2 in 5 N.L. mothers have partners working away. Here's what we can learn from that

When Melissa Ralph's husband leaves for work, at first, she feels anxious. He's not coming back at the end of the day, or anytime soon. 

But then, she carries on, balancing her own career with taking care of their two children, ages 3 and 5.

"I pretty much go into my solo parenting mode," she said.

"I'm actually more on the ball and organized when my husband is away, than I am when he's home."

Ralph's situation isn't out of the ordinary in Newfoundland and Labrador. Two out of every five mothers in the province are, or have been, in a mobile relationship — where one partner works away for extended periods of time — according to new research from Memorial University.

The survey of about 1,400 mothers across the province fleshes out an area of female experiences previously overlooked, believes researcher Julie Gosselin, who is also an associate professor in MUN's psychology department.

She and Shannon Bedford, a doctoral student in the department, collected data from women across Newfoundland and Labrador from 2016 to 2018, including biological, adoptive, married, single, separated, divorced and widowed mothers and stepmothers.

The study is important because it focuses on the mothers themselves, and their experience of motherhood, Gosselin said.

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"One of the things I found very frustrating is that family research often uses mothers as participants, but very rarely does the research actually pertain to them," said Gosselin.

She said mothers often give researchers insight into household life, children or spouses, she said, but unless they are somehow marginalized — for example, mothers who have experienced domestic violence or who have a low income — their own experiences often aren't studied.

Gosselin aimed to change that focus by asking mothers about how psychological distress affects them, about their sense of competence as a parent, their social supports or lack thereof, and their satisfaction with family life and co-parenting.

A Newfoundland story

While other Atlantic Canadian provinces also have significant percentages of mobile relationships, Gosselin was surprised that 41 per cent of the mothers in this province she surveyed had a partner that worked away, calling that figure "mind blowing."

"This is definitely a Newfoundlander story," she said.

Because mobile relationships are so common throughout Newfoundland and Labrador — particular for rural mothers — the research didn't find much difference between mothers who were and were not in those relationships, she said.

"We didn't find that women in mobile relationships were that much more worse off in terms of their own mental health, their social supports, their sense of competency as parents or access to resources, including financial resources," Gosselin said. 

The culture is so embedded here that it's created a protective factor around these families. - Julie Gosselin

"And it is interesting because if you think of mobile moms, as we like to refer to them, they're basically working as single parents the majority of the time."

More generalized research has shown single mothers tend to be more disadvantaged in a number of ways, she said, but that wasn't reflected among the mobile moms Gosselin heard from in this research.

'A double life'

Despite that, there remain struggles for such moms. Ralph co-founded an online support group for people in the same situation as her to share their stories.

"We have essentially a double life, really," she said.

"There's life when Daddy's home and then there's life when Daddy's away."

That split life has been an adjustment for both Amy Chislett and her husband. She co-founded the group with Ralph.

"'They're coming home from 21-plus days of steady work, of huge responsibilities, constant pressure at work," Chislett said of her husband and other spouses in his position. 

"It can be hard to come home and just jump right into a routine that has often changed since the last time they've been home, or has been established so much that you know it can be hard to know where to step up."

It can be difficult on their children as well, both women said, though technology can lessen that strain.

When Chislett and her husband first started dating, it was difficult to even email back and forth. Now, she and her daughter can send videos or even video chat to her husband while he is away.

"It's much easier for her to understand the dynamic," she said of her five-year-old daughter.

Provided by Memorial University

The importance of support

Despite the struggles — which also include childcare complications, career setbacks and a lack of personal time — the research found that mothers in Newfoundland and Labrador who have a co-parent who works away actually had similar feelings about their lives and their competence as families with two parents at home.

"The culture is so embedded here that it's created a protective factor around these families and they are not adversely affected, at least from the mother's perspective," Gosselin said.

In part, Gosselin attributes that to the fact her survey respondents were, in general, from a more advantaged population: white, with a high school diploma and at least some college. There was at least one income for the household, and often two, giving a degree of financial security.

And, the mothers also benefited from being part of a relatively large community of people with a similar experience.

There's life when Daddy's home and then there's life when Daddy's away. - Melissa Ralph

Ralph said she gets hands-on childcare help from her parents and her husband's parents, all retired.

"I wouldn't be able to work without their help," she said.

Chislett echoed the necessity of a strong support network, which makes it possible for her to handle solo parenting her five-year-old while her husband is away.

"We have a really good setup and it works well for us." she said. "That's not the case for all families."

She knows many people in the support group who have put their careers on hold because their spouses, most often a man, works away.

Wealth of information

The Memorial University survey has created a large database of information, and Gosselin said there's a lot more to be gleaned from it.

She's working on a manuscript looking at how mothers were affected by adverse life events, such as job loss or divorce, while doctoral students are looking at other aspects, like mothers accessing mental health services. 

We have a really good setup and it works well for us. That is not the case for all families. - Amy Chislett

Other researchers in Atlantic Canada have expressed interest in replicating the research in their provinces as well, Gosselin said.

Though her study did skew toward more privileged women, Gosselin felt its findings were akin to a canary in a coal mine scenario, showing that even mothers who enjoy extra resources feel stressed and want better supports.

"We need to worry about this because our neighbours are feeling the distress of not having access to those resources and feeling the stressors associated with it," she said. 

"We can only imagine what it's like for people who don't have as much access."

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