my-dad's-a-pilot

My dad’s a pilot

Not only is Mat Raffills a dad, but he’s a dad who travels – a lot. As a young family, this can be tough, but Mat and Monique have created a rhythm that keeps them all connected. 

Monique • When I first met Mat he was a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. I remember one week after we started dating he went overseas for three weeks – which was a pretty good introduction to how life would be if I was going to settle down with a man who travels – a lot. 12 years later, Mat is now a pilot with Air New Zealand and flies on the long-haul routes to North America, Asia and occasionally England. Ironically I am a really nervous flyer, so hopefully our kids have gotten Mat’s genes in this department.

We are a young family of five – me, Mat, Annemieke (five), Isaac (two and a half) and our newest arrival, three-month-old Tommy. Our kids have never known any different when it comes to Mat’s job, and have grown up with their father going to work with a suitcase.

Mat • I love my job! I look forward to going to work, but even more, I look forward to coming home to see my family. As a pilot, my life revolves around a four-week roster, which usually has me away on three trips (ranging from four to six days) during the four-week period. Occasionally I get rostered a London duty which is extra hard on everyone – 10 days away from home! When I am at work, I really am away – in a different time zone and only visible on a screen. This can be hard when one of my kids gets sick or is having a rough time with something.

On the flip side, when I come home, I have several days off at a time, and I get to be very present and available for my children. I like to think of myself as a fairly hands-on dad. I am regularly the only dad at ballet class, gymnastics class, Mainly Music etc, so I feel very fortunate to see my kids in those environments. Next week I get to go on Annemieke’s school trip to the zoo and help out at her school’s PMP programme. I like being able to volunteer for these types of things as I feel it makes up somewhat for the events I do miss out on. I think the trick is to maximise the time I do have with my kids, even when I’d much rather be catching up on sleep!

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Monique • It’s amazing when Mat is home – there is no office work, we have quality time with him and he is all ours to enjoy. And for the most part, when Mat is overseas, the children and I just slot into our routine and get on with life. But having a husband who is a pilot also has its challenges. For example, when Annemieke was younger and used to suffer from croup, having to make the call at 11.30pm whether I phone for an ambulance or head down to A&E on my own and under pressure, was difficult. When Mat is away I have to be able to back myself and be confident in my decisions. In moments of crisis, the buck stops with me.

Thankfully we have a great support network with grandparents, aunties and uncles. My dad is adored by our children and will often pop round in the evenings to bath them and put them to bed. This was especially helpful in the last few weeks of my pregnancy with Tommy. Since Tommy’s arrival, we have also had a lovely young friend come over in the evenings to help me during the bewitching hours.

It dawned on me a couple of years ago that if something happened to me in the middle of the night, what would our children do come morning? I was talking with my mum about it and she suggested a wee morning text between us. The children always pop into my room at 7am and when they do, I quickly send mum a smiley face emoji. If she hasn’t heard from me by 7.30am, she calls me and if I don’t answer, she drives to our house to check in. There have been two occasions where we have all slept in or I’ve had my phone on silent and I have been greeted by mum with her key in our door! I realise it may sound a bit extreme to some but it works for me and is a simple system to have in place for my own peace of mind.

In this day and age we are so very lucky to have such great technology when it comes to staying in touch. Mat always sends me a text once he lands at his destination, and then again when he gets to the hotel and connects to the wifi. Our children are experts at Skype and FaceTime and can send WhatsApp voice messages all by themselves. This is a wonderful way to be able to keep Mat in the loop and up to date with what is happening for us back home. Annemieke always remembers her daddy in her prayers, praying that he sleeps well and eats nice food on his plane.

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Mat • I love getting the WhatsApp voice messages from home. It helps me feel included in the day’s happenings and the kids can send them anytime they want. FaceTime takes a bit more coordination but is an equally valuable tool. Especially for young Tommy – I can’t have him forgetting my face while I’m away! The two older kids literally hug and kiss the phone or iPad when we’re saying goodbye. I love it – even though all I see is a black screen!

Monique • When Mat gets home from a trip away, we like to go out for lunch or get takeout for dinner as a way to reconnect as a family unit. Another fun thing that the children and I do sometimes is surprise Mat at the airport. He usually lands first thing in the morning, so if it is a reasonable hour, we get up, make toast to eat in the car and hightail it to the airport. The children love this adventure, especially if we leave home and the sun hasn’t quite risen. When they spot him walking through the arrival gate they jump over the railing and run towards him, much to the delight of people waiting for their loved ones to also walk through.

Mat • Something Monique and I both treasured from our childhoods was family holidays. We both had busy fathers who worked hard to provide for us, so we always looked forward to our respective holidays away. We wanted holidays to be a big part of our family life and put real emphasis on having adventures and creating fun memories. Before Annemieke started school it was much easier to do this, and we would often head out of town when I had a few days off in a row. It’s more challenging now with a school girl in the family but we still head away when we can, even if it’s just for the weekend. Again for me it comes down to making the most of my time at home, creating those memories and being as much a part of my kids’ lives as I can.

My strongest hope for the future, in relation to my job and family, is that when my kids look back on their childhood, they will think of how I was around more than I was away. Being a dad who is present and involved is so important to me. The reality is that I do go away a lot, and I do miss out on important occasions (I spent last Christmas in a hotel room in London), but I want them to grow up knowing that they are loved, and feeling that the time I did spend with them far outweighed the time I was away.

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The best way I can think of to make this happen is to have plenty of fun with my kids, spend as much time with them as possible, and try not to let life get too busy when I am at home. I have to constantly remind myself that my kids don’t fully understand when I tell them I’ve just flown home through the night and am very tired, or that there are some jobs I need to do around the house. They simply expect me to be on form, to play with them, read them books, and listen to their stories. So I do. This is easier said than done, but I really try to put some things on hold so I can spend good quality time with them, and make sure they’re feeling loved and not passed over.

Monique • My desire for our children at the end of the day is that they feel loved, secure and part of a healthy family unit. I have made a commitment to our children that when Daddy is away, I do my utmost to keep the ship sailing smoothly. I need to be patient and not get too caught up in running around trying to get everything done by myself. Asking for help is important – for my own sanity and so that our children don’t dread Mat going to work because I turn into a stressed out grump. I’m far from perfect, but I try to keep this quote by Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard at the front of my thoughts – “In the end, I am the only one who can give my children a happy mother who loves life.” We have a unique lifestyle, but we do our best to make it work for our family.

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