By Special Guest Writer
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Well… 9-1-1 calls don’t stop for the holidays. If anything, calls increase! We have made it to the start of the Holiday season: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New years… what’s your first responder spouse going to be missing? It’s extremely unlikely they will be making them all. It’s one of the things that makes our first responder family life so unique. Last year my husband [a firefighter] missed our son’s first year of trick or treating, but this year he has it off. He’s home for Thanksgiving but working Christmas and New Years. I seriously can’t remember a New Years we have shared together in the last 5 years.
Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't care about what is important to your family. And the schedule can’t let your first responder off early to make the tail end of your family’s celebration. The family is left adjusting to the schedule. Part of being a resilient police and fire spouse is being ready to adjust when we cannot control… and there’s a lot we cannot control especially when it comes to this season.
Here are 5 tips on how to help your family adjust to the holiday schedule.
1. Model Flexibility For Your Kids:
We know that being flexible and having the ability to adapt to unexpected challenges can correlate to future success. I’d like you to know that our kids learn that from us! Even if you feel really disappointed in the fact that your spouse is missing Christmas this year, please hold back from expressing all those emotions in front of your children. I don’t want you to ignore your feelings, please discuss them with your spouse behind closed doors and come up with a plan. However, in front of your kids model some problem solving. Talk through the scheduling conflict you’re having due to the traditions you have and ask for their input even! Help them get excited about the change and special differences in their family. They look to us to try and figure out if we can handle this type of challenge or not. Please model for them that we can!
2. Adjust Your Idea as to What “Holiday” Means:
We have three emergency responders in my immediate family and three in my husband’s immediate family. All of their schedules are staggered! You can imagine how flexible we all have to be if we want to get everyone together. The calendar no longer dictates our holiday, it happens on the day and time we can all be together. Fortunately, emergency responder schedules are very clear-cut. This means we can foresee whether our spouse will be working that day months in advance and can start discussing how it will be managed early enough. It’s rare for my family that we all get together on the actual date the holiday lands on. Very often we will celebrate Christmas on the 23rd or another date that works for our schedules. However, there are rare occasions when we can all get together on the actual holiday, and this is an extra special time for us all.
3. Make First Responder Friendly Traditions:
You can still attend those traditions your extended family members hold, with or without your first responder spouse. On top of those, your immediate family should make new traditions that compliment your family's lifestyle. You were likely able to hold those strong traditions you grew up with because you didn’t grow up in a first responder family. Your kids have a different reality. They likely have many years of adjustment ahead. My recommendation would be to make new traditions within your immediate family that are more first responder friendly. This means they don’t depend on a date and time, but on an experience. So that Christmas Eve gift opening might mean the last day your family has all together before Xmas. Maybe that’s the 23rd because the first responder parent works the 24th and 25th. Sure your kids will have a special gift a day early but what kid wouldn’t want that!? Sometimes you may also have to get creative with how to make this work. Such as writing a couple of letters to Santa explaining the situation and asking for a gift delivery to the station so Dad can be there for it or to deliver gifts a day early due to your family's circumstances. I’ve heard Santa can be very flexible for first responder families.
4. Include the First Responder Spouse Any Way You Can:
There are also going to be holidays when we all just have to accept that your spouse will not be there, despite our best efforts. This happens when there are things you cannot reschedule (like trick or treating), my husband gets called into work last minute, or we just cannot arrange the holiday at another time. On these days we usually call or set up a video call so he can see the family and catch up at least for a moment. This allows everyone to say hi and allows him to feel that he at least made an appearance. I see it as my role to “represent” for us. I always show up and carry on as usual.
5. Communicate and Plan Ahead:
Communication about your expectations and your spouse’s expectations are key. Talk about it early, before extended family starts making plans. Just know that it’s part of any first responder job and one of the more difficult aspects to get used to. With the right mindset, I promise, it is manageable. If you need more support around this I can help (contact below). This really makes you cherish the holidays when you don’t have to worry about your spouse going into work. It feels like a huge win in those years when their schedule happens to allow them a couple of big holidays off.
About the Author:
Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD, is a licensed child and family psychologist in California and specializes in supporting and educating first responder families in private practice. As a fire spouse and law enforcement sister, she knows what type of impact the career can have and helps provide first responder families with information that will help keep them resilient to those impacts. She is the author of "THE FIREFIGHTER FAMILY ACADEMY: A GUIDE TO EDUCATE AND PREPARE SPOUSES FOR THE CAREER AHEAD." Dr. Zemlok also has a podcast "CODE 3 FAMILIES" and a blog on her website geared toward supporting and educating first responder spouses.