We’re finally getting somewhere with regards to first responders getting the mental health support they need. There’s a long road ahead but momentum has been gained, plans are being made. We love our first responders and we want them supported, honored, loved, but there’s something – someone – we can’t leave behind: First responder spouses. [This isn’t just for spouses but for all first responders’ significant others and family or household members, but today we’re just saying spouses for ease. Just know it can apply to more family members as well.]
Here’s the thing (buckle up): We need to support our supporter’s supports in order for our support to have adequate support at home so they can support us in public. Whew! Okay, sorry, had to. So we need to support first responder spouses as well, because… Reread if needed.
Spouses are the backbone of first responders’ mental health. They are the first to see an issue and they first to experience fall out when something goes sideways. When first responders experience trauma, spouses experience spillover trauma.
A 2022 study, The mental health and wellbeing of spouses, partners and children of emergency responders: A systematic review, notes, “Research has found that uneven household labor, where spouses felt disproportionately responsible for household management and child adjustment, was associated with strains on mothers’ personal wellbeing and lower satisfaction with their relationship”
It has the potential of becoming a perpetuating downward cycle of fights, stress, separation, divorce, and even suicide. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The At-Home Brunt
First responder spouses often get the at-home brunt of the effects of trauma. A first responder comes home with baggage. He or she may try to leave it at work, but honestly, it’s not easy. It does spill into family life. Or maybe the first responder doesn’t come home because the shift just got longer, an emergency is taking longer to hand off or something major happened. The spouse may need to figure out child care, call out of work, or even sit there worried because the “something” is putting a loved one in danger.
Wives and husbands, significant others, they all bear the brunt of the stress of their first responder. On top of that, because they love their first responder, they bear this often silently, not wanting to increase their first responder’s stress. It’s a dangerous cycle.
Lifestyle of a First Responder Spouse
Here’s a quick list of the lifestyle points of a first responder spouse:
- Spouses pick up the pieces of family life when work or other work-caused events keep the first responder away (mentally or physically).
- Spouses hold it together when their first responder cannot, or when the kids are around. It’s an unspoken duty, a barrier to self care at times, and often a burden. Don’t misunderstand; spouses wouldn’t give up this burden for anything, but it’s not easy.
- Spouses often put themselves last on the list of care.
- Spouses can all at once be frustrated with their first responder and yell and berate them, but then defend them to the bitter end if anyone else, family or not, attacks their honor.
- Spouses live with the knowledge of the danger their first responder faces and will be the first to turn off the news when tragedy hits and their first responder is on duty or even on scene. They may even know more details of the event than their neighbors, but they’re trying to ignore it to lessen the worry and stress.
- Spouses often get left out when it comes to things like parents’ night out, committee meetings, or other adult events because they’re always with the kids.
Words from our FRC Family
“I thought I was having a stroke a year or so ago, so I called my husband. They ask why I didn’t call 911. I look at them and say, ‘I did call 911.’”– Cherilyn
“LEOW life is always having his 6 while wishing you could have your partner by your side for all the missed moments.”– Brandie
“Yes, he’s working. No, I don’t know when he’ll be home. Yes, he really does exist.”– Andrea
“I didn’t choose to become a police wife; I chose to become my husband’s wife. I accept all of the good and bad that come with his calling, because I accept him fully and unconditionally.”– Cherilyn
“I feel like I’m always telling the kids, ‘Sssshhh! Daddy is sleeping!’”– Kelsey (and just about all FR wives!)
“My father actually put on an addition to the house just so my mother would not always have to say, ‘Ssshhh, Daddy is sleeping.’”– Mark
“We don’t have a ‘good’ day to schedule appointments. Our schedule is constantly changing.”– Kelsey
“The truth is, this life is hard. We live in the dichotomy of knowing more than any civilian needs to know and not knowing as much as our first responders do.”– Cherilyn
“People look at me like, ‘single parent or first responder wife?’”– Brandie
How to Support a First Responder Spouse
The number one way to support a first responder spouse or significant other is to check in. They are on guard for their first responder and often around the kids and others, but in a community of those who know (like us!), they will be honest. Check in and see if there’s a best way you can support them. It might be a ride for the kids, a run to the store, or an ear to listen. Just knowing support is there is huge.
First Responder Families
First responders are not just individuals in uniform doing a job; they are humans with families. We cannot just treat the one person but often need to consider the whole family unit. At FRC, we serve the whole family because we know the whole family is affected. We are family members as well as first responders. The family unit is home, more than a house or apartment, and more than a job. Our families are our support system and they deserve to be healthy and whole as well.