One of the most difficult things about nursing in the pediatric setting is realizing that your patients are not your children. At 25, I didn’t think that that would be too difficult considering that I still feel light years away from taking a few laps around the “mommy track”. With the current epidemic of babies having babies, though, I realize that I could certainly have birthed any one of my infant charges. It never fails to astonish me that I regularly have to “parent” parents who are ages 16-21, usually with another child or three already at home. It also never fails to slightly offend me when people ask if I have children.
What? Are you crazy! Who has kids at 25 while they’re in school, unwed, and still living with their mother!?
Inevitably, many of these babies do not come to us from stable, nuclear families that provide three square meals a day let alone access to a pediatrician and regular primary care. I’m lucky if I can untangle whatever complicated and contentious relationship mommy and daddy might have long enough to figure out who actually plans to take care of the child. I have cared for one particular infant for months now and have yet to see one of his parents or another caregiver.
Caring for small children who are patients is often like bringing home that stray dog you saw on your way to work – you’ll let it into your heart just long enough to find it a good home elsewhere. But that’s it! You’re certainly not keeping this little creature. And then you spend whole days with this loveable being – feeding and swaddling and bathing and soothing. Your maternal instincts are out of control; your ovaries seem to have taken over your brain. Then, one day, it returns the affection with those big, bright, dark eyes and that smile like a perfect little “O”. Your heart swells and you know you’ve been suckered. Except this little pup isn’t for keeps.
Today, I met this little pup’s dad and felt such sparks of possessiveness that I had to restrain myself from asking “And just where have you been all this time!?” I had really wanted to dislike the guy, but he didn’t look like the evil villain I had conjured in my head. Mostly, he looked bewildered sitting far from the crib in a hospital-issue rocking chair, staring at the television while his son recovered from surgery not 5 feet from him.
When caring for children, it can be hard for me to check my judgment at the door. As nurses, we are fierce advocates for our tiny human patients and it is never pleasant when you have to coordinate all sorts of complicated care and medication regimens with barely involved parents. There are always reasons and excuses and extenuating circumstances that seem to preclude even those with the best of intentions from being the mother or father that they want to be, but sometimes I just want them to tow the damn line, step up, be accountable, and get the job done because it’s time for me to stop doing it for you.
I give each child all the love and support and compassion and empathy that I can within reason within the confines of the limits I impose on myself in order to keep my sanity and avoid emotional meltdowns after a shift. At the end of the day, despite this phenomenon I like to think of as “baby lust”, I’m still not the parent. I’m just the nurse.