Today is Saturday.
I mean, technically it’s Wednesday, but it’s my Saturday. That’s because yesterday, which was Tuesday, was really my Friday.
But every-other week, Tuesday is my Monday.
If you’re nodding your head right now, you are living and breathing among the wild ranks of shift workers.
If you’re scratching your head right now, you’re a nine-to-fiver.
I once made the mistake of saying out loud to the person I was talking to on the phone that it was Monday. Except the calendar said it was Thursday.
He called me crazy.
It takes all of us.
And us shifty folks, well, there might be a little truth to the You’re Crazy statement.
Because the crazy truth is, there are a lot of us crazy folks beholden to live life on a schedule of weird and wacky shifts, and it takes just a touch of crazy to make it work smoothly (and yes, I just snorted a little when I wrote “smoothly”).
In spite of the crazy, or maybe because of it, our family is one that has made shift work work for them, and here are some things I’ve learned along the bumpy and every-other-week way.
1) Your schedule will never be “normal” again. Ever.
Normal, in the M-F, 9-5 rest of the world sense, is gone from your life forever. Oh, you’ll strive for it, and you’ll look curiously at the bankers with their hair all done-up in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, but you my dear, won’t ever know that sense of daily regular, because in the middle of your Tuesday afternoon, you’re either working like a dog for the twelvth day straight, or partying it up like you’re on Hawaiin vacation. Kiss normal good-bye. The sooner the better. Don’t fight it; that will just add angst and turmoil. But more about that later.
2) Be prepared for odd looks should you be a) working like a dog for the twelvth day straight or b) partying it up like you’re on a Hawaiin vacation in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.
These odd looks stem from one of two reasons:
a) Tuesday is still early in the week. You should be looking early-week fresh and not like you do: wild and crazy-eyed with all your hair sticking straight up and your FR shirt wrinkled and stained like you’ve been wearing it for 12 straight days (which you have) while your safety glasses frame your nutty mug like a pair of goggles that are permanently affixed to your crazy face (they are). OR…
b) your shuffle through the grocery store for popcorn and jalepeno cheese dip has you wearing your Saturday casual while your sloppy bun frames your slightly puffy, make-up free face…puffy only because you stayed up past ten o’clock the night before which was your Friday (Monday)… and this casual package implies that you’re an unemployed slacker mom who’s mooching off the rest of society, doing nothing but slogging around in pajamas and eating junk food for all your days. I promise you, it’ll happen.
3) You will very quickly learn all about yourself.
Namely, the depth and level of your strength. Whether you are a mama of littles holding down the fort while your man is on his four-weeks, or whether you’re a hard workin’ husband who hasn’t held his baby’s chubby hand for too many days, or who has gone to sleep without the warm hug of his wife for too many nights, you will soon learn just how strong you can be when you have to be. Something inside of you will take over and the ache of lonliness that once would’ve threatened to crumple and cripple you will become an entity almost separate from yourself and you will only allow yourself to take it out and inspect it in the few quiet moments of the day when there isn’t more work to be done.
It sounds dramatic but it’s true.
You will become strong. Very strong.
4) This strength will serve you well when everything in the whole wide world decides to break down/fall apart/turn to crap as soon as the shift begins.
Oh, it will happen. It’s the law of the shift worker that at least once, -but more often, many, many times- as soon as you go away, everything turns to youknowwhat. This either a) causes the one who is back home to carry a heavier-than-bearable burden, threatening the above-mentioned strength or b) cause you an immeasurable amount of stress as you try to handle break-downs and crises back home between break time and lunch hour at the job job and you’re trying to do your very best to balance both. This part is stressful. Verrrry stressful.
5) Your life will alternate between two conflicting personas.
This ties into Number 1 but it needs more words because this is a definite issue in our home and one that I’m assuming other shift-workers and their families struggle with. This one is the hardest for me.
The on-week, we’re all about nose-to-the-grind…keeping the train on the tracks…workin it to the bone. On the off-week, it’s like one long, constant string of Saturdays, a manic seven days of fun and field trips and projects with nary a routine or schedule. You will relax, you will soar with the family time, you will so enjoy the lazy days…the productive days…the full days…the free days…and then…
It’s time for the all-too-quick SNAP back to reality when it’s time for the on-shift to begin again. No amount of preparation or mental talk has been able to help this transition for me. It can seem like a constant flip-flop, flip-flop, and have a tendency to feel like working two full-time jobs with no weekend in between.
Unless you just let go and run with the party feel. And if you do, the one who’s at home is left with the aftermath of the seven-day/two-week/four-week manic fun-binge, and the one who’s back to the job site starts the hitch tired and hung over on family and fun while EVERYONE reels from the blunt transition to “normal”. It is a constant angst for this family. I’m sure there are folks who navigate the back-and-forth better than I, but after years, every change-out still leaves me a little shaken and trembly as much of my effort goes into making the transition smooth. (There’s that word that makes me laugh again.)
6) You will soon become an expert on things you never knew you would need to know.
Writing letters…hauling a horse trailer…running an ice auger…eradicating scads of gypsy moth larva sacs with a blow torch…Skyping…cleaning up the vomit/pee/poop…all the things your other half usually does, -or would normally do- those are yours now. You’ll get really good at them too. And one day you’ll quit wondering how it happened that you’re doing all this stuff you never wanted to know how to do. It’s that strength thing again.
7) You will learn how to argue quickly.
