As the birth of our first child loomed on the horizon, I couldn’t help but worry. As a first time mother and a pediatrician, I found the uncertainly coupled with too much knowledge of all manner of possible problems particularly unsettling.
In addition to worrying about my baby’s health, I grew increasingly concerned about how I would handle the balancing act that all working mothers must perform. Having put motherhood off in order to complete medical training, I chose to leave my first job out of residency the month she was born. I remember telling a friend who was also pregnant that I might take a year off after my baby’s birth, to which, she, a realtor, replied, “Oh I could never do that. I love what I do.” I found this jarring — did every working mother love their job more than I loved the profession to which I had always aspired and truly cherished in many ways?
As my physician friends heard of my decision, they all asked the same question, “You are just taking a year, right?” It sounded as though I needed to establish an end date to this full time mothering to set their minds at ease about a decision that seemed more unsettling to them than it was to me.
Closer to home, I discovered that my own mother and mother-in-law held dramatically differing views on this decision. My mother was a stay at home mom for five of us — though I never actually heard the phrase “stay at home” growing up, or really saw her staying at home all that much. She was a busy woman, and I never truly appreciated how busy until I became a parent myself. Just this week, she advised me to not even think about starting to wean my daughter Nora until she is 18 months old. While most of my friends happily retire their breastpumps when their babies reach 12 months, my mother’s advice seems both outdated and wise.
My mother-in-law is a professor of biochemistry and feels strongly about women achieving in the workplace and especially in science. Before I became pregnant, I once mentioned that two of my friends from Princeton with advanced degrees had opted to stay home following the births of their children, and were very happy doing so. She responded with uncharacteristic alarm, urging that they should be careful as one of her friends had separated from her husband and now had no way to support herself. I was surprised by the emphatic reply from a woman who is usually quite measured in her opinions, and couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I should be concerned that her son might someday leave me in such dire straights. Needless to say, I dropped that line of conversation in search of less fraught waters, but her reaction left an indelible impression.
I have now been home with my daughter for a year. Since I was always around, she refused bottles and is a very big fan of breastfeeding. I have not missed a bedtime in over a year because this is what works for us, and also because my husband, a resident, can rarely be home. I say this not for praise or sympathy but simply to state that breastfeeding became part of bedtime and we have shared a physical closeness that I never knew before. It is tiring and constraining at times but also fulfilling in a way I never knew possible.
Of course I have sometimes wondered if, after accruing so much debt over seven years of education, I should feel greater remorse for my lack of income, for the dearth of medical research to which I could have been contributing, and for the patients and families whose lives I may have been able to touch over the past year. And I have thought about the moms who, after 12 weeks of maternity leave, are able to “lean in” and “have it all” — with work and motherhood seemingly in perfect balance.
It recently occurred to me, though, if my training in some ways actually fueled my desire to be home this year. Some of the parents I met at New York Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan Kettering would give up everything for just one more day with their little one, or to erase some of the pain and suffering they saw their baby experience. I often think of the children we lost over the three years of my residency. Among the gifts they gave their families, they taught me the inestimable value of one day with your healthy child. The smiles, the tears, the dirty diapers and the runny noses. Every single bit of it. They allowed me to spend this year cherishing my time with my baby and silenced the doubts that others expressed. To those children who now live on in spirit, whose names and faces I will never forget, I am eternally grateful for the gift of this year when I could truly live in the moment with my baby without regrets, and with hope for a future in which I too may find that balance between caring for my patients and for my own family.
Nelly Schottel is a pediatrician.