A few years ago, Fire Engineering published an article by Anne Gagliano titled, “What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know.” The first time I read this article, when I was a brand new fire wife, I absorbed it eagerly. I heard about the divorce statistics. I heard about the suicides. I heard about the emotional and physical toll it could take on our loved ones. Naturally, a firewife with as much life experience as Mrs. Gagliano should be an ideal role model for a new firewife like me. I saved the link to her article and vowed to myself to read it often, to remind myself on bad days what I need to do to make sure our family stays whole. This is my response to her article.
My husband and I were married for 7 years before he finally got the coveted call from the city he works for. This was his dream, and going through the civil service process was the only way he felt he would achieve it. It was a dream 5 years in the making. We had many ups and downs in our 7 years of marriage, so I was determined to become an ideal fire wife in order to keep things on the “up.” It wasn’t what I signed up for when we first got married (he was a carpenter then), but let’s face it, nothing ever is. If you adapt to change, you grow together, and your marriage stays intact.
The day my husband graduated from the Academy was the proudest day of my life. He worked so hard for this day, and I was so proud I could explode! I’m not a crier, but I bawled like a baby with our oldest 2 children by my side the day he marched in to the sound of the pipes and drums. I was so thankful the grueling Academy was over. During those 7 months, I was a working single mom Monday through Friday. My husband moved to a place within the geographic requirements for his job. We stayed behind and were happy to just be able to see him on weekends. I put in 40 work hours a week, over 800 miles on my car per week, and 4 hours a day commuting, all with two small children in tow. We worked on getting our house sold so we could relocate closer to my job and meet the residency requirements for his. Weekends were spent with the children and helping him study, and eventually were spent on packing our lives into boxes. The entire family was back together the week after he graduated, the same week he started his new job as a rookie firefighter.
A new home, a new job, a new school for our oldest. It took some adjustment on my part because, after 7 months of being a single mom and shouldering the entire responsibility for our two children, I had my partner back! Things got rough at times because it was an adjustment for him as well. He wasn’t used to taking kids to school, doing homework, making meals, and caring for kids on his off days. I re-read Mrs. Gagliano’s article again and again. I noticed something though. I was beginning to resent her statements. Yes, it is good to know about the health statistics. Everything else in regards to home life and family, communication, and what a firefighter “needs” on his days off and what should be expected of the spouse, began to rub me wrong.
A career firefighter will spend one-third of their working lives at the station. Wildland firefighters can spend anywhere between a few days and seven months away from home. Volunteer firefighters drop what they’re doing whenever the pager goes off to rush to where they are needed. What does this mean? The wives (or husbands on occasion) and any children are left behind. The uncertainty and frustration we face can be daunting.
On the days our firefighters work, we do the job of two at home. We spend those hours doing everything related to home and family ourselves. We cook, clean, shuttle kids to practice, lessons and games. We help with homework, science projects, do the shopping, take kids for haircuts, and try to coordinate extended family gatherings. We often also work full time jobs. We get the kids up in the morning, get them dressed and off to school, daycare, or the sitters. We often get ourselves to work, shift out of “mommy mode” and into “dedicated employee” mode. We put in our time at work, shift back into mommy mode, then we go pick our kids up. We battle the feelings of guilt because the kids were with the sitter for 12 hours that day, or because they had to be a latchkey kid for the day, or because we missed a baseball game. We get home, make dinner, do homework, make sure they are clean and put them to bed. Then with whatever energy may be left, we try to clean up from dinner, maybe do a load of laundry, and give any pets attention. Then we go to bed, alone, and try to get a decent sleep just to do it all again the next day. Our nights can be interrupted with wet beds, bad dreams, and coughing fits. Then there are the special days on weekends or holidays where there may not be a job to contend with, but we have to explain to children where daddy is, why he’s not there, and when he’s coming home. We have to make the green bean casserole, gather up the party gifts, and get on the road to some family function, all without our partner. For the volunteers, those wives have to deal with husbands leaving at the drop of a hat, with zero notice and no information of when their firefighter may return home. That often means plans are ruined, activities are postponed, a daughter with a dance recital is disappointed. There always has to be a contingency plan to do things solo, just in case the firefighter gets called away. To top it all off, we worry and we miss our firefighters. We might not say it, and we may not always show it in order to appear strong for them. They do not need to deal with the guilt of leaving disappointed families behind, they need to be able to focus at their job and know that we will be waiting for them at the end of their shift. As a result, we battle feelings of abandonment, resentment, and frustration.
