Guilt as a Surgeon Mom

the surgeon's path Aug 29, 2019

He came out on time but scrawny, like a baby spider monkey. Even though it was 38.5 weeks and I was term, when my son was born, he looked nothing like the cherubic babies on the diaper boxes. He was only 5 pounds, 10 ounces and off-the-charts small.  Fortunately, other than being tiny, he was very healthy, and eventually caught up in height and weight. 


“What did I do wrong?” was my first thought as I laid eyes on him. Immediately, mom guilt set in. Did I work too much? Should I have taken fewer call shifts? Did my efforts to shield him from radiation in the OR with double the lead aprons do damage - squashing him down to this size in the process? Did I not eat enough meat? Should I have gained more weight? Less weight? In the moment, the scientist in me was supplanted by an emotional new mom’s worries of what she did wrong. 


That one moment whisked away how good I felt most of the whole 38.5 weeks of pregnancy. Other than some minor queasiness in the first trimester, I felt remarkably good during my pregnancy, even as a “geriatric” pregnant woman at 38 with my first. I left fellowship with a little bump and started my new attending job with a bigger one. I was proud that I could take 6-8 calls a month to get my practice up and running at the beginning, even while in my third trimester. I had great prenatal care, and everything checked out at my visits. It was estimated that he’d be at least 7 and a half, maybe more. 


I wish I knew then what I know now.  My son’s now 7 and he is healthy, funny, sharp and a wicked little skier and stand up paddleboarder. I now know I’ve done nothing wrong, and there’s no guilt to be had. I also know that this mom guilt runs rampant and every single mother goes through it. Not only are we dealing with changes that our bodies have never experienced before, these strong emotions can really crush us sometimes. 


Some moms feel like it’s too soon to leave their infant to go back to work at any time, but I went back at 9 weeks and it felt right - for me. But a careless comment, “Oh...back ALREADY?” or “Aren’t you worried leaving him alone with a stranger?” would start a tailspin of guilt all over again. 


New moms have an onslaught of opinions, actual and fictional, coming at them from all directions. The media, friends, family, even what we had in our own heads before coming into momdom. I think we as a society don’t do a good job at restraining our “judginess” when we see what other moms are doing. 


Working moms in particular, are often guilted about the fact that they work or plan to return. I know for the women who have multiple passions - renaissance women - one passion may include their life’s work outside of the home. Now, this does not mean that the passion for family and child at home is in any way diminished. But when our beloved, trusted nanny is called “mommy” by our children, it feels like a knife in the heart, and it makes us question if this was the right choice. I’ll tell you this has happened, but as a young child is learning to use verbal language, this kind of word confusion is frequent, and no, it does NOT mean that you’ve been forgotten as mommy or that your child actually thinks your nanny is mommy. Trust me, my son has no recollection of this, and today, has a clear delineation of who is who. That’s not to say that his caregivers that kept him safe, happy and thriving while I was away don’t have a close and special relationship. Indeed, I envision him having a long lasting relationship with his nanny, well into his older years - and I’m fine with that and support it. The more love coming his way, the better! 


This reminds me of a story a woman surgeon told me once. She had her oldest coming home from college to visit this summer. One weekend, she was having an overnight with the nanny that raised her. At that time, I was young and many years pre-child, and I remember being surprised that she seemed so okay with it. I asked her - did that hurt her feelings? And she said no - that the nanny helped raise a loving and well-adjusted child who did not feel her mother had “abandoned” her for work. She was proud of her mother, and now as a new college student, had similar aspirations of pursuing a STEM field. The surgeon could not have been happier with where her daughter had ended up as a result of this collaborative effort in raising her child. 


I think it’s time we do away with this mom guilt - both feeling it and doling it out.


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