Confessions of a shift working mother


I have been a shift worker for the majority of my adult life. I have worked weekends, Christmas day, New Years Day, all the days. When the rest of the world is celebrating, odds are, I’m celebrating in a different way – usually with penalty rates and some kind of DIY “bring a plate” buffet. 3am Christmas ham and fruit cake? Yes, please!

Coordinating shift work with regular life is complicated. So, when you add a bunch of kids who rely on you for their survival into the mix, it stands to reason that the complication gets more……complicated. And dealing with this complication often requires various strategies and coping mechanisms that may not be understood by the ‘real world’. So, in the interest of understanding and acceptance of those of us who do strange things, and make little sense, I thought I would take the time to explain the good, the bad, and the crazy of shift work and parenting combined.

You know that mum dropping her kid at the school gate in ugg boots and pyjama pants? That’s me.

Maybe I have just come home from night shift. Perhaps I am about to go back to bed to get ready for a a night shift. It could even just be the fact that I, as a shift worker, get on average 2 hours less sleep in a 24 hour period than  someone who is not a shift worker. Whatever the reason, I am dressed like I cannot be fucked because I am tired. You may even find me brushing my daughter’s hair on the side of the road, outside school, while dressed like this. When you are living on as little sleep as I often do, things like tidy hair and de-stained uniforms become “optional extras”, not schoolyard necessities. If you happen to get close enough to my car, you may find that my younger two kids are also still in their pyjamas. They are probably not fed. They are probably patiently waiting for me to drive through, or by, their “mum can’t be fucked” breakfast location of choice.

When I mention that I am going to have a nap, and you say “Omg, you’re so lucky. I wish got a day nap!” I want to punch you.

So Rissa, any plans today?” “Oh, not much, I’m working tonight, and dad has a bit of time so I might get a chance to grab a quick nap. Other than that, y’know the usual. Mum stuff.” “Wow, you are so lucky. I never get to have a nap in the day!”

Seriously, STFU. Not kidding. That nap? That nap you are jealous of? That is the only sleep I will get in 24 hours. 45 minutes sleep, for an entire 24 hour period. And that’s if I get the chance to nap. And if my body allows me to sleep for the brief period that someone else is around to watch my kids. Studies have shown that the effects of prolonged periods of wakefulness are comparable to the effects of alcohol on the body. That nap that you covet is the reason I will get home safely tomorrow.

When you tell me I’m lucky for getting 45 minutes sleep in 24 hours, I feel stabby.

“Oh, bummer, you’re working? Can’t you just skip it? Just take the night off, they won’t mind!”

Thank you for your kind invitation to {insert any random social event here}. Sadly, I am working that night, and I cannot make it. No, I can’t just “skip it.” I can’t just “come home early”, either. I probably can’t get a swap, and even if I could, I probably couldn’t find the child care to facilitate the swap anyway.

People seem to find it surprising to discover that shift work jobs are real jobs, too. We do real work. We have real hours. Real requirements. And we really, really need our sick leave, since our risks of certain health issues are higher than the general community. I can’t skip my 12 hour Friday night shift for your housewarming any more than you can skip your Wednesday work day to go out for pasta and cake with me.

If I had a shiny dollar for every time I have had to explain to a person that my kids can’t do this activity, or go to that camp, or participate in that mind numbingly boring enrichment activity due to my working hours combined with the fact that my other half is only one person and can’t be in two places at once, I could probably retire, and I could take my kids to the damn event. Seriously.

Seriously, what do people think I am doing? It’s not a hobby. I’m not spending my evening learning to scrapbook. It’s not soccer training. It’s a real job. I don’t rock up when I please, and go when I fancy. And, I promise, there are many ways I would prefer to spend my night. In fact, the list of those things is so long, it would rate a whole other blog post.

Childcare stress is a real thing.

I understand – it’s a real thing for many working parents, not just shift workers. But the thing that makes the stress even greater for many shift workers, is the very nature of the work we do.

