Stuck on the sofa, breastfeeding my insatiable newborn, on maternity leave from my full-time position as a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit, it dawned on me—I was now someone’s caregiver every hour of every day. Providing care was no longer just my career, it is who I am, maybe who I have always been. The only difference being, I used to have days off when I thought only of myself.
Nursing and motherhood are two sides of the same altruistic coin. There is no instruction manual for either—they can only be learned by doing. Now that I am a nurse and a mom, I split my days between caring for critically ill patients in the ICU and caring for my family at home.
I care. Every day. Around the clock.
Those of us in caring professions never know when we’ve done enough for our patients. The secret no one tells you is there is never enough, there is only more. The good news is, you find that out quickly. We could have always done more, we could’ve been better. Sure, we can be just enough, but I was never comfortable there. I wanted to excel and be confident I was providing the highest level of care. Caring has no ceiling, only sky, and wondering. Just like being a mother, we can always be more present, more nurturing and even more fun. The instant we think we’ve nailed it, being 100 percent there for them, we’ve failed at self-care, because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be everything to everyone without losing ourselves. It is unsustainable and self-destructive.
So, enough morphs into an expansive spectrum, highly dependent on an infinite number of constantly changing factors, such as our sleep-to-work ratio, whether we’ve had any quality downtime we can actually remember, how valued we feel in the moment, and of course our overall GAFF (what I affectionately refer to as the very scientific “Give a Fuck Factor”). If you’re going to survive motherhood and nursing, allow your idea of enough to be dynamic, depending on how full your tank is. Let yourself be OK with that. Some days 50 percent will be a win, everyone will be fine; tomorrow will always provide another opportunity to find a new enough.
Along with the concept of doing enough comes the inevitable feelings of failure that can result when we don’t quite get there. Loathsome and all-consuming guilt begins to contaminate our thoughts. Guilt is so pervasive in nursing and motherhood only because there is no concrete enough. There is no deadline, no number to achieve, only thorny feelings to be felt and internal questions to be overanalyzed. The guilt will eat you alive if you let it.
Over the years, I have developed an easy and effective survival plan.
Step 1: Gather up your trusted friends.
Step 2: Pour the drinks and eat your favorite comfort food.
Step 3: Honestly share all the crappy things you’ve done, and vent about the bad days you’ve had. When the moms tell you about the time they turned up the volume on the TV instead of breaking up yet another fight between siblings—that puts enough in its place. When your co-workers confess they haven’t actually counted a respiratory rate for a full minute since their second year of nursing school; they just observe the chest rise and fall for 3.5 seconds, estimate, record an even number, and every now and again throw in an odd one for authenticity (I’m sure it’s within a 20 percent margin of error.)—that also puts enough in its place. We’re all just trying our best with what we have to work with in the moment. No one ever chooses nursing or motherhood and aspires to do an abysmal job.
No one. Ever.
Not only do we try our best and feel guilty about not doing more, we are rarely acknowledged for the endless hours of work and care we put in. Our minds race and our backs ache. I dare you to find two more thankless jobs than nursing and motherhood. We are invisible yet essential. If we all disappeared tomorrow the world would come to an abrupt standstill. (Remember the day Iceland’s women went on strike?) We are so skilled at stealthily doing it all we often go unnoticed, that is, until we make a mistake.
When I first started nursing, I needed someone to tell me if I was doing OK. One of my experienced co-workers told me, “in nursing, no news is good news.” You will never hear about all the things you did right, only about the one thing you did wrong. As a person who craves validation, the only way I’ve learned to cope with this is to find it myself by carefully watching for the subtle signs in those I care for—a grateful smile, a furrowed brow that has relaxed, or a wife finally feeling secure enough to leave her husband’s bedside for a night’s rest.
Same goes for home. Your children and spouse will likely never thank you outside of Mother’s Day, but if you look carefully, you will find unspoken accolades. They will care for you, listen and prop you up when you’re down, as their way of showing their infinite appreciation. Your husband will make your favorite breakfast, a vegetable omelette and hash browns, while you relax with your cup of coffee watching your favorite baking show on a Saturday morning. Your son will only want your skilled hands to remove his splinter and your kiss to comfort him afterward. These are the genuine actions that speak louder than any simple “thank you” said out of habit.
Nursing and motherhood are challenging in many of the same ways they are fulfilling. Everyone can relate to the bad things—like sleep deprivation, bodily fluids, nauseating odors and demanding physical labor. In much the same way, I remember relating only to what I’d have to endure when I began to imagine having a baby. All the wonderful things we imagine about having children are abstract and intangible until you experience them. It’s impossible to truly communicate the sheer magnitude and impact a baby will have on your life. The English language can’t begin to describe what it feels like when your child looks into your eyes and says, “I love you, Mama” for the first time, or when your patient’s wife wraps her grateful arms around you, tears falling on your shoulder, because your keen eye, quick thinking and swift action saved her husband from a post-operative bleed. That is the magic that is sprinkled throughout the mundane tasks and trying days. That’s why and how we do it—that glimpse of pure joy.
It’s in these sublime moments we find clarity. We’re always enough.