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Staying Home Instead

Life on the Night Shift

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 6, November-December 1999, pp. 208-10

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

"Staying Home Instead" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents who choose to stay at home with their children. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

I'm home with our two boys and my husband works nights. I often feel like a single mother, since my husband spends most of his time at home sleeping. This presents a number of challenges: finding time as a couple, finding time as a family, keeping the boys quiet enough for daddy to sleep, and keeping my sanity after being with the boys 24 hours a day, essentially without a break. How have other families coped with the challenges of a night shift schedule?

Response

My husband has worked nights most of our marriage, and it presents some unique challenges. He currently works a 12-hour shift, four days on, four days off, and frequently works at a second job on his days off. He leaves the house at 5:15 in the evening, returning home (most days) around 7 in the morning. Very rarely does he fall asleep the minute he walks in the door. On school days, he can visit with our daughter a bit before she leaves, and he often drives her to school. Then he can watch some cartoons with our son, Jeff, who enjoys tucking Daddy in when Daddy can't hold his eyes open any longer.

If your husband works a more traditional night shift, from 3 PM to 11 PM or 11 PM to 7 AM, there are more options for you. One is for the whole family to go on the night shift. If you don't have school-age children, this can work fine. Even if you can't completely switch over to nights, maybe you could sleep a bit later and stay up later, so that you can have some family time and couple time together, on at least one end of Daddy's shift.

Flexibility is very important when there's a night-worker in the household. Not getting a break can be very difficult, but I have come to accept it as the norm. Perhaps you can discuss it with your husband, and he can find a way to take over with the boys when he is off so that you get some down time. A well-chosen video can occupy older children to give you a break while Dad's at work. Maybe a friend would be willing to have your children over to play once a week or so and you can take hers on another day. One thing that might help the "quiet, Daddy's sleeping" problem is to set up some kind of white noise in the room where your husband sleeps. I simply don't allow loud yelling and commotion inside while my husband is asleep. They can save it until he goes to work, or take it outside, weather permitting.

Joanne Hamilton
Foley AL USA

Response

Ask your husband to wake you up when he gets home from work, so the two of you can have time together. You can go to bed early with the children at night, so you won't be exhausted permanently. The family meal can be breakfast (your husband's supper, really); eating the main meal early in the day is actually healthier anyway. This also means you won't have to cook two dinners a day (one for you and the children and one for Dad when he gets home). The normal suppertime can include food more like lunch or a hearty breakfast. When your husband comes home in the morning, you could cook the meal together, and then wake the children up to eat as a family. Or, you could prepare a meal the night before to be ready in the morning. Crock-pots (slow cookers) are ideal for this, but there are also great cookbooks for making meals ahead of time.

Your husband might want to invest in a pair of sound- dampening "in the ear" ear plugs. They will be molded specifically for his ears. They cost between $40 and $100 and fit very much like hearing aids, only they are not vented, so very little sound gets through. This will eliminate the problems with the children being noisy except the "jumping on the beams and vibrating Dad out of bed" ones. He should also have either blackout curtains or eye shades, to eliminate the daylight completely. It's amazing how much just a little bit of light can disturb sleep, and how much more sleep is necessary as a result. If he is exercising regularly, he will need less sleep, too. Everything that diminishes his need for sleep gives you more time and will also help him feel more rested.

Being a night shift "widow" is another problem, and you could seek out the same kind of resources and advice that single parents use. Get help, if you can afford it at all, particularly with housework that is never-ending. Encourage your children to participate in the housework. Many children help at home and it's a great way to learn survival skills such as cooking, housekeeping, and laundry.

Finally, speaking as a frequent navy "widow" let me suggest taking time for you. Not vacation time, like two weeks on a tropical island, but daily renewal. Do things for yourself that make you feel good: reading for a bit when the children are occupied elsewhere and there are still dishes to do, or putting your feet up and practicing deep breathing when you have a spare few minutes. Chat with friends on the phone if getting together in real life is too complicated. Savor one really good chocolate every week. Really taste it, feel it melt in your mouth, enjoy the entire experience. Find ways to give gifts and nurturing to yourself several times every day. Waiting for the weekend will not help you get through Wednesday, and waiting for summer vacations will not help you get through the winter.

Linda Clement
Victoria BC Canada

Response

My husband works shift work with six-month rotations: midnight/graveyard, swing, and days. If seems as if his shift changes just when I think we've adjusted. I understand your frustrating challenges much too well. We try to eat one meal a day together as a family. When he is working midnights, it's breakfast; on the swing shift, it's lunch; and on days, it's dinner. Sometimes this is it for family time during the week. Our couple time is usually just a moment here and there: sitting on the floor folding laundry, a late night chat on the sofa, or even a trip to the market.

I spend a lot of time with family and friends. I go to La Leche League Series Meetings and gatherings at local playgrounds. I sometimes have a teen helper come over and watch my daughter while I go upstairs and have a long bath. I guess I have come to the realization that this is how my life is now, hectic, crazy, and semi-disorganized. But I would not change it for the world. When I wake up tired and groggy and look over at my daughter, I know it is all worth it and I'm ready to take on the day.

Susan Earl
Corona CA USA

Response

I didn't deal with a night shift schedule, but I think some of my early parenting experiences might be similar to what you're going through. My husband is a dairy farmer, and easily spends 16 hours a day working, either in the barn or in the fields. When our three children were small, that meant there were days he'd see us for only brief moments, when he grabbed something to eat. Until the children were old enough for all of us to work together, we took advantage of those mealtimes, no matter how short they were. When Daddy came in looking for food, we all sat down with him, even if it was just to talk. The best times were breakfast. For my toddlers, that was lunchtime. All of my children learned to feed themselves by sitting on Daddy's lap, "helping" him eat his bacon, eggs, toast, and cereal.

