by Stephanie Bonne, MD
As a relatively new mother (I have 2 boys, ages 3 and 1), I’m usually anti-advice. I often feel as if each person’s situation is unique and resources and priorities are variable, so it’s hard for anyone to give meaningful advice that fully applies to me. If you have a young family or are contemplating having a family, you have no doubt been inundated with advice from lots of very well-meaning people. Some advice is trivial (“Jen is the best Gymboree instructor!”) and some is not (“if you are going to have more than one, make sure you have them as close together/far apart as possible”), but much of it we hear over and over again. “There is no good time,” “make sure you have lots of help,” “remember to take time for yourself,” are all well-meaning, but tend to be a little vague and can mean vastly different things to different people. However, in recent months, I’ve gotten 3 pieces of parenting advice that were a bit different than the usual advice and pretty adaptable to most woman surgeons, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share them here.
- “Learn to let go of some stuff, but not ALL stuff.” This is a comment on balance. As a surgeon, I’m used to being in control of almost everything, but as a parent, I can’t be. This first became apparent to me when my son came home from daycare one day in a mismatched outfit my husband had put him in that morning after I had left for work. I suppressed the urge to say “You let him go to school wearing THAT?!” Having meticulously dressed children is just something I have to let go of, along with the occasional glass of non-organic milk, or extra half hour of cartoons. My first advice to young moms: Throw away the Pottery Barn Kids catalog the minute it enters your house. No four year old boy spends an afternoon quietly reclining in his sailboat-decorated bedroom, reading a Caldecott-winning book while snacking on a perfectly balanced meal from his personalized bento box (seriously, when did preschoolers start carrying bento boxes?). Now, that last statement might sound remarkably reminiscent of some jaded-but-funny suburban parenting blogs. My second bit of advice: unsubscribe from these too. True, there may be humor in highlighting all your first-world failings as a parent, or brazenly point out that your kids are still alive, in spite of your best efforts and constant feelings of failure. These blogs, however, in an attempt to use intellect to deescalate the “Pottery Barn” ideal of a perfect mom, somehow miss the mark and instead validate the very thing they are trying to dismiss. You are a surgeon; you don’t have time to get involved in the mommy wars. This means letting go of the things that don’t matter, but realizing that not everything can be marginalized, and recognizing which things do matter. Your kids need to be fed, clothed, washed, and most of all loved, but that’s just the start – they DO need intellectual stimulation, bedtime stories, play time, social interaction, and swimming lessons. You can’t cast these things off as insignificant in the life of a child, but you also don’t have the time to place too much importance on each of your child’s experiences being perfectly orchestrated to be both stimulating and meaningful. Balance.
- “Teach your kids, right from the start, about what you do and why it is important.” My experience with this has been short so far, but I do tell my son when I leave for call that I have to go to the hospital to help take care of sick people. Naturally, after a few times, he mustered a fake little cough and said “but I’m sick too.” I think every doctor-parent has a story like this, and yes, it is heartbreaking. But my husband and I reinforce what I do and why it is important and I think my son does understand. He will ask me when I come home the next day if I fixed the hole in someone’s tummy, and burst out an encouraging “great job, mommy!” when I say yes. When I recently went to DC for the AWS and ACS meetings, he asked me if people in Washington DC have holes in their tummies too. I’m sure the day is coming when I will miss a big soccer game or first music recital, but knowing that they understand what I do will help them. Sometimes, reminding myself of the importance of my work helps me too.
- “Take time for you and your partner, and do it guilt-free.” This is a variation on the date-night advice, but the key here is doing it guilt-free. This came up last spring after my parents were graciously willing to watch the kids for a few days so my husband and I could have a little getaway. Afterwards, I was recounting our trip on two separate occasions to some older, wiser women when they pointed out that I was making excuses for why we didn’t take the kids on our trip. Both encouraged me to never feel guilty for the time I spend away from the kids, pointing out that having two parents who live together, and furthermore, love each other, is far more important to them than the couple of days spent away from us. I think there is balance here too – we can’t jet away together every weekend, but we can do it within reason and should do it from time to time. For different couples, this will look different – to some, it’s going on long walks or runs together, for others it’s a monthly date night, for others it’s a weekend away once a year. Whatever it is, it’s helping you stay together, so make it a priority, but the real point is – don’t feel bad about it.
Props to the awesome women who gave me this advice – some of you will be reading this, and you know who you are. For the rest of us, take the advice that is given to you gracefully – remember, advice is rarely given in a malicious spirit, and most of your advice-givers really do have your best interest at heart. But take each piece and either toss it later, or process it and make it fit for you, and if it’s really good, pass it on later.
Stephanie Bonne is an Assistant Professor in Trauma, Acute, and Critical Care Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis. Her husband, Jeremy, is a trademark attorney for Anheuser-Busch. She has two sons, Evan, 3, and Colin, 1.