When a big fire season hits, the pressure on families is huge.
I know, because during Victoria’s Black Saturday fires, I had a newborn baby, postnatal depression, and a husband who’s heavily committed as a volunteer firefighter.
I was home alone with the baby all day while my husband was at work. She cried so much that I rarely left the house; I was too worried that everyone would find out I didn’t know how to settle my own baby.
When he wasn’t working, my husband was volunteering at our local fire brigade. They trained twice a week, and because he was part of the management team he also had regular meetings. Not to mention the call-outs: this busy station received, on average, a call every second day.
And then a terrible fire season hit, and the commitment intensified. There were more meetings, constant phone calls, more call-outs, and he spent days at a time away on strike teams.
It was like he had two full-time jobs.
And I was still at home, getting more and more frustrated at my isolation.
When you have depression, you can go quite numb. The only emotion I really felt at the time was anger. I was so mad at my husband, and at the fire service.
I couldn’t admit that at the time, partly because the depression encouraged me to stay silent, and partly because I felt like an awful person. Who gets angry at someone for volunteering for such a worthy cause?
One evening, I’d grown so sick of him being called out that I threw his pager into the bushes in the backyard, hoping that if a call came through he wouldn’t know.
Everyone calls the volunteers heroes, but all I could think was that I needed a hero at home to occasionally hold the baby while she screamed for hours before falling asleep.
We’re supposed to feel grateful to the volunteers, but I just felt resentful. It was something that took him away from the family too much. It put more pressure on me. I was exhausted.
When the Black Summer hit, and the number of call-outs grew again, all of that came back.
Having recovered from depression, it was finally my chance to open up the conversations that I hadn’t been able to start all those years ago. I told him what it’s like being the one holding things together at home, the impact that had on my mental health, and how much I wish I’d had somewhere to turn for help at the time.
At last, I put some boundaries in place. Now I realise that, while volunteering as a firefighter is a good cause, it’s okay to expect that other parts of life take priority. And that makes his volunteering much more sustainable for our family.
As told to Fortem Australia
Please note: It is important for first responder families to build mental fitness and set up support systems. This can help to reduce the risk factors to mental health challenges now and in the future.