It’s a cliché, and I hate clichés. But it’s also a truth. And it beats me over the head on a daily basis.
I never wanted to be the type of person who thinks, let alone says or writes, that there are things that people without children just don’t understand. And I won’t pretend to know what anyone else feels or understands. But I can say with absolute certainty that my own understanding and experience of life has changed immeasurably since I became a mom. And I’m still trying to learn to navigate not just the logistics of life with a baby, but a very new emotional terrain.
My son was born in February after a healthy, uneventful pregnancy. At three months old, he is thriving – sleeping well, eating heartily, and smiling and cooing in ways that melt my heart anew every day. My husband and I try not to make assumptions about the future, but like all parents, we have high hopes for him. And we look forward to every day that we will spend together as a family, watching him grow and learn and discover the world.
Yet today I am sitting on the living room couch sobbing while my baby naps peacefully in the other room. Why? I am no longer painfully sleep-deprived, no longer terrified that he and I will never master the art of breastfeeding and that he will not gain weight and grow. My hormones seem to be back in check and I have largely adjusted to being back at work and away from him, although it is still hard to leave each morning. I am sitting here in tears because I just read a blog post written by someone I don’t know, someone whose story I came across when it was shared by one of my friends on Facebook. It was about a woman who just lost her little boy to cancer. And I am feeling another mother’s pain.
I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a child. I couldn’t before I had my own baby, but now whenever I encounter such losses, all I can think about is how, once upon a time, that child’s mother had high hopes for her baby, had her heart melted by each smile and coo. Which is not to say that I would not have cried at the same story before I had my son, or that people without children would not shed tears over it. But the feelings behind my tears – the fiery, gut-tearing pain that churns within me when my mind even dances near the edges of the real question that arises with every story of loss: What if it were my baby being taken from me? – are awful and new.
So with my newfound understanding of motherhood, and the attendant capacity to imagine maternal grief, I face a new challenge. Since medical school, I have wanted to be a pediatric oncologist and treat children with cancer. I adore children, I love working with families, and I am fascinated by the science behind the diseases that afflict them. Back in medical school, one of my classmates confessed that she would have become a pediatrician if she hadn’t already become a mother. “I can’t,” she said, shaking her head and looking pained at the thought of caring for sick children. “I just can’t.”
I did not have children at the time, and although wondered how I might be affected once I started a family, I thought that perhaps I would gain some degree of immunity by entering the field before my own children arrived. When I began my pediatrics residency, I certainly felt sad when children were sick, and extremely sad when they died. But I was able to let go of that sadness and move on.
Then, during my second year of training, my own baby arrived. And after my brief maternity leave, I returned to work on the pediatric oncology ward, a place that had always gripped and excited me. And suddenly everything changed.
I still loved the strictly medical side of things: working up a new diagnosis, puzzling over the best ways to manage the side effects of chemotherapy. But the family meeting to discuss a little boy’s grim prognosis nearly sent me into a fit of sobs. I had to look away and sing songs in my head just to get through it. All I wanted to do was to cry with this mother. For this mother.
Which leaves me in a confusing state. Everything that I have always felt about caring for children, I feel much more strongly now. The uplifting and the soul-crushing both resonate in ways I could never have anticipated. Will this effect wane with time, or intensify? Will it render me better able to care for my patients and their families, or become a barrier to pursuing and surviving the emotions of this career about which I once felt so sure?
It’s hard to know anything for certain, other than, finally, what it feels like to be a mom.
Becky MacDonell-Yilmaz is a second-year pediatrics resident at Hasbro Children's Hospital/Brown University and mom to a three-month-old son. She blogs at The Growth Curve .