Motherhood is not something you learn from a textbook. It’s a process, a journey that can only be fully understood by those who have been through it. If you’re a doctor, no amount of schooling or patient interaction can prepare you for being a mother in real life.
In last week’s post, three new mothers shared their stories about their first pregnancies. With Mother’s Day still in mind, I’ve invited three of my colleagues to share how their medical backgrounds helped – or hindered – their pregnancies and childbirth experiences. We’ll hear from a mother who was baffled by her newborn, another who had an emergency C-section, and another who struggled to achieve work-life balance.
Here are their stories in their own words.
Tiffany Woodus’ story: What you don’t learn in medical school
After my daughter was born, I realized I didn’t know that much about babies. Being an Ob/Gyn did not prepare me for being a mom in real life. What you read and study in medical school is a lot different from the real deal. I was used to just delivering babies and handing them off to our patients!
On one hand, my training in obstetrics and gynecology made my pregnancy easier. I’ve seen many women struggle with pregnancy during the hot Texas summers. I didn’t want to suffer like that. My husband, Russell, and I tried to time it out so the weather would be cooler toward the end of the pregnancy. Lucky for me, the timing worked out perfectly! I was pregnant in the fall and winter, and my daughter, Zara, was born in the spring.
Also, I knew from reading and talking with my patients that taking time for yourself and your partner after having a baby can be a struggle. So we decided to take a “babymoon” to Jamaica when I was about 24 weeks pregnant. That’s the “age of viability,” or the point in a pregnancy in which a baby can be born with a probability of surviving (another tidbit I knew from my training).
We also celebrated our wedding anniversary there. We considered it our “last hurrah” before the baby. At that point in the pregnancy, I was still comfortable enough to be out and about.
Being an Ob/Gyn also made pregnancy harder than it should have been, in a way, because I worried about all the little things. I have seen and studied pregnancy conditions that are extremely rare and complicated. And just like many other women, my mind tends to wander to worst-case scenario.
Overall, my pregnancy was fairly easy and typical. Dr. Julie Lo delivered Zara on May 14, 2014, and we got to take her home right away.
That’s when things got complicated.
When Zara came home, I behaved like any new mom. When I was baffled by Zara’s behavior or had an “Is this normal?” question, I called my friends for advice or read blogs written by other moms. I entered motherhood with a perception of what it’s supposed to be like, but Zara continues to surprise me. I’m very task- and goal-oriented, but babies don’t always follow the rules. You just have to learn to go with the flow.
Since I’m a mother now, I definitely empathize with my patients on a new level. I always wondered if the advice I was giving actually worked, like taking deep, cleansing breaths to deal with contractions during labor. Now that I’ve gone through it, I know it does, and I can share my personal experiences with my patients.
Denisse Holcomb’s story: Challenging pregnancies increase empathy
As a private practice Ob/Gyn, I have told numerous women they would have to deliver their babies early. I had no idea how traumatic that conversation could be until I went through it myself – twice.
My son, MJ, was born in 2009. In my third trimester, I developed preeclampsia, a disorder characterized by elevated blood pressures and protein in the urine. As a result, I was placed on hospital bedrest at 31 weeks. At 35 weeks, my blood pressures raised to dangerous levels (a condition known as severe preeclampsia), and I was induced. MJ was born early, but that didn’t slow him down. He did not have to spend any time in the NICU, and he got to come home right away.
When MJ was 4 years old, he started praying for a new baby, specifically a baby sister. Lo and behold, I found out I was pregnant a few months later – we hadn’t even been trying. When we told MJ he was going to be a big brother, he immediately had a question.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
We explained that we didn’t know yet if the baby would be a boy or a girl.
“If it’s a baby brother, I am going to have to keep praying. I need a baby sister!”
Needless to say, we started “praying for a sister,” too.
My second pregnancy was not as easy as my first. I had subchorionic hematoma (a blood clot that can form within the folds of the outer fetal membrane, adjacent to the placenta) early in the pregnancy. Though I understood the diagnosis and clinical symptoms as a physician, as a mother it was extremely terrifying to experience. The bleeding resolved several weeks later, and my pregnancy was fairly uneventful until 28 weeks. I noticed that I began to have some lower extremity swelling; as an obstetrician/gynecologist, I knew that this could be an early sign of preeclampsia. I checked my blood pressure and found it to be slightly elevated.
