one thing, it is that the real superheroes of this world are the single parents.
They forever deserve our love, compassion, respect, and attention - so that they have all the support they need to raise brave and strong little superheroes themselves. "Incredibles" - style.
To read the first part of our moving story, click here.