Q&A: Moms Who Travel For Work

A frequent reader who I'm not going to name because the position isn't hers quite yet writes:

"After years of reading and gleaning lots of spot-on advice from you and your readers, I have a question:

How do you handle (or prevent) the logistical and emotional upheaval of business travel?  I love my work, and I'm a candidate for an exciting and lucrative promotion.  I'm traveling by air next week with my potential new supervisors on business trip.  This is the first time I've traveled for work since my 4-year-old son was born.  I'm nervous about what, in essence, will be a two-day job interview.  I'm also in a bit of an emotional state--worrying about day-to-day routine disruptions (including finding a babysitter for when my husband is in class), mourning missed events (my son's preschool Art Show), and fearing the most horrific what-ifs (plane crash!).

How do you do it?  What are your most valuable sanity savers?  Should I check my luggage or carry-on?  Any packing advice?  How do I quit obsessing over the worst-case scenario?"

Perfect timing for me for this question, as I'm traveling next week, this time for four days. And I know there are other traveling working moms who will weigh in.

I think you've got the most important thing covered already, which is that you like the job. It's brutal to be shoehorning yourself onto an airplane and leaving your little sweetie if you don't really enjoy what you're doing. Travel was extremely hard on me emotionally when I wasn't fully bought in to my job. Since I'm volunteering to make the Kool-Aid for my current job, the leaving is much, much, much easier. Most of my trips are fun and a positive contribution to the world, so it doesn't feel like a hot poker in the stomach to leave my boys.

I'll admit, though, that I have a sweet situation, in that my kids stay at their dad's when I'm on a work trip. We use our crack team of babysitters more to cover the ends of the day when I'm gone, but for the kids it's not a sad "Mom's gone" time as much as it is a "Woo-hoo! Three days with Dad" time. If we were all together in the same household I think my absence would be felt more strongly by the kids.

I think you could replicate the "different rules when mom's on a trip" dynamic (*if* you wanted to) by encouraging your partner to create routines or built-in treats that only happen when you're not home. This would make it just a different time for your son while you're traveling, instead of a sad time for him.

I don't think there's anything you can do about feeling bad that you're missing things. I also don't think there's anything you can do about the fact that if you travel for work, at some point you're going to find yourself calling the school from the airport to find out if you forgot that today was an early-dismissal day (and knowing that if it is you have to find a babysitter to pick him up in an hour). I think part of being a working mom, and especially a traveling working mom, is losing the thread every once in awhile. Which is a big reason it's important to work on forming a safety net for yourself. Make sure you have enough babysitters that you use regularly on call. Let friends know when you'll be traveling, Offer to do some pick-ups and drop-offs for other parents while you're in town so you can call in a favor if you need it while you're on the road. Spend the time creating your own village.

I do think it gets easier, though. And you really value the things you don't miss. And you'll start to enjoy the travel, especially if you can work treats in for yourself. For me, just being in lockdown with no one able to ask me anything (aside from what I want to drink) for a 2 or 3-hour flight, is an enormous luxury. But I like to add to that by reading a magazine or trashy novel. And I do a lot of eating high-calorie foods in bed while watching TV while I'm on the road, too. If you have friends and the ability and open time to connect with them in the place you'll be traveling to, definitely make the effort. If you're extra-nice to yourself and create your own rituals and moments of connection, traveling can be good for your soul.

I bet everyone's going to give conflicting advice about the actual travel, so here's my two cents:

  • Carry on. Most airlines are charging buckets of money to check anything these days, and if you're only going for two days, you shouldn't be bringing that much stuff anyway. Get a good, solid wheelie bag (aka "rollerboard") that fits in most overhead compartments, but know that you might have to put it underneath or gate-check it. 
  • Travel size-it, or use non-liquid products. They're serious about the 3.4 ounce rule for liquids. Put them all in a gallon-size ziploc-type plastic bag. Pack that at the very obvious top of your bag or toss it in your purse, because you need to pull it out for security.
  • I use a 4-bin system at security, and I see the male business travelers rolling their eyes, until my 4 bins and I are through security and they're still stuck in line: 1 bin for my laptop, 1 for my shoes, 1 for my ziploc of liquids, and one for my purse (and I put my BlackBerry on top of my open purse so it's obvious what it is), and then my bag itself. (n the winter I put my coat in the ziploc bin, with the ziploc on top.)
  • Be nice. I mean, yeah, of course. But being really nice, even if you're stressed out, can defuse a bad situation. It can also help you in a jam. Even if all it does is make you feel superior to the people sitting next to you, every little bit helps.
  • Ask for help. People will always help you if you need it. Always. And sometimes people need the extra boost of being useful to someone else.
  • Get a little black dress that doesn't wrinkle, and always have that and a pair of heels (or whatever you'd wear in a cocktail party situation) in your bag.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, get the large size sweet tea at the Carolina Pit BBQ stand in the food court of CLT. It is waaaaaay too big and will throw you off entirely. The medium is good enough.

All the rest of my advice is about specific airlines/airports/rental car companies/hotel chains/cities, so that's what I've got.

Anyone else? Either advice for our writer about traveling, or advice about being the parent who's at home while she's traveling? I know you all have good stuff, so please share.