Six years ago today I handed in my PhD thesis with an emotional flourish only found in those who are 38 weeks pregnant. With a toddler at home and still teaching full-time I was determined to get it done before the new baby arrived and indeed I did. As soon as I’d finished, after finishing with the weeping, I swore blind to my husband that I was done with studying … Since then I have done a specialist diploma in adult education and am almost ready to sit my medical school finals and I am WELL AND TRULY FED UP WITH STUDYING.
The library is now full of my colleagues looking wide-eyed and anxious, or anxiously reassuring each other that there is nothing to be anxious about. They arrive first thing and leave last thing at night, or they don’t leave at all as the libraries are open 24 hours. This frenzy of studying and revision will reach fever pitch over the next couple of weeks and some of them will look at me and the smattering of other parents on the course and gasp “I don’t know how you manage it … with children!”
Because of course it is different. I can’t work for hours on end, I work until the clock says I need to pick them up to take them somewhere to do something, or feed them, or just spend some time with them. This can be frustrating when there is lots of work to do and I want to finish a train of thought, but it does make you very disciplined. I work smart because I have to. I also cut corners because I have to; I hope I will be a good doctor but I won’t be a doctor with a detailed understanding of some of the more difficult scientific concepts or a memory of exactly how all these drugs work because I have to skip over them. I will cram knowledge into my head for the exams and hope I retain the important stuff for afterwards but I know some will fall out instantly, or get pushed out by the fact that I simply choose to give home more of my attention.
Because however much I want to be a doctor I want to be a good mum more. I want my children to grow up secure in their parents’ love for them and for each other, to be happy, honest and healthy and to develop into balanced, fulfilled adults. Of course I also want them to excel in all that they do and be kind to each other at all times but this is obviously a work in progress!
But I have never felt that I needed to stop working to do this. What I need to do is be very good at loving them, very good at multi-tasking and ridiculously organised. And I am. And it is exhausting. But it works, and it works because I realise that to “have it all” you have to cut corners at home as well as at work. So my house is not very tidy, and sometimes my kids don’t eat enough fruit, and my son has occasionally slipped a 12-rated film under my radar. And sometimes I am not the parent I want to be – I am the shouty, irrational woman I swore I would never be and although I always say sorry, I wish it wouldn’t happen. But it doesn’t happen often and I have an excellent “wing-man” to keep me on the straight and narrow and to remind me that the children don’t need it to be perfect, they just need it to be done with love.
There is a scene in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson where the main character, a working mother, is up at midnight bashing shop bought mince pies with a rolling pin to make them look homemade. She is doing this to impress upon the “schoolgate mums” that she can do “it all” – work full time and be a “proper” hands on mother. The scene makes me smile but it is not something I recognise. Don’t get me wrong, the stream of requests from school for cakes/donations for tombolas/outfits can seem relentless but frankly the children don’t seem to care if my efforts are sometimes a bit crap as long as I remember. Shop bought is often fine by them. Shop bought is the only option in their eyes if it involves a packed lunch – homemade bread is apparently a social disaster when you are eight. I have only forgotten once and luckily the lovely teacher covered my tracks. So there’s not much point knocking myself out to bake the best cake or sew the best Victorian costume, just as there is no point me missing a family dinner time to learn about the finer points of immunology.
At the moment we mostly get the balance right but of course there is the nagging doubt about the future balance. Fatigue is the biggest threat at the moment because fatigue makes me foggy and grumpy and neither of those help with the necessary hyper-drive. The fatigue of MS is overwhelming when it strikes, but a combination of Capaxone, high dose Vitamin D and Vitamin B complex seems to be helping. And anyone with small children lives life with fatigue – when I started medical school my son was still waking four or five times a night, a legacy of neonatal illness, and I still managed to go in every day and learn some stuff. So although it’s not fun, it’s doable. But what if, when, it gets worse. Reading about rehabilitation and disability this week I learnt that the average MS “patient” progresses from diagnosis to disability in 5-8 years. But that 31% are only “mildly disabled.” When I started this course, full of optimism about healing the sick, and ignoring the look of panic on my husband’s eyes about the financial implications of giving up paid work for years, I didn’t think that my hope at the end of it would be for “mild disability,” but there we go!
So, in the spirit of good parenting I have a decision to make about my children. Recent information from the MS trust http://www.mstrust.org.uk/information/opendoor/articles/1311_10_11.jsp suggests my children have a 1/40 chance of developing MS, a chance that “might” be reduced if they take high dose Vitamin D too. But there are no trials, no evidence about potential harm and no real guidance so what to do? I actually have no idea so I shall add pondering about this to my list of procrastination techniques (currently includes Candy Crush, True Blood, detective fiction and cleaning out cupboards) over the next month. Would be interesting to hear what people think…