Weathering the rough waters of working away from your family

A dad in Sherwood Park leaves home for 21 days at a time to work as a welder in Fort McMurray. A Calgary mom works as a field engineer on a rig off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Even with lower energy prices, the demands of many jobs and careers in Canada’s oil and gas industry can take mothers and fathers away from their homes and children for days and weeks at a time.

For some families, being apart is something they’ve learned to weather. For others, sharing parenting, household and financial responsibilities is a gathering storm.

These tips can help you navigate the rough waters of working away from your family.

Keep the kids healthy

Keeping relationships strong and supportive between parents and children has big rewards: both will be healthier and happier.

One way to stay connected is by “bridging” the time between when you are away and when you are at home, says Elsa Campos, managing director of the family outreach and resiliency team at Carya in Calgary.

Peter Shanomi knows all about this. An operations superintendent with Chevron, he’s worked 28 days on, 28 days off at deep offshore operations off Nigeria for the past nine years. When overseas, he sets an alarm to call his kids before they leave for school and prays with them over the phone and organizes fun activities for when he’s home.

When you’re working away from home, it helps to have a healthy mindset and perspective. Shanomi, for example, posts pictures of his family at the office and talks about them with colleagues to get through the “sad seasons,” such as when he misses birthdays and other special family events. He also takes part in recreational activities and feels a sense of “family” with co-workers.

Stay in touch

What happens when children are separated from a parent? “The answer is complicated,” Campos says. And it depends on the relationship spouses have with one another.

When parents frequently fight and ignore their kids, this can amp up children’s stress. Extreme or toxic stress can affect children’s brain development and result in difficulties in school, trouble sleeping, lack of focus and a long list of other health and social problems.

When a family has strong, nurturing connections—even when one parent is away—the children have a better chance of coping with a parent’s absence.

Home and away

Plus, when an away parent shares how and what they’re doing, it helps their children understand and deal with their absences, adds Shanomi. Let your children know when you are leaving for work and when you will be back. Most importantly, follow up on promises for time and plans together.

Be prepared for push back, anger and acting out, especially as children get older. Keep conversations going; if they don’t go well, try again later.

“I have three kids and get offended by them constantly,” Campos says. “They are testing how to handle relationships through what they do with me.” Parents need to be patient, calm and present in the relationship. “That is the best gift you can give to a child.”

Ask for help

For parents at home and away, a strong network can help with unexpected changes in relationships and the dynamics of parenting.

For a lot of people, it takes courage to admit they’re struggling and yet it’s a common feeling. So are depression and anxiety. All can erode relationships and can increase the risk of missing working or being injured on the job for both the away and at-home parent.

Campos encourages people to ask for help. They’ll often get it.

“We innately want to be there for one another,” she says. “Typically people (family, friends, colleagues) will open their arms and welcome us in.”

Healthy relationships

When one parent pops in and out of family life, it can lead to heartache and drama, says Debra Macleod, a couples’ mediator, relationship coach and the owner of MarriageSOS in Calgary.

It’s easy to have competing views about family separation, she says. Ease the heartache and end the drama by talking openly and honestly with your partner. It’s as important for your children as it is for you and your spouse. When parents have strong and healthy relationships, families tend to have strong and healthy relationships and can support one another through life’s ups, downs and absences.

“Acknowledge and appreciate your partner,” Macleod says. For example, the away parent could say: “I am grateful for how you look after the kids at home.” The home parent could say: “I appreciate the sacrifices you are making to financially look after our family.”

Avoid assuming how your partner is acting while away. If you are afraid your partner is living the “single” life, say so. Try: “I love you, but I feel vulnerable and I don’t like that.” If you are not honest about your feelings, you will come across as controlling or suspicious.

Keeping relationships strong and supportive is good for parents and children.

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*Read the full Home and Away article in the spring 2017 issue of Frontline Magazine.