“Do you have any children?” I am asked this almost daily by families and parents of my patients, often as a means of small talk at the beginning of the visit, but more so at the end of an in-depth discussion, whether it be etiology of disease, prognosis, further lab tests, imaging, or suggested treatment.
I would be lying if I stated this question does not trouble me, usually producing strong feelings of inadequacy and sometimes fear. Does this parent feel I am incapable of caring for her child if I do not have kids of my own? I usually respond directly and honestly that no, I do not have children, but I do have several nephews and a niece that I love and cherish dearly. I then find myself intently watching their faces, desperately attempting to interpret their feelings regarding my response by analyzing a furrow in their brow or the small movements of their mouth. Will they smile and change the subject (I hope) or probe further?
Frankly, I have never asked the parents of my patients if being a non-parent influences their perception of my capabilities as their child’s physician. I imagine I would receive a wide array of responses, some that would reaffirm my efforts at appearing the most confident and competent that I can be, often when I am struggling inward. Other parents’ answers may leave me feeling inept, allowing all my anxieties to bubble to the surface of my mind’s awareness. When discussing this with a fellow physician and dear friend, she reports that prior to having a child, it did not seem to be an issue, but she now feels it is imperative for her baby’s pediatrician to also be a parent.
My concern that parents will not take me seriously as a physician and non-parent becomes palpable, at times, during well-child checks. I lack the experience and intuition that comes with the many sleepless nights trying to calm a colicky newborn. I have never had to childproof my home or deal with the daily tantrums of a self-centered toddler. I have never struggled with the concept of “being consistent” when it comes to time-outs and revoking privileges, and I have certainly never had to live with an unruly, opinionated teenager. How in the world do I provide advice when I have never done it? Do my war-weary parents, therefore, take my recommendations seriously or chalk it up to a young girl doing her best to appear knowledgeable in her somewhat ill-fitting pediatrician hat?
Despite these many fang-bearing worries that go bump in the night, I find myself circling back to the core of my being and existence. I absolutely love children, regardless of whether I have my own. Kids are the reason I pursued medicine and have fueled my persistence on this journey to completing my residency training, and being a non-parent does not alter my commitment to doing what is absolutely best and safest for my patients and their families. My hope then would be that my families would not focus on whether I am also a parent, but instead on the level of care I provide for their children; a level of care that I trust another pediatrician would one day give to my future child.
Allison R. Roland, M.D.
Chief Resident in Pediatrics
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital