Before I gave birth, I had children—a different crew of kids every night, assigned to me by the nurse in charge. I had a few favorites. We all did, although we liked to think each of the kids in our long-term care facility received the same level of care. Most kids received a little bit more—a sweet smuggled in from home, a pair of new socks when the old went missing, a gift on their birthday when their family “forgot” to stop by to celebrate.
Most of us, young and fresh out of nursing school, had no children of our own. These medically fragile children became our firsts, the ones who taught us that little boys wee the moment you remove their diaper, and every child is a bit of a Houdini when it comes to crib rails and removing their clothing. Unexpectedly, they taught us what it meant to mother.
We learned that mothering meant showing up. It meant feverish foreheads and crack-baby cries. Mothering meant calls to the doctor, and leaden, weary feet, and remembering who needed their hair washed and airway suctioned on any given night. We learned how to give love and receive nothing in return, and we learned that not all families need to share the same DNA to be linked in love.
The lines between patient and nurse blurred as we realized these kids needed more than medical care given with a decent bedside manner. They needed hugs and belonging and unconditional love. They needed the same people at the same time, every single day. We filled in the gaps the best way we knew how, by giving more than diaper changes and crushed pills. We gave them ourselves.
We also gave a healthy dose of criticism and judgment to the mothers who never showed up, who left the parenting to a motley crew of recent nursing school graduates. I thought of them, as I cleaned their son’s surgical wound, replaced their daughter’s breathing tube, or wiped away toddler tears with their accompanying chorus of silent cries. I confess—a small, hateful part of me wished these so-called “mothers” understood what it meant to suffer too.
I met Kristie’s mom once. She arrived with her husband, who spent much of his visit on a smoke-break outside. I gave her a brief description of Kristie’s care and the latest doctor’s report, then I gathered up my stethoscope and my judgmental attitude and walked out of the room. I entered later to find Kristie’s mom leaning over the bed frame and the ventilator tubing, smoothing dark brown curls from her daughter’s face. Tears traced a wet path down her cheeks, and for the first time, I wondered if her unexplainable absence was an attempt to silence her own inner cries.
Over time, I heard rumors of other mothers—painful stories of addiction, prison, and personal loss. And I remembered Kristie’s mother, bent over and crying, running her fingers through her daughter’s dark brown curls.
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