Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Guest post: Swimming

Becoming a mother and becoming a doctor were, in many ways, remarkably similar processes. They both required a radical redefinition of my sense of self. I thought that I had perfectly planned and designed my transition into each of these new identities. But after jumping, eyes closed and breath held, into each new role, I found myself unexpectedly struggling. Option one, the easy route, would have been to softly sink into the newness, absorbing it into myself without question, seeing in it something that had been there all along. Option two (the one that I chose), consisted of frantically splashing about to keep my head in the old world, fighting as if my life depended on not assimilating…and then, in the end, enjoying what I had known that I’d wanted all along.

First: doctoring. For so many years, I had resisted the desire to be a doctor. I did so for many reasons. I’d watched my dad (a surgeon) miss so much of life, and knew that I didn’t want mine to center on work the way that his did. I’d “learned” in college all about medical sociology and the way that new doctors get indoctrinated; I was horrified to think that I too would by necessity fall prey to this ideology if I went to medical school. I saw the passionless lives of professionals and knew that I DID NOT want that for my own – I wanted excitement and happiness and time and craziness and all the things that were not contained, by definition, in medicine. And of course I wanted to change the world.

But in the end medicine won out. I got convinced that I could in fact change the world as a doctor. And I sat down to learn the language, the cadence, the perspectives. Of course I spit and struggled in its face: first I broke up with my boyfriend for convincing me that med school was a good idea; then I refused to study “too hard” because doing so would be legitimizing the establishment; all throughout, I held myself apart, insisting that I was somehow “different” from my classmates. And yet one day, before I knew it, I had become one – a “doctor.” I thought like one, talked like one, was passionate like one. I think my real wakeup call came when I got engaged, and realized that I was no less of a woman for being a physician. And that I was, in fact, better at making informed decisions about my future life than I would have been without medical school. I had fought being submerged by medicine. But I surprisingly realized that I had learned how to float.

And next: motherhood. Equally planned, complete with lists of pros & cons. Once again, I tried to “take lessons” – attended classes, read books, and so on. The difference was, this choice was irrevocable. For the first time in my life, I entered into something that I could not take back. Motherhood happens so quickly, and there is no trial period! People have described the first year of motherhood as being something of a chrysalis. Now that I am on the other side of that year, I understand the poignancy of this description. But I think that a better metaphor that becoming a mom is like jumping in off a diving board. There is no shallow end.

Oh, how I struggled in that first year of my first child’s life. I insisted that I was not “really” a mother. I was not “one of those” who would pay exclusive attention to her child. I didn’t obsess over things the way that “stay-at-home” moms would. I was different, special, not fully subsumed in the role. And yet… now, Being a mom is part of my being.

In the first years, I constantly argued with my husband about who would take on various tasks. I had to realize that fight as I might, no one would take these tasks away from me; there was no one to hold me up. But I wasn’t really sinking. Indeed, I refused to dip below the water line for long. I learned how to manage all of these new movements to keep my head up. And one day it became… dare I say it? Not effortless, but thought-less. Five years later, I find that I now longer have to think about the day-to-day tasks of being a mom. Just as I tread water automatically, so I manage schedule, lunches, playdates, without thinking.

But then the final challenge: how to meld these two roles? Can I kick and float at the same time? I think I’m getting there. After all, I’ve found that my mothering skills help immensely in the Emergency Department. When they throw tantrums, I understand that it has nothing to do with me. When they are whining I know that they really just need a cup of juice and some crackers. When they cause trouble I understand that they’re just looking for attention. When they break down crying I know that they just need a hug. (And I’m not talking about my residents!!)

Conversely, I’ve found that my medical skills are helpful at home. As much as I try not to be a doctor with my children, I can’t help judging their scrapes, rashes, and fevers with a medical eye. I look at how much they’re eating, how they’re drinking, what they do after they tell me their belly hurts… and I make what I hope are somewhat more educated decisions. I also know when to not freak out – something that too many people these days, scared by everything from BPA to H1N1 to thimerosal, are prone to do.

Each transition has contained moments of tremendous frustration, fighting, anger, unwillingness to capitulate, and yes, feeling like I was drowning. But I think that I may finally be learning how to swim through life.

Emergencymom is an academic emergency physician and public health researcher on the East Coast.  She is proud mother of 2 (aged 4 & 1), and wife of a small-business-owner.  Her work-home balance is precarious, but generally enjoyable.  She still can't believe that she gets to do research for half her work-week!  She welcomes suggestions on how to get 4-year-olds to stop whining, how to have dinner cook itself, and how to not be perennially 1 hour shy of a good night's sleep.


  1. Oh, that sounds like me, well, the first half does. The second half maybe not yet... I'm not at the 'having babies' stage yet.

  2. Are you me? I too am in academic EM and feel this way all the time. I settle many an internal struggle of doctoring my kids by having my non-medical husband look at them and discuss it with him before I go crazy.

  3. Glad it resonated with both of you. Susan, we should talk if you're at ACEP or SAEM this year :).

  4. Thanks for this post. I just finished my first year of EM residency, and I'm beginning my first year of motherhood - my son is now 3 months old, my maternity leave is ending, and I'm anxious about returning to work on Monday! Glad to hear that things look ok on the other side.


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