Have Spouse, Will Travel

By Nancy Moffitt

How can professionals maintain a home life when they’re forever on the road? Meet five couples who are making it work.

After four years of managing a relationship and an intense professional travel schedule, strategy consultant Kelly Jirovec had grown accustomed to birthdays and Valentine’s days spent on the road, often sans gifts and candlelight.

But this year, she got a surprise. During a business trip in Phoenix, Kelly received a dozen red roses from her husband, Todd, delivered to her hotel. She couldn’t stand the thought of leaving them behind for her flight home to Dallas, so she carried her bouquet, vase and all, onto the airplane. “I noticed that people seem to be especially nice to you when you’re carrying flowers,” she says, laughing.

Jokes aside, Kelly, who is married to Todd Jirovec, WG’93, says it’s just this kind of spontaneous gesture that helps ease the strain of a growing phenomenon: married couples who also juggle extensive professional travel schedules. Of the almost 44 million business travelers, nearly seven in ten are married, and half of those are raising at least one child at home, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. And more people than ever are traveling professionally: business travel has increased 14 percent since 1994, with frequent business travelers away from home an average 3.1 days per trip.

The Jirovecs, married for a year and a half of their four years together, both travel professionally, though Todd’s work as a senior manager for Deloitte Consulting keeps him on a plane and away from home three to four days a week. The first nine months of their marriage, in fact, the couple lived apart, with Kelly, 26, in Boston and Todd, 34, in Houston, though they are now both based in Dallas.

“The fact that we’ve always done it, I think, makes it easier,” says Kelly, a consultant with Boston Consulting Group. But like most couples dealing with regular and prolonged absences, the Jirovec’s have had their share of misunderstandings, especially early on.

Expectations for time spent together is a major issue cited by most of the couples interviewed for this story. One partner might prefer silently crashing in front of the television, while the other wants to talk about world events over a sit-down dinner. In the Jirovec’s case, Todd, the quieter of the two, wanted an hour or so to himself to catch up on the week’s mail and generally settle into being at home again. Kelly, who is very social, would “be all over him,” wanting to talk and reconnect.

“It caused some arguments,” says Kelly. “I would feel like I didn’t see him for a week and he just wanted to read the mail. But he was wishing I would just give him a minute to himself. I find that when I do give him that time, he comes back and wants to talk. But you only learn those things by going through them.”

Through trial and error, the Jirovecs have found other ways to ease the disconnected feeling that comes with spending more time apart than together. A daily telephone call is a key. “We have a rule that we talk every day, no matter where we are and what time it is,” Kelly says. “And sometimes, you have to work real hard to make those conversations meaningful. That’s not to say every conversation has to be stimulating and intense and that we can’t just talk about what happened during our day, but we do try to do more than that when we can.”

It’s also critical not to let feelings of insecurity creep into the relationship, Kelly says. “It’s important to assume that your partner really does want to be with you – that it’s circumstances that are behind his absence. You have to believe and trust that the other person is just as frustrated as you are by not being together.” Having realistic expectations is also important. It’s normal to feel a little uncomfortable with one another after being apart all week, Todd says. Couples need to understand this and not expect instant chemistry when they find themselves suddenly together again. “We have said that it takes until Saturday afternoon to really feel comfortable together again,” Todd says. “If you accept this early on, it takes the pressure off.”

Another important lesson the Jirovecs learned: trying to keep up with all of the household maintenance – from lawn care and landscaping to housecleaning – simply adds to already high stress levels. “You just end up dreading the weekend,” Kelly says. The couple now contracts these tasks out, accepting the expense as an unavoidable consequence of their busy professional lives. Other suggestions the Jirovecs have found helpful:

  • Don’t expect to spend every minute of the weekend together. It’s important to still have time to yourself and to be able to pursue your own hobbies and interests.
  • Even though you’re apart, try to connect in small ways. “Kelly will sometimes surprise me by sending a drink to my room late at night,” Todd says. “And I’ve sent her a lot of virtual bouquets and cards. It’s the little things that help ease the stress.”
  • Travel together when you can. Through their work, Todd and Kelly have gone on many trips together, including one to Australia. “We’ve taken advantage of the fun we can have with this travel,” Kelly says.

Long-term, and particularly when they decide to have children, the Jirovecs believe their breakneck pace will have to slow. Realizing that this is a temporary stage in their marriage also helps keep things in perspective. “We both knew there would be tradeoffs, but we are committed to putting us first,” says Todd.

