Strategies for Firefighter Relationships?
August 25, 2017 3:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm coming up on five years in a relationship with a career wildland firefighter. He proposed a while ago and I happily said yes, but what does building a life together mean when he's gone for a huge chunk of each year? I have so many questions about how to sustain a marriage through the chaos of firefighting, and don't have anyone in real life to discuss with that's in the same or a similar situation. Hoping there are some firefighter spouses or partners who can share some of their wisdom with me!

(There is a tl;dr at the bottom with specific questions I have!)

Me (31f) and my partner (29m) first started dating the winter before his first fire season. We don't know a life outside of the seasonal one where winter = fun close loving playtimes and vacations, and summer = busting his ass away from home while I work on personal projects and go through bouts of anxiety/loneliness.

Going through five seasons has taken us through a lot of learning and understanding and meeting in the middle, but I don't feel very equipped to say "yes, our marriage will last and this is a great idea" when every summer is different, and his career path means we'll be moving around a lot as he climbs the ladder. I'll be honest, I don't even really know what a successful long-term marriage looks like since no one I know has one, so I feel like I'm going into this blind and without any resources (which is why I'm asking here!).

We've talked several times about whether this is the right job for him (and us), and he's considered other professional careers, but nothing else really offers him all the things he's getting out of it. I love the fuck out of this guy and really want him to be happy with his life, and he wants that for me in return. He's concerned that this job is going to cause us to get divorced eventually, he heard that the divorce rate for firefighters as 3x higher than the general population and got a little unnerved by it.

One of the massive perks he has is flexibility in his schedule and he chooses to only work 6 months out of the year. He tries to take positions that are close to places we both want to be, and we make those kinds of decisions together, but there's never any guarantee due to the nature of the work. He has definitely ended up in a place he didn't want to be once before, where we couldn't see each other for five months straight.

He wants to be a hotshot and then a smokejumper, which means there are even longer, lonelier summers ahead and a few years of inflexibility in his future schedule before it opens up again and he gets to decide where and how much he works. We understand the tradeoffs: put in the time now, get the leisure and flexibility he wants in five years or so. Married life for us in our late 30s will be fucking rad if we can make it there.

I've had moments where I've questioned our sanity and whether I want to keep doing this, it's always when we're mid-season and I've only seen him twice, with no idea when to expect him home again. I asked him how his coworkers handle these situations, and he says that they fire spouses just stay really busy and are usually teachers or nurses so they can move around easily without worrying about whether they'll be able to find a job. (I've never met any of his coworker's partners otherwise I would just ask them!)

I've tried to be proactive about what I have control over, so one of the quality of life improvements I've done so far is get a full-time remote job (I work in tech) so we can stay together as much as possible. It's made somewhat of a difference, but staying remote full-time after next year isn't guaranteed.

Anyway, to the more specific questions:

How do you cope with relocating to different states for work and leaving friends/social networks behind constantly? Since we move all the damn time I don't have much of a support network locally either. My closest friends live in different states right now. I miss having friends and a community! Should I make this a requirement to stay in one place, or have a home base where we live most of the year every year?

How do we stay connected to one another while he's gone and out of reach? Or at least, how do I not go crazy through days/weeks of little to no contact? He's told me before the work keeps him so busy he can barely think about me, let alone what's going on at home. I understand logically, but the emotional impact is shitty.

How do I figure out what I want out of life when a lot of our decisions right now are based around where he needs to be? I advocate for what I want (when I know what that is!) but for the most part I feel very undecided and find myself saying "I don't know what I want" a lot. I see a lot of different possible futures ahead of me and have a difficult time committing to any one direction. Should I just shut up and stop complaining about how awesome our lives are right now?

