by Fran Wright, Lecturer in Policing Organisation and Practice at The Open University
Most parents would probably agree that there is never a ‘right time’ to start a family, but as a police officer I would argue there really isn’t. Entering the police service twenty years ago, I naively assumed that one day I would perfectly balance motherhood with my dream career. Having made carefully considered choices and countless self-affirmations that having a baby, ‘won’t change me,’ eighteen years and two children later, I can say quite categorically that it has.
As I have stepped further away from frontline duties, and watched my children grow, I have become more aware of the impact my dual role as a ‘police mother’ has had on my family and I over the years. Only now, with an appetite for police research (and a wealth of amusing anecdotes), do I concede that my daughter is right when she says, ‘you only say that because you’re a police officer.’ Reading a piece by Lennie (2018) entitled ‘Policing parenting: Psychological challenges for officers and their families,’ caused me to reflect on my own experiences of this phenomenon, and to consider whether being a police officer has informed my approach to parenting, or more importantly, negatively impacted my children.
I have often likened my operational role to the 1980’s children’s programme Mr Ben, walking into the locker room at one end as a wife and mother, and moments later, miraculously reappearing as a police officer. Enter the hypervigilant, over-protective, and at times border-line neurotic mother; exit the calm, level-headed, police officer, able to robustly cope with whatever the next ten hours might present. Violanti (1999) asserts that ‘police officers are expected to be combat ready 24/7, whilst maintaining a normal social presence,’ and yet I find myself with an ‘alter-ego.’ So when and how exactly did this dual-personality manifest?
As a new mother I was based in my home city, policing the streets in which I lived. Reflecting on a trepidatious early trip out with the pram, perhaps I should have realised when my over-reaction to a well-known ‘customer,’ (who had merely recognised me and shouted across the road in acknowledgement), was perhaps what Agocs et al. (2015) would consider a ‘danger-protection strategy.’ In a state of gut-wrenching panic, my instinct was to run from this once troublesome teenager, whom I now perceived as a violent monster. A lack of engagement with early police research in this field served me well, since Manning (1978) concluded, that from a police perspective, ‘people cannot be trusted, and they are dangerous.’ Had I applied an evidence-based approach at this stage, I may well have chosen to end my police career there and then.
As the newness of parenting abated, perhaps one could have expected to feel more relaxed, and able to enjoy the company of toddler-friends in the joyous surroundings of the soft-play centre. Conversely, this was to become a regularly traumatic experience for this ‘police mother.’ The nature of my police role triggered involuntary behaviours and suspicions of which my friends were oblivious. I was on ‘high-alert’ to lone males who might be ‘watching’ children; a scenario bearing remarkable similarities to that at a splash park described in a study of police mothers by Agocs et al (2015). The reality was of course that these were probably innocent men watching their own family as they played.
As friends casually tossed aside their handbags, mine remained strapped firmly to my body. The avoidance of the opportunist thief, far more exigent than the hindrance which it caused as I clambered through the cargo netting in pursuit of a toddler that I would surely never see again should I lose sight even for a second. The small inadequate exit gate could easily facilitate a child abduction, or at best a high-risk missing person.
Attendance at the play centre remained incessant during the early school years, since the ‘play centre party’ was the celebration of choice for what seemed an eternity. Triggers differed however once the children played independently. My heightened anxiety focussed on the potential for injury, (actual) loss of teeth, or the recognition of a wanted person, once spotted across the ball pit at a particularly ‘choice’ venue.
As the children have reached their milestones, so too my ‘danger-protection strategies’ have developed. Perhaps this is the reason that my son’s reception teacher described him as a ‘wise head on young shoulders?’ Clearly those ‘teachable moments’ that I have unwittingly instilled have served him well; he has an excellent grasp of road safety, a thorough understanding of the consequences of not wearing a helmet for any ‘wheeled activity’ and would never dream of leaving his scooter unattended for fear of it being stolen! My daughter’s similar hard-line approach to road-safety occasionally left her unable to catch the school bus due to her literal interpretation of my repeated instruction to ‘only cross the road if you can see absolutely nothing for a mile in either direction.’
An early grasp of ‘stranger-danger’ was equally reassuring, if not slightly alarming. When offered a sweet by a friendly store worker, my daughter’s hysterical over-reaction as she believed she was ‘being stolen,’ left the poor woman bewildered. This was perhaps a light-bulb-moment, and a clear demonstration of how my lack of trust in others had caused me to transfer my own fears to my children through the ‘what if’ scenarios I have developed throughout their childhood.
Years of policing in a city centre environment, dealing with trauma, risk, and danger, have evidently shaped my perceptions and influenced the ‘danger- protection strategies’ employed to protect them. I recall my daughter preparing for her first shopping trip with friends in her early teens. As we rehearsed the relevant ‘what if’ scenario, I unconsciously applied the 5 WH (who, why, what, when, how) questioning technique, honed through years of police interviewing. Despite being reassured by her graphic response as to how she would evade such danger, the disproportionate level of violence that would be deployed in the ‘stranger’ scenario required a timely intervention regarding ‘use of force’ and ‘proportionality’!
As we embark on the next phase of childhood, my hypervigilance heightens; fatal road traffic collisions, stranger rape and student suicide, all potential consequences as my eldest learns to drive, enters higher education, and enjoys the associated nightlife. Research suggests that I am not alone with this ‘worst-case scenario’ outlook. Agocs et al. (2015) conclude that ‘police-women are super-vigilant parents; they see more, know more, worry more and warn more.’ A reliable evidence-base for my own self-doubt, or further protestations from the children.
As I recall these anecdotes, which at times have been a source of amusement, they serve as a constant reminder of my privileged, if not damaging, position as a ‘police mother.’ I ponder the ‘emotional labour’ (Lennie, 2018) expended in my efforts to protect, compounded by the guilt of balancing the demands of work and home, as I strived to be a ‘good mother.’
Despite my idiosyncrasies and the embarrassing moments, I know the children are proud. My donning of a wagon driver’s high visibility coat at the scene of a collision was a particularly low point for my teenage daughter, although she did later concede that she felt proud. In contrast, our collective family response to a suspected drink-driver following a day trip, was deemed ‘epic’ by them both. They have always enjoyed the ‘stories’ imploring me to describe the ‘worst thing’ I have seen or dealt with; a censored response, carefully constructed, with incidents downplayed or even fabricated, contributing further to the ‘emotional labour’ involved in balancing the realities of life, with emotional damage limitation.
Through my endeavours as a ‘police mother’ I appear to have raised two highly sensible individuals, neither of whom present as ‘emotionally damaged.’ Whereas I shoulder an aggregation of anxieties with every passing milestone, regularly behaving in a way which I am informed by my daughter is ‘not normal.’ Recently whilst embracing her, I instinctively reached into her wide-opened shoulder bag, demonstrating the ease in which her purse could be stolen. Her response to this mock theft scenario was utter contempt. A stark contrast to when she proudly informed her nursery friends, (as they attempted to scare me with a plastic dinosaur), ‘you won’t scare my mummy, she’s a police officer.’ She was right; stepping out of ‘Mr Ben’s’ changing room into my ‘police world,’ I barely ever felt scared despite the risks I faced. And yet, where the children are concerned I have consistently and instinctively displayed behaviour which confirms that my police role has indeed informed my parenting ‘style.’ And if further evidence was required to corroborate my daughter’s claim that I really do, ‘only say that because I’m a police officer,’ then my response to a recent question from my son, provides validation. He asked, ‘is it scary being a parent?’ my response…….. ‘it’s scarier than being a police officer!’