Classically young parents, predominantly mothers, are taught “Don’t talk about your children at work”. If talking about them is bad, imagine what it would be like if you actually brought them to the office. However, for me, the advice to pretend I didn’t have children; that to be successful, I had ignore that enormous part of my life, was itself a very bad idea. As a physician and as a parent, a critical part of the success of my 20 year career to appropriately decide when to incorporate my children into my work environment.
My father was a special education teacher in the South Bronx, before special education was its own area of expertise. His classroom was full of children with a wide variety of special needs, and they did not have any of the support and resources we have today. Many of the children were from homes suffering from the political, social and violent turmoil of the South Bronx in the 60’s and 70’s The terms defining the children included “physically handicapped” and “emotionally disturbed”; all of these children were in the same classroom with different needs and abilities I adored my father, and as child my siblings and I would want to spend as much time with him as possible. But he had to go to this thing called “work”’. We were too young to understand paying for food or a mortgage; what that meant to us was that he left us for the day. Well, this seemed like a bad deal to me. What was so special about this “work” that he left us? What could he be doing in his school that was more important that spending time with his children?
The thing was, my father was an amazing teacher. He set a tone of teamwork and inclusion that turned organized chaos into structure. He was a gifted man who could take these “problem children”; many from homes overwhelmed by poverty, and provide reliable structure and stability. He had ground rules that included protecting the weak, and that the members of the class were a team. His tone of inclusion and teamwork was probably the most important lesson he taught his students, and one I carry forward to mine. Although we teach very different learners, modeling my father’s path as an educator has been more important than any faculty development session I could attend.
I know about my father’s gift for teaching because, either through necessity or desire, he occasionally brought us to work. In bringing us to see him work his magic with these kids who clearly needed him and his skills, allowed me to understand why he left us each day. He had a mission and a gift and I came to appreciate that if he wasn’t there these kids would not have the same lives.
I have involved my children in my work life much like my father did with me. It started when they were pre-schoolers attending medical student interest group when they sat through intubation and clinical skill workshops. They eventually learned the skills themselves (how many five year olds can intubate or as third graders understand the steps to draw blood?) but most importantly they were able to see me, their mom, in my non-mom element. They saw the joy and satisfaction I felt while teaching medical students new skills or inspiring residents to come together as a team.
As they grew older and could spend time on their own, my children would even spend time in the hospital during my clinical shifts either walking through the ED when I needed to pick something up, or in my office doing homework if they needed a quiet space when I was doing a clinical shift. One day, I was caring for a woman with a horrible elbow injury. She was going to require one, if not more, surgeries to repair the damage and despite our reason and logic, she was not on board with our plan. This injury was similar to something my son, Jeremy, had endured, so in order to connect with her I opened up about my experiences as a mother. Shortly after this, Jeremy, who was doing his homework in my office came to me in the ED asking for money for snacks. My patient saw him and asked immediately if this was the same son. I said it was, and shared with Jeremy she had some arm issues that required surgery and she was worried about it. I think he was 14. Without hesitating, he went to her bedside and spoke to her from his heart. With his smile, honesty and concern for her fear he convinced her that the surgery was possible for her. Neither the orthopedist nor I were able to do what my teenage son could. And in that moment, he got to experience the difference one person can make to another’s life and why it was so important for his mom to come to work.
I have recently decided on a job change. After 20 years of being an academic attending at the same program, I am moving on and taking over as the Program Director at a different hospital. It was a bit heart wrenching to decide to leave, but the opportunity is amazing. My loyalty to my current residents required me to tell them as soon as possible after making the final decision, so I took some time from a recent Wednesday conference. It was a tough, tear-filled conversation, but while I was talking I realized I had to thank them. Over the years, through the moments of my children meeting these fine men and women, and those who had come before them, I realized they had also served as formative role models to my daughter and son. My children watched as these residents took the time to care about people they hardly knew. They devoted endless hours to the consideration and comfort of those in need, often at the sacrifice of their own immediate wellness or wellbeing. As my teenage son and daughter start to consider what they want to do with their lives (NOT medicine, by the way) I realize they have learned through listening to residents, and stories about residents and colleagues who were magical teachers like my father or passionate mentors like me. They have seen that work can be both a job and a mission and that helping others often leads to the greatest reward. My father brought me to his work and I saw how important he was to his students. I exposed my children to my work and they saw how important our whole system was for each other. My wonderful, fantastic, fabulous residents have shown my children what it is to aspire and work hard to help others. And they were able to do this because I shared my children with them. I am forever grateful.