RELATIONSHIPSFamilyFinding Balance as a Caregiver and Firefighter

Finding Balance as a Caregiver and Firefighter

Shannon with her wife and two daughters.

By: Shannon Wallace

I changed instantly, in the moments of diagnosis, from not only a mother and firefighter but to my own family’s caregiver. Routines, work, sleep, and even relationships were disrupted. It was hard to know where to turn for help. 

Caregiving is something that comes naturally to firefighters. The image of a calm firefighter in the midst of someone else’s worst day is easy to picture. It’s one of the reasons I love what we do. It’s the moment most of us train for. So what happens when that moment becomes your own? 

A Life Changing Diagnosis

In 2013, I suddenly found myself as the caregiver to my wife and our three unborn girls. My mundane thoughts about what to add to the baby registry and what to meal prep for fire academy that week were quickly replaced with critical life-saving decisions regarding my family’s medical care and treatment. 

Most of us wouldn’t give a life-saving decision a second thought at work. We train so we don’t have to make decisions, we just act with knowledge and skill, but when it’s your own family it can be much more difficult. 

That’s right, in the middle of fire academy (and a full-time day job), my wife and I would endure a major fetal surgery, the loss of a baby to twin to twin transfusion syndrome, and a serious lifelong heart defect diagnosis for another. All of this before a premature birth at 31 weeks and a three-month NICU stay. 

I changed instantly, in the moments of diagnosis, from not only a mother and firefighter but to my own family’s caregiver. Routines, work, sleep, and even relationships were disrupted. It was hard to know where to turn for help. 

When home is disrupted, and work is a place where you see peoples worst days, it can truly be hard to find a safe place to fall. You go from one traumatic or physically difficult situation to another. 

It was truly difficult to find a balance between work and home. There were times when I couldn’t tell the pager tones from the NICU monitor beeps. 

Acting as a Firefighter and a Mom

It’s difficult as a firefighter to want to step back from a job we took an oath to uphold. It can also be difficult to reach out to our peers for help. It’s the time we have to remind ourselves it’s okay to wear two hats and to hang up those hats when we go from one role to the other. Many of us have learned to decompress and have the tailboard talks before we head home from the station. The same rules can be applied at home.

Instinct tells us when the tones come, you go. Mothering instinct tells us not to leave our family. That’s when the lines blur. 

I was fortunate for the amazing support I received at the station. The hard decisions become slightly easier and the weight becomes less to bear when you are willing to open up and ask for help. I trusted in the knowledge and support of those at the station and academy just as I did in the doctors at the hospitals. Letting go of some of the weight and trusting helped in both situations. 

It’s always been hard for me to not give 100% wherever I find myself. Learning that it’s okay to show up however I am has been a difficult thing to learn. Realizing my crew would rather me there whether it’s at my best or worst than not at all is still a lesson in progress. Caregiving never ends for parents with kiddos with complex heart conditions. Luckily now, like with firefighting, it’s a title I hold proudly and do without question. 

Finding Balance in Trauma

Being a caregiver takes a toll on the mind and body. I have suffered from caregiving anxiety and PTSD. As a group we need to recognize how easy the image of a caregiver seems, but how challenging it can be when it occurs in your own home. We need to make sure our brothers and sisters are supported. 

Since this experience, I have mastered the art of sleeping upright in hospital chairs and napping in recliners in the station bay. I have skipped meals and holidays for my heart warrior and the fire tones. I have cried from both fear and joy with both families. I am a constant advocate for CHD families and firefighters and I have had to make life-changing decisions both personally and professionally. I am a mom and a firefighter.

Learn more about CHD by visiting https://mendedhearts.org/story/chd-awareness/