There is a vivid memory I have, a day in my life when I felt very alone and so incredibly abandoned. We all have these memories, days we never forget, feelings that were so deep they’re etched in our memories forever. One of mine is me standing in our front doorway, watching my husband leave for work at 6:00 am even though his start time was an hour later, and the ten-mile drive to his station took only minutes. I still remember the faded grey t-shirt, stained with our infant’s spit up, the sticky hand of our four-year-old clutching mine, and the weight of our new baby heavy in my arms. Tears streamed down my face blurring his form. The form of him walking to his truck; walking away from his family before he had to. At that time, I struggled to understand why. Why did he want to leave us? Why didn’t he want to have breakfast with his little girl, grab one last snuggle with a smiling baby, give me more love? Why did he love the fire department more than me?
I didn’t know what he was seeing; a hormonal new mother, an irrational mess, a crazy person who wouldn’t listen to a word he said. So, why bother? When we talk about it now, he tells me, “Of course I told you what was going on, didn’t I? I mean, what else could I say?” Well, he didn’t. Trust me. But therein lied our issues. He had no idea what to say to talk me off the ledge. He didn’t have the words. He felt like he was explaining it all as clearly as he could, and I felt like he was saying nothing at all.
What I really needed to hear was why this was a part of his job, and that it wasn’t about me.
I understand now a few things now that I didn’t then; a few things I wish someone had explained to me. You see, I saw it as a direct representation of how he felt about our family. I felt like he meant to hurt me each time he took away an hour that, in my opinion, still belonged to us. If someone had explained to me that this was a part of his job and that it was important for not only his reputation, but his health and safety, it would have spared me a lot of these days spent crying in the doorway. What I didn’t know then was most days he needed an extra thirty minutes to arrange his gear, to make sure everything was ready to go in case those tones went off at 7:01 am. Or that a lot of times he wanted to be there in case a call came in at 6:55 am; so that someone else wouldn’t have to spend an extra hour or two on shift because he didn’t come in early. I didn’t know that the reason he was home so often on time was because everyone else was leaving their family an hour early too. I just didn’t know. But I also never asked. I simply cried and stood there, I took it personally and made him feel horrible for performing a part of his job that is just as important as the rest.
I know now that sending him off with the last sight of me being devastated with tears streaming down my face, was also setting the tone for his day as much as mine. It made me mopey and grumpy, and it took him out of the frame of mine he needed to be in to do his job and do it well. I should have sent him off happy, smiling, and content in his marriage and family; not feeling guilty for doing his job.
There are a multitude of reasons that our husbands leave much earlier than they need to in order to be there at the official “start-time” of a shift. While you and I can run out the door ten minutes before we’re supposed to be in the office, they simply cannot. For the majority of firefighters, they simply want to be there for their brothers in case someone needs to duck out early or a “late call” comes in. Some sisters have mentioned that it’s just a courtesy. How many times have we wives breathed a sigh of relief that our husband wasn’t “held over?” Well, it was likely because someone else’s husband came in and took the call that came in ten minutes before our husband was off shift. There are sisters that say their husbands need time to grocery shop for the meals they’re going to eat on shift. Some of us believe that they simply want time to shoot the breeze with the shift who’s coming off, or discuss a new protocol or procedure. For some of us wives, we have those firefighters who simply need to check the boxes: gear in place, everything where it’s supposed to be and ready to go. And don’t we want that for them? Don’t we want them to feel secure and confident before say, running into a burning building? I think so. While some of us wives know this.
Imagine how it must be for a new firewife, or a new mom with an infant. It doesn’t always seem so clear.
For me, it took a lot of crying, a lot of self reflection and a lot of wasted time to realize that it wasn’t about me. I sure wish someone had spared me all that heartache and explained the reality of the situation. I wish someone had given my fireman the words. Take note firefighters: I needed to hear that it wasn’t about me, that he didn’t love the fire department more than me. I needed to be told that it’s just another part of the job. I could have used an ear that understood too. That’s what’s so great about the Sisterhood, the ability to come together and talk about this struggle and so many others. We talk with people who just get it. I encourage each and every one of you to reach out and discuss these issues, these heartaches, with women who understand. You may learn something you never knew, something like this.
Our family has done a few things over the years to lessen the “early shift day” struggle. We make new traditions. Dad may not have breakfast with us, but he wakes each kid up with a kiss and hug before he’s off, he’s their own “love alarm.” On days he comes off shift he picks the kids up from school, this gives them something to look forward to all day and lessens the difficulty of him not seeing them off the day before. We’ve started to realize that even though that stolen hour can sting sometimes, those extra hours we get can be pretty great.
Sometimes my fireman and I have lunch together on a random weekday, just us two, something we’d never be able to do if we both worked a nine to five. Often there are long stretches of days in the summer when Dad is home, the place is a complete madhouse, and the laughing never stops. What other kind of job affords those stretches of days off? Sometimes I don’t have to leave work midday when the school nurse calls because one of our kids redeposited their breakfast on the desk. Dad’s not on shift, he’s got it. Just this week my Firefighter got off shift early (and thank you to the husband who went in much earlier than normal to make it happen) and took our youngest to her first day of school in his uniform. She was totally surprised, and excited would be an understatement!
So to the mom in the doorway, with sticky hands and wet cheeks: I get it, we all do. We are here for you. And one last thing: he doesn’t love the Fire Department more than you, we promise.
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We know all too well the unique joys and challenges of loving a first responder. We’re here to honor, strengthen and encourage first responder marriages and families.
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