Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

As anger raged about rotational workers, women organized. Here's what I learned

The women who stay home while their partners work elsewhere have been called the "skippers of the shore crew." As Deatra Walsh writes, the burdens these last months have been extraordinary — and so too has been the need to be kind.

Reflections on the 'skippers of the shore crew' amid COVID-19

Deatra Walsh's family is one of many that has depended on rotational work. She, her husband and their daughter live in St. John's. (Submitted by Deatra Walsh )

This column is an opinion by Deatra Walsh, who lives in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A few weeks ago, I joined an online group organized by wives of rotational workers here in the province. It changed my perspective.

Not that I had any particular perspective to change on rotational work or rotational workers per se. My partner works rotationally. He recently returned to our St. John's house after isolation and testing. The last time we saw him was in August.

When he left, it felt like I was staring down a long dark hallway of uncertainty, alone. Would school really reopen? How would our daughter adjust? Could I manage the juggle of a demanding workload and the mélange of mid-pandemic pre-pubescent-tween anxiety, while also caring for three dogs and two houses?

I realize that these are the worries of privilege. I am thankful every day for our health and the fact that we still have jobs. But on the day that he left, and the days that followed it, I just wished there weren't 2,000 kilometres and four months between us.

I asked myself: How will I do this, again?

Rotational work is hard on everyone

Rotational work is hard on everyone. Raising a family, working full time and making a life when one of two people is regularly away are challenging activities at the best of times.

Living this life is hard for the person at home; it's hard for the person away. It affects the children.

Walsh has been home in St. John's with her daughter while her husband has worked away for several months at a time. The nature of rotational work can be difficult on each member of the family, she writes. (Submitted by Deatra Walsh)

We know this. We read the stories and we are doing the research.

A national research project based out of Memorial University devoted the last seven years to researching and documenting the various realities of what sociologist Barbara Neis and her team call employment-related geographical mobility.

This research and more like it shows that men are more likely to be mobile for work, and across longer distances and times. They are often working in trades. Their work is pressure-filled, with long hours and, often, little flexibility. For many of these workers, job security is not something that really exists.

Workers also have families.

There are often women "left behind," many of whom work in health care and education, as these are professions that can be done at home, especially in rural areas.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, research shows that two in five mothers are or have been in relationships where a partner is working away.

While academic interest in rotational work has sparked over the last decade, we've been doing the rotational work dance for a long, long time — long before the cod moratorium and the Alberta boom.

It may have looked and sounded a little different but the stories of our mothers, our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers involve the work of keeping families, households and communities going while the men were away working. In those days, most women did not have paid employment outside the household.

Times have changed.

People have opinions, and it's not pretty 

Rotational work has taken on a different flavour in COVID times. It's contentious. It's not the work that's the problem, it's that it happens elsewhere — outside the province — where, as Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reminded us, a tsunami awaits.

Minister John Haggie tells us time and time again that the virus moves when we move. Therein lies the rub. Working away requires movement. In COVID times, movement is risky business — for individuals, for families and for communities.

Many of the rotational workers from Newfoundland and Labrador are in trades, research has shown. They tend to be men, and they often do not have much flexibility in how and where they can work. (Submitted by Deatra Walsh)

Rotational work as a particular brand of movement is under the microscope and seemingly under attack. The vitriol is strong and relentless on all sides, especially on social media.

I dipped my toe in the pond just to find out what all the fuss was about.

It was not pretty. It's divisive. People are angry. They say terrible things to and about others. Bullying is common.

I've said that this kind of anger does not foster empathy; it erodes it. Hanging out in those spaces made me angry. I had less empathy for myself. In the struggle to comprehend what was going on there and within myself, I became even more angry and confused about where I stood or where I could stand.

A time to be kind 

Enter the rotational wives (and partners).

Now over 500 strong, this group of women of makes it a point to be supportive and respectful in an online space right now, and they are organizing.

