I have been working in police departments since I was seventeen. I became a dispatcher during my junior year in high school and then two weeks out of college I was sworn in as the youngest police officer my department had ever hired. I was basically a kid myself when I got that gun and badge, so becoming a parent was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. Heck, I just wanted to make it through probation!
Fast forward fourteen years. I was married to husband number two (also a cop) and we began thinking about starting a family. I was approaching my mid-30s, I was a patrol sergeant with some seniority, I had a pretty stable work schedule and so did he; it was now or never. Even before I got pregnant, I began to fret about daycare. I only had a couple of female cop friends who had kids; one had a nanny and one lived next door to her own mom, so their daycare issues were handled, although still sometimes difficult.
One of them, a fellow sergeant, was a single mom who had to pay her nanny a pretty good buck to spend the night when she worked graveyards. One of the guys on her shift had a toddler son and a wife who worked a normal 8 to 4 job, so he was the primary caregiver during the day. As soon as he got home, he was on dad-duty and was only able to nap here and there when the baby did. I hoped I could work out a better option when my baby was born, but I had no idea how. My husband and I worked the same shift (afternoons) but with different, rotating days off. Some weeks we would need only ten hours of daycare, some weeks we'd need thirty. We also had to plan for court time, hold overs, and call ins, and neither of our families lived nearby. I was at a loss for a workable solution.
Enter my watch commander's wife, who had a three month old daughter and a son due in six months and two weeks (don't ask). She wanted to be a stay at home mom, but on a cop's salary, they needed some extra income. She offered to be my babysitter and work whatever hours I needed her to be available. Her husband and I worked basically the same hours (he was my boss) so she didn't mind keeping my baby during odd hours and on varying days off. They lived right on my way to the station and in the same town I where I was a cop so I could visit the baby during my shift; this was an answer to a prayer! However, that first day I dropped my infant daughter off and went to work, I was racked with the acute guilt that I still wrestle with sixteen years later.
How do you deal with working mom guilt when you work outside the home, much less at a police department? Here are a few of the things I learned along the way, and I'm guessing that some of you have even more great advice for the rest of us. If so, add in your thoughts by commenting below!
Plan Ahead, and Plan for the Plan to Fall Apart
I was pretty successful at determining during what stage in my career that I'd get pregnant (after age 30, after I'd made sergeant, after I'd worked on a narcotics task force and in juvenile investigations, two assignments I really wanted to be done with before I had kids) and I was fortunate that God didn't just laugh and decide another fate for me as a mom. However, I failed to plan beyond the actually pregnancy. My daughter was nearly born in the afternoon shift roll call because I refused to acknowledge that babies sometimes don't adhere to their due dates. I didn't know she'd be prone to ear infections that would require frequent doctor visits, I didn't anticipate personnel shortages that would keep me at work well past my shift. I didn't think I'd get divorced (again) when she was a pre-schooler and that my daycare situation would change dramatically once she started school. I also truly had no idea how much I would miss her when I was at work and how ridiculously fast she would grow up. Plan in advance as much as possible, and then learn to be flexible.
Take Advantage of Shift Work
There is a reason that cops often end up in relationships with dispatchers, firefighters, and nurses; it's called shiftwork. This can be a real advantage as a parent. If you can arrange it, work a different shift as your co-parent to cut down on daycare time. I know many male cops and firefighters who cherish their Mr. Mom roles; my husband (yes, number three) is one of them. Plenty of child-rearing experts will tell you that kids need schedules and consistency, but I know plenty of kids raised in two-cop or single-cop households who are now well-adjusted, extremely adaptable people despite their hectic, ever-changing schedules. Children tend to react to how their parents and caregivers react, so if you're easygoing about change, the kids will probably follow suit.
Look to the PD for Child Care
I was so fortunate that my lieutenant's wife approached me about childcare. Before you look at outside daycare options, see if one of your co-workers has a stay-at-home spouse or partner who provides child care. I also employed several of my fellow officers' high school and college-aged kids as babysitters when I needed coverage in the summer or overnight. I also took turns with other working mom cops hosting sleepovers or playdates while one of us worked an extra shift or spent the day in court. I once paid the travel and expenses for one of my officer's wives to attend the national DARE conference with us in exchange for her watching my daughter during the conference. They brought their kids too and we all had a great time together and I had a guilt-free conference.
The Realities of Quality Time
In the 1980s (when I was a juvenile officer and reading lots of child psychology books) there was lots of talk about quality time. The theory was it was okay to put your kid in daycare for 12 hours a day as long as the time you had together was quality. In my unscientific opinion, this often resulted in kids who expected time with their parents to be what I called all Disney, all the time. There was no discipline, no chores, and no adults saying NO. Quality seemed synonymous with over-indulged, and an awful lot of these kids in our jurisdiction ended up in the back of my squad car and their befuddled parents sat in my office lamenting "but I gave them everything!"
Don't let your guilt drive you in this direction. Kids are pretty happy to be with their parents just doing normal things, whether it's folding laundry, playing a board game or cleaning guns (yes, that's a normal family activity at the Smith house, and besides, its a great time to emphasize firearms safety). Just be there with your kids, or as German-born author Eckhart Tolle puts it, "be present in the moment" when you're with your family. Try to turn off the electronics (step away from the Blackberry!) and be truly together, regardless of what activity you're involved in.
Guilt is an Officer Safety Issue
In the Street Survival seminar, we stress maintaining your mental edge, being in Condition Yellow (or higher) when you're on duty, but guilt and worry can rob you of a proper mindset. Feeling bad because you have to, or want to, work outside of the home doesn't do anyone any good, and it can be downright dangerous. Instead of allowing your guilt to distract you, use the love you have for your kids as motivation to train hard, stay aware, and make sound tactical decisions. The best thing you can do as police parent is to come home safe and well at the end of every shift.
As my daughter got older, I thought the guilt would subside. Boy was I wrong. Now I travel almost every week; something new to feel guilty about! However, she has turned into an independent, self-reliant teenager and I have learned that parenting is difficult, wonderful, and oh so fleeting. Live in the moment with your kids, when you're with them, be truly present. When you make mistakes (we all do), learn from them and move on, and when you're at work, don't allow anything to distract you from winning every confrontation so that can get back home to those you love. Be safe!