“One more minute Daddy”
We have a ritual with our oldest child, Ayla, who is three years old. We finish each nightly bedtime routine by starting with three, and counting down the minutes until it’s time to go to sleep. She decided on her own one night, that after one minute, should come “last minute”. I am fully aware her secret agenda is to stay up just a little bit longer, but I can also admit that I like the feeling of importance and love, laying with her provides both of us. As I leave her room while blowing her kisses, I remind her that Daddy has to work tomorrow at the fire house. And as I close her door, there it is. A gentle tug at my heartstrings, accompanied by the thought…it keeps getting harder and harder to say goodbye to her.
Unfortunately, it has taken me a really long time to realize that when I feel that tug at my heartstrings, it’s because someone important is pulling on the other end.
She needs her daddy. When we spend time with the ones we love, it forms memories and moments that attach themselves to our hearts. Since the moments and memories are shared, I like to picture them connecting our hearts with strings. When people then separate, either by work or other choice, the space generated between the two hearts causes tension on the strings creating a subtle tug. Most of the time, when we return to the arms of the ones we love the space collapses. The tug subsides, and we have the opportunity to continue to create new memories and moments. But sometimes, and perhaps too often, selfishly and stubbornly we ignore the tugs in order to further our own agenda, or satisfy our own egos. When we refuse to pay attention to these tugs, the space remains and it causes another, harder pull.
I don’t really remember holding my oldest child much as a baby, because I was always gone working. I’m trying to avoid that mistake with my youngest, Camille. In the past, I was all to eager to sacrifice family time for the firehouse or a chance to make extra part time money. I love my job as a fireman. I love the opportunity my leadership role provides me every day to add value to the team. But I’ve realized as I get older, as into the job and passionate about the fire service as I am, it has never tugged back at my heartstrings. It simply can’t, and here’s why:
When people pull at your heartstrings, they do so not with their hands, but with their own hearts. As you spend time together with loved ones, the joy you feel is actually heartstrings forming, connecting you to them. Heartache happens when a heartstring tears, and we forget what is hurting us, hurts the ones we love as well.
And while people may or may not like me at work, no one is waiting at the firehouse with their heart aching because they missed me. My team, my job, and the fire service itself, can and absolutely will survive without me. I have room to grow as a husband and father. If I invested in my marriage, like I trained for the fire service, I would have won husband and father of the year for the reminder of my life. But I haven’t done that. Instead I shift the load to my wife when I leave, and sometimes refuse to take it back when I come home. Excuses? I may have a few well rehearsed lines to date in my career. See if you recognize any of the these from your mouth:
• I’ve had a long night at the firehouse.
• I have to work part-time to pay for our stuff.
• You can’t possibly understand the stress I’m under at work.
• You knew my job when you married me.
And as I ignore my family’s attempts for my attention, the frequency of those pulls increases. I may even start to get angry with them and rationalize about how I’m the victim, they are a distraction to my work, and they should feel bad for making me feel guilty. But, maybe it’s time to do my own 360 degree assessment on this. So how about this for a size-up:
Engine 10 is on-scene, Lt. Martin will have command. This will be a working extrication of my head from my ass.
Picture a shirt with a few loose shirt strings. We tug at those strings, and if we don’t think it will leave a hole in our shirts, we will go ahead and rip it right off. The same thing happens with our loved ones. When they pull, and pull, and nothing happens, it reinforces that perhaps that string really isn’t integral to their happiness and lives anymore. If they think that it won’t leave a hole in their hearts, before we know it, they have torn or cut all of our connecting heartstrings, and divorces can happen. Anger, hurt, and fear can occupy the space where otherwise the formation of new heartstrings would occur. I often use the metaphor that my career is my fireground, and my personal life is my exposure. Throughout my fireground career, my family is on the outside acting as my rapid intervention crew. They are on the sidelines, watching what’s happening, and letting me know when conditions are changing inside. I would be a fool, and have been exactly that, not to listen to their update that things are getting worse for me inside. I think it’s time to back out and cool off the exposures while I formulate a new strategy that includes a tactic of balancing family and work.
Call To Action
1. Callous is often defined as being tough, which we have to be in order to survive a career in the fire service because of what we see and face. But a lesser used definition of callous is “indifferent to suffering”. If loved ones keep tugging, and I keep refusing to answer, then I risk creating callouses in their hearts.
2. Make it a priority to not only answer the tug of loved ones, but also to tug back, letting them know that you miss them as well. This reminds our loved ones that you value them, and they are a priority in your life. You never know when someone is offering their last pull.
3. Rock bottom is a journey, not a destination, and it’s seldom traveled alone. If you travel down that road, because of reasons such as substance abuse or illness, workaholism, or divorce, someone rides shotgun with you. It’s because your heartstrings attach them to you. Realize that person riding shotgun can also serve as a navigator, helping you find your way back—if you let them. Don’t compartmentalize what you see and feel at work, because you don’t think they can handle it.
4. Listen to that voice inside your head when it says you shouldn’t pick up that extra shift, or miss your kid’s ballgame. It’s a heartstring screaming just before it breaks. We are all smart enough to know when we are being selfish.
Benjamin Martin is a lieutenant with the Henrico County Division of Fire (Va) and a 12-year veteran of emergency services. He is a graduate of and former Deputy Curriculum Chief with the Virginia Fire Officers Academy. He focuses on empowering aspiring leadership. He is equally passionate about supporting and promoting resiliency in existing leadership. He writes and speaks under the banner, Conscious and Intentional: The opportunity of leadership. He has two bachelor’s degrees, Allied-Health (Pre-Med) and Fire Science, and is currently working on a Master’s in Public Administration. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org