As It Was in the Beginning

IMG_0229 (1)

Our newborn son sat in my lap as I waited at the hospital entrance for my husband to bring the car around to take us home for the first time. I thought about all the surprising professions that required a license – beauticians, private eyes, and even interior designers.  Basically, any profession where incompetency may result in public harm requires a license.  If anything cried out for a license, it was a new mother taking home her baby.  I knew nothing about infants. My husband pulled up, the nurses bundled us in the car, noting that the car seat should be rear-facing, and off we went.  The next day Nick went back to work. Ned’s big brown eyes fluttered open and I said to him, “Okay little man, we’re in this together.  Be patient with me.” 

I had certainly read about how my heart was supposed to explode with love, how motherhood would transform me into an improved and ennobled person.  There were moments when I could believe it – the first smile or laugh, the moment when I felt a small hand grasp my neck in the first hug.  But in those early days, I could not quite grasp how these sublime feelings would play out in everyday life, in particular every night life.  I remember my stomach churning when I heard Ned fuss in the dark, the exact same feeling I had when my beeper went off when I was on call in my medical residency.  I never knew what sort of emergency I might be confronted with, if or when I would ever get back to sleep.  I had those same fears as I threw off the covers and padded down the hall to Ned’s room.

After about a month, we got our first babysitter, a high school student who described her first aid courses and babysitting training.  This fourteen-year-old was far more qualified than I.  As we were leaving, I added one more contact number to her list.  “If you run into any trouble, if you can’t get Ned to sleep or stop crying, don’t call me, call your mother.  She’ll know what to do.”

Some days stretched out forever.  It was too cold for walks.  I was trapped inside, taking naps while Ned napped.  The bulk of my waking hours were consumed with infant care, and I could not expect him to smile and hug all day long.  I categorized his development into the four “p’s”: the in-utero protoplasm, to the current project,  eagerly awaiting the final transitions to personality and actual person.  In the meantime, my own identity as a physician was ebbing away.

Spring finally came and we ventured to the park.  I snugged Ned into a swing and started pushing.  This pre-cellphone ear of the 1980s offered few multitasking opportunities and I noticed bored women on either side of me robotically pushed their children. I turned to the woman next to me. “When do children learn to pump?” I asked, anticipating the joyous day when Ned could entertain himself and I could quietly watch while doing a crossword puzzle.

“Well this is my third child, so I’ve logged a lot of pushing hours.  It usually takes about five years.”

“WHAT!  Five years?”

“Yes, and then guess what? Once they can pump, they don’t want to swing anymore.”

At home, I had found some success in entertaining Ned with a jack-in-the-box, numbly cranking that creepy clown, hoping to coax a smile or even laugh when it popped open.   I suspected the situation was similar to pumping. Once Ned learned how to crank the damn thing, he would lose interest.

Was I missing something?  Was I the only one left to discover that early motherhood was boring?  Why didn’t my mother warn me?  After all she had six children within ten years.  She must have known.  But by the time I was old enough to appreciate my mother as an individual, her children had become self-sufficient, allowing her the freedom to pursue her passions of music and sports.  I never saw my mother in the diapered trenches, never saw her sweeping Cheerios off the floor, corralling kids into baths and beds or rushing them to an emergency room on Saturday night with an earache.  Every week I lugged a straining bag of sodden diapers that bumped down the stairs behind me, often just missing the diaper service pick up.  My mother must have done the same.  What impact did that have on her identity as a bright, well-educated woman?

She must have had dark days in those early years.  Maybe selective amnesia was her savior or maybe it was just too difficult to talk about – if the joy of early motherhood was a sham, what did that say about her children?  Did she regret it? Yes, I would agree that the overarching theme of those early days was one of undiluted love and fierceness to do anything to protect my child, but on an every-day basis there were many moments of identity-sapping boredom.  Seared inot by brain are those rainy mornings where I had totally exhausted all indoor activities by 9 AM.

What about the nine years I had invested in my medical school training?   The truth was that I had plopped into the safety net of motherhood as a place-holder until I figured out what I wanted to do next.  I also realized that this safety net had supplanted the alternative safety net of dual incomes of both my husband and myself.  I was giving up too much.

I began to explore the oxymoronic concept of “working from home” as a medical journalist.  The American Medical News, the newspaper of the American Medical Association, accepted my offer to write a column on new medical technologies. Each month I would indulge in the services of a daytime babysitter and go to the medical library to scour journals for any medical technology that caught my eye – perhaps a new cardiac stent or a bloodless vasectomy. I gathered up ancillary research and digested it at home while Ned napped.

For most columns I attempted to wrangle an interview with a key opinion leader, or a KOL, as I began to grasp the jargon.  I swelled with pride as I quipped with a KOL and asked deeply probing questions full of fresh insight.  Okay, I was delusional on those points, but it didn’t matter.  I imagined that I was holding my own in discussions with physicians who were tops in their field.  I relished my columns.

There was only one little glitch.  Physicians would return my calls at odd moments when I was deep into my role as a mother.  I always dropped everything for these calls because I knew a busy physician would give me only one chance.  One time I left Ned screaming in his crib and trembled outside in a snow storm attempting to sound calm and intellectual; I hoped the doctor did not hear Ned’s muffled cries.  Another time I instinctively answered the phone as I got out of the shower and was immediately plunged into a detailed conversation about heart transplants.  My caller was blissfully unaware that he was having a cerebral discussion with someone who was stark naked and dripping wet.

One elusive physician called when I was in the midst of a particularly grimy diaper change, but I could only forge ahead; there was no work-around.  I balanced Ned on the changing table with my left elbow and wedged the phone under my ear.  I fished a pen out of my pocket, but there was no paper within reach.  I wrote my interview notes on the wallpaper as I hovered over the steaming pile, madly flicking the pen to overcome the effects of gravity.  The notes were still there years later when we moved.

That episode swung the balance.  I learned that you cannot multitask a top-level diaper change with an intellectual discussion, and I preferred the latter.  I needed a full time job, an office, a room of my own and a regular babysitter.  I took a position as a scientific writer and medical policy analyst for health insurance companies.  This job had a limited career path, but the regular hours and no travel made the compromise easy.  Without an endless day stretching ahead of me, I could spend the evenings and weekends enjoying the park, the little wading pool in the back yard, and strings of Play-Doh oozing out of a sausage maker.  Four years later we welcomed our daughter.

I would tell my children that those first years are very tough, but I did it, plowed through like my mother before me and discovered her same the profound joy of motherhood. It’s been 30 years and I wouldn’t change a thing.  However, my identity would have crumbled without the additional dimension of a job.  My admiration for my mother grows when I think of the limited identities available to her in the 1950s.  She had to go it alone.  I had options, she did not.  As I head into retirement and look back at the pivotal moments in my working life, I would like to give full and grateful credit to that that happy convergence of a pile of pooh, a physician calling, and no writing paper.  It was the tipping point I needed.

The missing words in the following poems are a set of anagrams (i.e. share letter like post, stop, spot, etc) and the number of asterisks indicate the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the word above or below, giving you a big hint.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the rules above and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

As a first time mother my heart fluttered and ******

But this quickly soured when I became frustrated and bored.

Was it an open secret that not every young mother ****** her role?

That diapers, drool and other smeared body fluids will suck dry your soul?

But I reclaimed my identity with a new job that gave me a fresh start.

Inspired by a simple pile of pooh that I forever hold ** **** to my heart












*soared, adores so dear





Leave a Comment