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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's in the heart of the home, a place where family members will pass by it countless times a day. It simply reads: "Days until Dad comes home: 16." It'll be 16 days ...

Kim Duncombe takes a family portrait with three of her five kids
Kim Duncombe takes a family portrait with three of her five kids, Matthew Jr., Raegen, and Kassie (L to R); and also her husband Matthew Duncombe (pictured on iPhone). Matthew spends two weeks away from the family at a time while running pipelines for the booming oil industry in Western North Dakota. (Luke Franke/ Grand Forks Herald)

Big and bold on the chalkboard in the Duncombes’ family kitchen is a countdown.

It’s in the heart of the home, a place where family members will pass by it countless times a day.

It simply reads: “Days until Dad comes home: 16.”

It’ll 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 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.

Providing for family

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, help the oldest child attend UND.

“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 tries to Skype with each other as much as they can. The couple 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.”


Wedding planning was difficult for Jared and Jessica Gowan of rural Grand Forks.

Tasks such as which type of flowers to have at the reception were difficult to coordinate with hundreds of miles between them.

So whether or not Jared would wear a boutonniere had to largely be decided over the phone while he was commuting the six hours back home from his construction job out west.

Jared and Jessica got married in March, and being a newlywed away from her husband can be difficult for Jessica. The couple tries to see each other almost every weekend for about 48 hours.

The Gowans said communication and independence was the key to making their relationship work. They find small windows in their day to call the other, whether that be a few minutes between meetings at Altru for Jessica or during a break while working for his family’s construction company for Jared.


“It can be hard because it we don’t say something on the phone, it might not get said at all,” Jessica said. “So unless we make the extra effort every day to talk to each other, then it doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of extra effort that has to go in to make it work because we don’t see each other.”

Jessica said she tries to support her husband as best as she can even though he’s so far away. She said it’s difficult for a newlywed to come home and not have her husband by her side.

“It’s really difficult to be apart,” Jessica said. “You’re supposed to be in that honeymoon phase, but talking and texting only goes so far.”

When Jared is not home, Jessica gets a lot of support from family and friends. When things happen such as a pipe bursting in her basement or her yard needing to be sprayed for dandelions, family members have pitched in to help.

But when family members can’t be there, she’s forced to mow the yard or groom her Siberian Husky herself. She often tries to make light of the situation by sending pictures to her husband and ending the text with the hashtag #WillistonWidow.

While Jessica may joke about being a Williston Widow, she said she knows that many of the men working out west, including her husband, are out there to provide for their families.

“I think a lot of people look at the oil and everything happening out west, and yes, it’s great if you’re a single male,” she said. “But what people don’t realize is a lot of guys out there do have families. It’s not just about the oil. A lot of them are family guys who are going out there to try and support their families.”


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