My first emotional breakdown during the coronavirus pandemic had nothing to do with being a front-line physician. It was April, and my 2-year-old daughter asked me if we could go to the dentist. I laughed. Why would she want me to take her to a place she had been only once, and hated? Then I realized. After weeks of hearing that day care, then the library, then the playground, then her friends’ homes, then restaurants were closed, she knew the dentist was one of the few places she hadn’t been denied. All of a sudden, my laughter turned to tears, finally seeing just how much my bright and adventurous toddler missed the world around her.
Five months have passed, and these mid-April moments have since faded into memory. With no clear end to social distancing and isolation in sight, the status quo is now one of uncertainty and anxiety. Settling into this new normal, I’ve found that balancing a deepening personal exhaustion with the reality of my good fortune has become harder than ever. Just months ago, my relative privilege even as a front-line physician was inescapable from my mind. As a pediatrician, I have been spared the grueling hours, unsafe conditions and the mass death that my peers caring for adults in New York City have faced. I have also been fortunate in my everyday circumstances, with plenty of physical room — including invaluable outdoor space — for my daughter to play and my family to work at home with relative ease.
The initial punch of the pandemic, witnessing such brutal tragedy as we hit our peak, sparked familiar discomfort. The contrast of my privilege with the reality of others’ greater suffering is one I experience routinely as a physician. I’ve seen mothers squeeze in visits with their hospitalized children between shifts at work, forced to sacrifice time at the bedside for a paycheck they can’t afford to miss. I have held hands with parents whose child is dying of an incurable disease, and I have delivered serious diagnoses that are the stuff of parents’ nightmares.
Sitting at the bedside with patients and families, it is relatively easy for me to maintain perspective and prioritize the suffering in front of me. We doctors learn quickly in our training how to set aside our personal pain when we need to, allowing us to channel our emotional energy toward the patients who need it most. It’s a skill that allowed me at the beginning of the pandemic to focus clearly on my privilege, as it stood starkly in contrast to those around me. But with each day that passes in our new-normal reality, we begin to adapt to the ongoing loss of life and focus instead on the uncertain road ahead. It is in these times that I find my own pain is much harder to ignore.
With each moment of anxiety, I worry I am losing perspective. In April, indulging in worries that reflected my good fortune — missing family and friends, longing for my daughter’s prior routine — was relatively rare. But now I think of them almost constantly. When will my daughter go back to her normal, former life? Is she lonely? Will she be fearful of exploring the world around her? Has her adventurous spirit been changed? When will she see friends, family, celebrate as a community, play with other children? It’s impossible not to feel guilt.
I’ve seen time and time again how parents, even those facing true hardship, struggle with this same guilt when faced with what seems to be greater suffering. Mothers and fathers with sick, hospitalized children routinely apologize for taking my time at the bedside, having seen “kids who are here for much worse.” My response is always the same: As a parent, the most intense emotion is always reserved for your child and your family. It is as unselfish as it is necessary, the very foundation of being a loving and protective caregiver. All families deserve to grieve without guilt, no matter the circumstances. But this is much easier said than done, and even after years of counseling parents that their pain is always valid, it is hard to practice what I preach.
Maintaining perspective while allowing this necessary grief is a delicate ballet, even in the best of times. And now, as parents face this battle within, they are also flooded with online advice that positions compassion toward others and compassion toward the self as incompatible goals. Social media posts tout self-care and sometimes suggest ignoring the common good completely. News articles have begged us to put aside our personal pain and focus exclusively on the more vulnerable and less fortunate. These memes, blogs and articles live in a world of extremes, and they obscure a more complex truth. Yes, it may not be possible to indulge personal pain while maintaining a healthy perspective at all times. But it is possible to strive toward both. In the sea of pandemic emotions, there is room for both gratitude and grief.
My daughter no longer asks to go to the dentist. Moments of boredom spark new requests — to have a picnic in the yard, to FaceTime friends and family, to watch a movie, to put on our masks and wave to the kids and puppies playing in parallel in the park. My reactions are as unpredictable as they are emotional. Some days, I feel happy that she has settled into this new normal, so grateful for the resilience and resources that allow her to remain her sweet and cheerful self. On others, I cry without realizing, overcome by a longing for the way things were and worrying how this new world might change her.
The impacts of the coronavirus on our parenting will be lasting, and we are all in this for the long haul. I am strapping myself in for the ride and have decided to give myself permission to simply feel. I indulge in my own personal pain when I need to, and I do my best to maintain perspective when I can. While others may hurt far more, I must allow myself to hurt as well and without judgment. As a pediatrician, and mother, I give all parents permission to do the same.
Rebekah Diamond is a hospital pediatrician in New York City and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University. She also gives parenting guidance at parentlikeapediatrician.com and on Instagram @parentlikeapediatrician.