11pm, January, 2009.
I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror with the magical belief that the reflected version of myself might, if I stare at it long enough, offer my real self an answer to the predicament I find myself in. My bare feet are rooted to the frigid laminate tile, obstinately clinging to that spot and holding my reflective self hostage until she offers up some guidance.
This tumultuous day had started at 2.00 am, that morning, when my 18 month old daughter sat up and, with eyes still heavy in deep sleep, started vomiting. I rushed to her side, watching in dismay as projectile puke, mixed with bits of basil green pesto pasta, erupted all over her bedding and nightclothes, seeping through to her skin and trickling up to matt her brown curls. When her vomiting subsided, I cleaned her up, changed her sheets, took her temperature and gave her the once over: any skin rash? Is she limp or listless? Does she have tummy tenderness or diarrhea? Having ruled out the presence of a more sinister cause for this jarring episode of vomiting the nocturnal drama appeared to be over. I settled her down back to sleep and then lay down myself and was asleep all of 15 minutes when the puking started all over again. It was a long night filled with five cycles of vomit, clean up, sleep; vomit, clean up, sleep…
At 7am I had forced myself awake and got my son ready for school. I layered him up with sweater, ski jacket, snow pants, scarf and gloves: a mandatory ritual to protect him against the harsh winter morning. I reached for my own coat but was stopped, in my tracks, by the look on his face. He was standing, rooted to the spot, shoulders hunched over when his face became suddenly pale. In a second, undigested milk and cheerios, splayed onto the wooden floor of our hallway and so began another cycle: puke, clean up, wait; puke, clean up and wait…that consumed the whole of the morning.
I had hoped to spend today having quality time with my children, catching up on errands having coffee with my neighbor and, if time permitted, even putting finishing touches on a research paper. But the day had taken an unscheduled turn and the situation demanded that I submit to the more unpredictable task of caring for my sick children. Patiently, I nursed them and offered them comfort alongside hydrating fluids. I gave permission for Barney and Blues Clues marathons to take pace whilst I did pile after pile of laundry. As my children sat, huddled together under a blanket, their glassy tired eyes transfixed to the screen projecting their colorful screen heroes, I scrutinized them for signs of more serious illness. I watched and waited, waited and watched quelling bolts of maternal anxiety with reassurances by the, more objective, physician in me.
Now, in the still of the night, they are both asleep. Our house has been vomit free for the last eight hours and the situation appears to be under control. Yet, as I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror, I feel surges of anger gathering up from within me. My children being sick had demanded that I be home with them all day, a duty that I fully accepted and was also loathed to delegate to anyone else. Still, hour after hour of not being able to eat, pee, or shower without being interrupted by a child’s need or demand combined with the lack of sleep and extra chores, generated by the sudden vomiting attacks, has all taken its toll.
Most of all, I resent my husband’s absence from today’s circus. Why was he not here to clean up at least one of the 10 vomits? To comfort our children when my patience was wearing thin? To watch them so I could eat one of the day’s meals seated? Like so many of the husbands that lived on our manicured suburban street, travel had become an integral part of a work life that took place in a global village where competition was omnipresent. One week New York, next week London, a month later a 3 day meet in San Francisco. I had come to dread this time of year for, along with the short days, bare trees and snow storms, his travel schedule became intense and filled with a cycle of conferences, sales meets, deals to close and budgets to spend. Business at the speed of thought, frenetically taking place in four different time zones all whilst he chalked up thousands and thousands of air miles and airline loyalty points.
Years before, shortly after our son’s birth, I had taken on a hybrid identity as both a doctor and a stay at home Mum. I had returned to work within weeks after birthing both my children, but never to a full schedule. Our profession demanded a doctor be available and on call at all times, so I eagerly offered my services to cover evening, weekend and holiday duties as these were times when my (mostly) male counterparts, who had already put in a long work week, preferred to be home with their families. During the week, my days were filled with diaper changes, making baby food, cooking meals, school drop off and pickups, baking batches of homemade biscotti for the PTA fundraisers and staying on top of the pediatrician appointments, homework, play date and activities schedules. On the days and evenings that I worked my husband took over the child rearing and I headed to the hospital to give expression to that other part of my core identity, that of being a physician. For the most part, our childcare arrangement worked well and I not only felt centered as I juggled these two joys in my life but had come to feel both these identities, being a mother and physician, were actually complimentary: that becoming a mother had made me a better physician and remaining a practicing physician had made me a better mother.
I did not know many women who had opted for this model of parenting. My friends either stayed home full time and planned to take a long hiatus from their professional careers or, on the other extreme, worked fulltime and had employed a nanny or involved another family member to be the primary caregiver for their children. For the most part I felt I had the best of both worlds but today, amidst the fatigue, anger and the stench of vomit that still lingered in my nostrils, I felt trapped. My own Mum had never had a professional career and Dad had always begun and ended his day at home. On days like this, our hybrid parenting model along with having a travelling spouse seemed unnatural to me and it made me doubt our parenting plan. I wondered if we were tempting fate by taking on a lifestyle we were not primed to pull off.
In the bathroom mirror, my reflection reminds my dejected self that I have plenty of resources: an education; every possible modern convenience; domestic help; kind neighbors; a tight knit circle of friends and a pediatrician who is only a phone call away. All of these facts were supposed to ease the anxiety and physical burden inherent to child rearing and I knew, all too well, that such resources were denied to many. Still, on this particular night, none of this “pull yourself together talk” could keep me from an overwhelming urge to sulk and stew.
My stewing is interrupted by my vibrating cell phone, twirling on the marble countertop, as it heralds my husband’s return.
Landed. Home by midnight. Caught a stomach bug :( Need TLC.
Dr. S is a married physician and mother of two.