If you work ‘odd’ hours – night shifts, starting early or finishing late – you don’t need me to tell you how it makes family life complicated. It’s a real challenge – somehow, in 24 hours, you have to find time for work, travel, shopping, kids, housework, your partner, some ‘me time’ and, if there are any hours left over, some sleep. Some of you have worked out that what you really need is a 28-hour day. How can you pack everything you have to do into the time available? It’s like balancing a budget with too much to buy and not enough money to buy it.

Here are two tips to start off with

Firstly, don’t think of budgeting just 24 hours, think of 168 – which is how much time you have every week. Suddenly it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine that there’ll be an hour within those 168 to make a kite with the kids, go walking or read a magazine.

The second tip is to think of packing your week like you would pack a suitcase for a trip. If it’s too full, you have to pull everything out and start again. You start to panic – what will I have to leave behind? The thing is, if you pack carefully, you fit in so much more than if you just throw it all in. The real trick is to get the big things in first. If you have to leave something behind, at least you know the most important things are packed.

The biggest item to pack in your week is sleep. If you don’t get that, you will never have enough time for the other things because you’ll be too tired. “Enough sleep? Are you serious?” Yes, I can hear you yelling at me and you’re probably right – I am crazy if I don’t realise that shift work almost automatically guarantees that sleep will be disrupted. But humour me a little longer.

Odd hours disrupt sleep, but not prioritisng it causes more disruption. This is not just true for the 20 percent of the work force who work night shifts – a huge proportion of all adults are chronically sleep-deprived. Many of us say to ourselves, “I’m too busy to get enough sleep.” Spin it around to, “I’m too busy because I don’t get enough sleep.” More sleep will give you energy to do more in every other hour in your day, and you’ll enjoy those hours more too.

Re-pack

Pull everything out of the suitcase of your week and put the big things in first. Sleep goes right at the bottom, and you start to pack other things around it. (More tips on sleep later on). A little exercise goes in there too. (“Are you crazy? With kids and a job you expect me to…” Don’t worry, I hear you). A friend gave me his secret. It worked for him and it now works for me – an hour of exercise in the morning gives him two hours more energy at the other end of the day. I cannot make my day any longer but with sleep and exercise sorted, it is amazing how much more I can cram into the hours I do have.

Keep re-packing

Your most precious, vulnerable things – your children – are going to go in the middle of your case where they will be safest, so what are you going to put under them and around them to ensure they really thrive? I reckon you need to lay down a layer of time with your partner before you try to fit the kids in. Is that the right order? Partner before kids? I think so. 

If you want your life – and your kids’ lives – to be extra stressful and complex, try doing it with a partner you are not getting on with. Being a couple is actually hard work, and far better people than myself have had their relationships fail, but if parents can make it work, a home centred around the love between mum and dad is a great environment for kids.

Maybe this is not something you can pack in your bag at the moment. In that case, for the sake of your kids, pack a bit more for yourself – some self-care, relaxation, time with friends and wider family. Remember, this is not selfishness. To be safe and to really thrive, kids need a switched on, energised, refreshed parent with good connections.

Use a wall planner so everyone knows when you are at work, when you are asleep and when you will be around and able to catch up with the family.

Keep packing

There is still room for some big things like your work and education. Then you can find little spaces for the bits and pieces. Still cannot get it all in? You can possibly fit the leftovers in next week, or maybe not. Rest assured – what is still sitting on your bed is not the most important stuff.

Some of you could do this packing and re-packing in your head but it can be such a relief to dump it all down on a piece of paper or a notebook. If you could listen to the brains of many parents all you would hear is constant buzzing and fizzing as they juggle work and pick-ups and drop-offs and meals – the same problems spinning around and around.

Planning works better than Valium for most people. List your priorities, then start writing real times next to them. Then do it again because you forgot to put in enough for you! It may take a few weeks to settle down, but when you get it right, the sense of control you’ll have over your life will be wonderful!

Sleep, glorious sleep

When shifts change, it takes time to settle into new sleep routines. Realise that you are likely to be grumpier and less patient than you would normally want to be. Try to remember this when you find yourself getting riled with the kids. Are they truly little monsters? Or could you just do with a better sleep after the next shift?

If you’re needing to sleep during the day, beware of light! Light nearly always resets your brain to stay awake. Wear dark glasses if you drive home in the sunlight. Block out your windows – even little beams of sunlight will remind your brain it is daytime. Avoid gadgets – the bright screens really do prevent sleepiness.

Get the family on board by briefing them on what your hours will be. Show real gratitude when they work to fit your hours. It is sometimes a big effort for kids to keep their play noise down, so thank them. And thank the one who has to keep them quiet.

It can be dynamite trying to sleep while kids are just making normal ‘kid noise’. And even when you are blissfully snoozing, it can be very stressful for your partner trying to keep a lid on the noise and worrying if they are going to disturb you. You need your sleep, and your kids need to play, so perhaps you need to physically separate those activities. Consider getting a caravan, or converting a garden shed into a sleep-out, so that you can hibernate outside of the house during ‘peak traffic’ times.

Try to get used to ear plugs. Some work a lot better than others so try some different brands. (I even used Blu-Tak – which worked really well until I tried to get it out of my hairy ears. I think there are still blue lumps in there. So that’s not a tip, it’s a warning!

It might be a good idea to divide your sleeping into segments so that you can join the family for meals or other important times. Let’s face it, shift work shatters your sleep patterns anyway. So if you get home at 4am, sleep for a few hours, rise and have breakfast with the family, and then return to the sack when the house empties out again.

Make the most of the time you have

Use a wall planner so everyone knows when you are at work, when you are asleep and when you will be around and able to catch up with the family. It is also great to have everyone’s activities on there as well. That way, when you wake at 2pm, you will know that your son will be going to soccer practice after school and you will be able to watch.

Children need their sleep, but sometimes it is fun for them to fit in with your biological clock. If you get a day off after a run of night shifts, take your kids night fishing, go for a midnight picnic, or even just a middle-of-the-night snack. Weird, but they will remember it for life. (Or maybe not – I once had a ‘midnight feast’ with my youngest boy but in the morning, he did not have the slightest memory of it. The poor kid was only half awake!). Time it with a weekend so they do not fall asleep in class the next day.

If you have time off when no one else is around, use that time to do all the loafing, reading and relaxing that you need to do to recharge, but when you are there and awake when the kids are around, come alive! Do not try to read the paper or watch sport then, get into it with your kids. Horse around, play-fight, help with homework, read stories, go for walks, cook with them, play ball, share dreams, talk.

Odd hours can be tough, but your love is tougher! You can do it!


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Extracted from Parenting: The Warehouse Edition, a custom-made magazine created for parents working at The Warehouse.

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About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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