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‘How do you do it?’ Addressing the mother-cop dilemma

Actionable strategies law enforcement can adopt to support female officers juggling motherhood and their careers

By Lieutenant Julia Clasby

It was a hot, sunny July day in Southern California. I sat in the third row of folding chairs pushed back against the wall in a small elementary school classroom. My 5-year-old sat cross-legged on his chair beside me, clutching a small metal fighter jet in each fist, as we watched my 8-year-old’s final performance of musical theater camp. My husband stood outside, watching the show through the propped open side door while our 2-year-old roamed in the grass, unable to sit still for more than 30 seconds — even if it was to see her big sister play the role of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.”

The show ended, and the audience stood up to greet the performers. As I gathered my things, my son tugged on my shirt and whispered “Mom” as he pointed to the front row. A woman was standing beside two young girls. She was wearing a flight suit with US Navy patches on her chest, the dark green one-piece baggy on her slender frame, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun. I asked my son, “Top Gun” obsessed and starstruck as if we had just stumbled upon a character at Disneyland, if he wanted to meet her. He nodded repeatedly in affirmation without taking his eyes off her.

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We walked over, and I introduced myself to the pilot. I pushed my son forward and she noticed the jets in his hands. She leaned down and rested on her knees so she could inspect them. She told him what made each jet special and the training a pilot must complete to be able to fly such a powerful aircraft. She explained to him that she was a pilot, but that she flew military helicopters instead of fighter jets. When she stood back up, she introduced herself to me and I commented that we might be neighbors. I work at the police department directly across the street from the naval weapons station.

The pilot, a US Navy Commander, and the executive officer at the base, said she’d seen me at a joint training and she confirmed I was a lieutenant. We kept talking as we walked outside to find our children, who had taken off running in all directions without adult supervision. She looked over at my husband, still trying to corral our tornado of a toddler, and asked if he was a cop too. His mustache, shaved head and Under Armour t-shirt must have given him away. I confirmed he worked patrol at a neighboring agency. She scanned the field and seemed to be counting my children, and then asked if we had three. I confirmed, we were crazy enough to go to three. Then she asked, “How do you do it?”

I laughed and replied, “Well, how do you do it?” She and her husband are both pilots and her husband, now retired from the Navy, travels 18 days a month for work. When she was transferred to the Seal Beach station, her family moved in with her parents so she would have childcare for when her husband was away, and she was at work. She’s a US Navy commander and a military helicopter pilot with a master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins, and she’s a wife and mother of three. Yet, somehow, from her perspective, it would be harder to “do it” all as a mother cop.


The mother cop dilemma

An estimated 12% of police officers in the United States are women and only about 3% of law enforcement executive leadership positions are held by women. These percentages have not increased significantly in more than four decades. And there is no data for what percentage I belong to. The mother cop club is incredibly small, and the number of women who make it to the executive rank while also balancing the full-time role of parent is even smaller. So, why is it so difficult to be a full-time mother and a full-time police officer?


I believe there is a double standard for female cops. We must be exemplary every day just to prove we belong, but once the female cop becomes a mother it is exponentially harder to be exemplary all the time. The pressure cooker of cop, wife and mother can inevitably lead to a breaking point when the mother cop must choose whether to focus on being a great cop or a great mom. It can feel as if we can’t possibly be both, do both, or have both. It is at this breaking point that we lose the mother cops. Either they quit trying to make it to executive leadership levels, or they quit the profession altogether.

If we want women to stay in law enforcement, especially the ones who also want to raise a family, we must create a culture that acknowledges, accommodates and advocates for the mother cops before they are pregnant, once they become pregnant and after they have their babies.

Working parenthood isn’t just for new mothers. It is an 18-year job, and it is done by both men and women, including both biological and adoptive parents, as well as parents in same-sex relationships, across diverse family structures. By aligning your department’s culture with this inclusive perspective, you address the issue comprehensively and send a more welcoming message.


And, I will argue, if the leaders in law enforcement — both women and men — lead by example to reshape our culture, we will create a work environment that values all parents, improves morale and retains far more well-balanced and even happy officers that will, in turn, provide better service and commitment to our communities.

Our nanny became a cop

So how do “we” do it? Frankly, raising our young family while both my husband and I work full-time as police officers has only been possible through the tireless assistance of a full-time nanny (and the financial fortune to pay for it). Throughout our eldest daughter’s life, we’ve been inexplicably blessed with three young women who filled that role while also pursuing their future careers. The first became a UFC fighter (seriously), the second became an ER nurse, and the last left us at the beginning of the year to begin the police academy.

When our nanny told us she wanted to be a police officer, if I’m honest, I felt like we had somehow failed her. She had a front-row seat to the personal life of a police officer, she witnessed the dynamics of a law enforcement marriage from the inside, she was there when childcare meant a toddler and an infant, and then joined us on the roller coaster ride of a third pregnancy, a third parental leave and a third kid. While I did not share with her the details of every struggle I had overcome as a female officer in the last 15 years, I secretly hoped she would be drawn to another career that would provide more safety, security, wellness and the stronger possibility to one day start a family of her own.