The challenges are even greater for Marty and Esi DeWitt, who juggle Marty’s hectic travel schedule as a consultant with Diamond Technology Partners, Esi’s medical residency with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and one-year-old baby Miles.

Marty, 34, WG’96, a principal with Chicago-based Diamond, joined the company a year ago after working in Latin America for two years with Bain & Co. He travels “four and one” – four days a week with the client and one day at the office or working from home. Esi, 30, meanwhile, is in her first year of a pediatric residency. Her schedule can be every bit as erratic as Marty’s, with overnight duties and many weekends on call. The saving grace for this couple: Esi’s parents, who live minutes away from the DeWitt’s Wyndmoor, Pa. home and babysit their grandchild much of the time. “It’s been a little tough, because Esi works a lot of nights as a resident, and I’m away, and her parents are still working too,” Marty says.

The DeWitts, who have been married three years, lived apart for the first two years of their marriage when Marty, 34, was based in Latin America working for Bain and Esi was in medical school in St. Louis. “We tried to talk on the phone as much as possible,” Marty says, explaining that the living arrangement meant the couple sometimes didn’t see one another for up to two months. During the earliest months of Esi’s pregnancy in 1998, Marty was still based in Latin America. He returned to the states about midway through the pregnancy, and the couple moved back to the Philadelphia area in early 1999 for Esi’s residency and Marty’s position at Diamond.

Their current situation, then, seems a vast improvement to not living together at all, Esi observes. “It’s much better than before, but we’re still working on it. We make a point to talk about how it’s going,” she says.

How have the DeWitts managed? Talking about their career expectations prior to getting married helped considerably, the couple says, because there were no surprises after the fact. Marty, also a graduate of Wharton/Penn’s Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, wanted to use his global training and Spanish language skills. Esi, meanwhile, knew she wanted to go to medical school and also understood the life of a consultant having worked as one after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in economics. “I can recall conversations we had even before we were engaged about the importance of each of our careers and what sacrifices would have to be made in order to follow through with our goals,” Marty says.

The realization that “all this is temporary” has helped ease the incredible pace and near-constant rate of change, Esi says, adding that it’s also important to make an effort to leave work-related stress at the office. “We try to make home a happy place,” she says. “And we don’t ever take the family for granted.”

When they have a free weekend, the DeWitts have learned to strike a balance between family time and couple time. Each weekend they have together, they try to plan a “date,” some structured family activity with Miles, and some private time for each of them. With all of this scheduling, it’s often not possible to be spontaneous because “we have to plan things out so everyone is getting what they need.” Sharing household chores is also important. “For a while, I felt like all my free time was spent running to the grocery store,” Esi says. “Now, I have some time to myself when I’m not running errands.”

The couple says the bottom line to making it work is a willingness to talk things over, be realistic, honest with each other and willing to make sacrifices. “Be honest with your employer too,” says Marty, adding that sometimes that means saying no to working on weekends. Both Marty and Esi agree that their lifestyle will have to change, long-term. Once Esi’s residency is completed in two years, the DeWitts will reevaluate their schedules, and hopefully, Esi says, come up with a less hectic solution.

Susan and Jeremy Jonas got a bit of a reality check recently when their four-year-old son, Nicholas, started calling the guest room “Daddy’s room.”

Jeremy, WG’91, a consultant with McKinsey & Co.’s Montreal office, travels between two and four days a week for six month periods, often waking up at 5 a.m. or earlier to head to the airport. “I’ve just started sleeping in the guest room sometimes so I don’t wake Susan up when I leave,” he says. Jeremy, 35, has traveled heavily since joining McKinsey six years ago after working as a consultant in Australia and a software developer in Montreal. He consults for industrial companies in the resource and transportation sectors and manages a heavy international travel schedule, including recent trips to Sweden and New Zealand. Susan, also 35, is home full-time with Nicholas and Chloe, 18 months old.

Married for eight years, the couple returned to their native Montreal in 1996. And like most of the couples interviewed for this story, they find it most challenging to live up to one another’s sometimes very different expectations for weekends. “Jeremy expects that when he gets home, everything will be handled and he can rest and recharge,” says Susan. “And I expect him to be willing to play nanny to the kids and go to museums with me.”

Along the way, the couple admits they’ve made a few mistakes. When Jeremy joined McKinsey in 1993 and began traveling extensively, he would rarely call Susan during the week while he was away. “We started to grow apart. Now, I call every day. It’s important – we are able to touch base and talk about what happened during our day.”

