Dad embraces son

How do you thrive as a family when a parent is away?

When Adelaide nurse and mother Alicia Ranford’s two young children found it hard to cope when their dad Joe was away on site in the mining industry, she co-founded free resource Mining Family Matters in 2009, with Adelaide journalist and mother of twins, Lainie Anderson.

Since then, Mining FM has expanded into a book publisher, website and newsletter with easy-to-apply advice from a resident psychologist, careers adviser and a healthy lifestyle coach, along with articles from columnists with FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out) or DIDO (Drive In, Drive Out) partners working in remote mining regions.

She shared this advice for when Dad (or Mum) is away:

Missing big family events:

There’s no law that says birthdays, anniversaries or even Christmas need to be celebrated on any given day, or can’t be celebrated twice. If you feel sad or anxious on the day, don’t let your children ‘wear’ your unhappiness. Instead, get it off your chest by talking to a friend or family member.

On big days that you’re apart, be kind to yourselves and to each other.

“We even used to light the candles on Joe’s birthday cake and sing him happy birthday on Skype – then eat it in front of him, which sounds a bit cruel now, but the kids loved it and it made us all laugh,” says Alicia.

Staying connected to the kids:

Young children can be very literal, advises Alicia, so instead of saying “going away”, say “going to work”. On the phone, replace uninspiring questions (“How was your day?”) with open queries that need a thoughtful answer (“How’d you go in the spelling test?” or “What made you laugh today?”).

“Our son Sam used to struggle a bit on the phone with Joe. You know what kids are like – they’d rather be watching TV or playing Lego than stuck on the phone. That was hard on Joe, getting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers when he was missing us so much. It worked much better when I spoke to Joe first and told him what the kids had been up to for the day, so that he’d know the right questions to ask to get them engaged in the conversation.”

Alicia said her friend and Mining Family Matters psychologist Angie Willcocks suggested Joe write a message to the kids on a little piece of cardboard, that they could keep in their pocket or by their pillow and know he was always near. “It worked a treat.”

“It’s very important that the parent working away feels involved in raising the kids.”

“We always talked every night Joe was away, but we also had a specific conversation just before he came home to let him know what was going on, or if the kids were going through a particular phase, so he knew what he was stepping back into. “

“We also used to put little notes in Joe’s going away bag to surprise him – and I’d ring the company to see if we could post things away and the kids always sent up their artwork. It was a great way for me to clean the kitchen bench of kindy and school artwork, and he always felt like the kids were thinking of him.”

When you’re home, be present.

Drive your children to school and to sport. Stay in touch with teenagers through text messages and social media. Working away isn’t an excuse to be disconnected. “We always used Skype to help with discipline, and the kids could show off their latest Lego design.”

Your mental health at work:

At work, you need to focus on your mental health, not just your physical health. Setting strong goals will keep you focused in difficult times. Remember that depression and anxiety are common and can be treated, and skills can be learnt to manage stress. If your company offers some kind of confidential Employee Assistance Program, take advantage of it.

Bolster your mental health with physical health by eating well and getting enough sleep.

Keeping the home fires burning:

Remember that life is not a competition – you’re both exhausted! Regularly re-assess how you’re coping. Don’t be afraid to be proactive with support systems like a gardener, cleaner or grandparents to babysit to give you both a break.

Alicia recommends you be open and honest.

“Discuss issues as a team. Replace “How are YOU going to fix this?” with “What can WE do?”, she suggests.

“If there’s one thing I want people to remember, it’s that they’re not alone in finding work-based separation tough sometimes. It can put extraordinary pressures on ordinary relationships.”

Mining Family Matters has in-depth resources for families separated by distance for work, including tips on keeping the kids, the at-home and away partners all happy, money advice, and examples of good company initiatives to help families flourish. The site sells the 32-page Working Away: a Survival Guide for Families by Angie Willcocks and Alicie Ranford ($6 incl. postage), for any family with a parent working away from home for sustained periods, such as Defence Forces personnel, pilots, and businesspeople who travel frequently.

Words by Natalie Ritchie / Image by Josh Willink