Do doctors make better parents, or parents make better doctors?
Shift work as a hospital doctor can help you for the sleep deprivation of early parenthood
Dr Matt Widdowson, at home with his children Aoife and Eoin, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The overwhelming concern of most new parents after they get home from the maternity hospital is will they be able to keep their tiny infant alive. From lurking germs to accidents waiting to happen, the world suddenly seems a scarier place.
It’s no wonder that being a doctor is regarded – by non-medics anyway – as a big advantage in parenting. Knowing your cough from your croup would surely make you much more relaxed and competent.
Not really, apparently. “The idea that a doctor would be a better parent is bizarre in many ways,” according to doctor and TV presenter Chris van Tulleken, of CBBC’s Operation Ouch fame. After recounting his ineptitude as father of a one-year-old girl in the Observer recently, he added: “But if being a doctor doesn’t seem to have improved my parenting, being a parent does seem to have improved my doctoring.”
So, do doctors make better parents, or parents make better doctors? Here four medics dissect the meeting of the professional and the personal.
Prof Alf Nicholson, consultant paediatrician at Temple Street hospital and father of four children aged 21, 24, 25 and 26
An incident just before the birth of his first child in a Dublin maternity hospital reinforced for Prof Alf Nicholson the transition between doctor and parent.
It was 4am and all was going well with his wife’s advanced labour when he was asked if he could help with an emergency case elsewhere in the hospital, while other staff were being called in.
“I was stepping from being the father to being the professional, giving advice and help as best I could,” he says. “Then Katie was born and she was very well but the other baby was very sick.”
His overwhelming emotion at his daughter’s arrival was relief, knowing how easily the situations could have been reversed. He thinks maybe other people don’t realise as much that “a baby being born safe and well is a real miracle”.
Nearly six years later, their fourth child was quite sick at birth and had to go to special care. “That was very interesting,” he recalls, as only a medic Dad could, “but was also quite frightening because we knew exactly what he had – severe infection – and how serious that could be.”
Nicholson has no doubt that doctors are more inclined to under-treat than over-treat their own children. If you’ve had a long day in a paediatric hospital seeing really bad cases, “a minor illness just seems like a minor illness”. But as sick children do need TLC, “you try to provide it as best you can, maybe not as sympathetically as you should”.
While there are no rules about treating your own family, it is always very tricky, he says. “One thing you have to be very careful of, and I have fallen foul of it a few times, is that sometimes you treat your own child a bit too long if things aren’t going so well.
“I think the rule I have myself is that if things are not going in the right direction, you are always better to have somebody else on board who is objective.” It is not a good idea to write prescriptions for a family member, he says, apart, perhaps, for an antibiotic for a chest or ear infection.
In paediatrics he believes that “without question it is a massive advantage to be a parent. I think you can relate to how parents are so invested in every way in their children’s well-being. To be able to empathise with their maternal, paternal, concern over their child is huge.”
When it comes to colleagues with a sick child, doctors have to be very careful. They may be looking for reassurance over the phone and presenting it as everything is going to be fine but he is “quadruply cautious. I tend to go the extra mile, not to short-change people who you know may be downplaying symptoms in their own children.”
Being a doctor, he concludes, “doesn’t protect your children in any way from severe illness or severe problems that’s for sure. The more I look at life – the more luck comes into it.”
Shift work as a hospital doctor helps prepare you for the sleep deprivation of early parenthood, says New Zealander Dr Matt Widdowson, who has worked in Ireland for more than 16 years.
“You are used to multiple wakenings and having to be relatively responsible in your actions,” he says with a smile. He also believes his training has made him a little more relaxed about parenting from a health perspective.
“I would be relatively laid back but I think being a doctor has meant that I am a bit more comfortable with standard childhood illnesses and don’t go to the GP quite as quickly.” His wife is also a health professional, a physiotherapist, and, aside from routine vaccinations, their youngest child didn’t attend a GP until he was three. However, he acknowledges they have been blessed that both children haven’t had much more than common colds.
The downside of being a hospital doctor is that shift work and being on call takes you away from parenting.
“My eldest was born when I was still a registrar, working in the intensive care unit.” He was entitled to just three days off after her birth, which luckily ran into a bank holiday weekend. Over the next three or fourth months he was frequently doing 24-hour shifts in the hospital, which put more pressure on his wife and led him to missing out a bit on his daughter’s early life.
He feels lucky to have been appointed a consultant soon after that which, although it means a greater burden of responsibility, involves a lot less overnight or weekend work.
Parenthood might not seem immediately relevant to Widdowson’s work as a consultant endocrinologist treating mostly adult patients with diabetes, as well as doing acute general medicine, but he believes it has been an asset.
He now knows how busy and complicated family life can be, making it hard for some patients to implement lifestyle changes or to stick to exercise regimes to improve their health.
“Living it yourself and seeing the stresses and strains and the sleep deprivation and what it takes just to get the children out to school in the morning – as well as both getting to work yourselves – does give you an understanding of what the person in the bed in front of you is going through.”
It means he is more likely to take heed of what is going on in someone’s background and be more realistic in his advice. “If you just put it to them, ‘this is what you should do and off you go’, they are going to be more stressed leaving than when they were coming in, so it is counter-productive.”
He tries to develop a rapport with patients who have children, by asking them what age they are. “If they are about the same age as mine or a bit older, I will tell them I have a six-year-old and a four-year-old and you can almost see it in their face that you understand where they’re coming from.”
