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Reader Question: We work opposite shifts!Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Last week I was talking about how to feel like a unit when you both have seemingly separate lives–you both have jobs or responsibilities that lead you in opposite directions through the day, and how do you keep feeling like you’re on the same page?

A number of people left comments and sent emails after that with a slightly different–and more difficult–problem. They didn’t just do different things during the day. They never saw each other because they worked different shifts!

Here’s an example:

My husband and I have three kids under 5, and we’re barely making ends meet. He works as a security guard in the evenings (like usually 3-midnight), and I work varying shifts in retail. We try to make it so that we don’t work at the same time so that someone is home with the kids, because we can’t afford daycare and I don’t have any family I’d trust to look after my kids (our families aren’t the greatest). I just feel like we don’t even know each other anymore. Life just feels like it’s nothing but work. What do we do?

That’s really a tough one. Here are a few thoughts I have, along with some great advice that people on Facebook left when I asked this question last week!

My Husband and I Work Opposite ShiftsKeep in Communication Throughout the Day

Text each other on breaks. Tell each other when things happen, even if they’re little things. Let each other know what kind of day you’re having–happy, sad, tired. One of the problems with not seeing each other very much is that you decide that when you DO see each other, you want it to be low stress and fun. And you don’t want to add more guilt to someone’s day.

Thus, we don’t always share the bad stuff.

When we’re feeling blue, we don’t tell him, because we want to stay upbeat.

That’s very kind in a way, but it’s also counterproductive. Part of being married is that you’re supposed to be able to support each other. If you feel like your husband doesn’t actually know what’s going on in your life, then you’ll feel like you’re even further apart. It will drive more of a wedge between you.

You can find ways to share about your mood or your day without adding guilt, or without saying, “It’s your fault”. Something like this:

Just really tired today and the kids seem awfully whiny. Trying to count my blessings, and you’re top of the list.

See? He knows you’re tired, but it’s also apparent that you’re not blaming him.

Use a System to Fill Each Other in On Key Things

Several Facebook readers recommended a notebook where you could fill each other in on important details about your life. If someone went to the dentist and has cavities; if you went to the parent-teacher meeting and heard something wonderful about your daughter; if you stopped by a store and picked up something for his mom’s birthday; write these things all down in the notebook.

Then, when he’s off shift he reads it, and he knows what you did. And he can leave details of what he did, too!

And leave little love notes as well. Tell him that you miss him and that you love him.

Having one notebook kept in the same place that you can always check lets each of you feel like you know what’s going on. And then you’re not duplicating each other’s efforts, either!

You Can’t Work Opposite Shifts Forever

Here’s a hard one to say, and I don’t mean this to sound harsh to those of you who are living through this. But even if you take these steps, it’s very hard to maintain a healthy family life like this forever. You need to spend time together.

There was a couple very close to me who always worked opposite shifts. He worked during the day, and she waitressed at night. She’d leave for work as soon as he got home, and usually arrived home around 10:30 or 11. She tended to work on weekends. She just never saw him. He was a really involved dad, but the marriage eventually fell apart because she opened herself up to an inappropriate relationship at work.

I’m not saying you’re all going to have affairs; I’m just saying this kind of life takes a big toll on a family. It’s not healthy for your marriage, but it’s not healthy for the kids, either, because they never get to do very much as  a family, and they don’t see the two of you together.

I know sometimes this is unavoidable. I have a friend who works shift work at a factory, on six-week schedules. So for six weeks he’ll be on days, which is amazing. Then for six weeks he’ll be on overnights, which isn’t wonderful, but which isn’t too bad because he sleeps during the day and then he’s with the family in the evenings. But the six weeks of evenings are awful because they never have dinner together. However, because this is only 1/3 of the time it’s doable. A lot of nurses live with the same type of schedule–the shifts are always changing.

If it’s ALWAYS that you’re working opposite shifts, though, usually because you plan it that way for child care, it really isn’t sustainable. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Downsize if you can. It’s better to live in a small apartment but be together most of the time than live in a larger home or larger apartment and barely see each other.
  • Take a year that will be absolutely horrible and try to upgrade your skills. Take a course from a college, or get an internship, so that you may be able to get a different job that pays more and frees you both up to not have to work full-time. Having one person working full-time, and another working part-time isn’t nearly as difficult as both of you working full-time opposite shifts.
  • Find out if there’s anyone in your church who is really good at job placement/resumes/finding work. My mom’s a career counsellor, for instance, and she’ll often help people brainstorm about what they want to do and come up with jobs they never even thought of that they’d be qualified for or that they’d enjoy. And then she helps people write resumes and prepare for interviews. If the whole idea of job search scares you silly, ask around and find out if there’s someone in your circle who can help you with it, even if it may cost you a few hundred dollars.
  • Consider moving. Here’s a big one that people often overlook. If you’re both working full-time making relatively little money, chances are you’re working at jobs which would be available in almost any size city. All places have needs for security guards, retail help, cleaning staff, waitresses, truckers, etc. These aren’t jobs that require you living in a big city. We used to live in Toronto, but 14 years ago we moved to my husband’s home town. Housing here is about 1/3 the cost. If you can reduce your costs, chances are you can also reduce the hours you need to work. And you’d like in a better place, too!

So talk about these things and try to get a plan so that you can see that this is only temporary. If you’re just doing it until you pay off debt, or until you have money for a downpayment, for instance, know how long that will be, so you’re working towards an end point. Have a plan of when you will be making a change. And in the middle of it, keep communicating.

What do you think? How can you make this work? Or how could you get out of this trap? Let me know in the comments!

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