A physician mother embraces the power of “and” during the pandemic

I struggle for words to describe life in the season of COVID-19. Depending on the day, I need at least a few adjectives: “peculiar,” “fine, all things considered,” “terrifying.” “Joyous” and “anxious” certainly make odd bedfellows in my brain.

As a mother and physician living this new reality, I’ve been extra thankful for Irene, who taught me the power of “and.” Irene is a clinical psychologist who was tasked with helping my family medicine residency classmates and me build skills for self-care and counseling.  She taught me to replace “but” with “and” in conversation.  This subtle verbal acknowledgement can reconcile what would typically be perceived as conflicting emotions or realities–like mental yoga.  The shift has served me well in my medical career and in personal relationships.  Imagine how different it feels to hear someone say, “You’re doing the best you can, but you can do better” versus “You’re doing the best you can, and you can do better.”

I’ve been “and”-ing a lot lately.  Our hometown of Asheville, North Carolina has thus far been spared a higher incidence of COVID and we are social distancing to prevent its spread.  I feel relief and trepidation as other cities foreshadow grim realities.   My roles as physician and parent are ever-intertwined these days, having spent several weeks doing virtual care in a bedroom while our children are without daycare.  My husband, Tyler, practices emergency medicine, and doesn’t have the option of working from home.

I am grateful and terrified that Tyler and I are physicians.  We feel purpose and have gainful employment.  We also might die.  Tyler is often the one in the ER who has to intubate patients or see them before it’s clear what’s wrong.  He could bring COVID home unwittingly, snuck onto a kiss, glass of water, or doorknob.  We updated our wills with details around who gets our children if we both die; it seems one needs a deep bench during a pandemic. Frankly, I often take Tyler for granted, especially in this stage of child-rearing.  Since COVID entered our consciousness, when he returns home to us from a shift, he promptly showers, changes his clothes, and greets our kids.  I see him; I see our life together.

The coronavirus has decimated our spring agenda.  We finally got the kids’ passports and put them aside in favor of Zoom family gatherings across continents.  This weekend, we made s’mores in our backyard, planted a garden, and tuned up our bikes.  My children, who are two and a half years apart, are becoming friends and not just siblings.  Our usual hiking trails are closed to the public, and we’ve found ones less traveled.  I spend a lot of time picking weeds.  I am disappointed and rejuvenated.

The news stories, especially of dying 30-somethings, emphasize that my body is fragile and essential. I’ve started running again, after many years’ hiatus, appreciating that I still have access to paths with mountain views. With the weather warmer, there are always families out on the mountain roads and trails.  We pass them with a wide berth and eye contact that says, “I see you trying to stay sane too.”

Our city is transformed in an unchanged landscape.  Pre-COVID, I bought a cute and impractical romper that I envisioned wearing to breweries and concerts in the warm months ahead.  My stay home self is covered in mulch, dough, and dog hair. “Beer City, USA” has shuttered its breweries, and its restaurants are closed.  Thousands of people were laid off on a single day.  Orange plastic fencing now encircles our favorite neighborhood park. It’s so depressing and cheerfully surrounded by light green buds, wild violets, and views of steadfast peaks. As I run farther down the greenway, a nail gun fires again and again into a new apartment building–a beat of hope, a scent of fresh lumber and optimism.

We are isolated and connected.  Our 18 month-old says “hi” to strangers, and our 4 year old knows neighbors’ names. They yearn for routines, an invitation in, a change of scenery, and are loving all this time with us.  My son opened the mailbox and, confused, found a bag of N95s that some friends had dropped off, a pandemic twist on sugar and eggs.  We fumble to explain how lending a helping hand means anything but that these days.

After the kids are asleep, Tyler and I catch up on news of the virus.  My throat tightens at videos of doctors in Bergamo and New York, and the tears come out in the daylight as my kids shriek, mostly naked, at the water table in our front yard.  I can’t shake my patients’ hands and have been introduced to their dogs over video chat.  I can’t share a table for lunch with my coworkers.  And I can hold my daughter with her cheek pressed to mine and sing with her before she sleeps.  I can welcome my son into my bed in the middle of the night, shrugging in resignation when he coughs in my face thanks to some less famous virus.

Ecclesiastes wrote about seasons for every purpose under heaven.  This season is like no other. It’s a time to be born and a time to die.  A time of war against a global enemy and a time of peace in a forced springtime Sabbath.  A time to weep from exhaustion and a time to laugh, 6 feet away.  A time to break down our economies and health care systems and a time to build up relevant institutions and relationships.  A time to mourn all we took for granted and a time to dance (or run, or practice yoga, or bike) because we still can.  A time to plant our garden and reap the weeds pushing up, unrelenting, through every crack in the concrete.  A time to embrace our littles and bedfellows and a time to refrain from embracing, well, everyone else.  Surrounded by killing and healing, gain and loss; this is a time for “and.”

Rachel E. Hines is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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