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The Double Life of a Resident-Mom

By Melissa Sparrow

Melissa SparrowLike eight other pediatric residents, I have two jobs: I am a physician-in-training and I am a mom. Two of the third-year residents have children; in my second-year group, Iím the only one; one intern is a mom, too. Among us resident-moms, five became pregnant for the first time during their second year of training. One produced twin girls! Thatís means 20 percent of Hopkinsí female pediatric residents, likely the highest percentage in any department here, have also decided to be mothers.

How do we orchestrate the difficult duet of being both a mother and a resident? Each resident-mom, Iíve learned, has a collection of rituals, her own particular way of connecting with her child(ren) when she returns home. Many new moms religiously nurse their babies, and pump breast milk for them while they are at hospital. Tammy Burgunder told me that when she gets off duty after working an irregular schedule in the Emergency Department, she always tries to attend a toddler play class with her son. Yvette Young says that no matter how little sleep she gets when sheís on call, and even if sheís gets no sleep at all, she manages to stay awake the whole following day to spend it with her two daughters. Tong Yao, besides nursing her 16-month-old son always reads to him when sheís home.

My children and I have a morning routine. No matter how early I have to leave, 7-year-old Russell and 4-year-old MaryLouise are determined to see me off. My husband Ned lumbers downstairs to make coffee and start breakfast. I scoop up MaryLouise from her bed. My son, who wakes up at the slightest noise, lunges into the room and leaps on us both.

"No Russell!" MaryLouise begins to scream.

"Itís my turn with Mommy," Russell proclaims indignantly.

"You have to share," I sing my refrain. "You have to share what little of Mommy you get."

Perhaps that is what is most difficult about the dual roles of resident-moms. We are stricken with an especially severe form of what many mothers who work outside the home feel: guilt.

I scoot my children downstairs and situate them at the kitchen table where I and only I am allowed to scoop the oatmeal into their bowls. Ned can cook it, he can do all the preparatory work, but there are certain tasks my children demand of me when I am at home: sprinkling the sugar, pouring the milk, combing their hair and choosing their clothes. Once Iíve performed those acts, Ned and I have a chance to plan how our day will unfold. He is a college English professor and has the flexibility to drive the children to and from school, to stay with them when I am on call and during school holidays and weekends. All of us resident-moms depend on the commitment of our husbands. Without two parents working together during the strain of residency, our children would have a much tougher time.

I load up my armor: my stethoscope and pager, my necklace-chain of keys and IDs. The top pockets in my white coat spill over with pens, paperclips, coins as I bend over. My Harriet Lane Handbook, wide and thick, stays sturdily in place. I return to the kitchen to kiss my children goodbye. They like lipstick prints on their hands, pink Mommy stamps that might last into the day. More hugs, more kisses. They say, "Donít go. Donít go to work."

Their pleas pain me some mornings more than others, but always I put a smile on my face and answer, "Now you two know I love you very much. But Mommies go to work just like Daddies, and I love you even when I am away." Ned distracts them with jellied toast, and I kiss and hug them again.

It takes almost the whole car ride to Hopkins to unwind from the stress of saying goodbye to Russell and MaryLouise. At work, I slip into a new role that at first seems easier. Suddenly, there seem to be boundaries to what people can ask of me. No one hangs on my body or hands me pieces of chewed-up gum. I am not a human napkin and I donít have to clean up pee. I donít consciously think about my children unless someone asks me about them or I see a patient who reminds me (always with a great wave of affection) of either Russell or MaryLouise. But my identity as a mother is always at work in my role as a pediatrician—in my way of relating to my child-patients and to their families.

Being both a resident and a mother is in no way ideal, and Iím not sure I would have the energy to do it over again. The other resident-moms and I have talked about this difficult period. How we come home post-call or after a day when we havenít had lunch or sat down or had a moment to finish a thought and then have to begin our second job. We commiserate with each other, knowing we will likely always be moms who work outside the home. But we wonít always be residents. The day will come—and for me it will be next year at this time—when we will have more time for our children. And maybe, occasionally, even some time for ourselves.