End of an era

I feel a huge sense of relief and a ton of positivity this week. Where do I even start?

Obviously there was the inauguration. I have never been a political junkie. My parents came from a country where there was a military coup during their lifetime, all books with dissenting political ideas were burned at their universities, and friends and acquaintances were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and murdered for having dissenting political opinions. Because of these reasons, my parents were always largely apolitical. We never put out yard signs, protested as a family, or watched States of the Union, inaugurations, etc. I myself have adopted some of this trepidation around openly expressing political opinions – especially in my role as doctor. We are so divided as a country that it seems so loaded to me to bring up politics or, more commonly, to respond to a patient’s comment on politics. But lately, due largely to the impact of social media, I have begun to wonder how much of my reticence to discuss politics comes from a place of privilege. I’m an immigrant who has been a citizen of this country for decades longer than I’ve lived outside of the country. I’m White passing, gender normative, heterosexual, educated, financially comfortable. So I have been trying to step outside of my comfort zone to be more vocal in order to advocate for others. And also, to be honest, because the events of the past four years have been disturbing beyond words – so, so, so much worse than anything I could have ever envisioned in November of 2016.

But now, there is hope. And yesterday, I sat with my two older kids and replayed some of the performances and speeches from the inauguration. The kids celebrated it at school. And I breathed a sigh of relief that my older children, now 4 and 6, would have memories of a President who is decent, humble, honorable and a good human being.

Second: this is my last week before heading back to work. I have a lot of mixed emotions regarding this. I think: this is the last time I will ever have an infant. The last time I will ever hold someone for every nap during the day. The last time I will ever spend so many hours per day, every day, every week, with one of my children. I feel a sense of nostalgia about this moment, but not necessarily sadness. As my husband likes to joke, we have done this four times – and that’s plenty! I am also looking forward to this next phase of my children growing into adults. I already see changes in my 6 year old – bigger worries, harder questions, the ability to read and digest actual novels (he is currently reading the second Harry Potter book). He is losing some of his child-like innocence.

To be honest, being home with four children 6 and under is a lot. As I always say: being a stay-at-home parent is MUCH harder than being a working parent. Yes, work is demanding. Yes, it adds a full-time job on top of full-time responsibility. But work allows you to tap into the essence of who you are. A lot is lost in motherhood – hobbies, memories of who we were pre-children, meaning outside of these small humans. For me, working is a way to hold onto a crucial component of who I am. I’m able to have adult conversations, use my analytical mind, help others in ways that are tangible, eat lunch, go to the bathroom alone, have uninterrupted thoughts, etc. I’m very much looking forward to that. But, in addition to missing the baby snuggles and extra quality time with my kids, there are two things I will miss dearly: (1) flexibility – the ability to make every last-minute school engagement without thinking about it, the ability to attend to a child’s needs 24/7 with no other obligations, the ability to run an errand for the home every day of the week, the ability to pick the kids up when they are not feeling well without having to cancel clinic, the ability to quarantine for 2 weeks without being disruptive and (2) mental space. I have been thinking about this one a lot. For a variety of reasons, I was feeling pretty burnt out before going on maternity leave. Not working has off-loaded work stress from my life (that sounds pretty obvious but it’s true!). I don’t have to worry about having a difficult conversation with a colleague, feeling disrespected by administrators, challenging patient cases. It’s hard for me to leave work at work – to compartmentalize it – especially when I have the ability to be connected 24/7 and also when I do split my workday to make time for pick-up, kids’ activities, etc. I see sick patients and I worry about how they do, and it is impossible for me to turn that off at 5pm. So I am going to see how to compartmentalize the things that I can – non-clinical work – while also feeling relieved that I have dissociated from the more toxic work environment I was previously in.

Third: I received the second COVID vaccine. I am so so relieved by this. I will, of course, continue to use PPE at work and masks when out in public, but I feel so much better knowing that I will be somewhat protected against COVID, especially when seeing positive patients or those who are being evaluated for active disease. My parents have both received one dose of their respective vaccines (they work in healthcare) and my brother and parents-in-law recently recovered from COVID, so I am hoping this all means that we can have some sort of reunion later this year.

Finally, I have restarted on of my favorite past times: reading. I am on my fifth novel this month and have been working to actively carve out time to read each day. Of course, this will be somewhat compromised when I start working, but I am hoping to keep at least 50% of this reading productivity. Reading brings back such great memories for me of reading during childhood and I think it’s so important for the kids to see me reading as well. It has also provided some much needed escapism during a year that has afforded such few opportunities for activities that remind us of normalcy.

Here’s to the end of one era and the beginning of an even better one.

Back to work

In three weeks, I will return to work after maternity leave.

