is a part time general practitioner in the UK National Health Service, a spare time RCGP Clinical Fellow in Perinatal Mental Health, and a full time mum…doing overtime!
Despite all the pressures, challenges and daily frustrations of working in the NHS, I still feel being a General Practitioner in the UK is the best job in the world. Well, second best to being a mum to my incredibly fun and loving two young children. But which role is truly the more challenging? Those who have children will know instantly what I am talking about and those without may well know from friends that this question has serious ground for debate. Despite 13 years of further professional development in the form of continued education, assessment and appraisal since leaving Southampton Medical School, there are many difficult moments I deal with as a mum where I feel as unsure and inexperienced as any other parent. People often generously assume that of all health professionals, medics in particular will know what to feed their fussy baby, how to discipline their child in front of the grandparents and what to do when their “spirited” toddler throws a tantrum in a supermarket. I write to correct this misconception. Although doctors may know more about the theory of parenting and the techniques that the books recommend, this doesn’t always translate into instinctively knowing what to do with their own children, despite their best efforts.
Picture the scene: a late rainy Saturday afternoon, in the freezer aisle of a busy supermarket. Having forgotten to order the online shop (failed New Year’s resolution number 35), I am spending a tedious hour of my precious weekend - grocery shopping. My gorgeous sweet-tempered first born is loving making new friends with other shoppers, not minding her plump little legs being squished too tightly into the child seat of the trolley.
"Milk, nappies, something for dinner with the in-laws..." My caffeine fueled brain rapidly moves through images of the contents of our fridge then our food cupboard whilst simultaneously rocking the trolley back and forth, singing the 14th verse of "the wheels on the bus" and mentally meal planning for the coming week (failed New Year's resolution number 36) - all is just about working - I am super mum. I can do this.
And then it happens - my loud and vocally precocious first born spots something in the freezer cabinets and you know what comes next - " Mummy, I want that one!" she shouts excitedly.
"No, sweetheart, we're not buying chocolate-iced extra chocolate-chip double chocolate-flavour ice cream today."
Bottom lip wobbling, tears freely flowing, whole body violently trembling, and the cry that every parent fears - a deep howling loud enough to prompt a practice fire drill in most public places - and there it is - the toddler tantrum.
Why now, why me, why here?
Suddenly my super mum powers escape me and I look in my trolley for some weaponry - sadly lacking - extra-large bag of frozen chips, 2-4-1 household cleaning stuff ( that I confess will sit in the cupboard under the sink until 2 hours before my mother comes to stay next time) and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Hmmmm. Despite never being more than a metre away from a packet of raisins in every handbag, change bag and door for any other moment of my life, I cannot find one now to placate my little darling.
Suddenly, I feel every shopper is looking straight at my toddler, or rather, at me and how I respond to her almighty screams. Just when I have fleeting but very tempting thoughts of grabbing said toddler and fleeing the scene of the crime, I hear a voice behind me...
"Doctor! How nice to see you! And this must be your little cherub! How old is she now? Ahhh what a spirited child - is she hungry? Is it nap time?"
An inquisitive peer into my trolley....and an immaculately plucked & penciled eyebrow raise - I could read her thoughts like they were her medical notes in my consulting room.
How I suddenly wished for an actual fire alarm to save me from the situation. And then something unexpected happened - my screaming darling stopped - started smiling, babbling and reaching out to wave at this kind face.
Phew. Crisis over. A moment to gather myself together. And then splintering the moment like a sharp icicle falling from a great height, a little innocent voice piped up “who is that MAN mummy?"
I have never managed to escape an awkward situation quite so quickly - politely smiling, using my 3 point turn skills to negotiate a line of escape route and briskly marching down towards to household aisle (again).
"That, Sweetheart, is a LADY".
Allowing myself a slight smile, I move on to the bakery aisle and throw a large pack of custard doughnuts into the trolley.
Once safely home, I reflect on this experience in more detail – why did I not avert that tantrum, why did I feel judged by my trolley contents, why was I so embarrassed by my toddler’s gender identification difficulties? I soon realised I was being over critical of myself and actually the only person judging my parenting ability, was me. My elderly patient was being nothing other than friendly, polite and interested. Those that stopped to stare were actually just very thankful it wasn’t their child making the noise. My own insecurities about not being the perfect parent were far more of a problem than anyone else’s opinion of me.
We are, by far, our own worst enemy when judging our parenting ability. This is a statement of truth I suggest can be universally applied to all parents, but perhaps even more applicable for those of us healthcare professionals who give parenting advice to others. Once we accept our most important role we have is being the best parent we can be to our children, the second most important role of our chosen profession becomes much easier too.
And who really cares what their doctor puts in her shopping trolley? There are far worse things than frozen chips!
Note: this is an adapted published originally on 25 March 2016