The 24-hour shift: Juggling parenting and shift work

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I was never a natural parent. Some people are. You know the ones I mean. The ones who smile at babies in the supermarket queue and who think their little Johnny is the smartest, cutest, most perfect child placed on this earth. They make it look easy.

I love my kids but it didn’t come comfortably.

family timeI went back to my job as an ANUM in oncology at five months, leaving my partner to pick up the parental role. I needed the stimulation of adult conversation and to be back in control of me, because when you have a small child, you are never in charge of anything in your life anymore.

With the return to work came many other unpredicted expectations and questions: “who’s looking after little Johnny?”, “oh, is Tim playing Dad today?”, “have you weaned him early?”

There is nothing like the guilt of a new Mum who has returned to work.

Working shifts and parenting are tiring separately. When they are combined, they can be overwhelming, exhausting and hard to maintain. Many nurses and midwives work a 24-hour clock: they care for their children during the day and then work a full night shift caring for the needs of patients. When I worked nights, my kids knew not to wake me unless they could see blood, bones or brain matter — this is the invisible work of the parenting shift worker.

Unlike some other professions nurses and midwives are usually unable to work from home or use flexi-time arrangements to juggle their responsibilities. Nurses or midwives who are parents might find they are expected to make sure little Johnny is presentable for class, bake cakes for fetes, do reading with the prep class, prepare meals, and attend parent teacher interviews all day, then keep patients alive in ICU, hang chemotherapy or deliver one-on-one supportive care to women in labour.

Childcare is another significant issue. How many childcare centres cater for shift workers? I was very lucky to have my two children in a centre that opened at 0600 and closed at midnight. They were set up for shift workers, and sometimes kept children overnight in a homely environment for the night shift folks. They would take my roster as I knew it and changed the bookings per week to suit my needs. I was very fortunate. Having great childcare made such a difference to how I could do my job. Knowing that you don’t have to be constantly worrying about children makes your working day so much easier. It can be hard to find childcare for shift-workers, but it is out there!

Here are some tips that helped me to keep it together!

  • Be organised: have bags packed with spare clothes, nappies, wipes — always.
  • Meal prep: have a big cook up on your days off and fill your freezer! Buy some bento-style lunch boxes and have them stocked with the basics that you can add to (for you and the kids). Foods such as egg muffins, taco-boat quiches, and homemade fruit roll-ups all freeze well and can be prepared well ahead of time.
  • Enlist help if you have any available. If you are lucky enough to have friends or relatives offer to help out, let them. Being super-Mum-or-Dad is overrated. If they don’t offer, don’t be afraid to ask! You could even talk to your child’s daycare educator, teacher or principal. They may have some resources that could assist you. Sometimes people just don’t realise you could use the help.
  • Nap when the kids nap, or during school hours — the house tidy can wait. Forever, if necessary.
  • Consider outsourcing some of the housework, the money for a cleaner or gardener can be worthwhile to offset stress.
  • Enjoy your children when you can. On your days off, get out into the fresh air, feed the ducks, take the dog for a walk, and meet other parents. Children are small for such a short time.
  • Learn to say no without guilt. Sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you can’t do your job and volunteer at the school canteen, and that’s ok.
  • Accept that if your kid is alive and not in moral peril, you’re doing fine.

Parenting has brought me so much joy over the years, and I look back to the times when my children were little with so much pleasure. My work is such an important part of my identity and I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to juggle both responsibilities of parenting and career, managing to survive and thrive.


If you need support to juggle parenting or other care commitments and shift work, give Nurse & Midwife Support a call on 1800 667 877. We’re here for advice, referrals, or just a willing ear to vent some of the steam that might be building between your ears.

If you need to talk, our service provides free and confidential support 24/7 to nurses, midwives and students Australia wide. If you would like to speak to someone call 1800 667 877, or you can request support via email.

If you’d like to know a bit more about the service before getting in contact — take a look through accessing support.

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