City+: Mummy's on the road again

All working mothers feel guilty sometimes, but what if your job takes you away from home for months at a time? Suzy Greaves talks to three long- distance career mums
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The Businesswoman

Lisa Stirling, 39, began the Manchester-based Lisa Stirling fashion business 20 years ago. She's away on buying trips lasting up to five days for more than half the year. She leaves Poppy,1, and Edward, 10, with her mother, 76.

The kids are always saying " Don't go away again, Mummy". They tend to catch me at a vulnerable moment when I'm missing them. They'll phone me and plead with me to come home.

I feel guilty when I'm not there to help them with their schoolwork. And when I arrive home exhausted, all I want to do is put my feet up and have a glass of wine, so I'm not as disciplined with them as I honestly think I should be.

If I thought I was damaging them by working away so much, I wouldn't do it. But the children are happy and get good marks at school, and I have a close relationship with them. I used to have nannies, but now the kids are at school and my mother is living with us, childcare isn't a problem.

I do miss my children. When they were little, it was harder because I couldn't communicate with them. It's not so bad now I can talk to them on the phone. When I go away, I speak to them every night.

I don't think my children have suffered, but my relationship with my husband has. We separated a few months ago. We both had the same work commitments, although I looked after the children, but he felt his work was more important than mine. It put pressure on our relationship.

If I had my time again, I think I'd prefer to stay at home. But this time around I didn't have a choice. When I had Poppy, I already had a whole chain of shops and I couldn't drop them just like that. So I got two months off, got a nanny and ploughed on. And I have ploughed on ever since.

Lisa's mother Vera Sterck says:

I didn't work, but I don't disapprove of Lisa doing so. She works very hard and I don't think she'd know what to do with herself if she didn't. I don't think the children suffered at all. Poppy and Edward are such confident, sophisticated children. I can't see how they've been affected negatively.

I do get ratty when Lisa's always late. I'll never forget the time I had a phone-call from the kid's headmaster to say no-one had picked them up. Lisa had been so busy she'd forgotten to book a taxi to collect them. I was horrified - but the children were fine about it.

The Soldier:

Captain Milli Jeffery, 40, has just returned from a six-month posting in Bosnia as administrative officer with The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. She left Andrew, 2, and Alexandra, 1, at an army base in Germany with her husband Jeff, 41, who is retired from the army.

When I left the children, I felt very sad and guilty, especially as I was going to miss Alex's first birthday and Christmas. I was devastated when Jeff sent me a video of Alex walking towards their childminder with a big smile. I thought: what am I doing in Bosnia, freezing cold, sleeping in a Portakabin, when I should be with my kids? I wanted to get on the next plane home.

I wish I could say I feel the job is more important, but, as a mother, I can't. I write letters and I ring home three times a week when I'm posted away, but I know I'm missing out on their childhood. I'm still a career woman. We waited 12 years before having a family because I enjoy my career so much.

The children feel secure with Jeff. Andrew was fretful when I left and Jeff says he has been inconsolable at times which is difficult, but if, in ten years' time, Andrew claims he's become a delinquent purely because I went to Bosnia, I would completely disagree.

I don't think I'm damaging my children - it's who they're left with that counts. Jeff is great with them and as long as they're loved and looked after, they'll be fine.

I think the other army wives probably found it strange having a man in their midst, but now they invite Jeff round for coffee. I don't worry about infidelity. We've been married for 17 years and neither of us has strayed. We trust each other.

Life in the army has been good to us. We enjoy a high standard of living. I don't want to give it up. No-one criticises a man when he's posted away.

Jeff Jeffery says:

I think a father can bring up a child just as well as a mother. It must be hard if you want to go out partying all the time, but I'm quite content to spend time with the kids.

The other wives have been great. Most took me under their wing, although some were a bit funny and said Milli's place was here with the kids.

When Milli first left, Alex would wander round the flat looking for her. But Andrew's been affected the most. He cries and asks why his mummy isn't here. I tell him she has to do what the army tells her. At first, he'd cry and say he wished I was in the army, not his mummy. When Milli comes home on leave, he never leaves her side. I don't think it's damaged the kids, though. As one of us is here giving them love, they should be all right.

The Actress

Tammi Jacobs, 36, is an actress, currently appearing in `Les Miserables' in London's West End. She tours Britain for about six months at a time with different musicals, while bringing up her 4-year-old son Oliver. She lives in Wiltshire with Gary, 31, a sound engineer.

My work is everything to me - it goes a lot deeper than just being a way to earn money. The theatre and acting are my passions, whereas marriage and children were never really part of my plan. Oliver was an accident and my first thought when I found out I was pregnant was what am I going to do about my work? But Gary and I have a very solid relationship and I couldn't see why we shouldn't have a child.

Oliver was 18 months old when I first went on a five month tour, with Great Expectations, so I was lucky to be able to hear his first words and see his first steps.We'd arranged that Gary would look after Oliver while I was away and I would come home every weekend to see him. Then I had a phone call to say that Gary had been called away to work and he was on his way up to Cheshire to drop Oliver off at his mother's. This meant I wouldn't see Oliver for three weeks.

I was devastated. I cried and cried, but I had made the decision to work away I had to stand by it. Because of the instability of my profession I have to take work when I can get it. I just hope to God that when he is old enough he will understand.

Gary was on tour for most of Oliver's early years and he feels that, in some way, he's let him down. But I haven't felt guilty until recently. When Oliver was a baby, he was happy as long as he was fed, changed and loved by whoever was looking after him. But now he's older, there's a hoo-ha every day I go to work. Our nanny Debbie is excellent and has been with us for a year, but when I leave, he cries "I want you, not her" and I need to explain that I have to go to work and I'll be back as soon as I possibly can.

I do think that a young child needs his mum more that his dad. I know that sounds sexist, but it's me that Oliver runs to when he falls and hurts himself. Having said that, when he has been ill, I've had to leave him with Debbie. On one occasion she became very worried about him and rang me on my mobile phone. I drove back home immediately, but when I got there, there was actually nothing wrong with him. It was purely an attention-seeking move, but I wasn't to know that. At the end of the day my son will always come first.

I want Oliver to grow up to be a healthy and happy child, and I feel bad that I don't have much energy when I do spend time with him and always end up screaming and shouting.

I don't think Oliver has suffered, though. As long as there's always copious amounts of love and everything is explained, I hope there won't be any problems in the future.

Gary Dixon says:

I don't think it affects Oliver at all when Tammi is away working. It's not as if he is left home alone with no-one to care for him. I work evenings , but that means I can wake him and leave our nanny or his grandma or aunt to put him to bed. He doesn't miss out on any love. Oliver always says " I don't want you to go" but he says that whenever we have to go out to work, not just when I or Tammi will be going away. We explain to him that we have to work to earn the pennies to buy his Thomas the Tank Engine toys. But of course he doesn't quite understand that yetn

Will it affect the children?

Dr Helen Barratt, a psychologist specialising in attachment, says: "If the father is depressed because his wife's not around, there can be problems, but if he is able to carry on as if everything is normal then the children should be OK.

"Studies suggest that if a father works away and the mother has coped well, the readjustment when the father returns is difficult - his family role has to be renegotiated. This may apply to mums who work away, too.

"When children are small, they feel helpless and never feel they can actually say, `I need you. Stop going away.' Then when they can vocalise their feelings and the mother still goes away, it can be upsetting for them and the mother. There is also a danger that children will be unable to talk to their mother at the times when they really need her and so they'll repress their feelings.

"Ultimately, a mother will know if her children are going to cope. She should trust her instincts."