One of my mother's cousins died yesterday.
I hadn't seen in her a long time - there's a fair amount of distance in my family, literally and figuratively. Miriam was married to my mother's first cousin. He's an internist (that runs in my family) and she initially trained as a pediatrician and then did a psych residency so she could practice pediatric psych. Which she did; she was still working part-time when she took ill, just a month or so ago.
According to her obituary, Miriam graduated from medical school in 1971, shortly before I turned 11. I didn't remember the exact dates. I do remember - quite clearly - that she was the first woman physician I'd known. There were lots and lots of doctors in my family. They were all men. At that age, I planned to be a nurse. It had never occurred to me that I could be a doctor. And then I met Miriam.
I made up my mind when I was 14 - I was going to medical school. Miriam started sending me occasional articles from JAMA about women in medicine. It was one of those articles that I learned that there was a first wave of women in medicine in the early 20th century; I asked my grandfather and he told me that his med school class was about 30% women (he graduated in 1927). The Great Depression, the rampant discrimination that made it impossible for women to join hospital staffs and the post-WWII pressure for women to leave the workplace changed all that. My father graduated from the same medical school in 1958 and there were six women in his class. Miriam was part of the second wave, the women who went to med school when the OR changing rooms still said "Doctors" and "Nurses" instead of "Men" and "Women" and when women were still routinely asked why they were taking a spot away from a man, since they were just going to quit and have babies anyway. Miriam had babies - two of them - and never quit. She was the first Mother in Medicine in my life.
I don't know what my life's path would have been if I hadn't watched Miriam walk hers. Even from a distance, she was an inspiration to me, and in many ways my first mentor. I just sent a condolence note to her husband telling him that. I will always regret that I never told her.
When we are touched by death, we often want to hold our loved ones closer, and I will do that. I will also think about the other mentors who have touched my life, and start thanking them today, while I have time.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
As a pediatrician who is constantly answering children’s questions --my own (staving off bedtime) and my patients who ask everything-- I love Red Humor’s approach of simply and directly answering the “landmine” questions her children ask, in her recent post. Her post artfully discusses questions about our treatments for people who are very sick, some of whom get better, and some who don’t. Sometimes when kids ask where people go after they die, they may be asking literally, what happens to their body, see this from KidsHealth and this from the NIH. There’s a list of books at the end, and a favorite that I can’t get through without crying is The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, or even The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (just about growing older). It’s okay to let them see you tear up (and then feel better again) if you are so inclined.
About 3 years ago, stemming from my sister the philosopher, I had written a post here about "mothers who lie" and creative mothering. But a friend of mine used another idea that works sometimes called the "Question Box" which you can use when you either don’t know the answer, or you don’t have the emotional energy or the actual time needed to fully answer, or you want to bring in your partner on the answer, or if you are asked something very private in a very public place, and so on. It goes something like this, “that is such a great question, here is a short answer now, but I think we should write that down and put it in our question box so we can answer it more fully this weekend when me, you, and daddy are all together” or “…so we can look up the answer in this great book I have on the human body” or “I don’t think I have a good answer to that right now, but let’s make sure we look it up together.” But then you have to get to that question box at some point!
Another fun approach to a different kind of question box question is to just lay it out there, “You are never going to believe the answer to this question” and then go ahead and tell them exactly how that baby really comes out of the woman’s body. Tell them the people in their 2nd grade class at school may not know this information yet, and they can wait until their own mommies tell them the answer. And, you can wait a wee bit longer on telling them how the baby gets in there. Just the facts, ma’am.
It’s about creative mothering and telling the truth. And being in a special place because of what we do at work every day. And being there for our own children’s growing minds and emotional development. With lots of questions and some well-timed answers.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
It’s been a while since he died.
He is with me daily as I see him in my children, in my own interactions (when I’m at my best), in how I organize myself, in how I enjoy life, still.
A marker of time passing. I have now been alive for longer without my father (alive) than with him (alive).
He did not live to see me in medicine, as a mother, married, making my way.
As a feminist father, back in the day, he helped me know I could be who and what I wanted to be. He was a kind and patient person, who listened, who cared. Like everything you would want in a doctor, though he was not in medicine himself. Like everything you’d want in a father of a mother in medicine.
Did I tell him thank you? I can't remember. I hope so.