Why this mother is still a surgeon

Why does she work? It’s a question that she must answer, for it begs itself every time she picks him up from daycare.

She always finds him happy there. And yet that — selfishly? — is part of what tears at her. Shouldn’t she be the one making him happy at 11 months?

It’s more important to her than any other role that she plays – she wants to be everything that he needs her to be.
And yet she leaves him. Daily.

They know more about babies than she does, at daycare (she tells herself). They teach him things that wouldn’t occur to her; give him a playgroup that home doesn’t have; teach him resilience in a way that she couldn’t if she were there for him all the time.

And yet still, it hurts. The question of whether he understands being left there. They love him at daycare, and he seems, by all observations and reports, to enjoy himself there … but still. He is left.

She chooses to work. Chooses time away from him (it makes her ache to write). She chooses to continue this part of herself.

Eventually, he will be old enough to notice. He’ll notice that not all kids get dropped off at daycare. He’ll notice that some kids’ moms are always there. He’ll notice that sometimes, for his mom — it appears that something else has to come first.

She’s a surgeon. And she still remembers how she felt taking the Hippocratic Oath as she began her third year of medical school. She was doing so much more than just reciting words, she was committing herself. And so, still today, her accepted charge: to put the welfare of her patients first. To give them the best of herself, always.

Even when her son is waiting for her.

Conceivably, at some point, a case will go long — and she will be late for his game. Or she will get an emergency page in the middle of hearing about his day — and have to take the call. Or she will get called in on Christmas morning in the middle of presents — and Christmas will have to wait. Or she will simply go to round on her patients at the end of a long day and find that one has questions. And she will stay, and sit, and explain, and reassure — no matter how long it takes. Because she cares, yes — and because it’s her job. But most of all because it’s her patient. And her patients unknowingly carry with them the palpable, sacred demand of her best.

And that demand doesn’t lessen now that she’s a mom.

And so, her daily struggle: Dedicated surgeon, or better mom?

It’s not a financial necessity, her working. The extra income is well-used, of course — but her family could make do without.

It’s not to prove that her education was not “a waste.” Such time, such gloriously aching effort could never be a waste. It made her grow up. It spent her for the sake of someone else … of something bigger. And, honestly — it was just so fun. Even if she had never practiced a day in her life after residency — she had been there. She remembered the strain of triaging more pages than your pager could hold. Showing up day after day at 5 a.m., with the guileless enthusiasm appropriate to a surgical resident, even when exhausted beyond measure. Figuring it out when your chief resident gave you a series of tasks that you had never done before and that came with no instruction manual. Practically laughing your way through rounds because, truth be told — despite the long hours, the pages, the over-workedness — you were all so in love with both the idea and the reality of being surgeons: Acquiring and synthesizing data to make clear decisions, playing and never winning the (unspoken) game of discharging all patients on a service and, of course, operating. It was what made you cool. The physical skill of it, the weight of its responsibility, the mystery and exclusivity of it. You learned early on in residency that every other specialty in the hospital listened to surgeons. No one else could make our decisions — to operate, or not to operate. No one else so coolly knew what to do for the bleeding, crashing or otherwise dying patient. Or at least, so she felt and thought at the time.

Plus, how else would she have spent those years growing up? On Facebook, as one colleague put it?

At the end of the day, amidst the unpredictable, sometimes messy chaos of being a mom, her job allows her to control … something. Starting with her day. Her time with her son is irreplaceable — but she also loves the early morning shower and getting ready, the stop at Starbucks on the way to the hospital to round, the predictable day divided up into either elective cases or 15-minute increments for seeing patients.

Further, her job allows her to remain a necessary part of herself. For she knows that while she often feels as though her son is her whole life — and while it may largely be true that she is currently his whole life — at 11 months of age … neither will remain true forever. She will always be his mom, of course, but the immediacy and unforgiving minute-filling nature of what that requires will diminish with time. And she will need something to occupy her mind and heart once he arrives at that complicated age of still needing … and yet wanting not to need her … quite so much.

And then, of course, she simply loves it. Still. The weight of surgery — requiring vigilance, always. The anatomy of the abdomen — beautiful and ever varying. The responsibility of being the one to answer the questions, solve the problems, make the decisions. The opportunity to make a life better. She is humbled daily by the authority of her position and by the deference and gratitude that it brings.

And yet, she would give all of it up for him in a moment. She takes solace in knowing with certainty that she would retire with alacrity if he ever were to need more of her than her job would allow.

But barring that day … part of why she stays doing it now is for him. It gives her a role in which to be an example to him — one that, someday, he might respect. It gives her a concrete responsibility through which she might show him how to live.

And so, in those moments when she’s called away to the care of a patient … those moments when he has to wait for her … she hopes he understands that it’s not because he doesn’t come first, but because he does come first — and he makes her want to be a better everything, including a better doctor. And in giving her patients her best, she hopes to teach him … that sometimes, we have to do what we have to do, even when it’s hard … and that it is good for our souls to do it with grace. She hopes to teach him that it is a noble thing to work, and to work well and to work with gratitude.

And so, she doctors — for him.

Kerianne Holman is a surgeon.  This article originally appeared Scary Mommy.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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