Parenthood

Balancing Act: Tips for Moms Who Travel for Work

There are certain career paths — saleswoman, entrepreneur, consultant or international woman of mystery — that have frequent travel written into their job description. But for moms in these jobs, there is an another world to manage while away: the home front. Of course, life on the road has its perks — springtime in London, delicious meals in Oaxaca, or just watching non-animated television — but the work-life balance for moms who travel for work can be a juggle, both logistically and emotionally.

I spoke with four different mothers who travel regularly for work. They generously shared their experiences and their tips for how to successfully manage a work-life balance, when work includes frequent time on the road.

  • Teresa Liu, Associate Director of International Recruitment at Baruch College, lives in New York with her husband and her two children, Zachary, 5, and Maddie, 3. 
  • Kristin Molinari Cohen, Head of Business Development at Sparks & Honey, is also the former publisher of Saveur. She is a divorced mother of one daughter, Frankie, 8, and lives in Brooklyn. 
  • Cindy Marks Shegalov, Senior Program Manager in Trust and Security at Uber, previously worked as a Senior Director in Global Public Policy at Visa. She lives with her husband and her daughter, Cecily, 4, in San Francisco.
  • Abby Weitzenfeld, Head of Professional Services for Khoros, lives in Paris and is a single parent to three sons: Alexander, 15; Théo, 11; and Maxime, 8. 

These women were drawn to their careers because of their passion for travel, something that they consider a key part of their identities before and after having children. “I really like travel, so when I don’t travel for an extended period of time, I get antsy,” said Marks Shegalov, adding, “When I don’t have that opportunity to travel, both personally and professionally, I feel stuck.” Liu, a former Peace Corps member, said “traveling is part of my DNA.” 

But all four women acknowledged that traveling for work after having their children required a different set of skills than before. Here are their tips:

1. Make lists (or not), but make sure everyone knows the plan

Whether you set up detailed lists and schedules for your time away or not is dependent on your support structure, the age of your kids, and your personality. 

Molinari Cohen says that in the beginning, when her daughter was a toddler and she traveled weekly as the publisher of Saveur, “I was so maniacal about the lists. I wanted to check every list every day.” She says, “When she was little, I would drop everything to make sure all the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted.”

But as time went on, she began to feel more confident about traveling and now, she works in tandem with her 8-year-old daughter to include her as a part of the planning team for when mom is away.

Weitzenfeld travels at least three weeks out of the month, primarily working in London from Tuesday to Thursday. For Weitzenfeld, a single parent, the lists are crucial: “It’s all about organization,” she says. “I tape a schedule to the door and it lists who has to set the table, who has to do the dishwasher.” Her older two sons are responsible for getting themselves home from school, as well as picking up their youngest brother and bringing him home. (She leaves it up to her older two to decide which brother will be responsible for the youngest on a given day, saying laughingly, “If they ever forget him, they’re dead.”) 

At home, Weitzenfeld hired a neighbor to serve as a babysitter, who heats up a pre-made meal and also spends the night to supervise the morning routine. (“I buy frozen meals from Picard,” she says, referring to the beloved French supermarket that only sells frozen foods, “It makes everything easy.”) 

2. Trust your network

Let it go, Elsa-style, said all the moms. Accept that things might not be done in the same way as if you were at home, but that your childcare system is strong enough to function without you. “It’s empowering to see that the show can run by itself,” says Liu. She adds that her husband looks forward to her trips away, because it’s a great time to bond with their children, and that he jokes, “There’s nobody to love but me!”

Molinari Cohen says of her daughter’s nannies that “they’re such critical people in your life — I trust them with everything.” Weitzenfeld adds, “You just have to expect that it’s not going to be perfect.” She points to an example where her son forgot to bring his piano books to his lesson and the teacher refused to teach him. She adds, “He hasn’t forgotten them again.”

3. Keep in contact with your kids

With so many apps available for long-distance contact, it’s easy to check in with your kids, whether it’s using FaceTime, Skype, or phone calls and texts. 

That said, sometimes FaceTime or other contact can unexpectedly upset or confuse young children. Marks Shegalov’s daughter said, “Mommy, come out of the TV!” when she first made a Skype call home. When Liu first tried FaceTime with her son, the image of mom on a screen upset him. She suggests trying it out at home a few times first before deploying it on a trip. 

Though it can be difficult to schedule times to call home, particularly when faced with significant international time differences, moms suggest setting aside a few minutes — even if it means stepping out of a meeting — to regularly to touch base with the kids at home.

For older children, the contact can be more casual, since older kids often have their own phones and other communication devices. Molinari Cohen’s daughter has an iTouch, which uses to communicate with her mom. “I try to make it really fluid,” said Molinari Cohen. “I try not to force it.” She acknowledged though, that communication had changed as her child grew older, mentioning that she had made an effort to FaceTime every day when her daughter was a toddler. Weitzenfeld also checks on her sons, primarily via text, and occasionally the phone, while she is away.

4. Involve your children in learning about the world

All the moms interviewed talked about their own passion for travel and how they hoped to inspire their children with the same love of seeing the world.

