Carpe Mentor

Some mentors are assigned, some develop organically, and some are chosen.  I met one such mentor as a medical student, when I saw her running from meeting to meeting, patient to patient, and in between calling her daughter to find out about her school day.  She has a national reputation and balances life as a clinician, educator, academic, and advocate, all the while maintaining an equally strong identity as a mom.  Throughout residency, she continued to impress me, so as my chief year comes to an end, I figured I should carpe diem and not only learn from observing her but ask her the secrets to her success. Luckily I chose a mentor as crazy as I am and she enthusiastically and immediately made plans for us to get coffee.  I believe that one should have many mentors in their life, maybe mentors for each aspect of your life, but this person could mentor me in many domains and my life would be richer as a result.

“How did you manage to reach the level of success you have in your career and still have a close relationship with your husband and kids,” I jumped right in with the “how do you do it all” question before she had her first sip of coffee.  “It’s not easy,” she warned.  We both smiled though, because we know that nothing about being a woman in medicine is easy, nothing about being a mom is easy, so why would the combination of the two become easier.  “Ok, there are 3 components to my success that I will share with you.”  And this is her recipe:

1.  A supportive husband.  You have to have a husband who is willing to work outside typical gender roles, be an actively involved father, and have more flexible work hours than you.  Check.

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2.  Subscribe to the “Turtle Theory” of parenting.  This, she informed me, is when you spawn your children on the beach and then wave goodbye and wish them luck in the ocean!  I laughed because I thought she was kidding.  She went on to explain that she wasn’t the mom who micromanaged her kids’ homework or who was at every soccer game or tennis match.  She set expectations for her children that they would be independent, responsible, and productive.  There were a number of hilarious stories to follow of times when her kids were none of these things (like when her one daughter ate her soccer fundraiser box of candy bars instead of selling them, costing her $120 each year), but in general, she had a routine that allowed her to work long hours and her kids to become successful members of society.  This was in part due to the help of her husband, mother-in-law, and a series of au pairs (in spite of one misstep with a “hoe-pair” who slept with everyone in Philly).

3.  Luck.  She made no excuses for the fact that some of her success was due to pure luck.  She had an amazing husband, easy kids (“one was on auto-pilot since birth”), and a career that grew out of accidental opportunities that presented themselves at the right time.  This piece she admits was a crucial component to the whole story.  She knocked on her wooden desk as she said this, as if there was still a chance it could all come crumbling down.

In the end, her message was that you can be a productive physician mother if you work hard enough.  You need a village of support and to let go of the idea that you can simultaneously climb your career ladder and bake cupcakes as the school room mom.  You will miss things, either at work or at home, but she endorsed leaving work at work whenever possible to avoid that eventual creep into your personal life that comes with over-achievers and technology.  Your children will have other people in their lives that fill the role of mom when you can’t be there, and you need to be ok with that.  Most importantly, your kids will be fine and grow up with respect for your career, admiring your success, and aspiring to find their own passion like you.  She talked about how on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, her daughter met the hospital CEO, watched her mom give a speech in front of the press, and had her picture taken with the Governor, and she told her daughter that “no matter what the other girls did, you win.”  We agreed that we aren’t the stay-at-home type of moms anyway, so we need to let go of thinking that is the standard by which we should judge ourselves.

Her story may depress some of you, as it isn’t one where everything is perfect or one that is easily emulated.  For me it felt like the permission I needed to continue on my current path, a path that her generation stamped out in a man’s world, that now allows me not only to be a physician, but to be a mother, and maybe even to be better because of it.  This “hour of relaxation” as she called it, refreshed me.  “Katie, you know me.  I’m sure my kids didn’t want me around any more than I already was because I would have driven them crazy.”  This time I laughed because I knew it was true.

Bedtime stories

Some days the only time I have to spend with N is during his bedtime ritual.  It’s odd that the beginning of our day is the end of his.  We have a dinner, where some overcooked pasta, diced veggies, or broken meatballs end up stuffed in his cheeks, a sippy cup is tossed off the tray and repetitively retrieved, and I manage to pretend enjoying whatever it was I ate between all the exercise this mealtime dance offers me.  We then go upstairs for bathing, playing, slathering with Aquaphor, wrestling into pajamas, and reading a story with a bottle of milk.  While B and  I often share many of these duties, they are all precious to me.  They are the way I say, “I may have been gone all day, but I’m here now and I love you.”

As we read together, I think about the message that each book conveys and how these stories will shape the man he becomes.  Ok so sometimes we are just looking at pictures of shapes or farm animals, because he is 1 after all.  But today I spent a long time looking online for children’s books about working moms and was dismayed to find a very small selection.  A friend gave me one about a mom’s high heel shoes and while this one acknowledges that the mom leaves for work, looking stylishly uncomfortable, it doesn’t address any of the other issues around separation.  It doesn’t explain who will fill mom’s shoes while she’s gone and what that does to the structure of your day or why a mom might choose to work and how that makes each family member feel.  A friend said that N wouldn’t need a book about that because it’s all he’ll know, which is true since I went back to work when he was 6 weeks old, but I don’t think I’ll get off that easy!  Given that I have a lot of questions about this decision myself, I can only imagine that my little guy will too.

I’m still crafting my answers to all those questions, but the bedtime story I tell myself is that my working will teach him ambition, dedication, passion, sacrifice, pride, equality, happiness, and honor, because that’s what it has taught me.

