I was well into my role as a full-time ambulatory care attending when I gave birth to my first child, a daughter who undoubtedly would change my life forever! Blessed to have an uneventful pregnancy where I was able to see patients just a month shy of my delivery date, I assumed once my daughter was in my arms, my life would continue naturally and effortlessly. Little did I know that with the joy and love in my heart for my child came a new set of unanticipated challenges and complexities that no one prepared me for and that would forever change my life as a practicing physician.
These challenges and complexities spanned from how to feed and sleep-train my child (Breastfeed? Bottle feed? Purees? Solids? Swaddles? Cry it out?), to coping with “Mommy guilt,” to childcare dilemmas, to changes in relationship dynamics with my spouse, friends, family members, to spending quality time with my child after exhausting clinic days, to time management and finding time for self-care, to altered workplace perceptions from patients, staff and colleagues as the “working Mom,” and the question of “how committed is she really?” the assumption that “I should be at home since good mothers wouldn't leave their children,” the concern of being “passed” on a leadership role because “she has to take care of her kids at home,” all of which I now understand from UC Professor Joan William's research as “maternal wall” bias. The tricky thing about becoming a parent, is that the challenges never really go away. As your child grows and your family expands, there are just new sets of challenges that affect your life in a different way.
Unlike training to become a doctor, there is no Parenting University or Parenting Residency or even a handy Pocket Parenting Book that prepares one for this process! To this day I’m amazed by how confidently I can insert a central line into a critically ill patient, easily diagnose and manage complicated diseases, prescribe potentially harmful medications with therapeutic precision, yet I was that Mom who needed the Labor & Delivery nurse to teach me how to change a diaper before my hospital discharge! And I was that Mom who agonized about bottle feeding my baby because breastfeeding was impossible, who panicked at the silence of my newborn (did she stop breathing?) and by the strange new grunts, cries, spit ups, changes in poop color, skin color, rashes, weird body movements, the list goes on! I was also that Mom who didn’t realize the spontaneous cries in the shower, the vivid dreams of my baby dying, soon after birth were mild signs of postpartum depression.
When my daughter was nearly 2-years old, I realized I needed HELP! It was bath time, a joyful moment of relaxation, cloud-like bubbles, playful splashing, fun bath toys. At the same time it was a moment of utter exhaustion, the result of seeing back-to-back patients since 8am and using “downtime” for phone calls, urgent messages, prescription refills, reviewing labs. I honestly couldn’t wait to have my toddler in jammies sound asleep so I could finally rest and sleep too! As I lean over the tub to shampoo my daughter’s hair, she showcases her strong-willed temperament, “No! No! No soap!” As she squirms away, splashing water at my face, I am very frustrated, soaking wet and at my wits end. “Come love, let’s wash your hair now.” Her response, “No mommy, no!” this time in her screaming, whining voice, the sound that makes any rational mind go mad. And sure enough, in that instant, I went mad! I pulled her into me, quickly soaped then rinsed her head all in one swoop. It was not a violent scene, but there was resistance, screams, tears, and intense emotions. I’m convinced Hollywood could make this scene more dramatic than real life, but the scar that’s been seared in my mind and the guilt in my heart since that moment is the look of terror in my daughter’s eyes as what I now know is the moment Dan Siegel describes as “flipping your lid.” Although my daughter, now 5 years old, does not remember this at all, describing me as “the best Mommy!” showering me with her “I love you Mommy,” this moment haunted me and propelled me to find help since I just couldn’t bear to be that angry, scary Mom that sometimes my Mom was to me when I was growing up!
My call for help was answered when I found an incredibly brilliant, empathetic, and witty parenting expert named Marcillie who wholeheartedly understands the challenges of working, high-achieving parents and whose personal mission is to help busy professionals parent more peacefully and joyfully. With her expertise based on the principles of Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen, I learned practical skills that I use daily with my now children (soon to have 3 kids). Of the many helpful skills I learned, most transformational for me were the skills of caring for myself as a working doctor Mom so I can best care for my children. Marcilie reminds us “Parents do better when they feel better. Children do better when they feel better.” It’s not unusual for parents to get frustrated, angry, yell, and “flip our lids.” To lessen these moments, we must care for our precious bodies, be kind to ourselves, let go of unreasonable standards and perfection, share our loads with others, and ask for help. And when we are on the brink of “going mad,” she shares the advice of Dr. Laura Markham “Stop, Drop, and Breathe” which I use on my toughest days. Amidst the whining and cries, a quiet escape to my bathroom, sometimes shower is no longer a sign of neglect, rather a strategic move to care for myself and others!
I am eternally grateful for the parenting expertise and support I’ve received from Marcilie and her community of working parents. Her “Parenting with Positive Discipline” 8-week course was like a mini-residency for me and my husband. Upon “graduating,” I was more skilled and confident as a parent and felt less stressed as a full-time working physician Mom. In fact, I even felt more capable as a leader as I drew upon the many connections between parenting and executive leadership.
I do not have the answer to every parenting question or a solution for “maternal wall” bias. I trust now in “progress,” not “perfection.” And I strongly believe that for me, Motherhood at the very least has improved my clinic efficiency, enhanced my leadership skills, strengthened my empathy, and expanded my purpose as a role model to my daughter who aspires to become a doctor, “just like Mommy!” And to my two sons, a model where men share the load and fully support women pursuing her dreams personally and professionally!