Parenting when your partner works away

Dealing with distance.
Dealing with distance. Photo: Getty
When my husband broached the subject of working away from home for periods of time, I was nervous to say the least. With two boys, how we would each cope was at the forefront of my mind.

There are many families faced with this situation with parents involved in the fly-in/fly-out scenario (FIFO), working longer hours including night shifts and scheduled business trips. A recent Child Family Community Australia paper has shown that there has been a rapid increase in the FIFO workforce in recent years.

The financial advantages of these arrangements most likely explain this increase. More quality time spent with the family when the parent is home is also recognised as a reward.

With benefits though, come challenges. Ranging from children not understanding the situation to communication issues, it can be a tough gig.

Deanne Hislop, whose husband is a FIFO worker, did not originally want to take it on. She found personally that there can be a negative view around the FIFO lifestyle, often fuelling others’ anxiety.

The impact of the lifestyle was felt by their youngest child, who was two at the time and did not cope well. “He would cling to his dad’s legs if he just wanted to go to the shops,” she said. Due to her son’s difficulty in understanding, Deanne developed a calendar so they could track how many sleeps until her husband returned from a stint away.

This sparked the idea to create resources for other families and in 2012, My FIFO Family was born. Along with the calendar, Deanne has written a book which deals with the emotion involved for a FIFO household. My Boomerang Dad has gone on to be shortlisted for the Bilby Awards in Queensland.

It did not stop there. The range now includes bracelets, which have been a hit with teenage kids, and activity packs. Creating these resources has helped Deanne not only keep busy but support other FIFO families.

From FIFO workers to parents who shift work, challenges and benefits are still apparent. For Jo and her partner Aaron, shift work has become the norm with Aaron working varied shifts for the length of their five-year relationship.

"The biggest challenge for me has been trying to set any sort of routine,” Jo said. “For both Aaron and I, having to struggle through extreme tiredness is challenging.”

So would Jo choose this lifestyle again? Yes and no. Jo benefits from being able to work outside the home while her partner can care for their girls, aged six and four, when he is home. Even though there are difficulties in communication and parenting decisions, Jo says, “I see light at the end of the tunnel. Jessica will be at kinder next year and that routine time for her will be time for myself and for being with my partner.”

Top tips for coping with a parent working away from home

Stick to a routine: Keeping a consistent routine when the parent is working away and at home will help the kids settle.

Keep communication lines open: Both Jo and Deanne stress the importance of communication. Communicate freely and often, both over the phone and in person when your partner returns.

Build a strong support network: While Jo has benefitted from a small social group including another family who is in a similar situation, she has also sought assistance from an online group. Deanne has found support in other FIFO mums and groups.

Schedule in “me” time: Being a mum when your partner works away can be challenging and “me” time is very important to recharge.

Make sure the parent working away feels needed: The partner working away from home can feel redundant. Deanne likes to line up jobs for her husband to make him feel needed when he is home.

Remember that the parent working away is working: Deanne highlights that the partner is “not selfish for working away. They are working away for their family and often, to better their career.” 

Ensure there are no distractions during phone/Skype/FaceTime calls: Deanne finds it helpful if the TV is off and there are no distractions when her partner calls. This will help the parent working away feel important.

Make Skype/FaceTime calls interesting: Deanne’s husband takes a small car away with him so he can race cars across the screen with his son. He takes a Barbie, paper and scissors away so he can make Barbie clothes with their daughter during the scheduled time, which makes Skype time fun!

Choose special activities for the parent working away and the children to do together: Activities could include planting a herb garden so there is something to talk about when they are away. When they return, set aside time for fun, such as trips to the beach.

Keep busy while the parent is working away: Jo finds “extra trips to parks, cooking, painting nails and shopping for craft activities” all help with the times her partner is away for work.

Do you have a partner who works away from home? What ways do you cope with the situation?

Kym Campradt is a mother, writer, editor and proofreader. You can follow her on Twitter @KymCampradt.