“Hey, girlie,” I whispered as I leaned over the bed. “I’m going to work now. Can I have a big hug and a kiss?”
Without opening her eyes, she stretched her arms out, wrapped them around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek.
“Are you going to go do surgery on people?” she asked, eyes still closed.
“Yep. Go back to sleep, kiddo. I love you.”
She rolled over and pulled the blanket up, and that was it. I lingered for a moment, expecting a screech of protest, but it never came. It was the first time since I’d started rotations almost 9 months ago that there was no demand for me to stay. At the very least I expected her to insist on being carried to the porch to wave goodbye to me as I left, but nope – she was out.
My rational brain knew I should be glad. Standing outside in the dark to wave goodbye to Mom at 5 a.m. every day wasn’t exactly best practice for a restful night’s sleep. The fact that she had stayed in bed was a sign that she was adjusting, normalizing, settling in. “All good things!” the voice of reason firmly reiterated, but in my gut I could already feel the cold grip of Mommy Guilt taking hold, and there really is no way to come back from that (see below).
To my credit, I made it through morning rounds, melanoma conference, eight hours of surgery clinic, evening rounds and almost the whole 10-minute walk back to my car without breaking down. It wasn’t until the last half block that I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer, and by the time I reached my car door I was in full-blown ugly cry mode.
So it seems to go in third year: there’s a period of pushing hard, doing my best to be a Good Student for 10-14 hours a day despite not really knowing what that means or how it’s being measured, trying to parent my daughter with patience and grace during the single hour I get to see her despite already being physically and emotionally tapped out. No one tells you about this side of medical school, in part I think because it wouldn’t do any good. Similar to having a newborn, the work involved sounds manageable enough on paper; it isn’t until you experience it first hand that you can truly appreciate the cumulative mental and physical toll that it takes on you.
For a few weeks at a time, though, I can hold my breath and pretend to be a fish. As long as I focus on swimming with every atom in my body I’m okay. But inevitably something happens that forces me to slow down: an unexpected bit of news, a child staying in bed rather than waving goodbye, a harsh word from an attending, a car that won’t start. It only takes a moment for my oxygen hunger to catch up with me and send me gasping to the surface. Because, as it turns out, I am not a fish. I am a human with needs that go beyond the occasional nibble of algae (delicious as it may be). So I have a good cry, take a big gulp of air and dive back under.