Take, for example, my own role. Most people in my role work 12 hour shifts, in a mix of days, nights, and occasional afternoons, on a rotating roster. The shifts are in blocks of 3 or 4, and cover all days and all nights of the week, over a period of time. There are no specific days days off, and no specific days on. If you are wondering how many places will provide adequate, affordable care for this kind of roster, I can tell you that in my experience, the answer is very few. So shift workers are left with a few options:

We can pay for a full week’s care, every week, even though we only need a few days. While this would have been in the realm of affordability with 1 child, as a parent of 3 it becomes prohibitively expensive. I actually did the maths today, and putting all of my kids in child care and after school care for full weeks all year would cost 2/3 of my take home wage. That’s with the $7500 rebate per child applied. I am on a pretty decent wage, far more than many of my shift working friends, so I could only imagine how difficult the cost would be for shift workers in other industries.

We can hire a nanny, or get an au pair. And for some, this is a fantastic option. I looked into a nanny, but soon realised that my kids would still need to go to some form of pre-school- so I would be forced to double up on the cost of child care, which made it about as affordable as the first option. And an au pair is lovely, but when you have 3 kids and 2 adults living in a small house in the suburbs, there really isn’t much room for a live-in carer.

We can wing it. Use up every favour, every piece of good will, with every friend, neighbour, and random acquaintance we happen to have. A few days child care here, a grandparent there, a friend over there. In my experience, this is the most common option. It’s one I have had to use for years. And it isn’t always the best option. I regularly go to work after taking care of the needs of 3 small people from 7am in the morning. On many occasions, I have been awake for periods of 36+ hours at a time. It’s awful, those prolonged periods of wakefulness. Around hour 24, you cease to feel human.

A friend of mine recently told me that her daughter might be refused care at her school’s local OOSH, because my friend is unable to get a letter from her employer specifying the exact times and days she works. She explained to the care provider why she can’t do this – she has no exact times and days. The explanation was met with little empathy, and a fair amount of disbelief. Which is shithouse, because we aren’t lying when we say we cannot provide such information.

Our mum guilt is intense, and we will do stupid things to alleviate the guilt.

“Please, mum? Please?

This is the sound of my eldest child, desperately wanting to go straight from her soccer game to a school friend’s birthday party. Which is fine, except for two things: firstly my son has a soccer game at the exact time the birthday party starts, which means that someone will have to take him there, and stay at the game with him. Secondly, I will be finishing work at 7am, and going straight from the train station home to pick her up and take her to her game. Which means that the only way to get her to the party, is for me to just keep going, despite desperately wanting some sleep. Mum guilt guarantees that I will do it.

Shift work means that I miss things that other parents take for granted. Last year, despite swapping from an afternoon shift to a morning shift, skipping my break so I could leave a little early, and driving for 1.5 hours through Christmas party traffic, I missed my daughter dancing at her dance school concert. I also missed her singing at her school Christmas concert, the kid’s Christmas party thrown by my work, my daughter’s first goal on the soccer field, the first time my son stayed on the field and actually kicked the ball, instead of sitting on the grass and saying “I’m too tired” over and over again.

I know that all parents, especially working parents, miss stuff. But shift work parents are more likely to miss the big stuff. Like watching their kids open presents on Christmas Day. Watching their kids walk across stage to receive awards. Seeing their kids win grand finals. Because important stuff like that happens with most people aren’t working. And shift workers don’t often work like most people.

Shift work mum guilt means that I stay awake when I really need to sleep, so my kids can have the opportunities that other kids have. It means that I watch crappy, grainy phone footage of my daughter dancing, and overload her with “guilt donuts” when we drive past Krispy Kreme on the way home from the concert I missed. It means we rely heavily on friends and family to provide the opportunities that our crazy hours prohibit us from providing ourselves.

Filter free, sleep free. What happens when guilt gets in the way of sleep.

When all else fails, beer is the answer.

