When you are the absent parent

Being away from family shows me how adaptable we all can be

I haven't been near my kids for months. And I'm a better mother for it.

Eight weeks ago, I said goodbye to my husband and two sons, and took a plane to South Korea. I had landed my dream gig: 12 weeks as writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Centre, with the support of the National Arts Council. Room and board in the Wonju countryside to dream, think and write a new short story collection.

I used to fret about letting the kids out of my sight for more than a few hours. Now, I was the one shimmying out of the country.

The boys were not pleased, of course. "You're going away because I'm boring, right?" Lucien, six, pouted the night before I left. "You don't love me." Ah, strong in the subtle art of emotional blackmail, this one was.

"Of course not," I said, kissing the top of his head.

I made his brother Julian, 10, wear a Ziploc bag on his head, to "collect" the particular smell of his sweaty hair, and packed a couple of their stinky T-shirts so as to have something of theirs while away.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Prior to that, the Supportive Spouse and I had worked out part-time cleaner schedules, tuition transport schedules, emergency contacts, babysitting-in-a-pinch options and plant-watering duties. We bought Global Positioning System trackers for the elder boy, and installed a Web-cam to monitor the house.

"Is everything under control?" I kept asking my husband, who has the option to work from home and has a flexible work day. "What about X, Y or Z?"

"Yes, it is," was his stock reply. "Not for you to worry about," he added.

And he was right.

Two months into my residency, and the entire family has settled into a comfortable rhythm - thanks to my wonderful, indefatigable husband, now a temporary single dad; with help from my in-laws and parents.

Having been a stay-at- or work-from-home mum pretty much all my kids' lives, I had serious doubts that we could pull it off. But having done so, I now realise that going into the unknown can be good for the entire family.

If I hadn't gone away, I would not have known how resilient and independent my kids can be. Where I used to have to loom over them to get them to finish their meals and homework, they are now pretty much auto-pilot at such tasks.

When the continual assessments rolled around earlier this month, older brother Julian worked out a revision schedule and stuck to it, with his dad's periodic supervision. Over a recent long weekend, I WhatsApp messaged my husband to ask him what the kids were doing. "Kor Kor is learning ting xie (spelling in Chinese), and Lucien is testing him," came the reply.

And I see the kids plenty - just not in the flesh.

We talk over Skype at least once a day. In the mornings, their dad lugs my face around on an iPad, setting me up on the breakfast table or at the shoe-wearing corner, so we can have some face-time before school.

On the rare occasions that my husband has to pop out for an appointment or take one kid to enrichment class, I keep the other child company online. We work together in companionable silence, Web-cam lights trained on our faces - him, reading or doing school work; me, hacking away at a thicket of prose. I may not be physically there, but I can answer his questions, crack jokes or yell at him to get out of the house if it catches fire.

Without my propensity to micro-manage them, the boys have become more relaxed and better at entertaining themselves. Whereas, in the past, I had lamented my reproductive lot with every infraction or inconvenience of being a parent, I now feel I've hit the biological jackpot with these two funny, loving children. And whereas, I once insisted on spontaneity, with interesting activities and impromptu outings, I now see that the saner routine and discipline my pragmatic spouse has put in place provide the balance they need.

In a one-parent household, the boys have learnt to cooperate better, knowing that their Papa has limited time and resources. Lucien accompanies his dad without complaint to appointments, while Julian helps out by ordering food for dinner or groceries online.

Here in Korea, when people ask who is looking after my sons while I'm at Toji and I tell them "my husband", they invariably exclaim: "You've got a good man!"

I thank my lucky stars often. The separation has been good for the way we operate as a team: Instead of questioning or undermining his decisions, I have learnt that the absent parent has to zip it - the spouse handling the day-to-day responsibilities of raising kids gets to make the major decisions. In the process, I have come to appreciate that my husband is every bit as capable calling the domestic shots, as he is running his business. Less time is wasted, going over all permutations of a situation, because I trust him completely.

But what has changed most is myself. While I used to be a bundle of neuroses, worrying about things at home, I have been forced by distance to let go - and the feeling of freedom has been awesome.

Once upon a time, I would insist on the kids doing "educational things" or severely curtail their time with devices or on games; I now see the value in letting them do things they enjoy (in moderation, of course). After all, if I get to relax in order to feed my creativity, why can't they?

I have jettisoned the silly notion that parenting hampers my writing and gets in the way of my dreams, because the kids constantly demand my time. I was the only one getting in my way. When I get back to Singapore, there is nothing to stop me from escaping to a quiet place for a few hours to concentrate on my work. The kids, it has been proven, will be all right.

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. What they didn't say is that it can make an entire family grow in spirit, love and generosity towards one another.

•Clara Chow is a writer and co-founder of art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'When you are the absent parent'. Print Edition | Subscribe