That’s a rough estimate of the number of times THIS YEAR I have packed bags, packed cars or on those very lucky weeks, boarded planes to travel. Most of the time it has been the packing of the car; with sewing machines, ipads, video games, the long suffering cat and all the other paraphernalia we seem to need each weekend when we visit my husband. Nuts, isn’t it?
But what are the options?
Prior to the children and I moving to Ghana, my husband was a FIFO. Fly In-Fly Out. He worked a roster of 6-8 weeks away, 2 weeks at home. We battled through jetlag and the emotional roller-coaster of squeezing three precious childhoods into 2 week blocks. There was never enough time, hard decisions were put on hold, we tried to suppress irritations and grievances so not to mar those precious two weeks. The children always come first, but the adult time precious to all parents was squeezed into tiny blocks of time; shared with tooth brushing and the moments before sleep.
And while I was at the coal face of parenting, juggling homework and dog walking, play dates and school activities; Bill was away. He missed ballet concerts and scout camps, he missed reading aloud in bed and goodnight kisses.
With hindsight, I wonder who had it worse?
On my bad days I would try and remember all the military spouses. Their partners away for six months or more…in war zones. I was trying to cling onto a little perspective.
So when the opportunity arose to move to Ghana, we took it. Nothing could be worse than FIFO. Could it?
And now, nearly two years down the track, I reflect on what we thought our life here would be, and what it really is. We’ve commuted long distances to school. We’ve felt isolated and, at times, alienated. More than anything, we’ve worried about the kids.
At the beginning of this year we started a new chapter in our Ghanaian life. Rather than the dreaded FIFO, we became what I’m calling DIDO’s…Drive In-Drive Outs. During the week the children and I have lived in Kumasi, for the sole purpose of them attending a good school.
And so each weekend I pack the car and the cat, collect the children from school and drive along the back roads of Ghana. We drive past cocoa plantations and through small villages; past children walking home from school along the dusty roads, past villages preparing for Saturday’s funerals, and we arrive in our little corner of Ghana. No matter where we live in Ghana, the little pocket we call home is the place that we are all together. Where we are complete.
Exhausted each Friday night, pissed off with unpacking the car again and running two households, I was feeling somewhat sorry for myself. Trying to cling to the ever elusive perspective, it got me to thinking about my friends both here and abroad. Of my closest friends in Australia, more than half spend time away from their families. Whether it be Sydney, Melbourne, China, or the far reaches of the Western Australian outback. Here in Ghana, spouses spend time in Accra, Burkina Faso, Mali, London, Hong Kong. Whether it’s a week or six, so many people are spending significant amounts of their year away from their families. And these are just the expats I’m writing about.
Time stretches in a whole different dimension when I speak to Ghanaian friends. One afternoon I was commiserating with a friend about the challenges of solo parenting, and she was stunned when I told her of Bill’s old FIFO roster. She said “You mean to tell me every six weeks, he had two weeks off work? Completely off work? He wasn’t working at home? His company flew him every six weeks half way around the world to visit?” Her incredulity was palpable, and I felt chastised and ashamed of my complaints. Her first baby was one year old before they lived permanently in the same country together. When she was the mother of four, her husband visited for three weeks a year. These people are not refugees, and nor are they poor. They are the middle class.
It’s just become the nature of the beast hasn’t it? And to survive the FIFO and DIDO life, it is all about perspective and expectations. Keeping decisions in perspective, remembering what my mother would always say to bolster me up when I was feeling down, “There is always someone worse off than you”. And to keep re-assessing expectations and experiences. Constantly asking, Is this working? How can we make this work better? And sometimes, we just have to hold on, and ride out a period in our lives. Knowing that the only constant is change.
We make our choices in life based on compromise and hope. Compromise, in that nothing is truly perfect. And hope…hope that we are making the right choice, for our own lives, for our children’s lives. While we may one day walk a mile in each other’s shoes, we can only ever make decisions based on our lives, our situations and our families. While history sometimes proves us wrong, I am a firm believer that at the moment we make a decision, it is the best decision we could have made. And next year, in light of this constant reassessment, we start a new chapter. A new DIDO. We hope (there’s that word again), we are making the right choice, and are moving to Accra.
It can’t be worse than FIFO, can it?
For other families on the move, we have found the app Life360 really useful. It’s a map based app, and let’s us know where the other is in real time. We can send messages, even panic alerts. And it’s FREE!