I went to see Dr. Patricia Santiago-Munoz right away and was admitted to the hospital. She tested me for preeclampsia, and though my blood pressure was higher than normal, I didn’t meet the criteria for preeclampsia based on urine protein. I went home on bed rest with instructions to monitor my blood pressure at home.
A week later, I went back to see Dr. Santiago-Munoz, with my luggage in hand, certain I would be admitted. After some time in the hospital, I eventually progressed to severe preeclampsia. The baby was breech, which means the baby’s feet and rear end were trying to come out before the head. I ended up having a C-section. “Early Ella” was in the NICU for three months, getting stronger and learning how to feed. We were able to bring her home on Oct. 13, 2014, the day after MJ’s birthday.
Being an Ob/Gyn made pregnancy a little scarier for me. Knowing that so many things can go wrong was unsettling at times. Also, having to experience my daughter’s time in the NICU as a patient, NOT a physician, made me feel so powerless. As a physician, I am used to feeling in control of a situation; this was very frustrating at times. I believe the experience has made me a more empathetic, compassionate doctor. Since I’ve become a mother, I can answer questions I could not have answered in such a personal way before. Moms ask what bottles to use and how to use nipple shields. Those are the things you don’t learn in medical school.
I am a doctor, but first of all, I am a mom. My kids mean everything to me. I was talking to a friend the other day who is a stay-at-home mom. She thinks I have the most important job in the world, being an obstetrician, delivering babies. I told her, “No, WE have the most important job – being moms.”
Emily Adhikari’s story: Love your job and kids
I really love my job. I also really love my kids. Over the past five years, I’ve learned that it’s not only possible, but also OK, to be both a busy professional and a loving mother.
Both of my pregnancies were easy. I was blessed to start out healthy, and I sort of coasted through both of them. Many women take that for granted, but as an Ob/Gyn, I fully grasp how fortunate I was to have no complications.
My first baby, Sarina, was born in 2010. Fortunately, I got to be home at least part time with Sarina until she was 6 months old. I had a break from classes before my residency began, which gave me the opportunity to spend good, quality time with her.
That six-month stretch also was a big shock for my husband and me. He is a pediatrician, so together we thought we were pretty set with “baby knowledge.” We quickly learned that being an Ob/Gyn or pediatrician does not automatically make you a good parent! You have to go through the experience of caring for a child to truly understand the ups and downs and the learning opportunities along the way.
One of our biggest struggles was breastfeeding. I had a hard time making enough milk, so I was researching and taking supplements to try to make more. It was very stressful for me. Looking back, I gained a lot of insight into why many women struggle to continue breastfeeding past the early weeks. My experiences have made me more compassionate and more prepared to help my patients who are struggling.
When my residency began, it was so hard to leave Sarina during the day. She was at a really fun stage, smiling, laughing, and cooing. I had to remind myself that I would see her that evening and that it was OK for me to enjoy being at work, even though I was away from my baby.
Being an Ob/Gyn resident made my second pregnancy easier, or at least less stressful. I learned what to expect during the pregnancy, as well as signs and symptoms to look out for. My real-life experiences with Sarina prepared me to care for our son, Ravi, who was born just after Christmas in 2014.
The rare mornings that I don’t go to work before the sun is up have become a really special time for our family. The kids are both up and alert in the mornings, and I get to eat breakfast with Sarina and listen to her stories while nursing Ravi. I treasure watching the kids interact with each other. Ravi recognizes Sarina, and she really dotes on him. I can’t wait to watch their relationship grow, sibling squabbles and all!
The adjustments involved with being a working mother can get complicated, but it’s worth it.
It takes planning, but you can learn to adapt your home life and career and still spend valuable time with your family. We may not have their birthday parties on their actual birthdays, and that’s OK. What really matters is that the kids know and feel that they are loved.
When you become a mother, you realize just how much you didn’t know and how much you have to learn. It’s a journey you take with your child. Enjoy those moments of learning together, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of your physician and other parents who have been there.