When rainy days came along, or in the winter when things slowed down just a bit, we'd take advantage of any free time we had and find something to do, either as a couple or with the children. Even family walks out to the mailbox took on a special meaning when Daddy came along!

In those early years, I often felt like a single parent, especially in the evenings when my husband was milking. Bedtime routines fell to me and me alone. I found support in other farm wives who also essentially parented alone most of the time. But my biggest support came from the friends I made by attending LLL meetings. I never missed a Series or Enrichment Meetings, or an Area Conference. When I felt connected to other women who felt as strongly as I did about mothering through breastfeeding, it was easier to handle the stress of doing this alone most of the time. I would encourage you to be involved with your local LLL Group by attending meetings regularly, and by taking on a Group job. You'll make friends quickly through the Group, and perhaps find fun activities to do with these friends during the day, while your husband is sleeping.

Spend time alone with your husband whenever you can. A date doesn't always have to be in the evening. Try to keep your husband up-to-date on your children's accomplishments. He'll feel more a part of the family, and you might not feel so alone in your parenting. Creativity seems to be the key to family life when "daytime" isn't nine to five!

Peggy Wiedmeyer
Glenbeulah WI USA

Response

I can really relate to how a husband working the night shift presents many challenges, as my husband, Eric, also works the overnight shift. It can feel like he is always either at work or asleep while I struggle through alone. Here's what we have worked out. When Eric first gets home from work he settles in and plays with Fiona, our three-year-old, helping with her care for about an hour. He finds this to be a nice way to wind down from work and reconnect with us. Since he is very tired we then have breakfast and have him go to bed.

As a family we "tuck Daddy in for night-night" to make this transition. We put a safety gate in the bedroom door so that Fiona can look in and see that Daddy is there, but know that she needs to leave him alone. Then we set an alarm, and I tell my daughter that when it goes off it will be time to get Daddy up. This too is a routine in which she is involved and it helps all of us make the transition to Eric being awake again. When Eric gets up he showers and shaves, taking a little time for himself. Then he takes over parenting for a little while so I can get a break for either a quick walk, bubble bath, or just to catch my breath. A lot of times we can take time as a couple over the kitchen table once our daughter has gone to bed before he goes off to work. Sometimes we go out for breakfast as a family, and we usually take family time after Eric has been up for a while, around suppertime.

One thing we find in common with friends whose spouses work days is that we need to prioritize what is really important and forget the rest. This means we vacuum and clean the bathroom maybe once every week or two instead of daily; and we put people before things.

When Eric is gone at night, I make sure that I have a list of phone numbers right by the phone, including emergency numbers, a few friends and my local La Leche League Leaders. This helps me know that I can have support right away if I need it.

I found that having a family bed really helped me when we were alone at night when she was a baby. I would set up all that I needed for her by the bed, including clean diapers, and tuck her in with me at night. It saved me much grief and sleep not having to get out of bed several times a night. Even though she has started sleeping in her own bed now, she still knows she can come and snuggle into bed with me any time for as long as needed during the night. This relieves her fears and makes it much easier for me to manage nighttime parenting alone.

While these things worked for me and I hope they will help you, it would be good to sit down with your husband and figure out what both your needs are, then work out something that is best for your family.

Sharon Green
Burlington VT USA

Response

We have a 12-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter and my husband has been on the graveyard shift for the last 15 years. One way or another we have navigated successfully through these years. My husband has rotating days off, so his weekends are family time. We also schedule time to be together. If the occasion is important enough, you will find the time. Self-nurturing is often forgotten when we have small children. It is extremely important to make time for yourself. I have used "Mother's Day out " programs, exchanged play dates with other mothers, and my husband has taken our kids on numerous occasions. Even if it is just 20 minutes in the tub while your husband entertains the children, it will help you. Also, though my children and I aren't on graveyard shift, I do stay up a little later in the evening and take a nap with my daughter during the day. Exercise is important as well. Take the children for a walk, or find some walking buddies.

Everyone must learn to be flexible and guard his or her positive attitudes. Periodically, stop and reassess family and individual needs. You will find that needs shift and change. Take turns at household responsibilities. This may help ease any resentment that builds up when one person is responsible for the chores day in and day out.

Mary Harms
Euless TX USA

Response

Finding time as a couple was probably the biggest challenge for us when my husband worked nights rather than the late shift as he does now as a musical performer. We found friends to trade babysitting and had a mother's helper occasionally. My husband keeps earplugs next to the bed and uses them as needed. If I felt I had to "keep the boys quiet," I would feel very pressured. Of course we visit the park and save extra loud playing for outside.

I find it difficult to cope with being responsible for both morning routines and bedtime routines. I prepare for the mornings the night before (putting out clothes and making lunches) when I'm much less likely to forget something. I have a long list of bedtime rituals that I choose from. My two boys especially like receiving a massage.

Can your husband take the boys outside even for 15 minutes or be responsible for bath time? Working nights shouldn't mean no time for family. It may mean being creative and being different from other families. My boys used to take later naps to have more time with Dad.

Now that they are both in school, I use that time (in Germany it's only half a day) for myself first to read and relax. It seems strange to start the day with a break but I need it. Then I do tasks that I enjoy doing alone. Using a sling or backpack with a small child can be a big help.

Keeping my sanity? I don 't always manage it but I try. It does get easier. I never say "no" to an offer of help with housework or cooking. Working the night shift isn't easy on the person who does it either. Sometimes evaluation is in order to decide if it is worth it. I wish you and your family well.

Deedra Pulver
Duisburg Germany

Last updated Thursday, October 19, 2006 by njb.
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