How can you make a marriage work when a job keeps you apart?

There are a lot of assumptions out there about people in the oil industry.

You’re rich — is one.

You don’t care about the Earth — is another.

Most people in oil are uneducated rednecks — admit it, you’ve thought that.

I’m hoping to give you a different perspective on the industry. One that I think oil lovers — or haters — can identify with.

My husband Ben is a pipeline utility welder.

Pipelining takes him all over the country for undetermined lengths of time. He never knows when a job will be done, and doesn’t have much more than a couple weeks notice of when the next one will start up.

The uncertainty makes planning anything in advance pretty much impossible. Forget about ever booking that “red hot deal” vacation to the Caribbean. If your wedding anniversary happens while he’s working, oh well. Maybe flowers get delivered to your work (that’s nice), then you go home to eat cake by yourself in front of the TV.

On the flipside, Ben might not have work for months on end. In 2015, he was jobless for half a year.

That’s stressful for obvious financial reasons; but it’s also not easy to keep a person used to working 12 hours a day, six days a week happy and sane. To say he was “restless” is the kindest way I can put it.

And who bears the brunt of that boredom and work anxiety? Me. Or, in other words: the pipeliner’s wife.

A bit about me. I am a brand new radio host with about 16 years of broadcast media behind me, most of that in television. I recently started my new gig hosting CBC Edmonton’s afternoon drive show, Radio Active.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked, “YOU’RE a pipeliner’s wife?” with several layers of tone in the question: disbelief, curiosity, sympathy, contempt.

The truth is, I never thought I’d be one.

Ben was pipelining when we met, but felt he might be ready to leave it behind. That knowledge got us past our first date.

We basically moved in together after our third date, because he was in between jobs and the lease on his place was up — a fairly common, “how did you get together with your pipeliner?” origin story.

We got engaged, and he was away working while I planned the wedding — a blessing and a curse. That was going to be his last pipeline job.

Three years into our marriage, and guess what? He’s pipelining again.

I saw it coming. He felt unfulfilled with his welding work at a shop in town, and that unhappiness was bleeding into his non-work hours. Then, his brother — who also works pipeline — called with an opportunity.

When he brought it up to me, I looked into his eyes and knew he had to take it. Meanwhile, I tried hard to hide the disappointment and worry in mine.

Now, he’s on a seven-month job helping build Enbridge’s new Line 3, the oil pipeline that runs from Hardisty, Alta., all the way to Superior, Wis.

He’s working on the portion of it near Brandon, Man. Our home is in Edmonton.

I miss him a lot — especially our Sunday routine. We used to sit around in our pyjamas with our dog, Otis, eat a big breakfast and catch-up on a TV show we watch together. Later, we’d drive way out of our way to get coffees at our favourite shop (Transcend Ritchie), and take Otis to the Terwillegar dog park. We really didn’t do much, but there would be so much time to talk, and just be a couple.

'But to be honest, I’m a bit mad, too.'

When he left for this job (a five-month stint that’s now stretched to seven), I was feeling lost and even defeated. But to be honest, I’m a bit mad, too.

I didn’t think I’d be living this life — left to do all the yard work myself, and celebrating my birthday on my own. He’s not around to lift that really heavy thing, or help me size up prospective tenants for our rental unit.

Never mind the separation and distance this time around. How can we repeat this cycle over and over and over again? Short hellos and long goodbyes — until what? Retirement?

We don’t have kids, so if he keeps on pipelining, I’d spend 75 per cent of our life together alone. With Otis.

On my first visit to Brandon to see Ben, about a month after he left, I got some unexpected support.

I met Darlene, and we became fast friends. She was one of the first pipeline wives I’d ever met. And over a few days, I asked her all kinds of questions about how she has made this often relationship-busting lifestyle work.

Anecdotally, I’ve been told the divorce rate for pipeline workers is high. It's not uncommon to hear of pipeliners with three, four, and even five marriages.

She quit her career as an Ontario Provincial Police prison guard of 30-some years to follow her husband from pipeline job to pipeline job. She has left behind her home, her friends and her community to travel to tiny, unheard of places like Wallaceburg, Ont., Boyle, Alta., or Morden, Man.

'Say, you know, this is what us pipeline wives do.'

Now, her days are filled with cooking, cleaning and taking care of all her husband’s needs. His hours are so long (12+ hours a day, six days a week) that he can’t do much for himself. He brings home the bacon, and she cooks it.

They need each other to make all this work, so although she’s a housewife now, she’s also one half of a power couple.

“We still have a home. Somebody has to be looking after that,” says Darlene.

“The guys don't have time to worry about who's looking after their home. So the wife is doing that, plus looking after your home that you're in presently and your whole life in general.”

It’s no self-sacrifice, either. Darlene has a full life. She has a lot more time than I do to indulge her hobbies. She reads up to 20 novels a month. And she’s a big knitter. When someone on the pipeline has a baby, she always makes them a baby blanket.

She also makes time to be a sort of mentor to other women new to pipeline, like me.

“Say, you know, this is what us pipeline wives do,” she says.

“If you want to come, you're more than welcome. Like, we go out for lunch. You know, come and I'll help you to get life set up. And you know, I can babysit your children or whatever so that you can go and have a life.”

The Pipeliner Wives Club

That “lunch” Darlene is referring to is “Ladies Lunch," a weekly gathering of the pipeline wives who are around at any particular job. In Brandon, they meet on Thursdays at a different local restaurant every week.

She invites me along to one.

The wives talk about all kinds of things, like which are the best grocery stores around and how to deal with problems with the trailer. They also vent and share struggles such as their health problems or tension in their homes with crabby, overtired husbands.

These women don’t necessarily all know each other well, but there’s a kinship and this is a safe space. Call it a support group.

So, I get it now. It’s not so much a loss for Darlene as it is an ongoing adventure. The travelling pipeline wives have seen more of Canada than most people. They’ve made friends everywhere they can drop-in on any time they’re passing by. They have ample fulfilment and community.

And most importantly, they get to be with their husbands.

“Personally, I think my husband does better when I'm here than when he's on his own,” says Darlene.

Am I interested in becoming a full-time member of the “Pipeliner Wives Club?” No.

I can put up with an empty bed for now. Ultimately, though, I don’t know what the separation will mean for my marriage.

Will he be annoyed I’ve stopped making the bed?

And what happens when he comes back? Will I be annoyed with him leaving the toilet seat up? Interrupting my solo routine? Will he be annoyed I’ve stopped making the bed? That I’ve got a lengthy honey-do list waiting?

We’re both going to grow as individuals while we’re apart. How do you keep growing in the same direction as a couple?

There’s clearly no magic formula for that. But life is about choices, and you have to trust the choices you make in the moments you make them.

Ben should be home in time for Christmas.

I’m looking forward to welcoming him home with open arms.