How the hell do folks raise kids in a chaotic seasonal lifestyle like this one where one partner is coming in and out all the time? We've talked about kids before. I would want to raise kids WITH him if we do it, but I'm concerned with our lifestyle that I'm going to end up the primary parent to children with an absent father. Is that just the reality of the situation? I'm not sure why families like ours decide to have kids given the circumstances? We're both ambivalent about having them right now, it's too soon for me personally.
posted by 1 round meat in bowl to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to most of your question, but I can talk about being the child of a marriage where my dad, a mountain guide, was away a lot, especially in the summers:

This was super hard on my mom, and I think it made it hard for her to bring her best to get parenting during long absences. This was exacerbated the couple of times my dad was badly injured on an expedition and had to be hospitalized for extended periods.

When he wasn't guiding, though, my dad was a very present and involved parent, and I have always had a great relationship with him. It was always sad when he was getting ready to leave but exciting when he came home, and he always had awesome stories.

So your kids will probably be fine, but think really hard about whether you want them enough to deal with those long stretches of single parenting. They are super rough.
posted by spindrifter at 4:10 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm only going to briefly speak to your last point. I love my dad so so so much. We have a really great relationship. He used to travel a lot for work (usually two to three weeks away) when I was little. That being said, I broke my mother's heart straight in two when one day from the back seat in the car I told her "I wish dad was in jail." She asked me why I said that. I responded "dads in jail get visitation."
posted by raccoon409 at 4:15 PM on August 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

First, I wonder if it would be useful for you to talk to military spouses. They face a lot of the same issues and concerns, and there are lots of them. The people I know in that situation (mostly women tbh) who are happy and successful tend to be outgoing, optimistic folks who treat each new move and base as an adventure and an opportunity to meet new people and experience new things. It's still obviously really hard, from my outside perspective, but I do know several military spouses who love their lives the way they are, despite the challenges.

As to your last point: my dad was gone a lot when I was a kid. My mom did the overwhelming majority of the work and sometimes it was clearly too much for her. I love my dad but we are not close, for that and other reasons.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:41 PM on August 25, 2017 [18 favorites]

I agree that this seems like a military lifestyle, but the advantage there is that they are surrounded by other spouses/families undergoing the same thing. That seems to be not the case here.

Could you create your own network where you are?
posted by tooloudinhere at 4:43 PM on August 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

Wildland Firefighter's Wives blog may help you to connect with other fire wives/partners and FB groups.
posted by nathaole at 5:29 PM on August 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

How the hell do folks raise kids in a chaotic seasonal lifestyle like this one where one partner is coming in and out all the time?

First, I wonder if it would be useful for you to talk to military spouses. They face a lot of the same issues and concerns, and there are lots of them.

This. I was a navy brat growing up, and for the first 10 years of my life, dad wasn't around much at all.
This was back before reliable long distance between counties, let alone countries existed. If it puts your mind at ease, raising kids is a challenge, but its always going to be a challenge anyway. They'll do fine. my siblings and I did - and honestly, I really think the frequent moving was good for me.

I used to fight forest fires, too, coincidentally enough. The areas are typically very remote and he's right about the long hours. I'd recommend maybe getting an inreach or something- you can pass short text messages and keep somewhat in touch.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:38 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

How do you cope with relocating to different states for work and leaving friends/social networks behind constantly? Since we move all the damn time I don't have much of a support network locally either.

For something completely out of left field - to me, if you're moving house. with each of these relocations, then you're doing it wrong. You're also burning money. Sell all your stuff (or store it) and live in an RV - if either of you has a decent sized truck then a 5th wheel is perfect. I'm a bit of an RV advocate (having travelled for 9 months in one and now still live in it for 2 years and counting for the convenience and costs savings while we work out when next to travel) but I think this would maybe help a lot with this. Bear with me:

1: Your 'home' is consistent. Yes, you have a limited amount of room, a limited amount of stuff you can have but you ALSO have freedom. You live near him when he's working, you both take the slow road back to wherever you want to be in the off-season. Your home is always your home. It is personalised and everything ie where you left it. Packing up is a matter of putting foam in with the glasses and cups and coiling up a hose or two and some wires. Big deal.