Over the next six months, I responded to text messages about penal codes and scenarios, answered late-night phone calls about challenges and self-doubt, and waited in anticipation for her pending academy graduation and future introduction into patrol field training. I would not recommend this career to a young woman striving to fulfill her civic duty, and yet one of my most favorite young women had embarked on that journey.

Effective work-life balance strategies

It caused me to wonder, in a perfect world, what kind of police department would I design that would provide the policies, procedures, culture, leaders, supervisors and coworkers that would make me actively recruit more women to this profession that I love.

The most effective work-life balance strategies are those that can be adopted across all departments. They require minimal intervention and cause little to no disruption. Many of these strategies can be led by leaders, even in the absence of institutional support, and importantly, they do not incur any costs. Here’s what I think that police department would look like.


Education, awareness and open dialogue

Leaders are in a unique position to provide the support pregnant employees need to reduce work-related stress throughout pregnancy. As such, a supervisor’s initial reaction can shape perceptions of future treatment and therefore impact stress. When a female officer discloses her pregnancy, congratulate her. And then confirm her understanding about her benefits — remind her that light duty assignments and sick leave are available for when she is ready to transition out of patrol and maternity leave is expected and encouraged.


Embed lived experiences

Women experience specific challenges that differ from men and are often hidden. In male-dominated organizations, these lived experiences are less often discussed or recognized. And yet, they affect so much of the female officer’s journey and experience: like career pathing, work arrangements, benefits, professional and leadership development, and retention. The leaders in our departments will have the most impact on the professional outcomes of female officers. By normalizing these experiences, and training supervisors, mentors, sponsors and allies (regardless of gender) to become comfortable understanding and engaging in those conversations, departments can embed this into existing programs.



When you are the first or the only pregnant female, who would be the right person to mentor you within your police department? It is to our benefit as leaders, and essential for the career development of our mother cops, to facilitate mentorship and establish connections for our future female leaders. Offering real opportunities that supplement appropriate support systems with mentorship from tenured female leaders is key.


Alternative light duty assignments

Under federal and state law, forcing a pregnant police officer into a “light-duty” assignment if she wants to continue her regular assignment can be a form of discrimination. Once a pregnant officer decides to move to a modified light duty assignment, supervisors can help them by offering flexible work arrangements, such as remote work and flextime. Allowing pregnant officers to leave early, arrive late, and/or work remotely when they have prenatal appointments is critically important to the health of the baby and the mom. Supervisors are the key to normalizing the mindset that flexible work arrangements are rights, not special privileges.

Return to work options

For many women, returning to work after parental leave is a key career transition point. The excitement of getting back to the routine of working and rejoining their partners is often overshadowed by anxiety surrounding the physical demands of patrol, the anticipated lack of sleep, the juggling of schedules, and the possibility of separation anxiety for both mom and baby.

Progressive departments will offer “ramping back to work” options after new mothers return from maternity leave and explore possibilities including flexible working, part-time, or job-sharing opportunities for all individuals. Mother cops’ careers are often derailed after returning from leave. Great leaders support an organizational culture that positions parental leave as a brief interlude, not a major disruption.


Photo/Julia Clasby

Nursing/pumping on duty

All police stations should have a lactation room where mother cops can pump privately and comfortably. Departments should also explore the possibility of breastfeeding rooms for officers with infants – not just a storage closet with a chair and a mini fridge – and consider the benefits of installing a hospital-grade pump so the mother cop can transport her pump parts instead of the entire machine. If there is an informal precedent in your department to allow officers to go home while on duty, that precedent should be extended to the breastfeeding mother cops.


On-site childcare

The implementation of on-site childcare for first responders would have short and long-term implications for both working mothers and fathers. The availability of on-site childcare with extended coverage would make drop-off and pick-up very convenient. It would allow breastfeeding mothers to feed their babies during work hours, rather than spending extra time pumping. Additionally, on-site childcare may actually be cheaper than other daycare services. Cities and police departments may have the ability to partner with a non-profit organization, obtain grant funding, utilize existing city-owned buildings, or offer lower rates when more families participate in the program.


Flexible schedules

As supervisors, if we recognize the tension that exists for the parent cops, we may start to make informal and inconsequential scheduling accommodations that allow them a few more opportunities to be with their kids. Employees with the most accommodating managers have better physical health reports, better sleep quality, higher job satisfaction and less stress over work-life conflicts. Even just posting schedules farther in advance, makes it easier for officers to trade shifts or cross-train more people for the same job. Given the broad array of flexible work options, from flex time (control over when you work) to remote work or job sharing (where two people seamlessly split a single job), supervisors can typically offer a variety of options to accommodate different employees’ needs.


