Whenever I have a female medical student, as I did today, I always catch them looking at a framed cartoon on my desk and smiling. The cartoon is an original hand lettered Doonesbury strip by Garry Trudeau, and it is indeed larger than life, each section about five by four inches. If you look closely, you can see where Garry used white-out to make small corrections to give the strip that understated comic timing that Doonesbury is so well known for. When that particular strip came out in the Boston Globe in 1988, I knew I had to have it. Since my husband was an old college buddy of Garry’s, he wrote to him and asked him if he would send it to me, and Garry obliged. At the bottom of the strip, Garry wrote “Courage and good luck!” Twenty four years later, it is one of my most prized possessions.
The strip consists of four frames laid out horizontally in squares. In the first frame, Joanie Caucus, mother and career woman, has picked up her daughter from daycare, and they are in the car together. She says, “How did day care go today, honey?” The kid answers, “Okay.” In the second frame, they are still in the car, and the landscape has changed slightly. The kid says, “I was crying because all the other children went home and you were late again, but Mrs. Wicker gave me oreos and let me watch cartoons and I called her “Mommy” by mistake.” In the third frame, they are still in the car and you can see the long arm of a stoplight over head. There is complete and utter silence in the car. In the fourth frame, Joanie says, “You play hardball kid.” The kid says, “Green light, Mommy.”
At the time, I had two children and was contemplating a third, who came along three years later. I had a full time job taking care of cancer patients. In college a zealous new wave of women’s studies professors had reassured and brainwashed the 250 women in my class (perhaps in defiance of the alumni who insisted that, yes women could attend this formerly all male bastion, as long as the college continued to graduate “1000 male leaders” per year). They told us that we could “have it all”, and we believed them. So off we went to medical school, and law school, and graduate school and business school to heal the sick, comfort the disenfranchised, teach another generation of women, and in some cases, make a fortune. And many of us married, and had children.
People say to me now that my children are grown up, “How did you DO it?” The answer is, I have no idea how I did it. A lot of it is a blur. At this stage in life, I get exhausted even thinking about the fact that I was always rushing to work, rushing home, rushing to get dinner on the table, rushing to help with homework, and then on the weekend rushing to attend as many horse shows, soccer games, wrestling matches and do as many loads of laundry as I could cram into a 48 hour period. My girlfriends, similarly over extended, and I would joke that “We need a WIFE!” I had some serious “Bad Mommy” moments, which my grown up kids remember in excruciating detail, and will recount at holiday dinners, especially if they need money. They STILL know how to play hardball, that’s for sure.
Sometimes a female medical student reads that old Doonesbury strip, gets to the end, clears her throat nervously and then asks me, “Would you do it all again? Is it possible to have a full time career AND raise a family?” The answer is always ” yes”, despite the homework that didn’t get checked, the house that didn’t get cleaned, the PTO meetings missed, the dog that peed on the carpet, the late pick ups, the early drop offs, the hurried kisses goodbye, the need to see that one last patient having difficulties in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, the fatigue and always, the guilt. And I will tell that young woman that when she is on her knees by the bathtub at the end of a very long day with a three year old splashing water in her face, and that toddler slips up and calls her by his nanny’s name, she need not worry about it quite so much. Trust me, they do know who their mommy is.
In spite of me, or perhaps in some small part because of me—the kids are all right.