“My daughter slept outside my bedroom door so she could make sure she got to see me,” the attending said. I was a resident at the time, scrubbing for a case with two private attendings. One shared the anecdote, the other, a parent himself, just laughed. I remember the feeling of horror and the thought that followed: That will never happen to me. That can never happen to me.
Parenting mishaps and sacrifices form a particular place in the mythology of ob/gyn culture, usually passed down secondhand with unclear veracity: an attending I heard about in medical school who left her child in the car for an emergency C-section, or an ob/gyn who brought her children to the physician’s lounge while she dictated her overdue charts to avoid suspension.
The logistics of doing it all as a doctor parent requires lots of stress-infused moments. However, despite the frantic haze and hurrying, the realization usually still breaks through. This is one of those times. I am doing some version of what I said I would never do.
Work-based backup childcare is so helpful in between nannies. It is a privilege and a godsend, until I am on labor and delivery and they call to say my daughter has a fever. And I have to pick her up. Now. It’s still not a problem this “Gen X” doctor mom can’t solve. A quick elevator ride down and up and my daughter is safely stowed in the physician work room — with blankets and a popsicle, no less! I am off to do my C-section fully focused.
I return to the work room feeling triumphant, only to find my daughter has taken off her pants because she felt hot with the blankets and the fever. The realization pummels me. I am doing it. My daughter has a fever and is unsupervised in a call room without pants while I am doing a C-section. This doesn’t feel good. The elevator ride down and toward home, luckily with all clothing items intact, does not feel heroic. At least she wasn’t left alone in a car.
Flash forward to the next childcare hiccup — it’s the same labor and delivery unit, same so-fortunate-to-have-backup child care center. I am making it all work. Except that backup childcare centers eventually close, often before patients deliver. My patient, who is doing a vaginal birth after a C-section and who has survived more pain and challenges in her life than I could ever imagine, is now fully dilated and ready to push. The crisis of what to do, and feeling like no matter what I do I am failing, overwhelms me.
Yet this story has a different ending. Whereas the prior pantsless fever incident stayed a secret (I didn’t want to be part of the bad mother/bad doctor anthology), this time, the distress of not knowing what to do exceeded my sense of shame. I needed help.
How my colleague and partner responded is something I will never forget. I frantically explained my dilemma, and this older, renowned maternal-fetal medicine attending, a father of fully grown children, looked at me and said, “Jenny, it’s fine.” In my panic, I couldn’t compute. What was fine? Fine was nowhere near where I was right now. “Bring them up here,” he said. “They can sit in the work room.” And just like that, it was OK. Maybe I wasn’t a failure, doing all the things I swore I would never do. Maybe this was normal, at least in our particular crazy corner of the world.
I took the elevator down and up, children in tow. I logged onto an online video for them. Next door, my patient had a lovely and healthy birth. She was grateful I was there, and so was I. Deliberately trying not to appear hurried, I admired the beautiful baby and forced myself to walk out slowly. Then I whipped open the work room next door. My own beautiful babies were watching another video. My partner sat next to them eating her pre-call dinner, all sharing the space as if this sort of thing happened every day. One of my little ones looked up and asked, “Was it a boy or a girl?”
The journey of being a doctor and a parent is a hard one. We say it is a privilege and that we are lucky to get the chance to stumble through it. This is true, but it is still hard. The trees of failure can seem so huge and dense that you swear there really is no forest. It can be easy to run a tally of the times you did a good job and the times you didn’t, and know with everything you have that the bad times are winning. My list of doctor mom bumps in the road is now long, and, if I’m honest, contains uncharted moments I never could have imagined.
This is why you need those who have been there before you, both in medicine and in mom land, to tell you, “It’s fine, it will be fine.” So they show you how they got to the other side. When you oversleep post-call and the school calls you because you missed pickup time, sometimes they will tell you they know how it is; their husband works nights. And with this, you feel their grace, their wisdom of knowing it is not a tally sheet, and that as ugly and frantic as it is, you are going to get through it. The stories we tell and hear aren’t markers of shame and failure; they are lights in the forest. Let them guide your way.
How have you or your colleagues managed to balance work and parenthood? Share your stories in the comment section.
Dr. Jennifer Boyle is an ob/gyn in Boston, MA. She also works as a soccer coach and a cheer, hockey, and lacrosse mom. To stay sane, she runs, reads and bonds with her fourth baby, a labradoodle named Teddie. Dr. Boyle is a 2022-2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
Collage by Jennifer Bogartz / Ralf Hiemisch / gettyimages