FIFO Families: Tips for Effective Parenting

Being a FIFO (fly in/fly out) worker brings unique challenges to family life. The usual routines which keep things ticking smoothly along become fundamentally different when one parent needs to do the work of two at home.  And although the majority of FIFO workers are men, more women are also taking on the role of working away for periods of time. 

Many FIFO parents describe themselves as being similar to single parents, in terms of needing to make independent parenting decisions. But unlike single parenting, FIFO work brings transition periods from single to dual parent households.  It’s not that there isn’t another parent, they’re just not always under the same roof and available for support.

Where are you again?   

It can be especially challenging for FIFO parents to experience the ‘high’ points in family life. Pregnancy, birth and newborn baby care can all be times when both the away worker and the at home parent can feel particularly isolated and alone.  

Some couples decide that they are willing to tolerate short term pain for long term gain. And that while their children are small, they’re prepared to invest what it takes to gain the long term financial benefits of FIFO work. 

Common FIFO issues

Loneliness is a factor for many at home parents, who can also feel a sense of social isolation from their partner and friends. This can also be affected by the length of time the FIFO worker is away, their roster arrangements and travel times.  

It can be challenging for the parent at home to arrange childcare in the absence of the other parent, especially when this always needs to be paid for.  And when children are very young, it can be hard for mothers, most commonly, to not feel she ever has a break.

Each couple needs to make their own decisions about what is right for them and their family.  

There is no one consistent age for children when they adapt more readily to having a FIFO parent. Though it seems that adolescents generally seem to adapt well to having their father involved in FIFO work, although, like younger children, they miss the physical and emotional connection of having them close. 

Many FIFO workers experience challenges when they are reunited.  It can be confusing for everyone when there is role inconsistency between parents.  Keeping a day to day routine regardless of whether the FIFO worker is home or not, helps to reduce conflict.

When one parent is away

  1. Follow the same settling/sleep patterns for your children which you know work best. Expect some changes in their usual responses when their other parent returns home. Importantly, stay calm and reassuring in your responses.    
  2. Be confident in your own ability to make choices about your baby’s feeding. Breast milk supply can reduce during periods of stress and tension. Remember, supply equals demand so if your baby seems hungry, offer them more frequent breastfeeds. Speak with your baby’s child health nurse if you’re concerned about any growth or development issues.
  3. Accept that with FIFO work, there is reduced opportunity for communication with the other parent. You might not be always able to make mutual decisions.   
  4. Develop skills in being the decision maker in the family. Even if this is challenging initially, there will be times when you need to ‘take charge’ and make independent, wise decisions for the good of everyone.
  5. Try to keep as many daily routines as possible. Kids thrive on predictability and structure and so do most adults. Don’t change what works and save your energy for making changes which have to be made.
  6. Avoid threatening your children with what will happen when the FIFO parent returns home. It’s important for children to have consistent rules and boundaries communicated by both parents.
  7. Be mindful of how your children are adjusting to having their other parent away. Young children can be particularly sensitive to being separated from their FIFO parent.  

When both parents are home

Make time to reconnect as a couple. Evidence has shown that departure and return home times are periods of peak stress. Adult depression and anxiety are also more common in the lead up to separation and reunification.  

Prioritise jobs which have to get done when you’re both home. But remember that it’s important to have fun as well.  Accept that it will be enough on some days just to do the basics – anything else will be a bonus.

5 tips for effective FIFO parenting

  1. Maintain open communication. Make time to connect with each other when apart, using as much technology as possible. Video calls, texts and family group apps are all great ways to stay connected with each other. Make special efforts for birthdays and your children’s milestones which, if missed, can add to the FIFO parent’s feelings of missing out. This can be especially important in the first 12 months when children progress quickly through many developmental milestones.
  2. Don’t save hard conversations for when you’re together; it’s important your partner is still involved in the big decisions of family life. You might want to quarantine time in your phone calls to cover practical/household matters and the rest for more general chat.
  3. Give your partner time to settle back into family life. Many FIFO workers experience feelings of transience, as if they don’t really belong in any one place. This can be worse for those who work in isolated communities or who only have contact with a few other people.  Similarly, it could take you time to adjust to having another adult in the house. 
  4. Make a plan for how your partner will get home in the event of an emergency. If this is clear, you’ll feel more in control and less anxious.
  5. Share traditional gender roles and learn skills in parenting and house management which can’t be deferred until the FIFO parent is home. Have supportive people around you who can help you problem solve if your partner is not available.

Key messages about FIFO parenting

  1. FIFO work can be very beneficial for many families, though it can also be challenging. Couples need to make their own decisions whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. This can change according to everyone’s needs and the children’s ages.
  2. Routines and structure help families to function most effectively. It’s important for the same practical patterns to be followed when either one or both parents are home.
  3. Loneliness is a common experience for the at home parent.  Social networks and supports can make a huge difference to how everyone manages.  Expert help for anxiety or depression is available through GPs or Beyond Blue.
  4. Many FIFO employers offer support programs for families of FIFO workers. Ask your partner to enquire about employee assistance services. Paternity and partner leave is available for expectant parents. 

Written for Nourish Baby by Jane Barry, midwife and child health nurse.

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