It’s April, which means it’s early in the pandemic, although we don’t know that yet. We’re all hunkering down because we hope it might be over soon. One night, I pull up an interview on the small screen of my smartphone. A woman reporter is interviewing a woman physician about COVID-19 — each in their own homes, as has quickly become the fashion (and the necessity).
At one point, the reporter, seated on the floor, shares that she’s doing the interview from her parents’ living room. Toward the end of the interview, someone off-camera hands the reporter her baby. She takes her baby in her arms and continues the interview with the physician without missing a beat. And they both treat it as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
I stare in fascination. But why shouldn’t it be the most normal thing in the world? Women work. And women have babies. Yet somehow, before the pandemic turned everything upside down overnight, we as a society bought into the pretense of needing to keep the two completely separate. Before the pandemic, the idea of a media reporter bringing her baby on air in the middle of an interview would have seemed inconceivable. A woman might even have lost her job over it. Now, it’s just another day at the office — er, home office that is.
This, I think. I hope this stays.
And indeed, over the past months, media and social media alike have carried stories of parents — both women and men — interrupted during live interviews by their children. Normalizing the reality that parents don’t stop being parents when they are carrying out their work. Especially when work —and school, and home — become all confined together in the same space.
It reminded me of a time, some years ago, when my dueling roles as a parent and a physician came directly up against one another. It was billed as a “family-friendly” dinner gathering, and I brought my spouse and our three children — ages 9, 5, and 2 at the time.
But it quickly became apparent to my husband and me that the gathering was not so family-friendly for young children. My husband — always my No. 1 #HeForShe supporter — took charge of the kids so that I could mingle with my new colleagues. A not-so-easy task in someone else’s home when our toddler could have been the poster child for the “terrible twos.”
At some point, I managed to excuse myself and find my husband to relieve him of toddler duty so that he could get some food for himself. I found a quiet nook and started to read my 2-year-old a book to quiet him down. Not two minutes later, a senior colleague popped his head into the room. At the sight of me with a child on my lap, his face fell. “Oh.”
My toddler started to squirm. I tried not to feel embarrassed that I was taking a moment with my child. After all, I wasn’t even at work. This was ostensibly a social gathering. I tried a friendly laugh. “This is my youngest. The other two are running around here somewhere.”
“Oh,” he said again. “There are some other people you need to meet.”
Now it was my turn to say, “Oh.”
I had been mistaken. Apparently, I was at work.
My toddler began using my lap as a trampoline. I wrestled him into my arms and stood. The senior colleague gave me a look, one that told me my child was not invited to come along to these introductions.
I forced myself to hold the smile on my face. “Let me just find my husband to take him,” I said, swallowing down the mom guilt. I then met the people who wanted to meet me as a physician, but apparently not me as a parent.
When I think about this now, I wish I would have brought my toddler in my arms anyway — despite the disapproving looks I may have received. I wish I had handled it like the woman I met on my general surgery rotation in medical school.
It was 1998, and I was a third-year medical student. Our PGY-3 that month was a woman who had a young infant, a few months old. One Saturday morning, she showed up to rounds with her baby in a front-wearing carrier.
The team responded with shocked silence. Including, I’m ashamed to say, me.
What is she doing? I thought. Babies don’t belong at work.
I mistakenly thought that showing her maternal side would make her appear weaker than her male colleagues. I worried she was making a move that would prove damaging to her career. But she showed me I was wrong. She led rounds that day with her baby on her chest like a rock star.
It would not be until five years later — when I was a first-year fellow with my own firstborn — that I would understand the amount of courage it must have taken her to do so. And only when I returned to work after my first maternity leave would I comprehend how difficult new motherhood must have been with a surgical resident’s hours. To have decided, for that one day, she was bringing her child to work with her, no matter the looks she received.
Of course, in the current times, I’m not suggesting we should be bringing our children into the workplace. But I wonder if someday, when COVID-19 is behind us, we will continue to embrace the messiness of being a physician and a parent. If we will continue to cut each other slack, instead of demanding that we strictly compartmentalize. If we can be viewed as competent professionals at the same time as we hold our children in our arms. All parents.
As if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Jennifer Lycette, MD, is a medical oncologist in rural community practice on the North Oregon Coast. Her perspective essays have been published in NEJM, JAMA, JCO and more. Dr. Lycette was a 2018–2019 Doximity Author, a 2019–2020 Doximity Op-Med Fellow, and continues as a 2020–2021 Doximity Op-Med Fellow. You can find more of her writing at on her website, and follow her on Twitter @JL_Lycette. Opinions are her own. She reports no conflicts of interest.
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