Before I had children, I hated being asked by patients if I was a parent. Inevitably they would ask after I had spent a majority of our visit giving out parenting advice, feeling proud that I was able to teach about bottle-weaning, potty training, teething, discipline, childproofing, and breastfeeding without personal experience. My expertise as a pediatric resident seemed to mean less than if I were also a parent though. In response to the parenthood question, I sometimes gave vague responses, saying that my knowledge on this topic was a compilation of parents’ experiences and scientific research that I had amassed, the subtext of which was it is none of your business whether or not I have children. Other times I told them the truth, defeated by the realization that my attempts as a young woman physician to exude and command confidence, professionalism, and expertise had failed. I argued that one need not have children to give parenting advice, after all, you don’t have to have a heart attack to be a cardiologist!
When I had my own children though, I realized how much being a parent informed my pediatrics practice. While the foundation of my counseling on parenting topics remained the same, I developed a perspective of realism in how this advice played out in real life. After all, I knew EXACTLY how to tell someone to potty train their toddler, yet I couldn’t get my own son to potty train. Afterwards, I would annotate my potty training talk to include sympathetic asides and motivational compliments to parents. I realized that while my advice to parents was very much the same, knowing that I had tried these techniques myself led more credibility to my recommendations. For my colleagues without children, I hated that this was true.
There are ways that you can acquire parenting expertise without being a parent, but this takes time and is difficult for residents who are starting out their careers. At a time when the learning curve is steep though, I encourage residents to treat parenting guidance the same as any other discipline and to seek out learning opportunities. Listening to parents’ stories, observing experienced physicians giving advice, and watching parents in action will shape your knowledge of a variety of parenting topics without needing to test it on your own children.
As my children grow, I enjoy accumulating more experiences to share with my patients. When the mother of a 9-month-old bemoans that her daughter only says “dada” and not “mama,” or the father of an 18-month-old vents that he can’t take his eyes off him for a minute, I can now give a sympathetic nod couched in years of experience. Whether that experience was gained professionally or personally, the patient care outcomes would mostly be the same, but now I feel a deeper understanding of the parents’ struggles that reaffirms my own.