22 February 2011
Doubling Up (30 January 2011)
Last year as I was preparing to go back to work after my maternity leave, we took the opportunity to visit some family in Chicago. One of the couples we spent time with are a few years older than we are but do not yet have children. The woman bounced Emmaline on her knee as we chatted about how anxious I was about the looming prospect of leaving the baby during the day. She told me she might choose to stay home if she could when faced with that decision. It was at that point that her husband chimed in with the barbed challenge, “I just don’t understand the point of having children if you’re not actually going to raise them.”
That’s a direct quote. I remember things pretty well when I get angry.
On the surface it seems like an incredibly cruel thing to say, especially to a new mother. But though I do not know him well, I know him well enough to have realized at the time that there was a good chance he only made the comment to be inflammatory and hadn’t ever really thought about it before. He had shown so little interest in our then three-month-old daughter that I was doubtful he would want to be put in the position of having to stay home 24-7 with an infant himself. Also, I knew he had no clue what he was talking about. I took the opportunity to point out that if one of us were going to stay home full time with the kids, it would make more sense for my husband Daryl to do so since I made (slightly) more money than he does. He grumbled and walked away.
I fully intended, then and now, to be a fabulous mother to Emmaline. Mostly because she is a fabulous little girl and clearly deserves as much, but also because I don’t understand the point of having children if you’re not actually going to kick ass at it. So it was not so much that the comment threw me into a fog of self doubt. I did not cry and clutch at the baby lest she think my setting her down for a moment to visit the ladies room amounted to abandonment. I knew she was fine and would continue to be fine, brilliant even, no matter what childcare decisions we made for her. So it didn’t bother me that way. But it bothered me. It bothered me that anyone would think that your involvement in your child’s life and their development is measured solely by quantity and not quality. Especially since I thought he had more than a little to learn about what quality actually meant.
Would it be easier if I were independently wealthy and did not have to work? Certainly. Might I then choose to spend more time with Emmaline than I am able to now? Again, a resounding yes. But does that mean I would want to have no career or identity outside my own home? Probably not.
This fall we were lucky enough to be present at the marriage of two very lovely people, our friends Emily and Vijay. They were married in a Hindu ceremony and the next day a Christian one. It was a beautiful weekend and one that went off seamlessly – from our standpoint at least. Still I found myself thinking (as a matter of course) about all the differences between the two families, how in a sitcom or a movie this would be a scenario rife with conflict, yet how much richer the experience was for having honored both traditions.
In many ways I believe that the parts of myself that are a doctor come together with the parts of myself that are a mother (or a wife or a daughter or a sister or a writer) much in the same way that two families must at the marriage of their children. It is not always a perfect union. There are times when one side wins out at the expense of the other, over the seating chart or the floral arrangements, and times when concessions are made in the other direction. Tears may be shed and unkind words spoken. But ultimately both sides must learn to yield in the interests of keeping the peace and usually, by the moment the vows are actually exchanged or the mandap is circumambulated around, focus is brought back to where it belongs.
For long periods during residency necessity dictated that my doctor self won out over everything. I hated it. My husband did too. I suspect I would also hate (as much as I love Emmaline) choosing a life where my mother self was the only form of expression I knew. There is a complexity to juggling these various embodiments of ourselves, of living life as a palimpsest, but it is a challenge that has enormous rewards.
I truly believe that I am a better mother to my daughter because of the children and families I meet when I am at the hospital. It is not just that I know how to take care of her when she has a cold or all the scenarios in which I should immediately perform CPR and dial 911. I am more engaged in each new word she says or task she learns to perform when I am with her because I know there are times when I must be away. A recent study from Columbia University supports this, suggesting that the supposed detrimental effects of having a working mom on a child’s development are mitigated by something as simple as the mom being engaged with and responsive to the child during the hours they do spend together. And I can do that.
Next week we’ll go back to Chicago and may see this arm of the family again. Despite my obvious lingering crankiness I find I’m looking forward to it. My daughter has some impressive block stacking skills she is excited to show off and lots of new words as well. And also, if there are any questions asked this time around, I’ve got a few choice words waiting and a journal article printed up just in case.