by Camille Guillot
When I was eight, my dad left me alone at a fast-food place for half an hour to save a woman’s life. I had gone to work with him, followed him on his rounds, and begged him for cheap hamburgers on his lunch break; he obliged, as he usually did. We drove to the Sonic a few blocks from his hospital and began to eat our meals on the restaurant’s sunny patio. After a few minutes, my dad went still, his eyes trained on a car in the parking lot. Through the window, I could see a woman was spasming in the passenger seat. The man next to her was in a panic. Suddenly, my dad was no longer with me. He was jerking the car door open and jumping inside. He said something to the driver and the three of them sped off in the direction of his hospital.
After a few minutes, a nurse we knew came from another table to sit by me. She told me that it looked like the woman had been having a seizure, that my dad had gone to help her, and that he’d be back soon. She said he’d obviously noticed her in the restaurant and thus knew it would be safe to leave me there. The first three parts I believed, but I knew the last was a lie. We hadn’t even said hello to her when we sat down.
Some thirty minutes later, my dad returned. He didn’t try to explain why he’d left me alone, maybe because the answer was obvious—he’d left me to save a woman’s life. We finished our lunches and went back to the hospital.
My parents are similar in a lot of ways. They met in medical school, which suggests a shared work ethic, intelligence, and values. They still work comparable hours. But my dad is a practicing doctor, and my mom chose not to be.
My mom was a workaholic pediatrician until, when I was five years old, she became a workaholic stay-at-home parent. She decided to stay home after she had her third child, my brother. She would have another child eighteen months later, then another, after a year. Five children. Having five children is a project, and she was tirelessly committed to us. When the local elementary schools turned out not to be the best fit for me, she homeschooled me for several grades. At the end of this time, my younger brother’s severe asthma forced him to stay home from school for weeks at a time. She spent hours every week coaching him through attacks and treatments. She volunteered at all of our schools. She cared for sick, older relatives for years, doing their errands and housework and even moving them into our house. She managed a lot of the financial work needed to set up my dad’s practice, and did so again when selling it. People tell me that the stereotype of housewives is that they spend their days in yoga classes and watching soap operas. That is hard for me to imagine. The housewife I knew worked doctor’s hours.
When I was young, I felt guilty about eating apples. I’d heard someone recite the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” While most kids took it as health advice, I worried whether my taste for Granny Smiths was what kept my parents—later, just my dad—out so late. I had a vague image of them struggling through the force field my greed for apples had created, nauseous with the effort, their feet dragging and slogging as if through mud. I got older and realized my superstition was silly, but I still tried to delay my apple-eating until my dad got home from work.
Still, there were whole weeks when I didn’t see my dad. Some days, he left for work before I woke up and came back when I was asleep. Once, my dad went on a week-long trip; it took me six days to notice he wasn’t just at work, but actually out of town. I figured it out when my mom stopped at the grocery store cake display to find something tasty with which we could welcome him back.
My mother seems to have been slowly dragged into becoming a stay-at-home parent. She took three months off when I was born, then six months for my sister; she planned to stop practicing for a year when she had her third kid. Apparently, that concession wasn’t enough for us, a needy trio. When that year ended, she still felt like she could not return to work full time. She decided to compromise by moonlighting. Several tries were cut short because every time she started working again, one of us got sick. Once she scheduled two weeks of work and only managed to show up for two days. That’s when she decided she could not do it.
She enjoyed practicing pediatrics more than raising children; it was easier. The rewards of parenting aren’t so obvious, so frequent, or so fair, though the hours are the same. But when a daycare worker attempted to reassure her that our morning tears were just separation anxiety, she realized she was feeling the same apprehensions as her kids.
My mother knows that she was an investment. Her medical education was not funded only by the tuition she paid. She also benefited from money given to her school by the government and private donors, who donated with the expectation of gaining more trained, practicing doctors. She feels she cheated them. She feels guilty about the time she spent parenting. Still, she wouldn’t have changed her decision.
Lately, my dad ends many of his phone calls to me with, “I guess the cat’s in the cradle now.” I, too, am busy these days. I am usually the one saying, “Look, I have to go.” He feels guilty about the time he spent practicing. Sometimes he wishes he had done less of it.
An acquaintance of mine who has been a practicing physician as well as a professor, a writer, and a mother told me a story: her Dean of Medicine, a woman with frighteningly high expectations of her charges, once surprised her by saying, “You can have it all. Just not all at the same time.” It was, she said, the best advice she ever got. She shrugged off the burden of trying for everything-at-once and accomplished things she never could have if she hadn’t learned to think of her life in phases. My mother got the same advice.
My father didn’t.
Was it assumed that he would necessarily have it all (whatever “all” is)? That he would never have to consider whether his work was interfering with his kids’ care? Or did it not occur to anyone, even him, that this “all”—family and work in balance—was a thing he would even want to strive for?
I once told my parents that even though I didn’t want to be a doctor, I would probably go to medical school so I could take care of my kids properly. Seeing my parents care for us when we were severely ill, I didn’t know how I could manage to have children without that competence. I didn’t know how someone could be a parent without also being a doctor.
They laughed at that, struggling as they were to be both.
My parents deeply wanted to be good parents, and good doctors. Clearly, they didn’t define “good’ in the same way. My dad decided that he could be a good parent working the long hours of a good doctor. That was not a decision he could have made if my mother did not feel totally differently. She took on all the stress of the decision when it was fresh. But he carries more of that stress now.
I asked my mother what she would have done at Sonic. She says she would have gone to the car and done what she could to keep the seizing woman stable while the man with her called an ambulance. This probably would have increased the woman’s risk of injury or even death somewhat. But she couldn’t have left me at that table, vulnerable and alone.
Usually the choice between family and work isn’t as dramatic as the one my father faced that sunny day at Sonic, but everyone who has a medical degree and a family has had to make it in some way or another. Fixing people and saving people can get compulsive; it’s hard to know when to stop helping. But watching your children and making sure nothing bad happens to them is compulsive, too. These conflicting impulses battle it out every time a doctor-parent schedules an appointment, determines office hours, or wonders whether to stay late for paperwork. I could not make this choice. I could not balance the responsibility I would have to manage my children’s lives and the ability to save the lives of others. I don’t know how anyone manages to be a doctor or a parent, let alone both. I know that my parents set out to do both tasks without expecting it to be so hard, and without understanding the costs. No one understands the consequences of the life they choose when they’re choosing it. My parents have done worthy things with their lives. But that worthiness is the result of many painful choices.