We understand that after a rough night, our firefighter needs rest and extra sleep. We know they need to keep up on their exercise. We know they experience horrors that we can never fully understand. We know their brotherhood offers them things that we cannot. We know this, and we embrace, cope and handle things to the best of our abilities.
Our Firefighters Need to Know Certain Things About Us Wives
- Being a firefighter should never take priority over being a husband and father. We know you are providing for your family, and we know you have a love for the job. It does indeed take a special kind of man to be a firefighter. Keep in mind, though, that your family still needs you the most. We need you present both physically and emotionally on your off days. Your duties as a firefighter do not exempt you from the duties of being Husband and Dad. You work so that you and your family might live, do not live in order to work.
- This means that there are going to always be dad/husband duties on days off! Get any extra rest that you may need, but don’t take advantage of that time off to be lazy and shirk any household duties simply because “that’s what those days are for,” according to Mrs. Gagliano.
- Being a firefighter does not trump being a nurse, teacher, engineer, accountant, stay at home mom or whatever job a wife may have. We need our firefighters to know how hard we work, too. Both parents have multiple job titles, husband, father and firefighter, wife, mother and nurse/teacher/accountant, etc. All parts should work together as a team to make the family a whole.
- If your wife needs a little extra time on a non-duty day to accomplish something important to her, please help her. Yes, this may mean you have to make dinner on your own or take the kids to practice on your own. Do it with grace, because your wife does the same thing every day you work.
- Both parties need to be fully present when at home. Yes, sometimes a job-related phone call needs to be taken, or a quick errand to the station needs to be run. True, the pager may also always be present. However, non-essential work-related issues should be kept to a minimum. Be mentally available to your families and try not to let work distract you too much on your days off. Don’t look at your iPhone every time you get a notification from Pulse Point. Don’t spend unneeded time at the volunteer station.
- We are willing to listen, talk, understand, or just be there for you in whatever capacity. We also need the same from you in return. Our feelings are just as important! Communication is always key, but that must mean that there is listening and understanding by both parties. If your wife needs to vent about the PTA, her job, her mother, your mother, or whatever – let her! Sometimes, we just need you to be quiet and give us undivided attention, the same thing you may need from us.
- We know firefighters are “fixers” by nature. Try not to let your need to “fix things” also complicate things. Don’t take all rants to heart and don’t assume that because we are ranting to you, that must mean we need or want you to fix it. Unless we tell you to fix it, we really just need you to hear what we're saying.
- We get exhausted, too. Often, especially the days you work. Sometimes, we just need a few hours to ourselves. Even if you are always around and do your dad and husband duties on your days off, keep in mind that you usually still have us around to lighten the load. On your duty days, we don’t have that extra set of hands. Please make that off-time available to your wife on occasion, and you will reap the benefits!
- If you need a relaxation massage, be sure to reciprocate! If you need a night out with the guys, then don’t give her grief if she plans a night out with the girls and you’re left at home with children. Also, make sure you’re making time for just the two of you. Date nights will remind you why you got married in the first place.
- We do worry about you! A lot! We also miss you when you’re not home! A lot! Yes, some of us may grow to enjoy our alone time, but it’s still nice to know that maybe when you’re at work, you feel the same way too.
- Utilize any professional help for post-traumatic situations. Don’t be a “man” and “suck it up.” Those feelings will fester inside until one day you explode, and it will be your family that will hurt the most because of it. Those resources are there for a reason, please use them. You owe it to your family to be as emotionally and mentally sound as possible.
The Bottom Line
We know you have an important and stressful job, but we still need you present and we need you to understand the stress we experience. No one ever gets married with the intent of getting divorced. Remember that what you put into something is what you will get out of it. Marriage and parenthood are not easy, especially when “mistress Fire” is present. They are things that have to be worked on and maintained. They are things that are constantly evolving and we all have to learn to overcome those changes. Mistakes are made and we all have to learn from them. So while I can appreciate Mrs. Gagliano’s article, I am respectfully disagreeing with some of it. Well, a lot of it. The responsibility to maintain and nurture the home and family does not fall to the fire wife alone.