“Daddy, did you bust any bad guys today?”
That’s not the routine greeting an average parent hears when walking through the door after a day of work. But if you are in law enforcement, nothing is routine or average about your career—or your lifestyle.
“My daughters know I catch bad guys, but I don’t bring my work home for my wife and kids’ sakes,” says Travis Serafin, a patrol officer with the Eden Prairie Police Department and father of two. “Mostly my girls want to know if the person did anything wrong, if anyone was hurt, and if I needed to help someone.”
The life of a parent in law enforcement is split into two worlds, which sometimes also means two personalities. At work, cops are required to be methodical, authoritative, emotionally detached, and doubtful or questioning of what is said by potential perpetrators. At home however, they need to offer the same attention and unconditional love to their children that every parent needs to provide.
If anyone should understand this challenge, it’s Jesse Grabow, a father of three boys and third generation Minnesota state trooper. His family is the first in the state’s history where being a trooper passed from father to son and father to son. Grabow’s territory is expansive; he covers about one-third of the state from the northwest to west central and he is on-call as a public information officer. However, it’s the open line of communication he keeps with his wife, Shari, that is key to making the Grabow household click.
Growing up, Grabow knew the demands of being a trooper and saw the effect it had on his family. This might make many kids shy away from wanting that kind of career and family life, but Grabow saw it as an opportunity to make a difference and become an even better parent.
“Being in law enforcement made me want to have kids even more than I already did. Sure, I knew the dangers in this world,” he says, adding, “But being a good dad has made me a better trooper and being a good trooper has made me a better dad. I wanted to contribute something good to this world. Even in the tough times of this type of work.”
Serafin, who was voted Officer of the Year in 2011 by his fellow officers, is also a second-generation cop and says maintaining that dual identity is crucial to staying sharp on the job and being an engaged parent. However, the shift work that often comes with a law enforcement career makes it particularly difficult.
“I knew about the strain of shift work from watching my dad,” says Serafin. “Growing up, sports wise, sometimes he’d make it [to my games], sometimes he wouldn’t; sometimes he’d show up in uniform. Sometimes I didn’t even know he’d been gone overnight if he was called out. I’d just see a pile of clothes outside the laundry room door.”
So when Serafin decided to propose to his college sweetheart, who, like Grabow’s wife is named Shari, his parents invited her to hear what living a law enforcement life is really like. They talked about the tough schedule, police personalities, the emotional toll cop work can take, and the increased demands having children would put on their relationship.
“The nice thing is that my parents had been married for 50 years at that point so they really knew the ups and downs and had good advice for both of us,” says Serafin. “Shari had an idea of what our life would be like but this allowed us all to talk about it together.”
The Serafins have two daughters; Isabella and Olivia. “Isabella is quiet, reserved, and takes it all in before she jumps,” says Serafin. “Olivia is headfirst all the way. She’s go, go, go, and a talker!”
Both children are in school or daycare and Shari works full time outside the home. That’s hard enough to juggle without adding Serafin’s afternoon/evening shift schedule into the mix. He works from 2:00 to 10:45 p.m. for five days straight and then gets three days off. That means that Shari is solely responsible for their daughters’ after school and nighttime routine for the majority of the week. It’s worse when Serafin is on a later shift or involved in a special assignment.
“To this day, it’s tough,” he says of balancing work and home life. “Because, technically, Shari is like a single parent. Our relationship sacrifices a little bit. But on my days off, and especially if my days off are during the typical work week, I do everything I can to help her out.”
Most officers, especially those who work patrol, are required to work in shifts that can last anywhere from three months to a year at a time. The timing of shifts varies per department but there is often a day, afternoon, evening, and night shift. And this doesn’t mean that an officers’ job is done when his or her shift times out, however. For instance, if there is an altercation five minutes before they’re supposed to clock out, they won’t be leaving work on time and their families have no choice but to adjust.
Ethan Read, a police officer with the Prairie Island Police Department in Welch, says these types of situations have created the hardest challenge for finding balance. Read and his fiancée, Nicole, have a 13-month-old son, Brayden, “who gets into everything!” Read works mostly 12-hour overnight shifts so he is forced to sacrifice time with his son and divide it between working and sleeping to stay alert and safe on the job during his patrol days. Brayden suffers separation anxiety when Read leaves for work and Nicole “ends up putting him to bed most days because he cries.”
Knowing the toll this takes on his family, Read spends as much time as possible with his son when he’s not in uniform. “On my days off Nicole, Brayden, and I usually spend time watching TV, playing with his toys, reading his books, and on nice days we like to go for walks to the park,” says Read. “I also look forward to taking him swimming and playing catch with him.”