Dr Ray Walley, north Dublin GP and father of three, aged 16, 18 and 20
“Nothing prepares you for looking after your own children,” says GP Dr Ray Walley. Although he had worked in paediatrics in England, he was nervous with his first-born and feels he and his wife both learned together.
However, that’s not to say his medical knowledge didn’t help. “Lessons I learned as a medic included don’t be afraid of using paracetamol/ibuprofen. You also understand the importance of hydration, hydration, hydration, when they are sick and how quickly kids bounce back, knowing that thankfully few kids get seriously sick.”
He acknowledges their luck in having three healthy children, although two of them are asthmatics “but thankfully well controlled on inhalers”.
Walley believes it’s fairly common that doctors try to avoid their own children taking sick days off school. “It probably doesn’t help when you have two parents working outside the home with difficulty accessing cover for ill children.”
Yet his off-spring all remark now that they weren’t given antibiotics as children – and two of them have never had antibiotics despite being in their late teens.
“Medics are very aware that acute/chronic ailments in children mostly resolve,” he says. But, as family are generally fitted in at the start and end of the working day, there can be a delay in attending to one’s own children.
“There is an innate wish to not bother a colleague to review your child so sometimes that review should have been earlier. It can be hard to draw the line between emotion and objectivity so, when asked to review a colleague’s child, we all understand the conflicts and do so promptly and happily.”
He and his colleagues sometimes talk about how little sympathy they give their own children when they receive knocks on sports fields – something which his three would have commented on too.
“We tend to be slow to assess, waiting for them to get up and start moving again – the art of watchful waiting,” he explains.
He has no doubt that being a parent has made him a better GP. “I have learned to never ignore a parent’s gut reaction as they know their child best.
“When I was in my first GP job, I saw a child as a house call who was florid with a fever. The mother said that he couldn’t have a fever as the thermometer read normal – but the thermometer was broken.
“The lesson I told the mother is never ignore your instinct, even if you think you will look foolish if all is normal. She knew something was wrong and sought a medical review.”
Occasionally, as a doctor, he has referred a child for a second opinion even when he knew that child was not acutely unwell but felt the parents needed further reassurance.
“Parents and medics have one thing in common when it comes to children – we are always learning.”
With two children yet to do the Leaving Certificate, it is too early to say if any of them will follow him into medicine.
“I certainly would not put them off it. It is a phenomenally rewarding career. Unfortunately, with my involvement in medical politics they are more aware than most of the difficulties within our health service; however, they are equally aware of the many fantastic aspects to the job too.”
Dr Maeve Hurley, a former GP and founder of Ag Eisteacht, a charity providing relational training to frontline practitioners in health, education, social, youth and community sectors, has five children aged 20 to 31 and one six-month-old grandchild
As a first-time mother, Dr Maeve Hurley felt she missed out on some of the support that new parents get because other professionals often presumed she knew it all.
“Yes, I had all the training and knowledge but the worry of not getting it right and making a mistake were constantly with me too.
“I remember clearly one midwife who spent time with me when our eldest son, Darragh, was born and I was so grateful as I felt she treated me like any other new mum, which is what I was – a new mum with similar needs to other mums.”
Hurley believes she had the same worries and sleepless nights as any parent over the many minor infections and viruses that most small children experience. However, when it came to more obvious things, her expertise helped.
“As you can imagine in a family of five, we had lots of broken bones. In fact, our friends tease us about all the breaks the kids incurred.”
The children were sporty and suffered concussions, sprains and cuts between them, along with appendicitis and other incidents over the years. She recalls how in her parents’ house, after one of her daughters fell off a chair, she knew immediately that she had broken her collar bone.
“Similarly, when one of my other daughters was eight, I knew from her symptoms that she potentially had meningitis and rushed her straight to A&E. She was diagnosed with viral meningitis and, thankfully, went on to make a full recovery.”
Years later, Hurley says she completely over-reacted when she saw her daughter had another rash and took her off a hockey pitch immediately. “Thankfully, it didn’t turn out to be anything serious but, after the meningitis, I was thinking the worst.”
At other times, being a doctor gave her clarity. “I remember when one of the boys broke his arm badly during a match, I knew exactly what to do and was able to ring ahead and let the hospital know that he would possibly need surgery.”
She always tried to treat her children as a parent, not as a medic. “As parents, we know our children best and we instinctively know when they are not right.”
Knowing that many minor illnesses are self-limiting, she tended to take a “reasonable wait-and-see” approach but, if in doubt, would always go to her GP.
“I will never forget standing in the shower at 2am one morning with my 11-month-old son hoping that the steam would alleviate his croup and feeling so badly that we ended up calling our GP – when I realised that we had to get help quickly – and being really apologetic.”
She wasn’t dismissive if any of her children said they felt sick and doesn’t agree that she would have been slower than other parents to seek medical treatment.
“It goes back to acting as a parent first and a medic second. I have never prescribed or treated any of my children myself, apart from providing basic first aid or general support.” The anxiety and love you feel for your children when they are ill, she says, makes it hard to be objective.
As a GP, she has no doubt that motherhood helped her to understand the perspective of a parent coming in with a sick child. “But a doctor’s ability to respond appropriately and acknowledge parental concerns shouldn’t be judged on whether they are parents or not.” Every life experience gives a different perspective, helping doctors, she hopes, “to become more compassionate and mindful of what else may be going on in patients’ lives and why they are reacting in a particular way.”
It has become increasingly obvious to her that the ability to listen and relate is key not only to development as a doctor but to better health outcomes for patients and, indeed, to enhanced parenting.
“It’s about showing care and being present and attuned,” she adds, “as a doctor and as a parent.”