Walsh, as a sociologist, has studied how women with mobile partners have sought stability in their lives. During the pandemic, she has been inspired by what she has learned from other women in similar circumstances. (Submitted by Deatra Walsh)

In the first few days of its existence, group members co-ordinated a secret Santa gift-card exchange, the design and ordering of branded face masks for rotational wives, and a week of giving. Group organizer and moderator Vanessa Tibbo solicited local business donations as prizes and encouraged members to give back to their communities in whatever way they could through acts of kindness. Each act noted in a thread over the seven-day period would be an additional opportunity to win a prize.

Communities benefit; businesses benefit. People do good things and kindness is encouraged.

In our house, we've paid for someone else's coffee, donated to the local food bank, bought girl guide cookies to give to families, put together a selection of books for kids, and bought supper for someone outside the grocery store who was hungry.

The group tally was about 350 acts of kindness.

The power of women organizing

Perhaps it is not surprising that women are mobilizing in positive ways. It may also not be a shock that they are doing so for the betterment of each other and their communities.

I'm not one to gender behaviour. As a trained sociologist, I can't. We are taught to investigate first; let the research speak for itself.

Women are socialized to take on caring roles. Research demonstrates that they volunteer and give in both formal and informal ways. But clear gender differences are not always inevitable. My own work showed that women did give back to the community but not necessarily as formal volunteers. They could not commit due to their busy schedules and the fact that their partners were away.

The women in this online group are doing just that — giving back in all the small and large ways that make a difference in other people's lives. They've organized themselves to do so.

Spare a thought for the rotational workers and their families. That's the message from a doctor in Torbay who has seen first-hand the kind of stress those families are under during the ongoing pandemic. 10:04

Women organize in the face of adversity — in their own lives and in community. We have no choice. We know that to achieve goals, we must work together and support one another. This is what women's leadership often looks like. When we look to nations for the best outcomes with respect to COVID, they are usually female-led. Most of Canada's chief medical officers of health are women.

Women are leading through the pandemic, but they are also disproportionately bearing its burden, both economically and socially. Data collected by Statistics Canada through the Labour Force Survey indicate that compared with men, more women initially lost employment as a result of the pandemic; they have been slower to return to work. Many have taken on the triple shift of providing child care and education, continuing with household chores and working, or working from home, if possible.

Women with partners who work rotationally are doing this too but with the added burden of being physically on their own for part of the time, and managing the local logistics of their partner's return for the rest of it.

Work that falls on top of everything else

That's what makes the rotational wives group so important to note right now.

Pandemic public health orders and related regulations create complicated negotiations of time and space that are taking place inside our families. Women are taking on much of the practical management of these negotiations.

Getting groceries is just one of the practical things that women whose partners are rotational workers take on during long periods of self-isolation. (Shutterstock)

Groceries are procured and packed in vehicles to be whisked away to other locations; sheds are stocked and converted to living accommodations; workers are kitted out in upstairs or downstairs bedrooms. Sometimes, whole families move to other households while isolators remain. Other times, they take time off work and school to isolate as a family, even though they don't have to.

Women do this work while also supporting the emotional management and mental well-being of children and workers as we all work through this pandemic.

There are undoubtedly arguments over compliance and the interpretation of regulations. I know; I've had them.

It's basically been nine months in isolation: We hear how COVID-19 has brought life to a halt for the family of a rotational worker. 8:29

Women in this province are making the accommodation of public health orders possible. This is work that we are also doing on top of everything else.

We are doing it because we know how important it is — and what's at stake.

As a feminist researcher who has written about women with mobile partners and as a rotational "wife," I arguably shouldn't need a change in perspective. I get it.

The community I found online offered me something more: a reminder that the women at home are indeed, as sociologist Marilyn Porter described them in early outport life, "skippers of the shore crew."

Without us, none of this would be possible and we are not alone.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Deatra Walsh has a PhD from Memorial University. She lives and works in St. John's.

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