Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Motherhood and Empathy

A medical emergency on Friday brought the team to our company's daycare facility, to attend to an 18-month-old boy who had fallen and hit his head on a table.

The laceration above his eye was about three inches long. There was some blood, and he'd definitely need stitches. But otherwise, he seemed fine. He was an expert at this, after all. He'd already been stitched in a similar spot from a fall a few months ago. Active kid. A bit of a klutz. Obviously the first incident hadn't deflated his enthusiasm.

Since I arrived later than most on the scene, I stood back while the Fire Department attended to their young patient. I watched the daycare staff, and couldn't help but notice that they seemed much more agitated than the boy himself.

His teacher, who had witnessed the fall, emerged from the bathroom, with red eyes and a very shaken-up look on her face. She was inconsolable, and had to take an early lunch break to compose herself. Another teacher bustled back and forth to bring the boy some juice in a sippy cup. Two others stood by and wrung their hands. All were visibly upset and shaken by the accident.

It seemed that they needed just as much care as the child. As such, I did what I could to console them.

"I know it's tough to listen to him cry," I said, "but crying is a good thing. It means he's alert and aware of what is going on. He's being well taken care of. He's in good hands."

In the debrief, after the little patient and his mother were driven away in the ambulance, I mentioned the need to care for the caregivers in a situation such as this. The daycare staff agreed wholeheartedly. All of them were mothers. All of them had children the same age as the patient. All of them could hardly bear to hear him cry. And when his mother arrived, hysterical with worry, they all broke down with emotion. They were mothers, too. They understood.

Curiously, the male respondents, some of whom had children themselves, didn't seem to identify as well with this as the female caregivers. While the women were speaking on this topic, the men became involved in their own conversation about some information related to the management of the incident. The stark difference between their reaction and the reaction of the women was unmistakable.

Although I hesitate to make generalizations based on gender alone, it appears that the mothers had a deeper understanding of the patient's mother's feelings. Perhaps they, as individuals, were better able to empathize, regardless of their gender. Perhaps the men saw the situation from a more practical view, that although the child was hurt, it really wasn't a life threat and he'd be fine. Perhaps the women were pulling from the natural worrying instinct that many mothers have, that isn't always innate in fathers.

Of course there are some men, fathers and not, who are able to empathize and show concern and compassion. Some of them understand, too. Perhaps it is simply more automatic in women who are mothers than in men.

Whatever the reason, it was obvious to me that the time I spent talking to the caregivers was well needed and appreciated. Sometimes, it's not just the patient that needs to be taken care of.

I saw a similar phenomenon of empathy at a first birthday party for a friend's young daughter this past weekend. As we were singing Happy Birthday to the little girl, now transitioning from a baby to a toddler, her mother's eyes filled with tears. This was her fourth and last child, and the little girl was growing up. The emotion on the mother's face as she came to this realization was unequivocal.

After the song finished, I looked over at one of the guests, who had her own seven-month-old in her lap. Her eyes were filled with tears as well, knowing what the mother of the one-year-old was feeling at that moment; and, knowing that one day soon, her young daughter will no longer be a baby as well.

She was a mother. She understood.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story Andrea. I have noticed similiar cases in the medical field, where the patient is not the only one who needs/deserves attention. Bedside mannerisms are very important.

June 13, 2006 at 9:41:00 PM PDT  

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