Work-Life Balance: Myth or Reality for First Responders?

Jun 7, 2019

Picture this: My husband, Steve and I, along with several friends are in the Sierra mountains, sitting around a campfire telling stories. (There may have been a little beer involved). As they have every other backpacking trip, the group asked Steve, who is originally from Iowa, to tell his favorite story. He starts in.

“A traveling salesman, trying to get to Des Moines before dark, stops at a farmhouse to ask directions. The farmer’s wife introduces him to her husband who is out in the back, slopping the hogs. As the salesman approaches the farmer, he notices one of the hogs has a wooden leg.

“I’d be pleased,” he says, “If you would tell me how to get to Des Moines. But before you do, would you tell me how that hog got a wooden leg.”

“That’s a real special hog,” the farmer says. “Last year, I was out plowing, the ground was soft and the tractor rolled, pinning me underneath. That hog came running, shoved his way under the tractor and lifted if off me. Saved my life.”

“Is that when the hog got the wooden leg?”

“No sir. About six months ago we had a tornado. My wife and I ran for the cellar. I thought she had the baby, she thought I did. That hog grabbed the baby off the porch, held him in its mouth and dragged him out of harm’s way. Stayed with him until the tornado passed.”

The salesman looks at his watch. It is getting dark and he’s getting impatient.

“So, is that when the hog got the wooden leg?”

“No, sir,” the farmer says. “A hog that special, you don’t want to eat all at once.”

Groans, laughter, more beer.

In my years as a public safety psychologist, I’ve seen what happened to that hog happen to too many law enforcement officers (LEOs) and other first responders like firefighters and dispatchers. You give your all and when it comes time to retire, you are wounded and missing essential parts of yourself. The very parts you need to engage with family, friends and the civilian world. Qualities like empathy, trust, kindness, optimism, humility, humor (not sarcasm), openness, and the ability to ask for help and show vulnerability to the people you love.

That hog was loyal beyond belief. Loyalty to the group is a proud tradition in law enforcement. No question, it is a fine concept and a great quality to have, but only when applied wisely in the right places.

I’ve repeatedly asserted that many people choose to become first responders because they are attracted to the idea of belonging to a “big blue family” that promises to watch their backs. But belonging is not the same as fitting in. In many situations, you have to prove yourself to fit in. Not once, but over and over. Fitting in means you follow the rules and suppress differences. Belonging means you are accepted for who you are.

(This does NOT mean I think cops can choose how to do their jobs, disregard the law, or wear polka dot uniforms if they want to. I mean that individual variations in temperament, thought, cultural norms, values, and so on are treated with respect).

That poor hog sacrificed way too much—and for what? To be the centerpiece of the farmer’s holiday dinner? Caring for others without caring for yourself equals self-sacrifice, a noble concept that becomes meaningless when used without boundaries. Caring for yourself without caring for others results in selfishness or self-centeredness. The challenge is to construct a middle way where you can fulfill your obligations to your job without damaging yourself or the people you love.

Manny Ochoa, the fictional ICAC investigator in my third mystery, The Fifth Reflection, was so overcommitted to finding a missing child that he neglected his own baby and almost lost his marriage. Finding the middle ground is not easy. It involves knowing yourself, your priorities and your limits. It requires learning to push back against pressure from your peers or your culture to conform to values or behaviors that run against the grain of who you are, who you were, or who you want to be.

In my experience, looking for personal confirmation from the work-place is often a no-win deal. Why? Because organizations exist for their own survival, not your well-being. There are good people in organizations, plenty of them. Find out who they are. Avoid the people who think they know how you should live your life and that you should never show your humanity, have needs or set limits because that means you are weak.

I’ve said this before. First responders have two families, their work family and their real family. This is both a burden and a blessing. If you treat your real family with as much loyalty and respect as you do your work family, they should be there for you when you retire, when you get injured, or (this happens too often) when your organization throws you under the bus. Choose your real family first, but prepare for pushback when you do. If you are just now looking for a job, try to find an agency that has family friendly policies and a tolerant culture that respects individual and family needs. If you’re already working, examine your priorities, talk with your family, ask them if they feel they are playing second fiddle to your job and what you can do about it.

Don’t be like that poor hog. Be realistic about your situation. Look for what is possible, not what you hope for or believe you deserve. (You probably do deserve better, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get it). Plan ahead. This is enlightened self-interest. What happened to that hog could happen to you. And you’re the only one who can prevent it.


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