I can’t speak from any role other than mother, although I’m sure this applies to other caregiver positions as well: You’re put in charge of someone, asked to take care of them, but then something happens, and suddenly you’re overcome with the feeling that maybe you did something incredibly wrong.
It’s hard sitting in front of a doctor, listening to them give you less than ideal news. It’s harder when they are giving you that news about someone you are supposed to be nurturing, and growing into an adult. It’s one thing to to take responsibility for one’s own health, it’s an entirely different, and uncomfortable, feeling to take responsibility of the health of another.
I’ve been in this place a few times, but two instances stand out most. One because it was the scariest moment for me as a mother, and the other because it just happened yesterday.
When Cole was only a few months old, I took him in for his well child check. He seemed like a pretty healthy baby. He cried more than Jenna had, but he ate and slept well. Basically, I didn’t have any concerns. The appointment started out perfectly normal. The nurse measured and weighed my son, and took us to the exam room. She talked to us for a little while, took his vitals, and then told me the doctor would be in to see us soon. The doctor came in and looked at Cole’s chart. She examined him, and when she looked at me, I could see the concern written all over her face. She told me that my son was being diagnosed as failure to thrive, that I had to go directly to the hospital with him, and that he was severely underweight. I was stunned.
I coordinated with my mom to take care of Jenna, and I went next door to the hospital with my little boy. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew I would do whatever they asked to make sure he was okay. As soon as we were admitted, they started him on an IV. I held by sweet baby as he fussed, and the nurses bustled around getting us settled. Before long, an older nurse entered the room. She came over to the bed where I was sitting, and stood over me. She was not smiling.
Sighing deeply she said something under her breath about how, “It was always the young ones.” (I’m assuming she thought I was 16 instead of 22, but you never know.) Then she looked at me and asked me to tell her my daily schedule. I was a bit confused, but I started to talk to her about life with a baby and a toddler. She eventually interrupted me, “Dear, I know it is probably very busy for you, but you have to feed babies more than three times a day. They aren’t like you, or even like a toddler. If he’s crying, I want you to feed him. Right now you’re starving him.” I can remember every word. I can remember her face and the way she looked at me. I was stunned.
“I know how to take care of my baby,” I told her. I then asked her if she’d like to see my chubby almost two year old. If she wanted references. I informed her that I nursed my son when he was hungry, and I was not purposefully starving him. She raised her eyebrow at me, wrote a bunch of stuff into a chart, and told me she would be back. When she did come back, she came with a bunch of papers, and premixed bottles of high protein formula. She told me to feed Cole according to the chart she had, to write down how much he ate, and then to write down every diaper I changed. It was policy, I’m sure, but it felt like she was directly questioning my ability to parent.
Eventually the doctor showed up for rounds. She checked to see how Cole was doing, and was delighted to see that he was eating well. She told me that if he continued to gain weight over the next month, she could remove his diagnosis. She also informed me that it seemed like he wasn’t gaining weight from breast feeding, and that it would be best to switch to bottles. We did. Within hours (no joke) he started gaining weight, and in two months he went from startlingly skinny, to a chubby little monkey.
It was impossibly hard to listen to that nurse tell me that I was the problem. I took it to heart, and felt guilty for months for not being able to properly nourish my son as nature intended. I didn’t know why he hadn’t been able to thrive with me nursing him, I just knew it was me that was making him miserable. It was like being convicted of a crime I didn’t realize I had committed.
Yesterday I took my Goblins to the dentist. After Jenna’s cleaning, the dentist came in to do his exam. I don’t know what it is about dentists and dental hygienists (and if you are one, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend) but it seems that they all take a class in how to give the perfect judgey look. Jenna’s dentist leveled said look at me, and informed me that she had eight cavities. Honestly, the guilt kicked in immediately. We don’t push flossing, and there are days when brushing only happens before bed. But still, eight?! That seemed like a lot to me.
The dentist didn’t smile at me, he didn’t tell me it would be okay. He just gave me a monotone list of things I would need to do. Appointments every three months for fluoride treatments, every six months for x-rays. We would need to see a pediatric dentist as well. There was also prescription toothpaste on the agenda. He said it all without much expression or feeling. I could feel him thinking I should be doing more. Look, I know I don’t know what he was thinking, but that’s the point. A doctor’s diagnosis of a problem I couldn’t see or predict, once again, felt like an indictment on my ability to parent my child.
We left the office, and I started making phone calls to get appointments set up, and then I made a phone call to someone for a bit of reassurance and comfort. I just needed someone to listen to me fret, and to tell me it would be okay. Instead I got bombarded with more possibilities. The fluoride treatments might have side effects, and the prescription toothpaste might contain neurotoxins. I couldn’t catch a break. I was damned if I followed the dentist’s instructions, and damned if I didn’t. Either way, I was the one on the wrong end. Either way I wasn’t doing what I should for my kid. If I didn’t go for the treatments, her teeth might fall out. If I did, she might never eat wheat again, or worse, she might get cancer and die.
I hung up feeling unsure, anxious, and paranoid. No matter my choice, I would be doing the wrong thing.
Basically, taking care of another human is hard. It often doesn’t make sense, and a lot of times, it will leave you feeling like you’re alone and on trial. But I have good news! You aren’t alone. There are a ton of other people out there feeling the same way, and we can all support each other.
A diagnosis, even a small, seemingly benign one, can be heartbreaking for the person hearing it. It can make them feel like an abject failure. Be kind to those around you. Put yourself in their shoes. Don’t leap to judgement, but instead try to empathize. It may make all the difference for someone.