Dragging myself in the house at 8:00 in the morning, dry bloodshot eyes, headache, sick to my stomach, barely able to remember how I made it home…you’d think I was back in college having just come home from a particularly wild night at the bars. But the squealing from my kiddos getting ready to hop on the bus to school tells me I am just another mom on the night shift. From nurses, doctors, and firefighters to police women and journalists, everyday there are thousands of women juggling families while working in the wee hours of the night.
This was my life as well for more than eleven years. And it is a life that, unless you have lived it, may be hard for others to understand. Why would I choose to parent as a zombie and do it for over a decade? There are a couple reasons why I felt night shift was the best decision for me and my family, but there are several reasons why I stayed for so long.
- Money. The simplest answer of them all. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was unsure of the direction I wanted to take with my job. If money had not been an issue, I would have quit and stayed at home full time, no questions asked. But we needed the extra income, so I did the math. I could work part time third shift and take home more money than working full time and paying for daycare. The decision was easy. Besides the benefits at my company were also better than my husband’s, and I could keep them by simply working half time.
- More time with my kids. As many new mommies can relate, I had a hard time imagining leaving my kids in someone else’s care while I worked. I wanted to be home with them, experiencing every new thing right by their sides. Working in the middle of the night felt right because I wouldn’t miss anything. I would be gone while they were sleeping, they would never know I wasn’t there. No mom guilt.
- No management. I fell in love with the relaxed environment of third shift. Even on a busy night, you didn’t have the added stress of a boss breathing down your neck. And on a quiet night, you could read a book, write thank you cards, pay bills, or basically anything you might not have been able to get done at home, and not worry about getting caught. Getting used to this type of work environment for many years is why I want to be my own boss now after leaving nights.
- The comradery of night shift workers. Since night shift is lesser staffed, it is often a smaller group that gets along and works very well together. The teamwork on nights is like none other, a well-oiled machine especially during emergencies.
- Daddy time. When I was at work or sleeping, my husband got extra time with the kids. He was forced to learn morning routines and bedtime routines, and the kids all benefitted from having more time with their Dad. In fact, when my oldest was little, she would look forward to the nights I worked. Those were her fun nights with Daddy, they would stay up, watch movies, and then she would get to sleep in my spot while I was gone.
And some lesser known consequences of working the night shift:
- Virtually no pumping. I was able to breastfeed 4 kids for about a year each because I was home. Though, it was not always easy, since it meant my husband bringing a baby to me every two hours during the day while I was trying to sleep. I felt it was worth it. Plus, once my babies were sleeping through the night (usually shortly after I went back to work), I didn’t need to pump.
- My kids will never be the first ones to fall asleep at a slumber party. We are a family of night owls. Due primarily to my schedule, starting from newborn, my kids’ bedtime was around 10:30PM. I could feed them right before leaving for work, and they would sleep until I fed them at 8:00AM. Then, they would usually go back to sleep for a few more hours giving me just enough time to rest before the day started. Basically, until they each started school, they would sleep for me until 11:30AM. This 3 hours of sleep was critical to my sanity after a night of work. Now, even though they are all in school, they can still hang with the best of them on the weekends.
- I can sleep through anything. After several years of restless sleep, especially during the summer, bright light peeking through the curtains as I listened to kids playing and lawn mowers running. I found my sweet spot of sleep with some blackout shades, a couple fans, and a noise machine. Now I can sleep anywhere anytime.
- Pajama and movie day. On my switch days, when I knew I would get virtually no sleep for more than 24 hours, I instituted pajama and movie day. The kids loved it, it kept them occupied and low maintenance, and I could basically veg out on the couch until my husband got home from work.
So why did I leave?
- Working nights takes its toll on your body. It’s no secret that working third shift can be bad for your health. It messes with your natural circadian rhythms and increases your risk for diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
- Carbs, carbs, carbs, and of course COFFEE! This goes hand in hand with the previous reason. When you are so tired you can barely function normally, sometimes the only thing keeping you awake is eating. Besides going broke from my nightly Starbuck’s coffee and pastry, I was always looking for the next sugar fix to get me through the shift.
- No one understands. It’s hard to miss birthdays and holidays and other family events because you’re sleeping. And most people that have not been there themselves do not understand the desperate need for sleep and what it does to your mind and body.
- My exhaustion and my schedule began to affect my ability to be the mother I wanted to be. Ultimately this was the biggest reason I needed to move on. Even though I still liked the night shift for many of the above reasons, I knew it was messing with my happiness. I no longer wanted to be a crabby, cranky mom half of the time. I did not like my kids walking on eggshells around me because I was sleep deprived. Oftentimes, I was home but I wasn’t present, and I wanted that to change.
My journey is still a work in progress, but I do not regret my decision. I know it was the best one for me and my family. And I will forever have tremendous respect, admiration, and empathy for those moms that continue to work in the wee hours of the night.