The Guilt Does Not Go Away: A Physician’s Tribute to Elephant Mothers

By Maha Mahdavinia

It started almost from the moment my son was born, after I held that precious little breathing miracle of life in my arms and he stopped crying right away. I was filled with joy and love, as if beautiful, peaceful music was playing in my ears. I wanted to hold him all the time and never leave him. Then I remembered: My maternity leave was only six weeks. All of a sudden, the music stopped. It was replaced by a gnawing pain in my belly. Not from the unexpected ruptures of birth — I couldn’t care about those less at that moment. The pain came from guilt. In six weeks I would have to leave my baby every day, from very early in the morning until six or seven at night, when I came back from the hospital. I was a medical resident, and my work hours were long and uncompromising. As I sat in the recovery room of the maternity ward, my mind turned from awe and wonder to anguish and doubt. What was I thinking having a baby? I was so busy with work, and my job was very stressful. Surely I wouldn’t be a good mother.

Life went on, but the guilt did not leave me. It just changed shape, then doubled when we had our second child. It became sharper any time they fell and I wasn’t there; when they got sick or misbehaved; when they were late to school and I thought I should have pushed them to get up earlier; on the mornings when I was in hurry to get to work and had to raise my voice or give them lectures in the car. Those times the guilt crawled all over me and took control of my day.

At times I thought I should have quit residency, but then I asked myself: What about my other responsibilities to society? I take care of children with severe allergies, asthma and immunodeficiency – that work is also important. If I had quit residency, would I even be a better mother?

So, at the end of my everlasting trainings, I was not thinking about finding a job in a place that cared about my family, about me as a mother. I interviewed at multiple universities, looking for the one that would best advance my career. Finally, in one interview, I met a division chief who was kind and reassuring. At first, all we talked about was my little children, who were three years and six months old at that time. I told her I could not forget their puzzled faces when I left early in the morning, or the cry I heard after I closed the door. In turn, she spoke about her adult children and her never-ending love for them. She told me how her life as a busy academic physician and her role as the chief of a hospital division impacted her and her parenting. Her field was different than mine, and she was not the right research mentor for me, but I walked out of that interview with my mind made up: I would take the job.

It was the right decision. I worked hard and steady, and progressed in my career. Eventually, I even found the big research mentor. He was in the division one flight of stairs above ours. But I think the more important element was that I felt safe, supported and even encouraged as a mother. I could leave the work if my children needed me; I had co-workers who would pick up my shift or cover my clinic if I needed. The mornings that I feel guilty because of confusing arguments with my kids, I talk with my colleagues. Most of the time I magically feel better when I hear they have gone through the same arguments and their kids are fine. Together, we have created a maternal support system that is otherwise distanced from me in modern society, far from family members who could assure me that my feelings were normal. My colleagues and I have become like elephant moms — those magnificent animals who raise their children in harmony and collaboration with other adults in the community.

Now that my children are in 1st and 4th grades, I am trying to accept that my guilt and sorrow about the time I am not with them will never go away; those feelings are part of me. At the same time, I try to help alleviate the pain other parents might feel. The guilt is strong, but it does not have to be debilitating. I consider part of my job to support other mothers – the mothers of my patients who are wrongly blaming themselves for their children’s asthma and allergies, the mothers who are stressed to leave their sick children at home and come to work in a cold winter day, or the new parents who have had to leave behind a baby with a puzzled face.

Mahboobeh Mahdavinia, MD, PhD, is an allergist/immunologist and associate professor of medicine at Rush University Medical College.  She is a physician/scientist and spends her time taking care of her patients and her family, teaching future allergists and doing research on the effect of environment and disparity in allergic diseases. She is part of the Public Voices Fellowship with the OpEd Project and editor of  the book Health Disparities in Allergic Diseases.

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