When I first became a field training sergeant, we had a young male rookie on my shift whose wife was pregnant. She gave birth too early and then she and the baby had to be flown to separate hospitals for advanced treatment. It was a scary time, especially for the young family.
Within a day or two, this officer was back at work, much to the shock of me and my lieutenant. We sat him down in the office and asked him why he was back so quickly.
He told us, “My first priority is to the agency and to my fellow officers. My personal life comes second.”
“There’s Life Outside of the Job?!”
My boss and I proceeded to deliver one of our best, most passionate “this-job-is-not-your-life” speeches and we sent the newbie back home. At that time, I also had a little one at home and the situation got me thinking about my own life and my own priorities.
Although my “baby” is now grown, I still struggle to maintain balance in my life, and I’m guessing that many of you do as well. How do you balance the extraordinary demands of a law enforcement career with your life outside of “the job?”
Most of us spend so much time and energy getting hired, keeping ourselves fit and ready for the job, and then working our way up the chain of command, that if we’re not careful our professional life may overshadow everything else.
Police officers are notorious for allowing our job to become the central focus of our lives. That doesn’t make you a better cop, and it sure doesn’t make you a better person. Here are a few suggestions for a young cop (or a veteran cop who wants to make some changes) on how to gain and maintain a more balanced life.
Keep Your Family Involved and Informed
“My family just doesn’t understand what I’m dealing with!”
I hear this from so many people in law enforcement. But when I inquire further, I discover that most of them don’t really tell their family members — or friends — what their day to day life is really like.
When I was in the academy my mom was battling cancer, my dad was taking care of her, and most of my non-police friends were still in college so I only had my academy classmates to talk to.
Looking back, it was a very emotionally isolating experience. Talk to your family members and non-cop friends about your experiences. And don’t just tell them the funny or heroic stories — tell them the things that scared you or angered you or even things that confused or worried you.
It’s okay to tell your spouse or partner, “I’m really worried about that felony assault trial next week” or to admit to your best friend from grade school, “I responded to a really bad fatal crash today and I’m really bothered by what I saw.”
Sometime talking to non-cop friends can help you frame your concerns differently that just talking to your co-workers.
If you have kids, talk to them about what you did at work today. Tell them one or two age-appropriate stories, and then ask them about their day and what they did. Trading stories is a great way to communicate kids, and I always found that it worked better than the standard “how was your day” questions that usually result in one-word answers.
If you went to training, teach them what you learned that day.
Kids love to learn about all the parts of a handgun and the differences between “cover” and “concealment,” so get them involved. If you’re in the academy, ask friends and family to help you study for exams and shine up your gear. They’ll feel more connected, and you’ll feel more balanced — everybody wins!
Don’t Give Up Your Non-Police Activities
When I was a new cop, one of the things that helped save my sanity in the police academy and in field training was something I’d been doing all my life — working with horses. For the first year I was on the job I lived in a small apartment on a horse farm where I worked off some of the rent cleaning stalls and exercising the owner’s horses.
No matter how stressed out I was, engaging in a familiar and pleasurable activity that had nothing to do with my job was a true joy.
As a rookie, my husband coached wrestling for a small high school.
Police work, especially in the early stages, tends to consume most of our time and energy, and by the time things settle down and we feel able to engage in other some fun, we often find ourselves with a list of what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin calls “Usta’s.”
I “usta” go fishing, I “usta” play softball, I “usta” visit my parents once a week, I “usta” get together with my high school girlfriends.
Keep the constructive links to your “before” life connected. Be proactive about scheduling time for activities that don’t involve police work — it’s essential to your emotional health.
Gender Roles and Police Life Balance
I talk to thousands of female cops every year, and achieving that work/life balance seems to be especially difficult for women. Many of them are dealing with less-than-supportive friends and family who don’t understand their career choice and frankly, law enforcement is still a very male-dominated profession and not all police departments are as welcoming to women as they should be.
I know many women who spend all day (or night) at work and then go home and make dinner, help with homework, bake cookies for the PTA fundraiser and do the laundry. Other women may be caring for aging parents or coming home to a spouse or partner who is resentful of the long hours spent away from home and the inevitable changes in attitude or demeanor that every cop experiences.
It may be helpful to seek out a more experienced female co-worker who has a similar lifestyle and get some advice. There are also associations and online forums (like PoliceOne!) that offer articles and advice to women in law enforcement. Don’t just stew in frustration, reach out!
Whether you are male or female, a rookie or a veteran, make sure you own a copy of Kevin Gilmartin’s “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” and Ellen Kirchman’s book “I Love a Cop.”
Reach out to your brothers and sisters in law enforcement and to your family and friends outside of the profession. Achieving balance in your life isn’t easy, but it’s extremely rewarding.
You’ve got to “train” for your personal life as hard as you train for your on-duty survival.
About the author
Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.