The worst of the worst
Being a police officer comes with a unique set of emotional burdens for a parent. Just ask Nicole Reno, a patrol officer with the Moorhead Police Department and mother of two. On any given day, her caseload can include notifying a family that a loved one has died, responding to a call about child abuse or neglect, or assisting in a search warrant of a suspected drug dealer.
Reno says seeing the dark parts of society have definitely affected how she parents. She’s more cautious of who watches her children, Thomas and Lillian, where they go, what they do, and whom they befriend. “I know I am more protective than some parents,” she says.
Police work has also made her more appreciative of the stable family life she and her Clay County correctional officer husband, Craig, provide. “I come home and appreciate what I have and love my children more for it,” says Reno. “I have two beautiful, healthy children who are well-behaved and a pure joy to be around. I don’t believe I have let my profession stifle what my children have been able to experience.”
If anything, says Ethan Read, police officer parents have experiences that can help, more than hinder, their children’s development into positive, productive people. Read intends to be honest with his son about his work and the types of people and situations he runs into. He hopes this creates an open line of communication where they have mutual trust and respect for one another. “I think it will also be important to share safety tips to him (as I have to my fiancée) to help ensure our safety in the home and in public,” sums up Read.
Fifteen-year state patrol veteran Grabow agrees that law enforcement work is emotionally, physically, and psychologically draining. He maintains that, even in the face of dealing with the worst of the worst, the men and women who wear badges must choose to be good parents.
“Someone once said that the decision to have children is like taking your heart out and letting it wander around. I see what they are saying,” says Grabow. “This kind of work has taught me that there are a lot of dangers out there, intentional and unintentional. But I always choose to become better, not bitter. I carry this over into my parenting.”
Behind every great officer…
There is no doubt that each one of these cops—Grabow, Reno, Read, Serafin—are great parents. But they all have a secret weapon—and it’s not a Glock.
“My wife is the most understanding person I know,” says Grabow. “She has most certainly sacrificed more by having to do a lot on her own without me.”
If Grabow responds to a multi-vehicle pileup during rush hour, Shari is solely responsible for the family’s evening routine. When Reno gets a 4:00 a.m. call about an armed robbery, her husband knows he’ll be handling the kids’ morning schedule himself. And when Serafin returns home after helping a mom and dad say good-bye to their teenager who died unexpectedly, his wife is there to offer a comforting hug and words of support.
“I just tell her I need to give the girls a hug and a kiss because I’ve had a tough one,” he says. “She always understands.”
Gun safety 101: most officers get it right
Moorhead police officer Nicole Reno says her two children both understand that she’s a cop, which means she gets to drive a police car, help people, and arrest “bad guys.” She also carries a gun, Taser, and other dangerous items on her duty belt that she wears home after each shift. Instead of ignoring that aspect of her uniform, Reno has taught Thomas and Lillian about each object, what it does, and why they aren’t allowed to touch it.
“I believe that honesty is best,” she says. “They know my flashlight has tons of germs on it and that a gun and Taser are dangerous.”
She also puts her duty belt in a safe place where her children can’t access it.
Betsy Brantner Smith, a former police sergeant in Naperville, Illinois and nationally renowned police educator, says all law enforcement professionals have a responsibility to practice proper gun safety at home.
“The biggest challenge in getting police officers to practice gun safety in the home is getting them to understand why it’s so important,” she states emphatically. “We develop an ‘It’s not going to happen to me mentality.’”
Here are some tips to keep your family safe:
Think like a kid: What is eye-level to you isn’t for your toddler. What you think is a tricky hiding spot is exactly where a teenager would look. Instead of trying to outsmart your child, you need to think like one.
“Kids are naturally curious so I recommend climbing on chairs and getting on your hands and knees to see what they see,” says Brantner Smith.
She adds that testing gunlocks and gun safes should also be part of your routine. Finally, set rules and use language that your children can understand.
Your gun is not a tool: Police officers need to remember that a gun is a powerful firearm, says Brantner Smith. “It’s designed to kill. It’s designed to do incredible damage to the human body. But for some reason, some cops begin to think of it as just another tool on their belt.”
Brantner Smith says all cops need to develop a safety routine at home—this means unloading the gun and locking it up.
Be the teacher in your family: Brantner Smith teaches her clients to be their family’s own firearms instructor. “Hiding your gun only makes your kids more curious and your spouse more afraid,” she says.
A better alternative is to take the mystery out of it and tell your kids how it works, what it does to the human body, and why it should never be touched.