In Defence of F.I.F.O.

Letter to the Editor. Received Sept 15, 2016

Author is a local Geraldton resident who asked to remain anonymous. 

I've seen a few posts lately about the evils of the FIFO lifestyle. What it does to families and communities etc. 

This time last year, we were a FIFO family. My husband started working on the mines when my youngest child was about 7 months old. His (the youngest child's) sisters were 4 and 6. We did it for financial reasons. Having met, married and had our family a little later than most of our friends, we found ourselves wanting to be able to provide for our kids, and plan for our retirement and we realised that we'd left it a bit late. So off went my husband, to a better-paying job than he'd been in. Not hugely better-paying, but enough to hopefully pay off our mortgage before retirement age (Not looking good at this stage, but here’s hoping!)

I wouldn't say it's been all plain-sailing, but then life never is. Yeah, sometimes it's hard to be the stay-at-home parent. 24/7 responsibility, for everything, over 50% of the time; No-one to fix complicated stuff when it breaks (I have however, learnt to re-wire trailer lights, change mower blades, use high-school-level physics to lift and shift heavy stuff, and bury dead pets); showing up alone so often to school events that people think you're a single parent; Most of all, a lack of sensible adult conversation. My husband missed the kids horribly; had to juggle his own needs when he was home, with the need to take care of "stuff" (mostly the afore-mentioned complicated broken things); and deal with the sense of isolation that comes with being absent - whole chunks of life that happened while he was away, and that he struggled to catch up with.

Then my husband was made redundant. And suddenly we have him home again!! Or do we? 

He is now working in the same industry he was in before he became a miner. On less money than he was getting 11 years ago; with shitty conditions; away most of the time, usually at short notice, and usually with no idea of when he’ll be home again.

It's still hard to be the stay-at-home parent. 24/7 responsibility for everything 90% of the time and with no ability to plan ahead; Still no-one to fix complicated stuff when it breaks (No time on his 1-2 days off every 2-3 weeks, so now some of our reduced income has to pay people to do that stuff); Both of us showing up even less to school events because I'm trying to work extra hours to cover the loss in income; Having to rely more on friends and neighbours to help us out with running kids around, while having less ability to return the favours; Adult conversation has become less sensible and less about us and our family, and more like a counselling session to help him cope.

Most of all, my 11 year-old son misses his Dad. He always did, but I could always tell him when Dad would be home. We could plan stuff; We could prepare surprises or special meals and events for when he was home; If he was going to be away on a special occasion (Birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries), we had time to adjust and organise to celebrate on different days. Now we never know if he’s going to be home in 2 days or in 20. Or for how long. 

FIFO doesn't suit every family. You have to be strong, and you have to be resilient. As a stay-at-home parent, you have to learn how to fix stuff (or when to call an expert in); You have to learn how to ask for help sometimes; Sometimes you have to learn how to make decisions without discussing it with your partner; You have to work on friendships, because it's your friends who will provide the adult conversation, the support, the baby-sitting and transport to sports events etc. (and the assurances that it doesn't matter that you can't repay the favour); and every so often, the shoulder to cry on, or the loan of a husband to help you shift something really heavy. 

You also have to learn not to burden the FIFO partner unnecessarily. He or she is lonely, tired and isolated. There's a difference between sharing what's going on at home, and worrying them. 

So what if the family car blew an engine and is going to cost $4000 to repair. Telling them one day into an 8-day swing is not going to help anyone. They can't do anything. Except worry. While they're working. With explosives and heavy machinery. A kilometre underground. On 12-13 hour shifts.

That’s why we never got into the habit of phoning every day. Perhaps I’m a product of an age where telephone calls were a luxury; not every family had a phone, and it was completely normal to go days, or weeks without contact. I have friends with FIFO partners who spend a fortune on telephone bills. I have friends whose children get upset if they can’t talk to Daddy every day. (Personally I think I’d struggle to know what to talk about if we spoke every day!!!). I also have friends whose partners live at home, but whose kids go days, and sometimes weeks, without seeing or speaking to their Dads… people who work as truck drivers, shift-workers, farmers, fishermen…. For my kids, it’s normal not to talk to Dad every day. They know they can phone him if they need or want to, but otherwise they’re pretty chill with the situation. At least these days, we have telephones, the internet, social media, government-funded support agencies, mobile phones etc. for when we really NEED them. 

Our forebears had none of that. Imagine waving goodbye to a partner going off to drive a mob of cattle from one end of the state to the other. Or to a fisherman, going off for weeks, if not months at sea. Or, almost unimaginable to most of our generation, to a newly-wedded husband off to war. These days we have mobile phones, social media, skype etc. The really BIG stuff can be shared, and partners can come home if they're really needed. 

So yeah, there’s a certain degree of strength needed if you plan to embark on a FIFO lifestyle. But there are also many benefits, apart from the financial incentives. It will always be a matter of personal choice. 

Personally, I’d welcome the chance to return to being a FIFO family. I’d like to be able to book annual leave from my job at a time that suits the family. I’d like to be able to commit to events 6-12 months down the track. Or in 3 day’s time.  I’d like to be able to accept an invitation to an event, or a chance to work extra hours, or to attend a work-related course later this month; I’d like to be able to promise my kids that they’ll be able to go to an event 3 weeks from now; I’d like to plan to do stuff with my husband. 

In my opinion, FIFO is an opportunity, like any other lifestyle choice. There are many other lifestyles that are far harder, and less certain, than the FIFO life. There are also many options that are easier. Choose carefully, based on your own personal circumstances, but please don’t demonise the FIFO lifestyle without giving it a fair go, or blame it for all the ills of society. It works for many of us.