FIFO couples living and working apart thrown into uncertainty by pandemic


Rob and Allison Madson spent five years separated by more than 4,000 kilometres for jobs on either side of Australia.

But the uncertainty created by the pandemic and a shock heart attack during that time were the final straw in deciding to give up the arrangement that brought in a healthy income but created too much pressure and stress.

The couple’s long-distance arrangement began not long after they moved to Launceston in Tasmania six years ago.

With work in local government difficult to find, Mr Madson had to look further afield, and found a job in the outback mining town of Cue, in Western Australia, as the CEO of the shire.

Ms Madson stayed in Tasmania where her job was located and where their son was attending school.

Nonetheless, they had regular holidays together until COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works with travel.

Mid West Ports Authority staff member Vickie Williams was also managing long-distance commutes with her husband between Victoria and Geraldton in Western Australia.

Smiling couple, woman on left, man on right, wearing sunglasses.
Vickie Williams and her husband spent most of last year apart but scheduled “date night” calls and say the experience made them stronger.(

Supplied

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But the pandemic saw “quick trips” extended by many months and meant they spent most of last year apart.

She said phone and Skype “date nights” at set times helped them cope with the forced separation.

“If we made an appointment or date to have a phone call at this [particular] time, we make sure we answer the phones and we are not creating excess worry,” she said.

She said the situation that separated them also made their bond stronger.

“It was hard but you have to make it work,” she said.

“But it is about protection of the country and protection of people.”

Woman with long hair and fluoro orange work shirt, smiling on foreshore with water, grass and trees behind.
Vickie Williams says pandemic travel restrictions meant a short trip turned into eight months apart.(

ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Cecile O’Connor

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Relationships tested

Edith Cowan University psychology senior lecturer Bronwyn Harman said long-distance relationships, including for fly-in, fly-out mining work, had been tested by the pandemic.

“How these relationships seem to be maintained is the certainty of when the partner is coming back home,” Dr Harman said.

“With COVID restrictions and the sudden shutting down of borders and lockdowns between states, that has become more uncertain.

“Because of the uncertainty of being reunited, that is increasing anxiety and uncertainty between partners.”

Flight plans fraught

Like the Williamses, Allison Madson said planning flights for her husband to return to Tasmania, and her to visit WA, became fraught.

As the pandemic struck, she was recovering from a heart attack several months earlier.

“You can have money and you can be comfortable but where does it get you?” she said.

“Rob kept on saying, ‘If I am not here when he gets home, what was it all for?’

“That firmed his ideas up, I think.”

Mr Madson finished his contract in Cue at the end of June and has now returned to Launceston to be with his wife and son.

The couple has now set up a business together.

Mr Madson said working on heritage projects in one of WA’s original gold rush towns was one of his most rewarding achievements in Cue.

But he is now looking forward to a return to regular family life.

“I have still got boxes I have not unpacked,” he said.

Tips for making it work

Dr Harman said good communication was the key to making long-distance relationships work during a time of uncertainty.

“So probably one tip would be to keep communication open between partners and be open about your feelings.”

Dr Harman said the social isolation for the FIFO worker was very difficult, but also challenging for the partner at home.

There can also be a pressure to keep an income that provides for the family.

“Sharing your feelings with each other is more likely to result in a stronger relationship.”



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