Through trial and error, both have learned to compromise. A key to limiting conflict, Susan says, is creating a fairly structured schedule for the weekend. While spontaneity suffers, both Susan and Jeremy know what to expect and thus disappointments are avoided. It’s also important to schedule “couple time” before you really need it, Jeremy says, and to be creative about how you spend that time. Rather than the usual “dinner and a movie,” the couple tries to incorporate a physically active activity into their weekend such as volleyball (they belong to a team) or working out together.

And instead of being relegated to neglected, absentee friendships because of his time-pressured life, Jeremy has again gotten resourceful: he often meets friends for breakfast on weekends, thus saving the bulk of the day for family. When the couple lived far from family and friends while Jeremy was at McKinsey’s Cleveland office, Susan actively cultivated friendships with people whose spouses also traveled extensively. This support system of sorts, she says, proved invaluable with Jeremy sometimes gone the entire week.

Getting away is also a key. On a regular basis, the couple retreats to a cottage they own in the country and escape the telephone, bills and other realities of day-to-day life. They also try to take extraordinary vacations, such as a two-week trip to Tuscany and a planned trip to the Olympics in Australia. “You need to generate new memories,” Susan says.

Susan and Jeremy hope for a less chaotic schedule long-term. To that end, Jeremy is working toward cultivating more local clients and more aggressively using technologies such as videoconferencing. “The kids are a wake-up call,” Jeremy says. “It’s a small tragedy not to be there.”

As management consultants in the early 1990s, Cliff Porzenheim, W’85, and his wife Michal Clements, W’84, WG’89, once checked in to same Michigan hotel – and didn’t even know it. “We practically bumped into one another there, thankfully in time to share a room though we still ended up paying for two,” says Cliff. “It was one of those moments when we asked ourselves, ‘Are we traveling too much?’ ”

Porzenheim, today vice president of corporate strategy for GATX Corp. in Chicago, and Michal, a partner at The Cambridge Group’s Chicago office, have been married for nearly 15 years and have managed to successfully intertwine travel, marriage and family. It’s never been completely painless, however, particularly during a two-year period of living in different cities in the early years of their marriage. During that time, Michal was earning her MBA at Wharton while Cliff was working long hours in New York City for Bank of America’s investment banking area. The couple only saw one another on weekends, and had to work a bit harder to stay connected. “You don’t have the kinds of things that you share over breakfast or while brushing your teeth,” Cliff said. “So you have to try to build some of that more mundane, everyday interaction into your time together.”

Later, both joined the consulting field – Michal at Booz Allen and the Cambridge Group and Cliff at A.T. Kearney and Boston Consulting Group. Along the way, Cliff and Michal have collected their share of travel war stories, such as one trip when Michal was staying in Nashville while Cliff was in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Cliff decided to make the 60-mile drive to Nashville to have dinner with Michal, then headed back to Kentucky afterward. But his rental car broke down, and he found himself on the side of an interstate late at night in the pouring rain. “At that point, I asked myself again, ‘Am I traveling too much? Do I want to live this way?’ ” says Cliff, laughing. Ultimately, he managed to drive the failing car to a gas station, where it promptly died.

The bottom line in making it work, according to Cliff, is symmetry. “People fight when their expectations aren’t aligned,” he says. “We never fought about travel because we were in parallel situations – we both worked as consultants and we both traveled. We’ve both been on either side of the coin, so it’s easier to be understanding.”

Despite this, Cliff, 36, doesn’t dismiss the strain that frequent absences can put on a relationship, particularly when children enter the picture. “It doesn’t work in the long-term,” he says. “It’s somewhat workable but still deficient without kids, but with kids, it all falls apart.”

After his son Christopher, 5, was born, Cliff stayed in consulting for two years, but ultimately found the frequent absences too difficult. Today, the couple also has a daughter, Mary Jane, 3, whose arrival was a key reason Cliff decided to leave consulting. “It’s what you miss. It’s not horrendous and it’s probably easier for the kids to deal with than the parents, but I missed a bunch of things I wish I hadn’t.” Cliff ’s post at GATX still requires travel about 20 percent of the time, but is a vast improvement over his consulting days. Michal, 36, still travels one or two days a week. A nanny and Cliff ’s mother, who lives with the couple, help fill the gaps when long hours and travel are necessary.

What do Cliff and Michal recommend, as one of the most seasoned commuter couples interviewed for this story? Again, the answer comes down to symmetry. “You have to go into something like this with your eyes wide open,” says Cliff. “A person can do almost anything if you have a very strong sense of what your goals are. It’s important not to drift into something like this without understanding how it meets your personal and career goals, and a lot of people do that. You have to talk about it up front.”

