If you live in Australia, chances are you are familiar with the term FIFO - fly in, fly out. I must confess that prior to meeting my now-husband in 2015, I didn’t know anyone who worked FIFO, and although my Dad travelled for work, it wasn’t a regular occurrence and I was really only familiar with parents who went to work during the day and came home in the evening.
Fast forward to having my own family, and this experience looks very different. My husband is a FIFO worker, working in the iron ore industry in the WA Pilbara, and throughout the almost seven years of our relationship he has undertaken almost every roster configuration, requiring us to adapt and readjust each time - especially when we became parents! We now have a 3.5 year old, a 15 month old and are expecting baby number 3 in the New Year, and our future as a FIFO family seems set. So with that in mind, I thought I would share a few things that I have learned along the way.
1. Consistency is key.
Whether you are a family who has decided to undertake FIFO for a short period - common when people are chasing a big financial goal - or whether it is a permanent lifestyle for you, consistency is key. What I mean by that is that life for your children should remain as ‘ordinary’ as possible, whether the FIFO parent is home or not. There are a couple of pitfalls that can trip people up here - the FIFO parent having less total time with the children and therefore wanting all that time to be ’special’ can cause confusion for kids. Rather than one parent being the ‘fun’ parent and the other parent being ‘boring,’ it is so important that both of you are on the same page and that the schedule and the boundaries in your home stay the same. We know that kids strive with predictability, and keeping boundaries consistent relieves them of the need to constantly ‘test’ whether their parents are on the same page.
That is not to say that there can’t be special things that take place when the FIFO parent is home - creating little rituals that become part of the fabric of your family is such a great way to tighten your bond and to emphasise the importance of spending time together. One of our favourite family rituals, now that my husband is on a shorter roster, is for him to cook pancakes with the children on the Saturday mornings that he is home (which also gives me a few extra minutes in bed!) For more on the importance of creating family rituals, I highly recommend reading ‘Simplicity Parenting’ by Kim John Payne.
2. Keep everyone informed.
We tend to think of calendars and schedules as part of the adult realm of ‘life admin,’ but keeping your kids informed about who is going where, when, helps give them some certainty and also a sense of ownership over their lives - even as young toddlers. In fact, the search for something that would help my children understand the fluctuations of FIFO life was what led me to find the Second Scout products, specifically the ‘Work’ picture tiles for the Little Agenda. The set contains tiles that reflect when a parent is away for work, coming home and even allows for phone calls and FaceTime to be scheduled on the calendar. You can also specify which days are day/night shift to help kids understand what the parent is doing. I particularly love that the magnetic nature of the tiles and Little Agenda means that our precious ‘Coming Home Today’ tile can be placed in chronological order on the chart, meaning that if it is at at the bottom, they know that Dad is not coming home until nighttime.
I have found that the visual nature of this product has addressed any uncertainty around my husband leaving and also the questions around his return - my 3 year old simply goes to the chart, counts down the remaining days - and then gets distracted by the other fun events on the agenda!
3. Find your village.
This is such a cliched phrase in parenthood, but having a wider circle that you can depend on is absolutely crucial as the stay-home parent in a FIFO relationships. Put bluntly - it gets lonely. Having weekly catch ups scheduled with girlfriends and sisters, just for the chance of some adult conversation, has allowed me to see those days as truly enjoyable and I find that when I have these connections, I am not counting down the days - I can enjoy my social relationships, my work and also enjoy a bit of time on my own.
4. Normalise your lifestyle.
Even if you are only planning on being a FIFO family for a short while, try not to fall into the trap of ‘waiting it out’ - you want to enjoy your time and FIFO life comes with a lot of benefits. Try to normalise the lifestyle for your kids. There are books, dolls, even dress ups available that represent FIFO life and having the FIFO parent show the kids photos and videos of where they live and work helps take away some of the sense of confusion that can come from the abstract idea of ‘working away.’
5. Decide on your boundaries.
Working FIFO has its’ challenges - the hours are long and the separation can be hard on marriages and families. But it also has a lot of benefits, beyond the financial, that are often overlooked. FIFO parents typically have extended periods of time at home, often including weekdays that mean they can be involved in school runs, assemblies and activities that are tend to be missed by those working Monday-Friday. FIFO industries can also provide opportunities for career choices and advancement that are not available in a city setting, and certainly in the case of my husbands’ company, there are benefits like health facilities for the workers and a really excellent parental leave policy that encompasses both parents. At the end of the day though, you need to decide on your boundaries, specifically around the rosters that you are willing to undertake. For us, my husbands’ current roster of 9/5 (days) is as much time as we are willing to spend apart at this stage of our life. COVID forced us into a 2/2 (weeks) roster for a while, but even the extended time off wasn’t worth the separation with children as young as ours. Yes, longer swings mean more money, but creating a positive family environment and prioritising the mental health of everyone involved is worth much more.