Most of us rarely pull all-nighters—unless the baby has colic or the whole family suffers a stomach bug. But for a growing number of moms, it’s business as usual to work night shift jobs. “I joke that I’m a stay-at-home mom with a secret alter ego,” says Beth Blair, 36, a Minneapolis-based flight attendant who works “standups.” That’s airport lingo for crewing the last flight out and the predawn flight back in. When the weather cooperates, the schedule means Beth doesn’t miss a beat with her kids: She puts Jeb, 7, and Maddie, 6, to bed, leaves her husband on duty as she heads to work, sleeps while they’re at school and greets them when they step off the bus in the afternoon. “They don’t miss me when I’m flying nights,” she says. “When I used to work days, I’d be gone on four-day trips, and that they noticed.”
Fire dispatcher Shannon Lane Hurst, 38, also understands odd hours. When evening rush hour starts, the married mom of two teenagers is just putting on her headset. From 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. she dispatches fire trucks all over east Baton Rouge, LA, to handle blazes, car crashes, hazardous material spills and all manner of accidents. The phones ring nonstop, stress mounts—and then there’s the wall of exhaustion she hits at 3 a.m. “That’s the really bad time,” she says. “Sometimes I’m thinking, Just let me make it past 3.” Still, the job comes with health-care benefits, and she sometimes gets long weekends with Benjamin, 15, and Lauren, 13.
Night Owl Nation
The night shift is a lot more than factories cranking out widgets. Yes, emergency services—hospitals, police, fire—go round-the-clock, but if you’ve ever gone for a late-night burger, picked up an emergency prescription or dialed a help desk, you’ve encountered a whole lot of other folks who work night shift jobs, too. In 2004, the last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked shift work, one in five Americans worked the majority of their hours outside of the traditional workday or had a rotating shift that included some nights, with women covering these jobs nearly as often as men. And experts believe the percentage of women is increasing.
“The population of shift workers is growing,” says Andrew Moore-Ede, director of publications at Circadian, a Boston-area consultancy that helps companies implement 24-hour work practices. “We’re becoming a 24/7 society, and we expect services to be available to us at all hours.”
For some moms, it’s a “best of both worlds” scenario. Working evenings yields more flexibility during the day. Some tag-team with a spouse and save a bundle on child care. And because fewer people are willing to work them, night shifts may pay more than comparable daytime jobs. Then there’s the less traffic commute and the more casual dress code. “I don’t wear makeup, because you come home with your mascara under your eyes looking like you spent the night bar-hopping,” jokes Shannon.
The Biology of Bedtime
The big drawback? Fatigue. Getting sufficient sleep is essential for your health and well-being. Try paying bills or taming a toddler’s tantrum running on a major sleep deficit. “It’s a struggle,” says single mom Rebecca Couper, 30, a customer service rep at Ford Airport in Kingsford, MI. She doesn’t just print seat assignments; she also loads baggage, positions ramps and, when necessary, de-ices the planes at this tiny regional airport. Her “day” starts at 3:30 a.m. She lives with her mom, who helps care for Rebecca’s 3-year-old daughter, Riley. By the end of the week, Rebecca’s conking out as she tries to read bedtime stories to her child.
The reality is that we’re hardwired against doing much other than snoring at 3 a.m. our bodies want to be alert and active in daylight and go into a restorative cycle at night, when it’s dark. Even our stomachs seem to “sleep,” having difficulty metabolizing fats and sugars at night, says Meena Khan, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Ohio State University. Night-shift workers have an increased risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, breast cancer, ulcers, depression and sleep issues.
Yet even knowing the health risks, it can be challenging to prioritize sleep. When nurse Tricia Ingigneri, 34, gets home after working all night in the neonatal intensive care unit of Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY, the sun’s up—and so is her baby daughter, Angelina. Tricia wants nothing more than to snuggle. But she’s learned she needs to crash. Or else. Once after a 12-hour shift, she mixed Angelina’s bottles with nondairy creamer instead of formula. So as the baby plays with Tricia’s husband, a police officer who sometimes has a 1 p.m. start time, “I’ll pull my blackout blinds and try to sleep. I feel guilty, but I can’t be tired at work. I’m taking care of someone else’s baby.”
All in all, many moms working night shift jobs feel they actually have extra flexibility and get more time with their kids than if they regularly worked daytime hours. Couple time? That’s another story. “I don’t see my husband for days sometimes,” says Shannon, who misses his arrival home by about a half hour when she’s on the night shift. Night-shift moms also admit that since they reserve patience for the kids, it’s often their spouse who bears the brunt of their sleep deprivation. “I can get a short fuse,” says Tricia. “My husband’s pretty understanding about it, but sometimes it’s hard.”
The odd hours can take a toll, so “you have to be committed to your health,” says Kym Thurman, an evening anchor for WPMI-TV in Mobile, AL. She avoids caffeine and combats stress with exercise. Beth Blair has made an art out of the hotel power nap during gaps between flights. Her routine is to set the thermostat to cool, flip her cell phone facedown, blanket the alarm clock so its bright numerals don’t irritate and even pre-make coffee for “wake-up.”
When time allows, Kym will pop home between her 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts to oversee homework for sons Mack, 12, and Konnor, 8, and tuck daughter Kirklyn, 5, into bed. But if she’s dragging, she’ll skip the trip and power-nap on the breakroom couch instead. “I keep a Snuggie in the office, and I have a short, spiky hairdo for a reason,” she quips. “I can be ready to go in a minute.”
Lessons from the front
Switch to decaf four to five hours before your work shift ends, recommends Meena Khan, MD. It works for the day shift, too!
Have a routine.
Even if you’re tucking in at 10 a.m., establish a bedtime ritual—read, take a bath—and stick to it as closely as possible. Same goes for night sleepers.
Keep naps brief.
If you must nap, make it power length, about 15 to 20 minutes, says Dr. Khan. A longer crash can make you feel groggier than before.
To buy herself extra weekend snooze time, Kym Thurman puts small-size milks and cereals in easy reach of her 5-year-old so breakfast can be self-serve.