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How to be a doctor and a mother

Becoming a mother has given me new insight into the doctor-patient relationship, but I still have questions about how to combine being a parent with my job as a GP

Despite the confidence of this column’s title if anyone came here looking for answers to the question posed above I’m sorry – I don’t have them. Almost as an ode to the multi-tasking that is required of a mother, I am writing this with one hand and rocking my eight-month-old’s pram with the other. Since his birth, thanks to the maternity benefit of the State, the only role I have had to fill is being his mother. Soon, however, I will have to leave the cosy world of maternity leave to reacquaint myself with the role of being a doctor. I begin to wonder how I will combine the two.

I suspect becoming a mother has changed my practice. This life experience has given me a new invaluable understanding and knowledge in relation to a huge aspect of my patients’ lives. On the other hand, however, my previous unflagging dedication to my job now has to be shared with another priority that has taken a much bigger place in my heart.

Before having children I always felt a little at sea when patients would ask for advice on the day-to-day rearing of a child. Medical school has always been more concerned with petechiae and septic screens than breastfeeding and sleep schedules. Since my initiation into the world of parenthood, a broad knowledge of breastfeeding, formula, co-sleeping, and weaning can be added to my repertoire.

Even more invaluable, I can now understand the emotional rollercoaster of being a parent. Previously, I had always been a bit surprised when a mother would burst into tears after being told her child had to be referred into hospital. I couldn’t understand the emotional outpouring despite my reassurances that her baby was fine and just needed some fluids or a few nebulisers. Since being a mother, I have cried those same tears when my child was hospitalised and will never underestimate the terror that accompanies any hint your child may be seriously unwell.

To become a mother I had to go through the unfortunate process of getting the baby out of my body. As most of us do, I chose to do this in the perceived safety of a hospital surrounded by lots of machines that beep reassuringly. This introduced me to another invaluable experience, the experience of being a patient. The doctor-patient relationship can be very much an ‘us and them’ relationship. To get through the day we often separate ourselves psychologically from our patients and see them as a ‘39/40 primigravida’ or ‘the TIA in bed 7’ rather than an actual person. So it was enlightening to lift that curtain and cross over to the other side.

How do I have the reserves to comfort a crying patient when I’ve been up all night with my crying baby?

The challenges of being a patient were not what I expected. As a junior doctor, I always thought hospital meals looked appalling. The stench of mashed potatoes wafting down the corridor from metal dinner trolleys made me pity the poor patients receiving them. The same mashed potatoes were so nourishing and appetising in my time of need. As a GP, I could never understand why patients would downplay their symptoms to avoid admission or decline referral for something that needed investigation. That felt more understandable when as a patient I found myself concealing that I had collapsed in the shower to avoid being kept another night.

Evidently the experience of becoming a parent can benefit my role as a doctor. But how will being a doctor affect my role as a parent? It’s hard to imagine how I can have the capacity for both. How do I have the reserves to comfort a crying patient when I’ve been up all night with my crying baby? I can’t imagine having the patience to calm an angry patient after staying calm all morning as my toddler smashed crisps into the carpet.

From where I sit now it’s hard to see how these two roles can merge. Being a parent has given me new knowledge to bring to my practice, but I’ll never again have the same single-focused dedication to my job I had before. Becoming a parent has given me a new empathy for my patients, but I don’t know where I’ll find the left over capacity to parent when I resume such a demanding job.

Despite not having all the answers one thing I do have is a wealth of capable women who have taken this road before me. I am not the first doctor to return to work after having a baby and I will not be the last. Evidently it can be done. Hopefully, with my colleagues in medicine and motherhood to guide me, I will navigate this path too.

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