Men as allies

Most solutions for leadership gender bias are focused on women. These programs have the unintended consequence of sending signals to men that they are not for them and so they don’t engage. But we need men to be engaged if we’re going to create lasting, sustainable change.

Research has found it is actually good for business for men to be engaged in addressing gender bias. It creates positive perceptions, increases men’s emotional intelligence, and improves organizational performance. Furthermore, studies have shown that the top predictor of women’s positive perceptions of gender diversity and inclusion outcomes is whether or not they see men in their own organizations loudly championing gender diversity.


Pregnancy announcement

Pregnancy does not mean the female cop is incapable of working, or that they are sick or injured. As a supervisor myself, I’m honored and humbled when men share their news about family planning, whether it is the pragmatic logistics of how many kids they want, the frustration of rounds of IVF, the joy of positive pregnancy tests, or the pain of a miscarriage. I appreciate the experiences I can share that may lighten their load or provide insight into what their wives are going through. It is to our benefit to foster the type of open communication where they feel safe to share about their families and family planning — this is how we can encourage and maintain work-life balance.

Maternity leave

Studies suggest that how the return from maternity leave is handled is typically more important than the actual length of leave. However, anything less than 12 weeks or three months should be discouraged. Research shows that sufficient maternal leave is related to lower infant mortality and reduced maternal stress. The ability to take one’s full parental leave without diminishing one’s promotion, pay or leadership prospects is crucial for greater gender equality in the workplace and for helping all working parents, not just mothers, achieve greater work-life balance.


Spousal parental leave

Male cops and female cops who are non-gestational parents have babies too. They are great parents who deserve parental leave, need to bond with their new baby, want to provide support to their partner during the difficult transition after the baby is born and have childcare issues. A tension absolutely exists for all parents in law enforcement. There is a bias that affects fathers and non-gestational parent cops when they seek even modest accommodations for caregiving. A department should not react positively to the mother’s three-month maternity leave but then frown upon a non-gestational parent taking leave for their new baby. The benefits of parental leave for both parents are self-evident. Good supervisors not only accept a parent’s request to take parental leave, but they encourage it.


Actions speak louder than policies

As a supervisor, you can model and teach setting boundaries around work. Enforce a “no work” policy during specific times of the day, decide on a maximum number of meetings, create realistic deadlines, stop the habit of “false urgency” for projects, set boundaries around appropriate email response timelines, limit the number of channels of communication, and encourage self and team-care practices. Respect working hours, encourage your employees to end work at a designated time each day and check in with anyone you notice consistently working after-hours.

Mindset shift

No program or policy will be as effective in supporting and motivating working parents as the example of leaders who are visibly balancing job and family. Leaders who keep current photos of children at their desks, who visibly leave early once in a while for the school play or soccer game, who occasionally refer to the evening of homework checking ahead of them — all while performing at a high level at work with a positive, upbeat attitude — sends a powerful message: I can do this, and you can too. Make certain you and other leaders in your department are modeling the behavior and attitudes you want to see in others.

Culture change starts from the top down

Law enforcement is a business of people, and our female officers should be recognized as human capital that will strengthen departments and improve relationships with the communities we serve. Real change will be driven by a mindset shift at the highest level. This requires command staff executives to value their female officers, acknowledge the tension that exists for mothers in law enforcement, understand the need for more women in leadership positions, and advocate for the mothers so they are prioritized rather than lost.


Sisters in blue

On June 29, 2023, my husband and I had the distinct privilege of witnessing our former nanny walk across the stage at her police academy graduation to pin that well-earned badge. I could not be prouder to know her and to call her my friend. After the ceremony, I thanked her for being an exemplary role model for our kids and one of the very few people in this world I trust implicitly to care for them. And I told her how honored I am to be her sister in blue.


Mother cops may be such a small percentage of law enforcement that there is no percentage point for what we represent. But that 30% influx of female police recruits is coming. And these young women who aspire to be police officers deserve the opportunity to join our numbers at some point in their careers. I look forward to continuing the conversation and offering solutions to increase the retention of our mother cops so that the perfect police department I envision can someday become a reality.

About the author

Lieutenant Julia Clasby has been a sworn police officer for 15 years. She has held many titles throughout her law enforcement career, the most common being “the first” and “the only.” Julia was the second female sergeant, the first female lieutenant and the only pregnant female officer in the more than 100-year history of her police department. Julia currently serves as the Operations Bureau Lieutenant at a California police agency. She oversees the patrol, investigations and traffic divisions; supervises the Canine and SWAT programs; works as the department’s Public Information Officer; and proudly serves as an honor guard team member.

Lt. Clasby holds a bachelor’s degree in business management economics, a master’s degree in emergency services administration and is a member of POST Command College Class #71. Most importantly, she is a police wife and full-time mother of three.

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