It’s 6:30am. The parents’ pager (otherwise known as a baby monitor) summons me; it’s time to get my toddler out of her crib. I open the door to her room and am met with two syllables of infantile indignation.
I’m used to the disappointment and have never taken it personally. What 18-month-old doesn’t want their mother’s face to be the first one they see in the morning?
“Mama’s at work, sweetheart.”
Confused at the unconvincing imposter standing before her, she again voices her displeasure. “Mama!”
“Maybe tonight, kiddo. Come on, let’s get you dressed.”
I’m a non-medical husband to my wife who’s in the throes of a surgical fellowship. We are both in our early thirties and have been married/together for over five years, first meeting in her intern year of residency. We have one toddler.
Anyone in my position can vouch for the pain that doctors’ partners go through. But this isn’t pain that our better halves might prescribe Rx remedies for. It’s the pain of seeing someone you love get mercilessly beaten down and the pain of not being able to do anything about it. The pain of repeating the same vanilla condolences: “I’m sorry, that’s hard, I can’t imagine, it’ll get better,” and the pain of watching those words stare back at you in empty, glazed-over eyes. Vapid sympathy in, vacant expression out. The pain of watching them physically break from malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion. The pain of their mental anguish from being abused, demeaned, belittled, disrespected, and dehumanized. The pain of being a bystander, frozen in witness. Frustrated. Angry. Powerless. Useless.
There’s also the pain of having to hold in our feelings, to hide our problems, and to minimize our own suffering. With rare exceptions, nothing we go through is anywhere near the difficulty that they go through. Their work is more physically and emotionally tolling than ours will ever be, as is the gravity of the stakes in their hands (literally and figuratively). Given this, the validity of suffering becomes binary. There is the world within the operating room and the world outside the operating room. The hospital is its own sovereign state in constant war while we foreigners live our lives in blithe normalcy, distracted and drunk on the nectar of freshly squeezed first world problems. Double shot, 2%, extra hot, but not too hot, please and thank you. There is little to no comparison between our worst days and their best days.
It’s 9:00am. Time for a family walk with the three of us: myself, my daughter, and, of course, the dog. With the stroller secured and the leash taut, we’re on our way.
We pass a car. “Mama!”
“Mama’s at work.”
A fire hydrant. “Mama!”
“Still at work, sweetheart.”
She points at the sky. “Mama, Mama, Mama.”
I sigh, but quickly catch my bubbling sadness and hide it with a grin. “Maybe tonight, kiddo. Let’s sing a song. If you’re happy and you know it…”
My wife was accepted into top tier training programs and has consistently been best in her class. She’s well-regarded, has a decorated CV, and is a damn good doctor. What people fail to realize is that the violent pressure it takes to attain these achievements creates a deep, holistic numbing. I was and continue to be the sole witness to my wife’s descent into this sick and twisted rabbit hole. Her daily fantasies of quitting. Coming home crying. Nervous breakdowns. Crippling imposter syndrome. Perpetually second-guessing herself. Suicide threats. Eventually, debilitating postpartum depression and a multiyear battle with alcoholism. Thankfully, things are much better now, but there were moments where I didn’t think we were going to make it. And through it all, nobody – not her patients nor her colleagues – sees her journey, her struggle, her humanity, behind her doctor badge.
It’s noon. Nap time. After a hearty lunch topping off a busy morning, we head to the crib. After some reading and rocking, it’s time to go nigh-nigh. My daughter goes down and reaches for every stuffed animal she can. Every other one evokes a “Mama!” followed by laughter and yelping. The “Mama’s” continue, each one less enthusiastic than the last. Tiredness sets in. I’m outside the room now, listening on the baby monitor. It’s the sound of innocence and purity.
For the past year, I’ve been living with chronic pain. But for us, in the wake of the chaos that rules our lives, there is little room for such an inconvenience. It’s the chaos of unpredictable schedules, holidays that aren’t holidays, reheated dinners, canceled plans, and sleepless nights, courtesy of the beloved pager. My pain is overshadowed. And so the physical pain becomes added as background noise with all my other mental pain. Truthfully, though, I’d take the physical pain, if I had to choose between the two.
It’s 2:00pm. My pager tells me that our daughter is up from her nap. I used those two hours to shower, do the dishes, straighten up the play areas, take out the garbage, pay bills, and catch a few minutes of shuteye for myself. Now, time to get the kiddo changed and reacclimated back to the waking world. We go upstairs to investigate what snacks are awaiting us. We pass a mantle with a framed photo of my wife and myself. My daughter points at it and grins ear to ear. “Mama!”
“That’s right, Mama it is.”
Reaching until her arm nearly pops out of its socket, she exclaims again, louder than before. “Mama!”
“I know, sweetheart. That is Mama. But she’s at work right now. Come on, let’s keep going. Want a snack?”
Snack – the usual panacea – has fallen flat. Squirming and writhing begins. I can feel a tantrum simmering. “No, no, no!”
I step closer to the frame, and, as if her life depends on it, she grasps it, and smiles, eyes widening. Crisis averted. “Mama!”
After about fifty more “Mamas” she quiets down but maintains her grip on the frame. It remains clutched to her chest.
I often feel like a single father. There are days where my wife doesn’t see our daughter as she leaves before she wakes up and comes home after she goes to bed (if she comes home at all). My days consist of waking up, taking care of my daughter until I have to work, work a full day, and then resume care until bedtime. Once down, I spend that last hour or so vegging, usually alone. I used to have hobbies, interests, and passions. But between my health issues, having an absent partner, working full time, and taking care of a toddler, I have nothing left at the end of the day.
It’s hard on me, but harder on my wife. I know the best part of her day is when she gets to sneak in some time with her baby. Even if it’s just before bed, the last fifteen minutes of the day, being able to do the put down routine is her joy. Feeling that closeness of feeding her milk, reading, rocking, singing, and patting in the crib. Marveling at the new word she picked up that day. Feeling the overcoming emotion that comes from being a parent which words will never adequately describe.
I mentioned earlier that my wife is a damn good doctor, but she’s an even better mother, when the hospital allows. I look forward to the day where family time will be more of the rule rather than the exception.
It’s 7:30pm. We’re in the rocking chair now, noise machine on, diffused lighting leaving the room aglow. I reflect on the day as our daughter guzzles milk from her sippy cup, curled in my lap. Dinner turned exhilarating when she dropped her chicken bone and I had to chase our dog around the table who had pounced on the prize. Bath time started tumultuous after some soap got in her eyes, but nothing a quick rinse and some peekaboo couldn’t fix. Now, we’re on the verge of bedtime. “Thwuck, thwuck, thwuck,” tells me the milk is gone and now it’s time to read.
A sleepy, yet inquisitive voice asks “Mama?”
I sigh. “Yeah, I know.”
“Mama’s at work, love.”
Her eyebrows furrow and she blinks slowly, staring at me. “Mama,” she concludes, with an I-rest-my-case expression.
“Maybe tonight, sweetheart.”
I smile through the pain. It won’t be tonight. It might not even be tomorrow. She doesn’t understand, but it’s probably better that way. I reach for a book to read to her, holding her tight, kiss her head, and resume rocking.
Reprinted with permission from author (reddit handle u/medspousedad)