At home, Liu has a shower curtain printed with a map of the world, and makes a habit of pointing out the different countries she is visiting to her children during bath time, before and after her trips. Molinari Cohen will take photos during her travels to share with her daughter, sparking discussions about things, foods, and places she has seen.

5. Enjoy the little luxuries

Parenthood can be so all-consuming, both physically and emotionally, that work travel can be a respite from the daily routine and a chance to recharge as a parent. Weitzenfeld spoke honestly about her regular work travel helping her find a better work-life balance.

And of course, enjoy the small luxuries of travel without your children: Liu spoke of the joys of spending time in a room where “there’s not crumbs everywhere.” Marks Shegalov approvingly spoke of having the time to eat a leisurely “adult meal,” with wine, and without worrying if there were fries available. She also confessed her personal favorite indulgence: bingeing on home and garden shows on HGTV in the hotel room.

Parenthood, especially for those with young children, can be very regimented. “Every time has a significance with kids,” said Liu. “When I travel I can do whatever I need to do, without worrying about the day being punctuated by naptime.”

6. Talk with your support networks 

For parents who travel frequently for work, it’s important to make sure everyone in your life is on board with the lifestyle. This includes both your network at home and your network at the office. 

Marks Shegalov said, “Make sure you communicate with your partner to make sure you’re on the same page.” The partners who are at home need to be comfortable (and able) to take on more of the childcare and domestic duties while you are gone. Some parents have help from extended family, including Marks Shegalov, whose mother-in-law lives in the same apartment building. 

Grandparents and other caretakers such as nannies have to feel comfortable with extended hours during trips as well. And make sure there is backup: “It’s a new juggle when the sitter is sick and I’m away,” says Molinari Cohen. “I feel like the greatest thing is having a network of friends who can help out in these situations.” 

7. Set boundaries

Over and over again, the moms spoke of the need to be clear with the office as well. “Be really upfront with the people in your workplace about your limits,” says Molinari Cohen. “There are limits to all of these things — your work, being a parent, your relationship — and you have to not let one thing take over. It will make you resentful.”

Marks Shegalov suggested framing alternatives as a benefit for other team members: “I can’t do everything and sometimes I’ll say, ‘This is a good opportunity for other people.’”

8. Let go of the mom guilt 

“My major takeaway is to take a lot of the pressure away from yourself,” said Molinari Cohen. Mom guilt is often self-imposed, with women carrying the bulk of the mental load and wanting to give 150% at home and at work. By letting go of any mom guilt, the mothers found that their children, their work, and their own sense of self flourished. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Liu.

9. Be present

 “When I miss the kids, I try to remind myself to be extra-present in the moment,” said Liu. “Whether it’s talking to the taxi driver or just being aware of my surroundings. I don’t want to scroll through my life and I want to teach my kids to be present and to be intentional in life.” 

And when the mothers are home, they spoke of the importance of being present with their children. Employees who frequently travel often have flexibility on the days when they’re working in the office, with the ability to work from home or to leave early. Use that flexible time, mothers say, to spend time with your family.

“I try to spend extra time with my kids one-on-one,” says Weitzenfeld. She generally works from home on Fridays and will rotate taking a different child out for a lunch date that day (a perk of French school life foreign to most Americans). Marks Shegalov normally alternates with her husband on bedtime duties, but after a trip away will often do a few nights in a row to “make up” for her nights away. “We always plan adventures together,” says Molinari Cohen, recounting a recent ten-day trip to Spain with her daughter that allowed her to share her love of travel.

10. You may miss important days — and it’s okay

Though the moms all tried not to miss major holidays and events in their children’s lives, they also acknowledged that sometimes it was impossible to synchronize their work schedules. Molinari Cohen has had to travel on parent-teacher conference days and Weitzenfeld missed this year’s la rentrée, the back-to-school day that the French celebrate with enthusiasm. 

“I can’t put that kind of pressure on myself,” says Molinari Cohen, speaking about the importance of eschewing guilt. “I like my job,” says Weitzenfeld, “and it’s a positive message for my children.”

Accept that you’re not going to be there for every performance and event, and instead make a point of celebrating the ones where you are.

11. Remember that local travel can be more disruptive than a week away

Several of the mothers mentioned that local travel — work that doesn’t involve an overnight trip but still requires leaving the home office — can be more difficult logistically than trips away. Especially for mothers who are still pumping breast milk, it can be difficult to find the time and space in a day of off-site meetings to pump on a schedule, compared to the home office. 

As Marks Shegalov said, “You’re trying to still do all the home responsibilities and the work responsibilities even if you’re having to get up early to go to an off-site meeting, so it can end up being more work.” She compared a day trip to a week-long trip away, pointing out that mothers generally relinquish the responsibility for the home front when they’re gone overnight, but often still feel the mental load of managing childcare when it’s a local trip.

12. Be honest with yourself 

“I want to feel honest with myself about when travel feels excessive,” says Marks Shegalov. “I need to balance caretaking with my work responsibilities.” Liu echoes the sentiment, saying, “Life changes dramatically when you have kids. Be honest with yourself and with your boss about your values.”

Find a balance that works for you, your family, and your career. Moms who travel for work can bring a wider perspective to their roles in the office and at home, resulting in valuable skills that are assets for any employee and parent.

Claire Lui is a design, business and culture writer.