My patient’s skin burns hot, even though I touch her with gloved hands. The thermometer lights up at 104 degrees. Just days ago, her immune system was annihilated with high doses of chemotherapy, and now infection rages through her veins.
My shift is a blur of drawing blood samples, infusing antibiotics, and monitoring vital signs. I give her a sponge bath and check her temperature again. I slide an ice cold cooling blanket under her shivering body and pump fluids into her veins to keep her blood pressure from dropping dangerously low.
Another nurse opens the door. “I can watch her for half an hour,” she says. “Grab something to eat.”
I escape to the break room and pull out my phone—there’s a video message from my son’s babysitter. He’s spinning around in glee as she blows bubbles. My heart clenches, and I ache for my little boy. This job is fulfilling and challenging, but the invisible threads tying my heart to my baby tighten and tense each day I work. If my husband wasn’t in graduate school, if it wasn’t financially necessary, I’d be home.
I check the time, slip my phone into my pocket, and head back into battle.
I’m living a double life. Three days a week, I’m at the hospital for 13 hours, a 40-minute commute bookending my shifts. I don’t see my son at all, other than a surreptitious peek at his slumbering body before I collapse into my own bed. The other four days, I’m home, living a typical, stay-at-home mom life, if slightly accelerated—I run errands, fold the laundry, and show my son how much I love him twice as hard because I’m there half as often.
It wears me down, but I feel pride and gratitude for the work I do. I don’t question the value of working to save the lives of desperately sick children or providing an income that keeps my family out of debt. Every two weeks, tangible evidence of my contribution appears in our bank account. Every shift, intangible evidence of my work etches onto my soul—connecting with a difficult patient, seeing a child walk through the unit doors after completing treatment, the sense of accomplishment when I clock out for the day.
Life changes. My husband graduates and we move to a new state. My nursing license isn’t valid here, we have a new baby, and I’m burned out. I don’t need to bring home a paycheck anymore, so I don’t.
I wanted nothing more than to be home with my children. I cried for it, pleaded in prayer for it. I felt so relieved when I turned in my parking pass and I.D. badge at the hospital.
But now, I feel diminished.
There’s no adrenaline in wiping a poopy bottom or sweeping browning banana and smashed broccoli off the floor. No one looks at me and says, “Wow, I can’t believe you do that. That’s amazing.” No one even says thank you, most of the time. I feel ineffective, and I fall far short of who I hoped to be. I’m just so tired.
Sometimes I wonder if staying home full time is a mistake. But then I recall the stress, the constant, brittle feeling of being at my breaking point. At least in this season, staying home is the right choice for my family. As I search my heart, I realize the problem isn’t in the tasks I do each day. The issue is the smallness I feel.
I felt worthwhile because I was saving lives at the hospital.
Too often, I forget I’m saving lives at home, too. The moments of play and nourishment and encouragement stack like building blocks as my children’s bodies and spirits grow strong.
Most of the work I do isn’t particularly inspiring. It’s a lot of laundry and crumbs, a lot of waiting out screaming tantrums and taking deep breaths.
In reality, my days at the hospital were also comprised of small works. Yes, there were heroic moments when I helped keep an infection at bay, when a patient went to the brink of death and came back, when a recovered child skipped out the unit doors. But there were also countless moments of catching vomit in plastic basins, of soothing a restless boy to sleep, of smearing ointment over an angry diaper rash.
The stakes were higher with these fragile patients than with my sturdy, healthy boys. But “saving their lives” mostly consisted of quiet, thoughtful care, rather than the pinnacle moments that shine in my memories.
Likewise, with my children, there are relatively few moments where I feel a sense of true achievement. Instead there are many prayers lisped and stories read. There are hurts kissed and lessons taught. There are hundreds of reminders to share before my older son hands his brother a toy willingly; there are thousands of “I love yous” before I receive an “I love you, too.” Every day is another tiny stitch in an expansive tapestry. After I kiss their rosy cheeks goodnight and take the measure of my day, I do not always comprehend the magnitude of what we are building.
With work, prayer, and love, my faith that this small work is a good work will grow. Thread by thread, moment by moment, my children become their full selves built by these seemingly insignificant days. I’m nourishing their bodies, teaching their minds, and nurturing their hearts. It’s not as obvious or dramatic as my days in the hospital, but despite my imperfections, I’m still saving lives.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She recently moved to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured before on Coffee + Crumbs, and in other publications including Mothers Always Write, Holl & Lane, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.
Photo by Kaitlin Coghill.