Work in western North Dakota forces couples to manage long separations
Big and bold on the chalkboard in the Duncombes’ family kitchen is a countdown.
It simply reads: “Days until Dad comes home: 16.”
It will be 16 days – more than two full weeks – before the family of seven is reunited again.
The Duncombe family is one of many who, since the oil boom in western North Dakota, now spend more time apart than they do together.
In the meantime, the Duncombes are left to communicate through phone calls, texts and video calls. Tango, a smartphone app for video calling, is a personal favorite for the Duncombes.
The app is so frequently used by the family that when the ringtone sounds, their 2-year-old daughter runs immediately to the phone, calling for Daddy.
Tango allows 4-year-old Matthew Jr., also known as Duke, to play an electronic game of darts against his dad. Though it’s not the same as having their dad at home, it makes up for it, at least temporarily.
Matthew works as a union rep for the Laborers International Union of North America. Working on pipelines has sent Matthew all over the country to places such as New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri. Back then, it could be months between visits.
Now that Matthew is working in western North Dakota, he’s able to make it home to his family in East Grand Forks, Minn., about every other weekend for 18 hours or so.
“Honestly, him just being in the state of North Dakota is as close to home as he’s ever going to be,” Kim said.
Across the hallway from the countdown clock is a family portrait of the entire Duncombe family. It was taken over Easter weekend last year while Matthew was home.
“He (Matthew) isn’t home very often, so we have to take advantage of the opportunities we have,” Kim said.
It’s the only family portrait all seven of them have taken together.
When Matthew is home, the family tries to squeeze in as much as they can in the few hours they have together. That includes Matthew putting the kids to bed, playing with the kids, attending events and making meals for the entire family.
Matthew said knowing that he will see his family soon keeps him going when times get tough.
“Walking through the door and seeing Kim is like seeing your wife or girlfriend for the first time all over again.”
Even though they rarely see each other, the Duncombes insist this setup works well for them. They both said communication and trust are the keys to keeping their relationship together. Each realizes the other one has his and her own set of difficult challenges – Matthew providing for his family and constantly being away and Kim taking care of the kids.
“The biggest reason me and Kim chose this work is to better our family and support our kids,” Matthew said. “I’m very fortunate to have a wife like Kim because without her this wouldn’t work. Our communication is great and we always try and work together with everything. I have a lot of respect for how much is on her shoulders.”
The two of them always discuss the family’s finances with each other and keep the other one updated on what’s going on in their lives with daily text messages and phone calls.
The money that Matthew is able to make out west helps alleviate a little bit of the pain for the Duncombes. The family has been able to afford to buy a new house in December, and help the oldest child attend the University of North Dakota.
“I don’t know how to make better money than I am now,” he said. “Switching careers is not an option right now.”
A change of plans
Joe and Paige Mills have always wanted to raise a family in Grand Forks.
Since the couple got married eight years ago, they had always planned on having children and living as a “typical American family.”
But when Joe lost his job at a construction company in town during the recession, the white picket fence idea was turned on its head. Joe felt his best option was to start working as a pipeliner out in the Williston area, where he could make more money than he was before he lost his job.
Moving west made it more difficult for the couple and put their plans to have a family temporarily on hold.
“All of a sudden your world gets turned upside down,” Paige said. “You lose all of that security and all of that money you had coming in.”
Once Joe landed on his feet in Williston, the couple had to figure out how to make a long-distance relationship work – something neither of them had done before. The couple try to Skype with each other as much as they can. They said trust is the best way to make living apart work.
“If you worry all the time about what the other person is doing, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” Paige said. “You have to be patient and trust the other person. You have to know that they can’t always drop everything and pick up the phone.”