I smiled as I waddled to the recovery room for the sixth time that day. Before maternity leave, my final case was completed; I left with my patients in trustworthy hands, and the loose ends tied up. As I walked to my car, I never imagined the circumstances I would return to 12 weeks later and now six months ago.
I have never subscribed to clichés, but as I sat in my home during week eight of the lockdown, I couldn’t help but believe that “timing is everything.” Two years ago, I donated my baby gear hoping that the urge for a third child that I was not sure we could handle would dissipate. About nine months later and a year and a half ago, it hadn’t, and my husband and I planned for a third. As I approached my maternity leave, I reflected back on the prior two leaves. The first coincided with the start of a temporary job, was mostly unpaid and, as a result, short. The second leave occurred after I had built a busy practice, and although a much improved paid 12 weeks, there were emails to answer and research projects to complete. In keeping with clichés, “the third times a charm,” so I thought. As I answered calls, outlined treatment plans, and fit in as many surgical cases as possible, I planned my 12 week leave. I planned for walks with my mother in the improving spring weather. I joked about binge-watching The Crown. I planned for the leave I had always hoped for.
Things devolved quickly. Four weeks into maternity leave, I placed the baby into her carrier and headed to the store with instructions to buy several weeks of groceries. As someone who goes to the grocery store several times a week and never has a meal plan, the task was overwhelming; this was made more so by the baby’s emotional and physical weight and the emptying shelves around me. The next day, realizing I had missed a few items, the baby and I went back for more after the other kids were at school. The lines stretched around the store. Scared and dejected, we left. Suddenly it didn’t seem ridiculous. Schools were canceled. The future seemed uncertain as I looked at my five, three, and newborn daughters and realized I would need to teach kindergarten, occupy a preschooler, and keep a newborn alive on minimal sleep. My husband and I would need to make plans for possible exposures and decontamination routines as he continued to work at the hospital.
It was overwhelming, but as I reflect back on those initial eight weeks of the now 8-month-long pandemic, I realize that “timing is everything.” Although the guilt of leaving my colleagues to figure it out at the start of the pandemic occasionally snuck up on me, my rational being realized that the arrival of my newborn was perfectly timed. She saved me from having to choose work over my family. Saved me from potential exposures in the hospital as they developed safety protocols. Made it possible for my colleagues to take less PTO and furlough time with one less provider to account for. As pediatric surgical subspecialists, our volume diminished and has remained so. While we try to replenish our caseloads, the truth of a different world is glaring in our email reminders of our specialty’s new inadequacies. At times, it appears impossible to see our way out of this, but when I look in my girls’ hopeful faces, I see possibility and resilience. I have watched my now 6 year old learn the basics of reading and math, my 3 year old has perfected her distraction techniques, and my 8 month old is blissfully unaware of the events unfolding around her. 2020 gave me the gift of a perfectly poorly timed maternity leave that allowed me more time with my family, but it has yet to give me the gift of watching The Crown.
Amy Hughes is a pediatric otolaryngologist.
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