Michal recalls trying to cram too many activities into weekends during their “pre-children” years, since she and Cliff were often apart all week and wanted to make the most of their time together. “The time management thing is huge. If you’re exhausted Friday night after traveling all week, you sleep in on Saturday morning and you fly out on Sunday night, you can calculate the hours and see that there aren’t a lot there. And when you have kids, you need to be around for them.” Prioritizing is a key, she says, because “it’s important to have down time together. Physically, you need to unwind and so something has to go.”

That “something,” Michal has also learned, should also include time consuming household tasks such as laundry and grocery shopping. Michal and Cliff farm out some of their domestic duties and grocery shop on-line so household provisions are delivered and weekends aren’t spent running errands. Michal also suggests putting your travel time to good use. She recalls buying Cliff ’s father’s day present at the Pittsburgh Airport one year, and makes a point to go on brief “power shopping” trips during business trips. Another great tool: Cliff and Michal independently bought the other Palm Pilots for Christmas last year and have found organizational stresses are fewer as a result.

“It’s important to try to look for the silver lining,” Michal says. “We’ve had some wonderful family vacations to Hawaii and other places using our frequent flier miles.”

Bruce Golboro, W’78, can recall many times he felt like a stranger in his own home, particularly when his children were younger. A partner at Arthur Andersen LLP, Golboro has traveled extensively throughout his 20-year career, a pace that’s only been heightened recently when his office moved to Washington, D.C. but home and family remained in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Golboro, 43, lives in a hotel much of the week, either in Washington or on the road working with clients. It’s a lifestyle he, wife Susan, 42, and their three children have grown accustomed to over the years. “The kids are over the hump at this point and are used to this,” Bruce says.

But during the early years of the Golboro’s marriage, it wasn’t so easy. Susan recalls feeling so isolated after she, Bruce and their young daughter Amy moved to the Philadelphia area that she banged her shopping cart – on purpose – into another young woman’s cart in hopes of striking up a conversation with her. During that time, Bruce was working for a Texas-based real estate firm and was traveling several days a week.

Later, Bruce was assigned to an eight-month project in San Diego and was gone every other week. After a couple of months, two-year-old Amy stopped asking about and for her father. “It was as if he wasn’t a part of our life,” Susan says. Bruce too acknowledges that the frequent travel was “very, very difficult when the children were young.” But today, after years of vacations courtesy of their father’s frequent flier miles, the children keep track of Bruce’s trips and remind him when he’s not earning enough miles. And after 20 years of marriage, the couple reports few problems with Bruce’s long and continuing history of being away much of the week, though Susan admits that it still “drives me crazy” when Bruce won’t cut the tether to the office, even on vacations. On a surprise trip to Bermuda to celebrate her 40th birthday, Bruce checked in with his office three times a day, Susan says. “That’s the most annoying thing, because there’s no sense of real time off. We don’t have time that is totally our own.”

But despite his schedule, Golboro has gone to great lengths to stay involved in his children’s day-to-day lives. He has always assisted with homework duties and often has his daughter Stacy, 13, who likes him to help her with writing projects, fax reports to his hotel. “You can do homework mobile,” Bruce says. He’s also taken each of his children, individually, on business trips: Stacy, now 13, accompanied Bruce on a trip to San Francisco two years ago; her twin brother, Peter, joined his parents at a convention in San Antonio and Amy, 17, went college shopping to Boston with her father. “They will never forget those times,” Bruce says.

Bruce carries an 800-number beeper that only Susan knows because “she sometimes has no idea where I’m going to be.” It’s also important not to allow nightly, on-the-road phone conversations with your spouse to drift into generalizations. “When the twins were little, I would say ‘How did the six o’clock feeding go?’ or ‘Did they take the new food today?’ You need to be involved in the specifics and never take anything for granted,” Bruce says.

Susan, who graduated from Penn’s nursing school in 1979, has always immersed herself in volunteer work, the family’s synagogue and her neighbors and friends. Having a full life of your own is a key to managing feelings of isolation and loneliness, she says. Even when Bruce was away, she would get a baby sitter and go out to dinner with other couples and friends. “Don’t sit at home if your spouse isn’t there,” she says. “Being on the 24-hour mommy track when you’re mommy and daddy can wear thin.” Knowing that time is short, the couple has gotten creative when it comes to socializing with other couples. A favorite and much less time-consuming way to catch up, Susan says, is going out for dessert with friends.

“There’s no secret to making it work,” Susan says. “You just need to have a sense of humor and realize that things could be a lot worse. Don’t take life too seriously or yourself too seriously. Try to consider yourself lucky.”

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