By Elizabeth Deng
I haven’t quite gotten used to night float. I end up staying up late into the wee hours of the night, waiting for Lu to return home. The flickering of the lights, the movement of my hair out of the corner of my eye, tricks me into thinking she’s here.
My daughter does the same thing, only more vocalized. “Where’s Mama?” She asks at 7pm, when Lu’s shift begins. “At work, sweetie. She works at night time right now.” I reply. Huixue reasons with all her five year old might and magical thinking. Like a finger painting, her words combine strokes of logic, persuasion, and make believe. “No, she isnt working. She had to pick up something from Shivani (our neighbor and Lu’s fellow resident), she’ll be right back.” My heart aches a little, but not in that moment as much as it does now. In that moment, I just keep moving us along with the steps for bedtime. I’ve learned that if we spend too much time talking about how much we miss Mama, or if we attempt to call Mama and Mama cannot answer, bedtime becomes an utter disaster. When bedtimes don't happen smoothly and my sacred hours to myself are cut short, things really begin to fall apart.
I am the type of person that cannot go to bed with dishes in the sink. If bedtime fails, my kitchen will be messy. The kitchen is the first thing my children see when they open their bedroom door. In some compulsive fashion, I feel like they need to see a clean kitchen to know that life is okay; even if Mommy is always tired and often grumpy, and Mama is never around. I opt to clean instead of having time to myself. I resent losing that time, so, despite myself, I take it anyway, go to bed incredibly late, and we all reap the consequences. I know better than to subject us to that, but maybe an element of being a doctor spouse involves dampening our intuition to survive in the moment of what feels like a constant absence, longing, desire.
There is a linearity that I attempt to trace in our lives. If A, then B, then C. But, the problem with medicine is that you can almost count on the fact that things don’t go as planned. Even though I plan for the sequence for a perfect weekend, it usually leaves us (me) disappointed. Nevertheless, I take everyone’s needs into consideration: the social events, the physical activities, naptime, chores, couples time (my favorite!), music practice, homework, hobbies and interests, and I throw them into one big pot and stir.
Chinese hot pot is a special and celebrated communal meal time in my wife’s culture. As main chef in our kitchen and chief commander of schedules, I often feel like I am cooking without all the ingredients and not nearly enough minutes on the timer. My hypothetical version of hot pot feels risky and messy; someone will definitely get burned. Whether it’s a promise not kept or a flare of jealousy for whoever gets dibs on Mama, we all feel the challenges of too many needs, not enough time. Every now and then my anxiety is wasted because things turn out rather well. For example, Lu worked all night and only had to stay for one extra case before taking a nap and coming home. I took the children to an outdoor Taekwondo class and we met another queer family, hooray! This is the first queer family we’ve met since moving here back in March. I know quarantine is responsible for that delay, though it hasn’t been easy to create community, even as restrictions are lifted.
Sometimes I feel conflicted over mentioning that my wife is a doctor for fear that people won’t want to invite us over for a playdate, whenever people finally start having those again. As an LGBTQ person, I anticipated my children experiencing backlash about their parents at some point in their lives, who could have predicted though that it’s actually about their mother’s profession, not her sexual identity I feel tempted to closet.
But, like our bedtime woes, I know that it’s better to just share the information matter of factly and not over dramatize or romanticize. So, I mention that Lu is a doctor, and that we just moved her during quarantine, and isn’t this an interesting time to be a parent or a kid or anyone in the world.
I’ve gotten used to relaying our family experience to Lu. I can summarize with the same captivation and detail as a season recap on a television series. I record the footage with my new cell phone and give her the playbacks in person or send her clips while she’s at work. It helps that I really love telling stories. Over the years, I’ve learned that applying words to thoughts and memories gives us the power to select our focus. So I tell the funny stories of the kids, the mistakes I make and have learned to laugh at, and the interesting things we observe in our day. Being my family’s record keeper is a demanding role that I am simultaneously honored and exhausted to hold.
Then it occurs to me that telling my children about their Mama and the important work she does is not enough. When we see the signs thanking the healthcare heros I always said. “Those are for Mama. She is a hero.” But I've recently started telling them that those signs are for our family. “They are for you, because you are a hero to not have your Mama around for so many things in your life.” I don’t know if it helped them feel better, but it helps me realize that I am a hero, too, and that is something to start giving myself more credit for instead. Maybe if I did, I won’t feel so guilty about having a messy kitchen and rather, take a moment to give us all, especially myself, some grace.
Photo Credit: Jixue Yang
Bio: Elizabeth spends her days navigating parenthood in a same sex, multicultural marriage to a first generation American, who also happens to be an OBGYN resident. She revels at the opportunity to create art, music, and poetry out of contradiction and the unexpected. A recent transplant to northern New Jersey, Elizabeth intends to interpret the mountains, NYC, and everything in between. You can reach her at @lifeofadrwife and @unravelled_rebellion on Instagram.