Being a neonatologist and a mother

Today at work, a mother asked me what I would do if it was my son in the isolette and not hers.

It’s not the first time I have been asked this. I understand where the question comes from, and yet I’m at a loss of what to say every time. Not because I haven’t pondered it before. No. It’s because I have asked myself the question far too many times: what would I do if it was my baby in the ICU? No two days bring the same response.

Being a neonatologist and a mother means counseling a mother in the throes of preterm labor while being just as many weeks pregnant as her. It is feeling the flood of gratitude that you aren’t the one contracting too many months too early and in the same breath, feeling a wave of guilt for that gratitude crash down on you.

Being a neonatologist and a mother means wondering if any one of those thousands of pregnancy aches and pains and kicks and hiccups will be the one that means you are falling off the unforeseen cliff of an unexpected complication that will threaten your chance of that healthy baby or that easy delivery. Placental abruptions, cord accidents, shoulder dystocia—all those lightning strikes that no mother should ever be acquainted with, we neonatologists force ourselves to become intimately familiar with. Professionally, we worry about them, which means as mothers, we are terrorized by them. Being a neonatologist and a mother means knowing that a healthy baby at the end of a long pregnancy is not a given and should never be taken for granted.

Being a neonatologist and a mother means sabotaging sleepless nights of sleep training your infant because counseling another mother through the death of their baby during the day has robbed you of any resolve you might have built to hear your own living and breathing baby cry that night. It means situating your need to sleep with your need to feel the warmth and weight of your baby in your arms as you soundlessly cry for the mother whose arms are empty that night.

Being a neonatologist and a mother means agonizing over every ounce of milk that goes into your baby, then going to work and seeing a mother light up because today their baby gets a teaspoon more milk than they did yesterday. Never mind that it’s through a tube in their nose. Never mind that it is this formula or that other woman’s donated breast milk. Being a neonatologist and a mother is understanding that primal need to know your baby is fed.

Being a neonatologist and a mother means living in that in between: where you know what it must feel like to have your baby’s life threatened, yet you can’t truly know. Where you can too easily place yourself in that other mother’s shoes, but you can’t let yourself linger there, because how else can you maintain the mental fortitude to do your job? It is being suspended in a perpetual dance of feeling and not feeling, of empathy and distance, of gratitude and guilt.

Being a neonatologist and a mother is living with the knowledge that the question “What would you do?” could so easily become real, not hypothetical.  And so what would I do? I don’t know, heartbroken mama. Because I feel too much, but I don’t feel enough. Because I know too well, but I don’t know at all. Being a neonatologist and a mother means sitting in those painful, fearful spaces of uncertainty, at a loss for what to say because I know that nothing I could ever say will be enough.

And so I just sit. In that space. With that other mother.

Diana Montoya-Williams is a neonatologist. 

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