Why being a nurse makes you a better parent

‘My mom's a nurse!’ How much should your child know about your work?

Even when she was a toddler, BSN and RN Melissa Waggoner's youngest knew what an ambulance siren meant. "She always yelled out, 'Somebody sick!'" Waggoner recalled. And while the child didn't get graphic descriptions about what went on when that ambulance pulled up to the ER, she did know what went on there, because that's where her mom worked.

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Now a director of surgical services in Florida, Waggoner has experience in ICU, orthopedics and many other hospital divisions. Along the way, her children were always kept up to speed on her job, but only in a matter-of-fact way that would reassure them and let them know they were part of their mom's working life. "I explained with as much information as they could handle for their ages," Waggoner said. "Most of the time I just left it to 'Mommy helps sick people' and spared them the details. I managed the ICU when they were young. They came to visit a lot at my work and their day care was just down the street. They knew more about the hospital where I worked than a lot of the staff!"

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While Waggoner is the first to point out that every parent has their own approach and hers is just one, experts and fellow nurses all agree that it's important to clue your kids in on your work as a nurse so they'll feel secure. And it's just as critical not to overshare, about the work involved, the financial struggles or your ambivalence about working while the kids are young. The attitude you convey about nursing work can help your kids make healthy choices and place a value on their parent's work. It's not so much that you need the ego stroke, it's more that your child needs to know why your work is so important -- to her, to you and to the world.

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Here are some tips from nurses who are parents and a few parenting experts who "get" the stresses and joys of the nursing career:

Help your child "get" your job.

Some nurses like Waggoner actually bring kids where they can see for themselves (and as HIPPA and work policies allow.) If you're unable or unwilling to do that, it's a good idea to make sure your kid has enough details about your job to feel like she's part of your work community; it decreases anxiety about being separated during the day and helps you serve as a role model. 

Nurse practitioner John Cary from Athens Pulmonary Critical Care & Sleep Medicine is married to a women's health physician's assistant, and said, "She's a big believer in health and quite open with kids, so we have a lot of conversations with our three boys that start with, 'Why are we eating this' or 'Why do we make this healthy choice?' It helps open the door to bigger conversations about our work and how we help people with their health. While we save details about what I do at work for the oldest child, it's never too early to discuss making healthy choices with your child."

This can be as simple as remarking, "Mommy is good at reading this medicine bottle and making sure you get just the right amount because she does that at work."

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Keep your comments about the job upbeat.

No one's saying it will hurt your kid if you occasionally reveal how exhausted you are at the end of the day, or make a few cutting remarks about your commute or a toxic coworker, but don't take that liberty too often. "Being upbeat about your job can help your kids feel more supportive of your working," Lori Long, Ph.D. and author of "The Parent's Guide to Family-Friendly Work," told Parents. Make sure you take time to decompress between work and home (or work and day care) to avoid passing along work-based anxiety.

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And if the day has been just awful, try to be honest in a way that helps your child understand how a healthy person reacts when things don't go well. "Share something simple such as, 'Mommy's a little grumpy today. I had an exciting project that didn't work out,'" Long said, and draw a link to something your child can relate to, like having a friend be hateful to them or the cat hiss when she tries to pet it.

Most importantly, if your young child has a meltdown of the "don't leave me!" variety, don't join him. Of course, you want to admit, "I want to stay too and watch cartoons and eat cereal! I hate leaving." But resist the impulse, Long advises. "It sends a confusing message to children: You say you want to stay, yet you're leaving," she said. Parents advised acknowledging your child wants you to stay, confirming that's not possible, and then sharing a task or interaction you're looking forward to that day. It could be big, like assisting in an important surgery, or small, like seeing what kind of novelty band-aids you'll have for the pediatric patients. The idea is to make your work seem at least a little fun, to help your young kid understand why it's such an important part of your life.

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Be proud of your job.

A big part of letting your children know about your work life in the most positive way is helping them understand what a wonderful profession you're part of. Adjusting one simple phrase can go a long way towards helping kids as young as 2 or 3 and all the way up to teenagers comprehend the value of what you do. As RN, mother of four and mom blogger Chaunie Brusie wrote in Nurse.org, "Instead of telling my kids that I 'have' to work, complete with a sorrowful expression and a tear in my eye, I tell them that I 'get' to go to work."

Playing up the nursing profession isn't tough, Brusie added. "I mean, let's be real, as nurses, many of us truly feel that our work is a privilege," she said. "We know that being able to take care of other people and be a part of their lives in such a significant way is an honor, so why not reflect that attitude to our children? In the end, you don't 'have' to be a nurse — you get to be one."

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