You know those Friday nights. The ones where you are home, the kids are home, and all that you are waiting on is your partner, so that you can rely on each other. Since it’s Friday, the kids are simultaneously tired, irritable, and excited – so they are jumping between joyfully using the couch as an indoor recreation centre, and squabbling to the death on the floor. As your partner’s usual arrival time passes, you yourself become irritated, and you send your partner a passive aggressive text about punctuality and parenting responsibility. He texts back, not five minutes later, obviously confused by your frustration – he’s at a work do, remember? He told you 3 weeks ago? It’s in the calendar? There is free beer, fancy food, and we both agree that nobody should say no to that combination? Dammit.

Beer is the answer. It’s not always the answer. I actually rarely drink at home. These days, I rarely drink at all. But those nights suck big hairy balls, especially when you have had 3 hours sleep and are barely a functioning human. So beer it is. The kids get juice, I get beer, and screw dinner, we are ordering pizza. Fuck the rules. And, when I am tipsy enough, we may form an air band, and use the coffee table as a stage. And dammit, the partner type person better be bringing home some goddamn fancy chocolates, or some of those awesome cream puffs you buy in Chinatown, because when rules be damned, rules be damned.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are good things, too.

It really isn’t all bad. None of us would do it if it was.

I get paid pretty well for what I do. I mean, we aren’t living in waterfront luxury, and I don’t drive a giant Range Rover. But my wage is nothing to be sneezed at, and it’s well above the average wage of a working mum in Australia. If my husband lost his job tomorrow, I could cover the bases (just) on my wage alone.

Also, working 12 hour shifts means that I only have to go to work 3 days a week. My full time job is only three days a week. And sure, it feels like the shift is never going to end sometimes, but I only have to get up, get dressed, and get into work mode 3 days out of 7. And the rotating roster, while impossible for childcare reasons, means that I get really long weekends – 6 day weekends, 5 day weekends. So I pretty much end each block with the kind of long weekend most people look forward to for months.

And, for all the things that everybody else gets to see, and I have to miss, there are things I get to do that many other parents don’t get the opportunity to. I can put my hand up to be a classroom helper, and help out with things like excursions and carnivals, without taking precious leave to accommodate it. I can pick my eldest up from school early, leave the younger two in day care, and take her out for a sneaky mid-week hot chocolate and fancy cake day. I can make it to specialist appointments and surgeries without eating into my carer’s leave.

My rotating roster blocks, and the 5 and 6 day periods of leave that go with them, mean that if I play my cards right with the leave rosters (everything is a roster when you are a shift worker. Pretty sure there would be a toilet roster if they could possibly organise it), I can get nearly 3 weeks off work for the price of one week’s leave. So I have enough leave for both a fabulous holiday and a few weeks bludging about the house. No matter what your profession, there is something really beautiful about leaving your place of work, and knowing you will not have to enter it again for over a month.

So, there it is. It’s good sometimes, and sometimes it sucks a whole mouthful of dirty dog’s balls. And, for the foreseeable future, it’s my life. I hope, if you are a shift worker, you read this, and smile and nod. And, if you are not a shift worker, perhaps it will help you understand why so many of us appear incapable of making sense half the time. Or at the very least, perhaps you might look away, the next time you see a sleep deprived shift worker, on the side of the road, frantically grooming their 7 year old with spit and the sleeve of their bathrobe. Because it may not make sense to you, but at that time, in that parent’s fuzzy, hazy eyes, it makes sense to them.








7 thoughts on “Confessions of a shift working mother

  1. I worked retail for years so I understand the crazy hours and working holidays. That was pre-children though, I can’t imagine trying to juggle all that you do, on top of keeping a blog!


  2. My husband is the shift worker in our house. We were actually discussing the possibility of us both working shift and the logistics of it all. It got complicated real fast.
    Thank you for the insight and I promise to never again comment on how nice it would be to nap during the day.


  3. My best friend is a shift worker and I see her struggles all the time. It is so hard and I often am so amazed at how she actually does juggle the whole lot. But she does and she is great at it. She loves her job and wouldn’t have it any other way. You sound like an amazing mum xx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s