by Debra Langan
It is my 8:30 class on Monday morning, and I am struggling to engage my Police and Society students. “A recent survey of Canadian police officers by Duxbury and Higgins points to the seriousness of the stresses experienced by police officers…” I begin enthusiastically, hoping that this introduction will set us on the road to a lively lecture. After all, police work has all the elements of an action movie – like danger and catching the bad guy – and I am talking about Canadian research, which in my mind makes the topic even that much more relevant for these Canadian students. Unfortunately, the topic is not on the students’ top ten list: “Of course police officers are stressed, that is part of the job! That is what they signed up for!”
I cannot help but agree. Police officers know when they go into policing that it is a dangerous job, and so they are individually responsible for that choice. Still, the point that I want to drive home is that the dangerous aspects of police work are not the only things that cause stress for officers. “What are the social contexts of the police officer experience that might affect stress levels?” I ask. How police services operate figures into the picture. For example, police officers can be called in to work without notice or they may unexpectedly need to work hours of overtime because of a call that they responded to at the end of a shift. The values and beliefs of the police culture are also important to consider – for example, policing is a boys’ club and work is seen as more important than family.
As the eyes begin to glaze over, I push forward with additional questions: “Do you think that police officers’ experiences of stress might differ depending on their identity? For example, do policewomen have stresses that are different from policemen?” Now they start to wake up. My reputation has preceded me, and students anticipate my analysis of the ‘special’ situations of policewomen as suggested by my research with Agocs and Sanders (here). “It doesn’t matter whether they are male or female!” they proclaim, the same response that I get whenever I tell people about my research on policewomen. The answer to my question is complex, and I admit that I cannot answer it fully.
What I do know is that policewomen often struggle to prove themselves in the ‘man’s world’ of policing. And when they are mothers, policewomen are responsible for the ‘lions’ share’ of the housework, child care arrangements, and family schedules, even when they are married to policemen who hold the same rank. Like other mothers, police mothers worry about their children and do all that they can to keep them safe. But because police mothers are directly exposed to dangerous, gory, sad, frightening, and traumatic situations through their work, they see more, know more, worry more and warn more. Like one police mother explained, “Everyone I see is a pedophile….We were at the splash pad and there was this older man, sitting on a bench and …I’m thinking, there’s no kid around. I had my phone in my hand ’cuz I’m about to call, and then there’s grandkids that run up to him. And I think, ‘I’m horrible.’” I argue that these situations together lead to considerable stress for police mothers.
To protect their children, police mothers carefully tell stories based on what happened at work. As one police mother said, “I think sometimes I’ve made her think there’s a boogeyman at every corner when there really isn’t…. You tend to think you can’t trust anybody when you’re a police officer and the whole world is evil.” Sometimes, they lie about what happened at work: “I was in a fight recently… I had stitches and my face was all swollen up. My husband said, ‘We can’t tell her, she’s too young…’ So we told her, ‘Oh, mommy fell.’”
Police mothers also use their skills as investigators to find out what happened to their children when they were apart. One police mother talked about gathering “just the facts” when her son came home from school: “How was school today? Did anybody touch you at school? Where did you go to the bathroom, in your little classroom or in the big bathroom? How many people were in the big bathroom?”
Police mothers tend to have strict rules, like “no sleepovers” and “no boy babysitters.” They also worry about their children becoming criminal offenders, as one police mother said, “We always see the worst of everything. You see the kids who are assaulting their parents or running away all the time…and then your own kid does something wrong and you think, “Oh no, they’re gonna end up like rotten kids!”
As the class comes to a close, the students are wide awake and debating whether policemen who are fathers have the same experiences, at work or at home. This question is a good one, I agree, as is the question of how this kind of parenting affects the children in police families.
Debra Langan is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her article, “Police Mothers at Home: Police Work and Danger-Protection Parenting Practices,” is forthcoming. To view the article through OnlineFirst, click here.