My husband, Tony, gently touched my shoulder as he asked, "What's wrong?"
"I don't know!" I shrugged impatiently. Pans clanged as I fixed Sunday lunch for my new husband and stepdaughters.
"Well, when will lunch be ready? I need to go to bed for a while," Tony reminded me.
"I know! I'm getting to it," I snapped. Anger broke through the surface of my usually peaceful life, but I didn't know why. My guilt made matters worse.
These outbursts occurred often enough during the first year of our marriage that I knew something deeper had to be involved—if only I could find it. Nearly two years into our married life, we realized what it was. On the Sunday afternoons when Tony's work schedule required him to work all night, my attitude turned sour. Everyone suffered. That aha moment launched our quest to recognize and overcome the problems that shift work created in our family.
Millions of firefighters, police officers, medical caregivers, manufacturing production workers and service industry employees work such shifts. And that can put a lot of stress on their marriage.
Tony's schedule has changed several times throughout our marriage. At first he worked days, evenings and overnights in weeklong intervals. He has switched between days and evenings. He's worked 12-hour days and nights in the same week. There were times he regularly worked overtime on the 12-hour rotation. Each shift change presented obstacles in our marriage.
Truman Parker, a marriage and family therapist, grew up with a father who worked shifts. Some of Parker's clients work either rotating or late shifts, so he recognizes how work schedules can cause problems in the home. Shift jobs fragment the family, and the erratic schedule makes it difficult to address the resulting issues.
Parker encourages couples to be proactive and use practical strategies to better their relationship. Tony and I discovered such strategies through trial and error. We have maintained a healthy marriage and countered the effects of our erratic schedule by intentionally focusing on four areas: God, spouse, children and friends.
Intentional time for God
When Tony works on Sundays, I dawdle, hesitant to go to church by myself. People notice Tony's irregular attendance and jokingly suggest we have marriage problems. Despite those uncomfortable moments, we intentionally make time for worship—alone and together. Occasionally, we attend worship service at a different church because it's held at a time that matches Tony's schedule.
Parker suggests other ways shift workers can connect with God. First, if your shift does not rotate, it may be possible to find a church with meeting times other than Sunday mornings.
Second, make reading the Bible and praying a regular part of each day. When Tony works the overnight shift, his personal prayer time happens after he wakes up in the middle of the day. If I'm home, I make sure I don't start a conversation until he’s finished.
The third strategy to consider involves looking for a chaplain or Bible study at work. Meeting with other believers helps keep spiritual involvement a priority.
Intentional time for your spouse
Counselors recommend regular date nights to keep a marriage healthy. But shift workers find it difficult to do anything regularly. Even dates planned well in advance can be ruined by drowsiness. Currently, Tony's schedule rotates, so our dates must rotate. While planning an outing, we have to consider which shift Tony just worked, what will his fatigue level be like, and which shift will he work the next day. Breakfast, lunch or an afternoon motorcycle ride often makes more sense than an evening activity.
I’ve also learned that building a solid marriage can mean refraining from activities that keep me away from home when my husband is there. Volunteer responsibilities, committees or a class that meets each week may tempt me, but guarding my time with Tony requires that I say no—emphatically and often. I now limit serving at church to times when I would normally be there anyway. Tony joins me when his shift
s allows. I've discovered that online classes keep me learning on a flexible schedule.
We also delay holiday celebrations—by hours or days—because it means we can celebrate together.
Intentional time for children
Shift-working parents miss many child-related activities because of work or sleep. Children sometimes wonder if they’re not good enough for the shift-working parent to spend time with them. They may also feel left out of that parent's life.
"When the worker is coming off their worst shift, he wants to be left alone," Parker says. "The kids think they're the problem, when it's really the schedule."
To build a relationship with the children, both parents must spend time with them. When our children were younger and at home, Tony attended their plays and concerts, even when he was scheduled to work the overnight shift. During the weeks when he worked evenings, he took them out for breakfast at least once.
Intentional time for friends
Having days off that others do not can complicate friendships. Couples on a standard schedule tend to avoid those who don't share the same schedule because arranging an outing requires a lot of effort. But God blessed us with friends who understand and share our shift-work lifestyle. We have found nontraditional ways to build our friendship, including celebrating New Year’s in the company break room because a friend had to work all night.
Tony seeks out men with flexible schedules. They share lunchtime or go for motorcycle rides when I'm working. When Tony is working, I scrapbook and visit with women in our neighborhood.
Now, when Tony prepares for his all-night shift, I prepare, too. Instead of angry outbursts, Tony gets a hug and a smile, and I say, "I'll miss you." And we both go bravely into the night.