2: Rv communities are much more used to people being transient. If you stay in the more RV rather than 'trailer park' kind of places, they are very friendly and people will chat. It doesn't feel as isolated as moving into a new town or house would. They are much nicer places than people often assume from a RV park.

3: It is CHEAP. A very nice fifth wheel is $50-60k new. We live in a brand new one, and our monthly outgoings are as such: Rent for space+payment on 5th Wheel +payment on 2013 Infiniti+ payment on 2007 BMW (is less than) rent+utilities for a two bed place where we live (Sacramento).

3b: They are also pretty damn nice inside. Ours has integrated sound, a fireplace, a huge james bond TV that comes out of the counter and it is really very comfortable. Better than some apartments I have lived in. The only thing we did was splurge on a nice mattress.

4: You can live in really cool places. If you are careful with trailer/motorhome size, you can stay in national parks on your journey, but more to a more central RV park when you want convenience of longer term.

5: If you can make a mobile income for yourself (what do you do for work? Just change jobs whenever you move?) then you can work from wherever. Just need an internet connection or whatever. It is really easy and because it is cheap you really don't need much to survive.

6: It's the best of both worlds. It's moving without constantly moving house. It's the packing and unpacking and shit that is annoying. Just hitching up and driving a few days is nothing at all when you get acclimatised.

7: This country is huge and there is a LOT to see. If you do some travelling between seasons you may find you like to just sit during the season and it feels like a rest rather than a boring chore.

Seriously - WHEN ELSE will you have the freedom to travel the country and see everything you want to? Do it for five years, write a blog and then settle in the area that stuck with you the most when you're done travelling. Do it while you can, is my advice.

It is a fantastic, freeing lifestyle if you are the right kind of person. We see many people in various industries (construction, etc) that move around where the work is - it's an established lifestyle. Plus, there are a ton of retired full timers around and they are usually the more fun and wacky old(er) people and it is very entertaining.

I am going STIR CRAZY not moving right now, and I travel constantly (50% of the year at the moment) for work. You get to be with family for holidays (just drive there) if you want to, with friends when they are o vacation (again, just drive there) and you take your routine with you. I can't recommend it enough. Memail me if you want more info to get your head around it.
posted by Brockles at 5:39 PM on August 25, 2017 [23 favorites]

Should I make this a requirement to stay in one place, or have a home base where we live most of the year every year?

I don't know enough about what firefighting as a career demands, but on the face of it this seems like a really reasonable thing to do.

Can you ask him to introduce you, either in person or electronically, to colleagues'partners and spouses? Does he know colleagues who've made things work, and can he talk with them (and their partners)?

Is he making a serious effort to find and work through answers to all these questions as well?
posted by trig at 5:53 PM on August 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

This also sounds like what baseball wives do in the US. Alisha Perkins (wife of Twins pitcher Glen) recently wrote a book about it, Running Home. She has a home by her parents where her kids also go to school, and has her support structure there while the baseball season runs.
posted by jillithd at 6:17 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've never met any of his coworker's partners otherwise I would just ask them!

This is the best path to the answers you want. The more you get to associate with the partners of people who do what your fiance does, the better. Other than experiencing life directly as the spouse of a firefighter, you'll get the best insight into what life will/would be like by talking with them.
posted by DrGail at 7:33 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

From a friend:

Simple as this. If you really love someone all that stuff will figure itself out and won't matter. If there are so many concerns and it's holding you back from marriage or making you feel anxious, then maybe it's time to end the relationship.
I didn't think twice about marrying my hubby and I dated him when he was a wild land fire fighter. We got married and then moved right up to ID for him to work for Price Valley Rapeller's. We were there for the summer and then back home. But I have always been able to adjust and I like being alone. Get a dog. I became part of a dog rescue organization while up in McCall, and the dogs I fostered kept me company too. I also made a friend at the job I got working at the city and we spent time together. He was gone a lot. I guess one either loves being a fire fighter wife/girl friend or she doesn't. Frankly, I have never seen needy women last with fire fighters, or their man has changed occupations and been around more. That's usually the way it goes. Most of us fire wives are very independent. You have to be to survive. And no, I never waste time thinking about when he might get burned up. Now he is a fire captain for a large structure agency and still goes out on large fire division team assignments, and some single resource. It can be a very lucrative career that has afforded us a stable life, nice home, amazing family vacations, etc. Wouldn't do it over again any other way, even when it was tough.
posted by Marinara at 8:25 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've never met any of his coworker's partners otherwise I would just ask them!

