I was a volunteer firefighter for approximately five years, stopping four months or so into my pregnancy when I decided that it was in my best interest to be able to rest whenever I felt tired and eat whenever I felt hungry. I’m sure I will write more about my firefighting another day, as certain experiences during those years were truly life-changing for me. What I am thinking about today is how it prepared me for motherhood.
I remember when I was pregnant and a good friend of mine with a year-old daughter warned me that “the first three months are hell, but just remember that it gets better”. I thought, “Oh, no! Hell?!? What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered if there would be excruciating, searing, inescapable fire combined with crushing regret for all of my sins… but then I remembered that people use “hell” to describe things like waiting in a long line at the bank. So I wasn’t quite sure what level of discomfort to expect. I knew I’d have an epidural, so I figured that part wouldn’t be so bad.
Well, turns out it wasn’t hell at all. It was tiring, yes. It’s no great joy to be woken by crying a few times each night. To have to have this squalling, pooping, helpless thing so close to you for so many hours each day. To have a menstrual period that lasts a goddamned month. To always smell like sour milk and vomit. To find out that babies don’t poop actual turds for months, but rather this liquidy stuff that apparently no diaper can 100% contain. Yes, my husband did find me quietly crying on the front porch one night about two weeks after Alex was born – I am not someone who enjoys infants.
But a little perspective is in order. Let me explain how my time as a volunteer firefighter helped me through the mini-Hades of early motherhood.
When a baby wakes you up crying in the wee hours of the night, what do you have to actually do? Get up, walk across the room or maybe down the hall, pick up the 5-10 pound baby, change its diaper, put a boob or bottle in his or her mouth, and sit in a rocking chair. Seriously, that’s about it. Worst case scenario, it’s not hungry and keeps crying, so you return it to its crib and grind your teeth back in your warm bed until the crying stops (it will, eventually).
When your fire department pager wakes you up beeping in the wee hours of the night, what do you have to actually do?
You jump out of bed and into your pants, shirt, and shoes. You throw your dog outside and run to your car. You drive to the fire station, wiping the sleep out of your eyes, realizing that you really have to pee, and your heart is beating fast because you did not actually listen to what the pager said and so you have no idea what kind of call it is and what you are going to have to see and do in the next half hour, or three hours, or five hours.
Best case scenario: You get to the station and find out that you are not needed. You drive back home, let the dog in, take off your clothes, and go back to bed. Already more time and energy spent than in a night feeding of a baby.
Other possible scenarios: You put on your bunker gear, climb in the engine, and ride backwards through the dark, still not exactly clear on where you are going or why, because it’s actually really hard to hear the radio communication even with your headphones on. You could arrive at a car accident where you may have to stand in the pouring rain and direct traffic for an hour, assist with CPR on a fat naked tattooed man covered in vomit, or help take off a car door so the coroner can get to a corpse. Or at a barn fire where you have to drag around heavy hoses for a couple of hours, shovel and pick through debris for a couple of hours more, and then go back to the station to hang out the hoses and stock the engine with fresh hoses. Or at a house where someone’s child has just died.
Stress much? To be honest, the most common call was the car crash, and most likely I’d be the one directing traffic for an hour. But seriously – compare that to sitting in a rocking chair nursing a baby, and the latter is cake.
So maybe there would be less whining about how hard it is to be a parent if everyone first served a few years for their local volunteer fire department.
And here’s a big THANK YOU to all men and women who continue to serve on fire departments all over this country, as career firefighters or as volunteers. For those of you who are parents AND firefighters, you have my deepest respect.