Imagine this sales pitch: Excitement, challenge, career advancement, health benefits! Great salaries with a retirement plan, 401K, pension and the possibility of moving around the country to various exotic and local suburban and urban areas during your tour! Does this sound like something you would like to do? Does this sound like a career you have always wanted? Then come join the brothers and sister in blue and become a law enforcement officer! All you have to do is survive 25 years of violence, unsafe situations, budgetary challenges, and for those in a correctional setting, be out numbered 100 to 1 on a good day with no weapons except your ability to talk your way out of situations. Don’t forget the occasional riot, possible acts of terror, and the thought in the back of your mind that every day you go to work may be your last day. Sound good?
Well for a lot of us, this is a reality. It’s a real job that thousands of brave men and women do every day. And when you combine that with the added responsibilities of being a husband and father, the stress and pressure can grow exponentially. Such is life for the men and women of law enforcement.
I began my law enforcement career at the age of 18, to be honest I had no intentions of ever making it a career. It was a paycheck until I achieved my own dreams. But a funny thing happened along the way; I found out I was good at it. And after six years as a police officer and an Education Enforcement Officer at a high school, I found myself working in corrections at the ripe old age of 24 dealing with inmates that ranged from drug addicts and traffickers, to murderers and mob bosses, and everything imaginable in between. You’re 24 years old and some these people could be your parents’ age, older brother’s age or even your age and you are now going to tell them what to do and when to do it.
Not too stressful, right?
But you get used to it, it becomes your routine, and the stress becomes a little more manageable. Then two years ago, my life changed again, but this time in a totally new and different way; I became a dad.
So how do we do it? How do individuals like myself balance the dangers and stresses of our careers with the warmth, caring, and responsibilities of being parents? It’s about balance and appreciation.
When I spend time with my daughter, she helps me see pure good. She hasn’t been corrupted by politics or media. She just smiles and plays and is happy to be alive and that is contagious. By being a good dad and teaching her right from wrong, I’m given hope that all is not lost.
When I walk out of work to free air and the outside world, the prison and everything that has happened in that day is done. I now have 16 hours to regroup and be a dad and husband. You just have to make a conscience choice to turn it off. I know that when I step back in there tomorrow, all the problems I couldn’t fix yesterday will still be there, and you just have to let it go until it is time to deal with it. Prison is my job, not my life. My life is being the best dad and husband I can be for my family.
You need mechanisms to turn off “work mode,” and you need outlets to de-stress yourself and decompress. I listen to music, I connect life events to songs and when I need to feel a certain way I put a song on and I am instantly transported to those happy moments. Whatever your mechanism might be, it has to help you remember that work is work; life is more important. The balance between your work mode and your life mode is what is going to enable you to keep a level head.
When my daughter was born it changed me in a fundamental way. I looked at life differently; mortality, politics, religion, everything that I thought I knew changed in a matter of seconds. When it came to my job, it made me stop and think about when I was the first one through the door whenever danger called. Don’t get me wrong, I still go through the door first, but I do it with more caution and thought about what I will do when I get through it instead of just blindly going in.
Watching my daughter learn and become a person is what grounds me. Watching the joy in her eyes as she learns something new and speaks a new word or just wants to be held is all I need to reassure me that life is good. My job gives me a unique perspective into a world that most might choose to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist. It’s my responsibility to protect my daughter, but I know I can’t hide everything from her. But I can give her the skills to better navigate it all because in a lot of ways, I can tell her more than the average person can. I can teach her that trust must be earned, and not to go out there and expect people to hand you anything. Never take the short cuts no matter how easy it looks and no matter how often people get away with it. Work hard and always do your best, and always be a lady.
And beyond the perspective I’ve gained from being a father, I’ve learned you have to take care of yourself and your own mental and emotional well-being too. And that’s when you turn to family.
The things we see on a daily basis can be difficult to process; You see a car accident that leaves a little girl hurt, and you can’t help but think of your own daughter. You see the pain and suffering of a domestic violence victim and can’t help but think of your wife. It’s called having empathy and compassion, but most officers tend to compartmentalize this pain and stress, and it builds and grows and can eat away at you. You can talk to other officers because you think they understand but sometimes they simply tell you to let it go, and that’s not always possible. Sometimes our coping mechanism is to hide these thoughts and stresses from our wives or husbands or partners in the belief that we are protecting them, in the belief that they don’t need to know about it or have to think about it. I can honestly say I felt that way for a long time too until I realized something – they married us, they love us, and they are here for us. My wife has been my biggest sounding board, and she has helped me through the good and the bad. She lets me talk about it if I want to, never prying or forcing but just being there because she knows and understands that sometimes you have to let it out. Bottling these stresses and events up inside will destroy you, and it will change you on a fundamental level. But thanks to my wife I do not have to carry that burden and pain alone, and by letting me talk about it, she helps me to let it go and use it as a tool to help me the next time I come across that situation or scenario. Do not take this on all by yourself because you are not protecting anyone – you’re just hurting yourself mentally and emotionally.
When my friends, family, and co-workers speak of me after I’m gone, they will never see me as just “The Corrections Officer” or only “The Dad.” They will see me for all I am – a good father, friend, brother, husband, and co-worker. Because the fact is, I am one person living in two worlds and trying my hardest to be the best I can be for each environment.
About the author
Kent Clark is a husband, father, and has 19 years of law enforcement experience; six as a police officer, and 13 in corrections.