This kind of stood out to me. The people I know who work fire are mostly on USFS crews, and they are tight. They spend all their time together, spouses all know each other, etc. Obviously there are other arrangements (like all the contract fire crews these days), but it might really help you if you were able to connect with the families of your partner's coworkers rather than be dealing with this alone.

My work has seasonality and a lot of field time sometimes (though nothing like fire crews), and we just sort of deal with it, and all my coworkers do the same. Everyone makes time for phone calls when there is cell service; there is understanding that family comes first and people will go home whenever possible, and people try to focus on the good parts. I think it is lonelier for the people left behind -- when you are out working, it is intense and focused, but life at home just has to keep going.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:39 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you really love someone all that stuff will figure itself out and won't matter.

I don't want to argue against another comment, but I figure this is probably something you'll hear from various people who were in your situation. Which is great, in that it worked for them. But I don't think it's a question of whether you love someone enough, so much as whether the combination of love, your personality and needs, and his personality and needs can combine to leave you both in a satisfying marriage. Love is important, but it's not the only thing and it's not an act of nobility or anything to enter a marriage that doesn't seem like it can meet your needs.
posted by trig at 9:56 PM on August 25, 2017 [25 favorites]

I can't speak to your situation but when I was a kd growing up in a military family my parents ensured that me and my sister joined organizations that we could join again everywhere we lived. These included band, church, Girl Scouts, Job's Daughters.

In your case there might be groups of spouses in similar positions either in person or onlne. Find your connections that you can share where ever you go and keep up with them.
posted by bendy at 10:20 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

YES, you should have a home base! If he barely has time away from the wilderness over summers (which I totally understand), neither of you should expect that you should bend over backwards to accommodate his erratic placements and schedules. Live in a place that offers you what you need to thrive: friends, a social support network, and the life you want--ideally with good airport connections, so you can go visit him for a few days at a time once every month or so. Then make your own life, and I bet you'll find that being apart isn't as hard when you have more self-generated fulfillment, and rely on him (and the narrative of being near him) as part of your support. I'm in a six-year-old relationship, and we're doing eight months of LDR right now while I'm overseas for a quasi-academic position (although he can work remotely for stretches, so just came to visit me for 2.5 weeks, after 2.5mo apart). One of the things that I think makes us strong as a couple is that while we spend tons of time together when we're in the same place, we have rich lives and interests and friend networks, and though there's some overlap, they're often separate. Which means that we regularly have adventures and new experiences without each other, and I think that's one of the things that helps keep our relationship from stagnating after six years together. It's hard--there's ways that we can't grow as a couple while we're apart (although I'd argue that we grow as individuals then), and there's always about ten days of rocky readjustment period when we get back together [it's mostly just rocky on my end], but on the whole so far it's the best way for both of us to have fulfilling, happy lives and be good partners to each other, even if being good partners means spending longer stretches apart in between the times we're together.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:17 AM on August 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

My dad was in another country during my teens. I saw him every few months. If he had made even the tiniest effort to spend time with me, learn about my life or interact with me at all while he was home, I think it would have been fine. What hurts is that he made no effort to have any kind of relationship with me, not that he was physically gone most of the time.
posted by bizarrenacle at 4:49 PM on August 26, 2017

Ooops, typo fix a couple of days late: and rely on him (and the narrative of being near him) less as part of your support system.
posted by tapir-whorf at 7:47 PM on August 27, 2017

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