Notice I did not say “you will quickly learn how to argue”. While shift work CAN cause an increase in arguing for some folks, I’m talking here about the actual time spent on an arguement. You will get very quick with your disagreements. When it’s on-shift time, work is the priority and could interfere in even the briefest of conversations at any given second, so discussions are short, quick, and to the point. No one wants to hang up mad, so you’ll learn to settle disagreements quickly whether it’s by voice…or by emojis. 🙂
When it’s off-shift time, peace is priority, so discussions/disagreements/arguments/fights need to be put to rest quickly so that the fun can be gotten to. This can make for a little bit of a bipolar-type day, explosions happening one moment, happy schmoozy family times happening the next. When time is short, arguments need to be short too. Ain’t no one got time to let things drag out when there are days-long projects and fun to be had.
8) The one-who-works-away will miss half a life.
This is especially true for those men and women who work off-shore/on the Slope/overseas. Being physically removed from your family means you will not be physically there for your family. It is a simple fact, and for the shift-worker and their family, it is a part of their life that they carry around always. They are very aware of the sacrifice they are making. For the family man, it is a huge sacrifice. Some may call him selfish. Some may wonder why he doesn’t just find a town job or something closer to home. More on that later, but being away half the time cannot be discussed separate from the flip side of the issue.
Which brings us to number 9…
9) The time off can’t be beat.
Many families here in Alaska work a two-week on/two-week off schedule, referred to as a “2 and 2”. In our family, we’ve done the work week that consists of four, ten-hour shifts (4 tens), the 5-day, 9 to 5 week (town job), the five, ten-hour-shifts week (5 tens), the 7-days of 12-hour shifts (7 twelves), and we’ve done the four weeks on, one week off away from home job (4 and 1, which usually turned into 6/7/8 on but that’s another story).
While being physically gone half the time is hard, there is nothing, no thing, that beats having the family together for long stretches of hours and days and weeks. Nothing.
Having the family together for a long string of days brings such a quality of life and memory-building opportunities, it makes the time away more bearable and understandable. It allows the one-who-works away to immerse him/herself in the day-to-day life of the family in a way that usually isn’t possible with a 9-5, and it lifts the weight of the home management responsibilities off the one-who-stays-home while the whole family carries the load together during the off-hitch.
Vacations can be lengthy, times of rest can actually be restorative, staying up late can actually happen, sleeping in can be a reality. The off time can’t be beat.
10) You will be criticized.
Yes, really. People will criticize you for your job choice. People will call you selfish, say you are sacrificing your family for the money, and they will think you are a overtime-hungry, materialistic bachelor-type.
But just like teachers don’t choose their profession just because of the summers off, or surgeons don’t choose their field for the long hours away from their family, the shift-worker hasn’t chosen their profession just because of the schedule.
My grandfather worked 20 days on/eight days off for over thirty years to raise his children and his grandchildren. My husband’s dad was an over-the-road truck driver for decades, raising six kids on a job that took him away from home for weeks at a time.
Shift work is simply a job.
Shift workers have chosen their profession because it puts food on the table. They’ve chosen their profession because it fits their skill set. They’ve chosen their profession because someone hired them, it’s a career, it’s a way they can provide a living for their family and a resource for their world.
It’s a job.
And to those who think, -even if quietly in their minds- that the shift-worker really should find another job, one that is easier on a family, I’d like to say this:
You go find another job.
How easy would it be for YOU to switch careers?
How long would it take you to put together a resume…scour the help-wanted ads…go through the interview process? How would that look for you to learn a whole new skill set…make a career switch…try to find something outside of what you know or have been trained for? Maybe go back to college to get a degree, or go back to college to update your current degree. How easily would that work for YOU? Especially when you have a good paying job that provides for your family right now.
People who work odd shifts are not a special set of folks who secretly yearn to spend their nights away from their family. They are not an elite group of people who have special demands, needs, or desires.
They are simply folks like everyone else who saw a path toward a paycheck, started walking it and ended up in a job that requires round-the-clock employees. Whether that job be a police officer, a nurse, a lineman, an oilfield worker, an airline employee, a bartender, a night custodian, or any of the other hundreds of jobs that call for shifts…it’s a job. It needs doing. The folks who work those jobs are providing a service to people, to their communities and to this world, but most of all, they are serving their family.
It’s a job and jobs are hard to come by, especially in Alaska right now as having hours cut, being sent home, getting laid off, or having positions eliminated are all becoming more of a reality for far too many in our slumping economy.
Shift work is just a job like any other.
And yes, shift workers keep nutty hours and crazy days.
And yes, you may get very confused when you talk to them about work schedules and calendars and what day of the week it is.
You may even be a little jealous when they stroll into the bank in their Hawaain shirt and Saturday afternoon attitude when it’s only Wednesday at noon, or irritated when they look like they just rolled out of bed even though it’s 3 p.m.
But the next time you see a gal in a work boots and a high viz parka turn away from you on the airplane and pop her earbuds in, making it clear she doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else, don’t think the worst of her.
She may be leaving her family behind to go work a weeks-long hitch at a job thousands of miles from her loved ones.
And the next time you see a wild-eyed guy in an untucked FR blue shirt grabbing sandwiches in the deli department at 8 a.m. and he’s got a grimace on his face and a Rockstar in his dirty paw, don’t look at him disapprovingly because he’s not wearing Tide-fresh clothes or his hair isn’t brushed.
Smile at them. Because even though their schedule is different, they’re just like you.
Smile because even though it may be your Friday, it’s really her Monday.
Smile, because today may be his last of twenty-one straight days on twelves.
Smile…because now you know.
Smile…these folks are shift workers.