Friday, August 11, 2017

(Helicopter) Doctor Moms

As my toddler becomes more and more active, I've been grappling with an internal conflict: how do I balance my desire to let her experience life and take chances within the reality of my risk-averse, medical background? The other day, my mother almost had a stroke in the park, watching my 20 month old girl teeter along on the edge of a three foot tall retaining wall while she laughed with glee at her cousins. Below was grass on one side and a stone tile on the other. "Get her down from there!" she cried. I hadn't thought anything of it: if she had fallen on the grass side of the wall, she would have been fine. She would have learned a lesson on how to place her feet to balance. If she had fallen on the tile side, things might have been fine... or they might have resulted in a broken ankle, or a broken head. Flashes of my baby intubated with a head injury in the ICU swirl through my head, and I have to slap myself to break loose.

So much potential badness and goodness in this picture

I don't want to be one of those helicopter parents. I want my child to learn problem solving, to take chances and learn consequences, and to feel the exhiliration of meeting physical challenges. And yet, as an anesthesiologist, I've seen the worst. I've seen the pediatric traumas and the burn unit cases. I've heard the PICU stories ("How did this happen?"), and I'll admit that I absorb these details differently now that I'm a mother. The information is clouded by a background wonder of what I would do if I were in the parents' situation. Sometimes I see my own child's face in that hospital bed or on the OR table.

As a teenager, I had some friends whose fathers were policemen. They always had lots of restrictions, and because their dads had similarly clouded lenses through which they saw everything, I now understand why. But overbearing parenting has been associated with what Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, describes as "emotionally, intellectually, and socially handicapped children." How do we as parents allow our children to grow up with freedom, autonomy, and challenge while still appropriately protecting them from physical harm? If anyone has some good insights on this, I'd love to hear them!

10 comments:

  1. I struggle in the same way. I feel like I'm always trying to quiet my inner doctor fears. As a surgeon, I took care of many pediatric traumas during my residency and had many of the feelings you describe. I try to rely on my husband for a sense of normal. He is thoughtful but still protective without all the trappings of the things I see in my head. I try to use his level of comfort as a barometer for how comfortable I should be, while always reserving the right to overrule!

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  2. Yes. My husband tempers my feeings as well (he's also non-medical). He usually swings way to the other side of permissiveness, so I guess it cancels out!

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  3. I am a Peds ED doc. I have some things that are no-no's but also really try to let my kids be. I don't care if they fall off the slide and break their arm (well I care, but don't freak out) but I am a stickler for the life threatening things like biking, clearing our driveway of all kids when someone is backing up, etc. I am constantly thinking about the possible risks. I often find it exhausting bc I am reliving that 6 yo trauma I intubated who was run over biking while my 6 yo daughter is doing the same thing. And I have one for every age and situation at this point in my career. It is a struggle sometimes to be relaxed. It is a little bit of PTSD for me. Still figuring out how to not react emotionally and remind myself that many kids do this and DON'T have to come see me.

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  4. I remind myself every time I go to the playground that my daughter will get hurt somehow someday no matter what I do, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. Honestly I worry more about my husband getting into a car accident. You'd think I'd be able to apply the same logic, but.... nope!

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  5. This is a great post. Through medical training and practice we remember the disasters. And then we may be sensitized to events we recall from non professional life. I list the relative's 2 yr old drowning in a shallow stream behind their house; an 8 yr old neighbor child killed in the street running out between cars; a 5 yr old from our community drowned at the lakeside family picnic; my two junior high classmates who drowned one winter while duck hunting in a boat that was swamped. And don't even start counting the teenage car accidents. But DocMac nailed it. The bruises and stitches and even broken arms don't count. It's the irreversible stuff that should worry us and it's not helicoptering to exert caution for those activities.

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  6. I try to control the risks I can and let go of the rest. Helmets, carseats, and now seat belts are non-negotiable. We do not have a trampoline and she is absolutely not allowed to jump on a tramp when anyone else is on it. She knows that if she ever sees anything that looks even remotely like a gun, she is to leave the room immediately and either find an adult or call me. Beyond that...she does what she does, which included a lot of climbing and balancing on the playground and some jumping off and over chairs in hip-hop class. And I take deep breaths.

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  7. I don't have kids yet, but I think also helpful to remember that helicoptering about physical risks is only one kind of helicoptering. While doctors may never be able to look beyond the physical risks we know from our work, we can avoid helicoptering when it comes to kids working out problems with friends, frustrations in school, fears, etc. Hopefully at times better than most parents, because we have perspective on how much "failure" in many parts of life doesn't actually affect what matters most.

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    1. Excellent point! Hopefully we can mitigate physical risks without hampering their autonomy. It can be a fine line!

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  8. I think I was a little too protective when they were little but they are turning out ok. My daughter is about to learn how to drive (gasp)and is starting high school with all those trappings. Worry never ends - but I agree teaching autonomy, especially as they get older, is important so they can trust themselves and gain confidence in their own decision making - even if that means a bad grade or a broken bone.

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  9. I totally agree Giz: a broken bone or a broken ego, but hopefully not a broken head!

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