When Women Cut Other Women Down

Back in January, we had a rough stretch with back-to-back ear infections in both kids. They had alot of pain; there was vomiting and general misery; there were multiple awakenings all night long for a few nights.

One morning during this stretch, I got up, frazzled and exhausted, and got myself to work. I did my job and saw my patients. After clinic, I ran into some colleagues in a hallway. They are all moms, as well as great doctors, and good people.

You look so, so tired, one commented, with genuine concern. Everything OK at home?

I welcome this type of question, because there is good intent there. This is someone who knows me and knows I’m exhausted and is reaching out to me, and it’s OK.

I started to explain, wanting to share about how both kids have had ear infections, and how there was so much pain this time for both of them, which was really so hard to witness, and made me sick, just nauseated with helplessness, and then the vomiting, and misery, nighttime awakenings, and exhaustion…

But I didn’t get far, because as soon as I replied:

Yes, I am exhausted, both kids have had ear infections-

One colleague cut in and snapped:

Just ear infections?  You have a kid in daycare and they get ear infections, that’s just what happens, right? My baby’s on antibiotics for one right now. That’s just par for the course. And then she walked away.

I was stung and stunned, and reacted the best way I know how. I completely ignored her, pretended I didn’t hear that, and just went on with my tale of woe. My other colleagues listened with great empathy, sharing how they had been there, too. I remember some humorous conclusion to this impromptu hallway support group, and we all laughed.

Of course, I couldn’t go on pretending I didn’t hear that. I am still reflecting on what may have been an innocent but kind of dismissive comment, versus a passing verbal slap.  Either way, I’ve come to a surprising conclusion.

It goes back to another episode. Babygirl was six weeks old, and I was on maternity leave. Babyboy was eighteen months old. Hubby was mostly home, and we were struggling mightily. Babygirl was completely nocturnal, and as soon as she would fall asleep for a stretch, Babyboy would wake up, ready to play. We were kind of losing our minds.

Then Hubby got sick. I came home from my mother’s one evening, me with both kids in tow, looking forward to Hubby’s help with the bedtime routine. Hubby was lying on the couch, wildly feverish, rigoring even, and holding his lower belly. I called my parents; mom stayed with the kids, while dad drove Hubby and I to the emergency room. Turned out hubby had a diverticular abscess, and he was admitted to the surgical service for several days.

Early on in that crisis, I emailed all my friends asking for help. I asked if anyone could spare some time to stay with the kids so I could visit Hubby, see what was going on with him at the hospital. At that time, it wasn’t clear if he would need surgery or not. With the two babies under two, Babygirl still not sleeping well through the night and breastfeeding all the time, Babyboy being a rambunctious toddler into all sorts of trouble all day, and me scared for Hubby, I was totally overwhelmed to the point of being nonfunctional. I was a wreck. A disheveled, delirious wreck. Still bleeding from delivery (seriously) and dripping breast milk everywhere. I am not kidding, I was pretty bad. Plus, we had not arranged any childcare (beyond my mom) yet, as we had expected that Hubby and I would be home for the time being.  And, quite frankly, at that time in our lives, we were pretty tight on cash.

Many friends answered my cry for help. But one called and chewed me out.

I answered the phone, and she started in on me right away:

I saw your email. You know there are babysitting services you can use? There’s a million of them. Let’s see: Sitter City, Parents in a Pinch, Care.com. Your hospital even has a drop-off emergency daycare, you could use them, too. Your friends are all working professionals with families of their own. What do you want- someone to let you take a little nap? We can all use a nap.

I remember holding the phone, I believe babygirl was on my breast. My mouth was dry, I was so stung and stunned. This was another doctor and mother speaking to me this way.

I reacted the best way I know how- I pretended I didn’t hear a word she said. Someone’s on their way over in a little bit, I said. I need to go now.

It was one of my rescuers that week who helped me to better understand what is really happening when women cut each other down like this. She, also a mother of two kids close in age, listened to the story, and explained, without really knowing the person involved at all:

This is someone who doesn’t easily accept help for themselves. This is someone who perceives a need for help as an unforgivable weakness.  And they’re projecting that onto you. 

I remember those words, and then I think back to the more recent episode in the hallway of my office. I remember the colleague saying what she said, then walking away, while the rest of us went on with my story.  We then shared all of our stories, laughing. We connected with each other, even if only for a few minutes on a mini coffee break. That is meaningful connection.

I realize now that, women who cut down other women, also cut themselves off from other women. And, I feel sorry for them. There is some true beauty in the baring of our souls, of asking for help, and then receiving it. And vice-versa. We need to support each other through the inevitable tough times.

I’ve seen both women many times since these episodes, and really haven’t thought much about the episodes themselves; rather, I do try to be kind, and remember, this is probably someone who is really tough on themselves. As we all are.. I’m sure that I have uttered words that unintentionally shut someone else down. I know I can become impatient with venting bordering on complaining, and  no doubt my friends could cite examples. So, what else can we do but try to understand, forgive and move on.

(Thank you, A.W., for your wonderful wisdom that January 2012 day.)

 

4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Women Cut Other Women Down

  1. Mamadoc

    It’s too bad that after all this time (my kids are in their 30s now) moms still haven’t learned that we’d all be better off it we’d just circle the wagons and hold hands. Motherhood, with or without practicing medicine is so hard.

    Like

  2. Trin

    Beautifully written, and thank you to your friend as well for her wise words.

    Like

  3. Katherine Johnston

    Such a beautiful post! I totally agree, and it is a lovely lens through which we can have compassion for those who don’t know how to connect and ask for help. On that note, I have been so deeply worried about my sister. …..

    Like

  4. OMDG

    I remember after I had my baby, I reached out for — not even help — EMPATHY among some other new moms I knew. They were so unbelievably condescending, with the same sorts of remarks that you describe above. Maybe this is a female-doctor problem? My childless friends also (probably obviously, but I was desperate) reacted in a similar “you must be so weak” fashion. The whole experience left me quite jaded, and I am now extremely reluctant to confide in anyone, ever, about any difficulties I have as a mom. Fortunately, I’ve never had it as hard as what you describe above and hopefully it won’t ever get that bad! (seriously — you deserve a medal for surviving that. I cannot even imagine how hard that must have been). I wish I could say that the experience has made me more empathetic to other people going through the same thing. I am sad to say that it hasn’t. When my formerly childless friends complain of the same things I did when I was a new mom, all I feel is schadenfreude. I want to be a better person…. I don’t know. I will tell you I would NEVER say anything like those people this post is about. At least there’s that.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Like

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