Before my first was born (he is almost 2), I didn’t understand what was so difficult about returning to work after maternity leave. I was no naive! I watched as colleagues of mine, physicians who had spent years in training and who had accrued sizable debt, decreased their hours to part-time or dropped out of the workforce completely. I vividly remember discussing this with my husband in utter disbelief: “How can they do that? What a waste of all those years!”

Fast forward to 2014: the second we brought my son X home from the hospital, I remember thinking “I can never go back to work again.” My baby boy, my heart, had finally arrived. Despite our struggle with infertility, despite a minor scare at the hospital after his birth – here he was. How could I leave him!? It didn’t help that X refused to sleep longer than 30-60 minutes at a time day OR night unless someone held him. I was exhausted – a zombie subsisting on coffee and snuggles from this warm little being. I’m sure that all of the postpartum emotions did nothing to help my vocational morale. There were days when I couldn’t even get it together to leave the house ONCE. How was I going to wake up early, shower, get dressed in something other than nursing tanks and sweat pants (or maternity pants for that matter – why aren’t huge elastic waistbands trending? It’s a genius design!), and then interact with patients, diagnose their conditions, and actually treat them? All while pumping 3 times during the day? It seemed impossible.

I was fortunate to have a generous maternity leave. 18 weeks of paid leave may not seem generous if you live outside of the US or work at Netflix, but I felt so lucky to have it, especially considering that I had only worked 3 months prior to going out on leave. I count my blessings every day that my employer and colleagues are family-friendly and supportive. It makes working mamahood a lot less stressful. And to any employers reading this: longer maternity leaves will help your company. Moms will return to work MUCH better prepared for peak performance. They will be less sleep-deprived, less upset at having to leave their newborn in someone else’s care, and they will be so grateful for your generosity that they will work their butts off.

So how did I go back to work, and how has that experience prepared me this time around? I wish I could say something like “I wanted to set a good example for my children” or “I couldn’t imagine my life without adult interaction and the ability to use my brain”, but it would not be true and it would also be inaccurate, as I truly believe that you can set a good example, have adult interaction and use your brain as a stay-at-home mom. At the end of the day, it boiled down to necessity and fear of regret:

  1. I had to go back to work. We live in an expensive region and we needed my salary to continue living there comfortably and to accomplish our long-term financial goals. We had just settled in the area and it seemed premature to flee so quickly.
  2. Teenagers can be terrible people. Having been a terrible teenager myself (I used to tell my own mother to go back to work full-time so that she would stay out of my hair – terrible, right?), I envisioned myself frantically second-guessing my life decision when this adorable infant turned into an unbearable adolescent. How marketable would I be in a competitive practice environment after taking so much time off?

And so I counted down the days with dread and cried at the drop of a hat until the actual day came. When it did, I learned that there was much to enjoy about work. Some were hugely gratifying – interacting with my patients again, truly helping people, feeling challenged, learning and being inspired by my amazing colleagues – while others were small but also enjoyable – eating with both hands, using the restroom without an infant, speaking to human beings who could respond with words.

Of course, everything is rosier now. At the time, it was incredibly difficult. Leaving our baby with someone who was, at the time, a stranger, was HARD. Tearing myself away from him in order to arrive at clinic on time was often painful as it meant rushing, pumping instead of nursing, or not reading our usual books. Some mornings I would leave before he woke up, which broke my heart. I was also upset when I could not be there all day when he was sick, or when I learned that he had learned something new in my absence, or when our caregiver did not adhere to the routine I so carefully laid out. Lack of control is terrible when you are a control freak! Eventually, these things stung less. I saw that he was well-cared for and that he was thriving. He knew who his mama was and loved her. I cherished our time together and spent every moment at home trying to be as present as possible.

This time around, I am better prepared to deal with these emotions because I know that it all works out. X has so benefited from spending time with caregivers other than myself. Each has taught him something unique and special, and I feel fortunate that my baby, Y, will have the same opportunity.

At the end of the day, we all do what is best for our sanity. There is no “right” decision and I am so embarrassed to have ever judged mothers in the past for doing what they felt was best. Motherhood has certainly been a humbling experience. For mamas out there who are returning to work or deciding whether to return to work, I’ll share the two bits of advice I found most helpful:

  1. Find great childcare. You will never be able to focus on work 100% if you do not believe that your child is being well cared for. Trust your instincts, don’t settle, and change arrangements as soon as possible if something feels “off”.
  2. Do not make any drastic career decisions during your baby’s first year of life. Sleep deprivation, raging hormones, the postpartum state – these variables do not encourage a clear mind. It is so important to take a step back and look at the big picture and this can be very difficult to do when your time is consumed by an infant’s needs (which is 24/7).

Good luck to any moms returning to work and any moms who have decided to work at home. Mamahood is not for the faint of heart!