Lactation Badge

I breastfed my son for one year.  At the end of the year, I felt as if there should be some award ceremony, a certificate of completion, or a badge–  some token to reward me for a year of Q3 hour wakings, pumping, sore nipples, more pumping, navigating public breastfeeding without indecency, and more pumping.  Returning to work after 6 weeks with a newborn on a vertical growth curve was challenging to say the least.  I measured my success as a mom by how much milk I was able to provide.  Because after all, I might not have been there when he woke up, or when he needed his diaper changed, or when he wanted to play, but I sure did provide him milk and some days that was my only contribution.  So I worked hard at it and that kind of hard work is usually rewarded.

In practice, I have met so many moms who repeatedly say, “I just can’t do it for more than __ months.”  Everyone has their limit, and I certainly said the same thing many times.  Sharing my own experiences though I am able to offer some hope– it gets better, it’s worth it.  It may be hard to see the benefits when you are exhausted and the months ahead of you seem endless.  Eventually though, you gain the perspective to see the reward:  that cute, chubby breastfed baby who is healthier because of you.  Some of my best memories are with his cheeks flushed, his belly full, and his head snuggled on my chest.  I remember looking at him at 6 months and thinking, I grew you.   What better reward is there than that?

The nanny diary

My mom loves “Baby Boom” and in particular, the scene where Diane Keaton interviews potential nannies.  My own nanny interviews went similarly– some too young, too immature, too weird.  In response to asking if she was a career nanny, one retorted, “what is a career anyway?”  Well, I know what a career is and that’s why I have to hire a nanny.  I thought a lot about what type of nanny I was looking for and decided it was… Mary Poppins.  I wanted someone who could pull anything out of her purse, who could make sidewalk chalk come alive, and whose laughter was infectious.  So when we finally interviewed L and she showed genuine interest in my son, came with good references, and seemed like someone who I could talk to for hours, I figured she was the next best thing.  Best of all, we were done with the horrendous interviews.

Three weeks later came the 6 month shots and L called me at work to say that N had a fever and was inconsolable.  Hearing my baby screaming on the other end of the phone was torture.  I worried that he was having a reaction to the vaccines and instructed her to meet me at the hospital.  He was fine as soon as I picked him up out of the car seat.  L on the other hand, looked distraught.  They spent the rest of the afternoon at my office.  I sent her to the cafeteria to eat lunch and take a break, wondering myself if N just needed some mommy love or if L wasn’t able to meet his needs.  Selfishly, I figured it was all about me and gave L another chance.

Weeks turned to months and while she continued to let me down on the Mary Poppins front, she otherwise seemed to be working out well.  Then one day, she left her diary at our house.  We knew we shouldn’t read it.  We didn’t read it for a whole day.  Until we read it.  “You’re going to want to read this,” is what B said to break my moral fortitude.   In red ink in various handwritten fonts scrawled across two pages were the scariest words I have ever read.  “N won’t stop.  Won’t.  Will not.  Will not.  Shoot me.  Shoot me.  Silence.  Shoot me.  Almost done.  Hate this.  Shoot me.  Go to sleep.  He refuses to sleep.  Only slept 1/2 hour today.  Hate myself.  Love myself.  SHUT THE CRACK UP.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Its just crying.  Calm.  Calm.  Calm.  Sleep.  Go to sleep.  Sleep.  Sleep.  Sleep.  Want to punch myself and the baby.”

Giving your baby over every day to another person is a painful experience, made less painful by the belief and trust that this person loves your baby nearly as much as you do.  I believed this to be true, until I read this.  Since that moment I have gone through many, many emotions: disbelief, anger, fear, sadness, rage, frustration, anxiety, confusion, guilt, bargaining, and more anger.  The one that lingers now two months later is betrayal.

I wish many things as well– that we had interviewed more nannies, that we hadn’t hired L, that we found the diary sooner, that she told us how she felt sooner, that I listened to my gut.  I also wish that I had left her a note in her diary before returning it to her.  It would say, “N won’t stop.  Won’t.  He’s determined.  He’s strong, opinionated, and passionate- everything you are not.  You aren’t almost done, you are done.  Go to hell, go to hell, go to hell.  SHUT THE F*@$ UP.  Breathe.  Breathe.  I’m crying.  Calm yourself.  Go to hell.  Hell.  Hell.   I want to punch you.”

But I didn’t write that, so instead, I’m writing this post.  I don’t know what the moral is of this cautionary tale, but I talk to working moms all the time about their nanny issues, or daycare woes, and we all struggle with how to ensure our child will be loved in our absence.  I know I’m no Mary Poppins myself, but I know for sure that no one loves N more than I do.  So the next nanny I hire will either have to match that or fly in on an umbrella.

Good on paper

My stay-at-home mom resume looks pretty appealing.  I’d hire me.  I’m creative, silly, and crafty.  I studied child development and I practice pediatrics.  I love, love, love my son.  So why wouldn’t I work part-time and stay home with him?  Simply, I like my job.  Much of my identity is tied into my career.  Maybe because I spent the past 11 years of higher education preparing for it and I’m not ready to let it go.  Regardless of why I work, I just don’t excel as a stay-at-home mom despite my resume potential.  I have many friends who thrive in this setting and I am sometimes jealous when I see them with their kids.  You know her, the mom with the perfectly packed diaper bag– ready for any disaster– or the homemade baby food, hand knit hats, and a daily itinerary that includes trips to the library and a craft project with macaroni noodles.  That woman just isn’t me.  At least not yet.  Instead we cram fun into our weekends and evenings by being creative, silly, and crafty while doing our errands.  Hopefully N will learn discipline, dedication, and passion from his working mom and not resent my absence.  In the meantime, I’m working on not resenting myself.

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