A mining couple's guide to surviving early parenthood
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
Being a new parent is tough, especially when your partner works away. On top of all of the normal worries of being a new mum or dad, FIFO/DIDO parents worry about the impact of one parent working away on their child. Truth be told, the FIFO/DIDO lifestyle is probably not ideal for families who are in the first six to 12 months of parenthood, for all sorts of different reasons. But we can't always choose the timing of babies, and sometimes we have to make the best of a less-than-perfect situation. If you have recently transitioned from a mining couple to mining parents (or are considering the scenario...) it might pay to think about the following areas:
For the person at home:
- Practical and emotional support is absolutely vital for new mums. (I know that some mums work away, but mostly it's dads, so please excuse me for referring to the person at home as mum. Of course the same information will apply if you are a dad whose partner works away!) In our culture we put a lot of emphasis on mums getting all she needs from her partner, but in many other cultures it's other women who offer support, comfort and guidance. If your partner works away, you'll need to think and plan where your support will come from. One advantage of the FIFO lifestyle is that families can live wherever they like (as long as it's near an airport) so it might be possible to live near family or friends who can help out. If not, you might choose to pay for help (cleaning, gardening, meals etc) and seek out local support services or meeting places for new parents.
- Make sure you look after yourself. It's hard to look after a demanding baby when you are not taking care of yourself. I know it's boring, but making sure you are eating well, resting enough and getting a bit of exercise will all help you cope better in the long run.
- As soon as possible (often when your baby is about four months old) get into a good routine for you and your baby. Some families have the 'luxury' of not needing a routine for day-to-day life with baby, but single parents and parents whose partners work away don't. Having some predictability in your day is really important when you don't have someone coming home in the evening to give you a break.
- As a new mum, it can be really hard to know how you're going and if what you are experiencing is normal. Some days are hard for all new parents. Here's a rule of thumb: if you are coping OK and enjoying being a new mum most days out of each week, and things are gradually getting easier, then you're probably doing fine. If most days feel too hard, or it's all getting harder as time goes on, you probably need a bit of extra support or help. See your GP or www.beyondblue.org.au.
For the person working away:
- You'll need to feel connected to what's going on at home with baby, even when you're away. Familiarise yourself with your baby's routine so you can take part when you get home. Think of questions to ask your partner when you speak to her rather than relying on her to 'spoon-feed' you baby information - she won't always have the energy. You might even want to spend some time while you're away reading about baby development and milestones so you can be informed and interested in where your baby is at.
- Of course communication with bubs when you're away is going to be tricky. A baby can't have a phone conversation! This is not an excuse to back off though, you just have to get more creative in staying connected. Here's some examples that other FIFO/DIDO dads with young babies have tried: record your voice reading a story or singing a song for baby to listen to; read a bedtime or good morning story to baby via Skype.
- It can be really hard being away from your partner and baby. Some dads feel very lonely and sad thinking of what they're missing, and some even feel quite depressed or angry. As I always say, make sure you and your partner are regularly assessing what's working about FIFO/DIDO and what isn't. If, after weighing up the pros and cons, this is still your choice, then you have to get to work changing your thinking style to one that will help you cope better. (See my column on loneliness on the mine site for a few different ideas.)
- Sometimes, simply adjusting to parenthood can be tough too. If you're struggling, or feeling overwhelmed with feelings of additional expectation and responsibility, check out www.beyondblue.org.au (they have a great free booklet called Hey Dad).
For the relationship:
- Remember you are working as a team and each of you has a different role to play. It's all about shared goals. There's no point whatsoever getting into a competition about who is busier or more tired or working harder. It's tempting to go there with statements like: "you think you're tired ... try looking after a baby/working shifts (etc, etc) and then see how tired you are!” But there really is no point. You're both tired.
- Talk often about how each of you is going ... what's easy, what's hard, what you need more help with. Always try to come back to the idea that you are both on the same team, with the same goals (to raise a child, pay the bills etc).
- Accept that lengthy phone conversations might be a thing of the past. Find other ways of feeling connected and loved, like emailing when you get a chance, leaving notes in your partner's bag or around the house, or giving small gifts. (For an insight into what sorts of things might make your partner feel more loved by you, check out The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.)
- Know that it is very normal for the passion in a relationship to 'cool' in the first few months after the birth of a new baby. Most couples fire things up again at some point. Having said that, don't wait for the spark (and energy for sex) to miraculously reappear of its own accord. Chances are you'll both have to put in a bit of extra work to get things back on track. Talk about it, make a plan and just do it!
- Babies need love and attention from one or two main people who consistently meet their physical and emotional needs. That's about it, at least for the first year!
The Sensible Sleep Solution
While we're on the topic of parenting in the first year, I'd love to tell you about my new book!
As some of you will know, one of the areas of specialty in my private practice in Adelaide is postnatal mental health for mums and dads. I know becoming a new parent brings many challenges. When I was a new mum (nearly 10 years ago now) I became annoyed at the lack of information about how to help babies develop healthy sleep habits. I wasn't keen on controlled crying, and I didn't want to share my bed with my baby either. I just wanted a 'middle of the road' approach. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, I found a sleep expert and together we wrote the book I wanted to read (way too late for me, unfortunately!)
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.