An Atlanta-based anesthesiologist, Michelle Au has chronicled, with great humor and insight, the uneasy intersection of life and medicine in her blog, the Underwear Drawer, for the past seven years. Now Au’s provocative insights on motherhood, medicine and more are collected in her memoir, This Won’t Hurt a Bit (And Other White Lies), out this week.
Read more excellent titles on motherhood at Kirkus.
Can you comment on this impulse to create or laugh under pressure?
Well, they say humor is a defense mechanism, isn’t it? It definitely is one for me, and since college and med school, I’ve actually found that acknowledging a stressful situation on its face actually just propagates stress, whereas the wink and nod ultimately produces much better results, while creating a much pleasanter creative process as well.
It’s like a mind trick in many ways. Some of it is bravado—you learn quickly in medicine that being calm even in the most catastrophic of emergencies kind of hypnotizes the people around you, especially if you’re in charge. They figure if you’re calm, things can’t be that bad, even if it is, and everyone performs a little better because they’re not, you know, shaking and fumbling.
Your parents are also doctors. In what ways has the world that you describe in your memoir changed—or not—since they went through this “life-consuming” educational experience?
When my parents were in medical school, I think approximately 15 percent of their med school class was women, and when I was born at the end of their second year of residency, my mom took off three weeks for maternity leave. Three weeks. And she didn’t even want to take off that much…there was very little precedent for that kind of thing, I’m sure that the very fact of having a baby while in training was just shocking. That was just the culture at the time—residents just weren’t supposed to have personal lives, and at least if male residents had babies, there was no unseemly physical evidence or need to take off from work for three whole weeks.
One thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the guilt that accompanies being a parent and being a doctor at the same time. Of course, there’s always guilt when kids are involved in anything, but the guilt for parents working in medicine is magnified because of the gravity of our jobs. It’s easy to glibly say that your kids are the most important thing in your life and they get priority over everything, but even if you’re technically done with your work for the day but have a patient who is still struggling, it’s hard to justify leaving them so that you can go home and feed your kids dinner…I think my mom and I both struggled equally with that guilt of split loyalties, though decades years apart.
Who did you imagine reading this book when you were writing it? How do you hope it will help advance conversations on medical education?
Everyone! I want everyone on earth to read it...But I do think that the subject matter will obviously appeal to medical professionals and students, as well as to parents, academics in all fields and urban professionals. The situations are specific, but the emotions evoked are universal, for any person who has been granted a great deal of responsibility before they feel that they’re truly ready. I think that part in particular will resonate with everyone.
The one thing that I really want to come across when people read the book, something that I don’t think has been discussed enough in popular medical nonfiction is simply that doctors are not superhuman. We are just ordinary people—in some cases, very young people—put into extraordinarily high-stakes situations and expected to know what to do. To expect the superhuman is unfair to them and to the process. Much of the book takes place very early in my training, where it’s not such a leap for readers, even readers outside of medicine, to imagine themselves in my shoes.
Any reaction to the Tiger Mom storm?
I have two thoughts about the Tiger Mom phenomenon. One, Amy Chua and her publisher were very, very smart in how she depicted herself and in the timing of the release of her Op-Ed, because man, did they ever sell a lot of copies of that book! They also picked the one sure way to get passed around endlessly on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, which is to be a parent, in particular a mother, who effectively says, “The way you are raising your children is wrong; the way I have raised mine is better.” Nothing makes moms fight more than the perceived judgment of other moms. So nice work on the publicity storm, Amy Chua! I know that my publicist would love it if I could do the same, but aside from the fact that my book is about a vastly different topic, I don’t have the balls to make that many people that mad.
The second thing about Tiger Mom is that I do find her commitment to parenting, however extreme, admirable in some ways—particularly what she said about not allowing herself or anyone else to dictate the expectations for her children really resonated with me. Part of me, as a “Chinese Mother” myself, though not of the species depicted by Ms. Chua, feels like I may not be pushing my kids enough, that my expectations for them might not be as high as what they are actually capable of. But the fact of it is that I work very long hours, and I don’t want my few hours at home with my kids to be a constant battle of me nagging them to practice piano. I only see them for a few hours a day. I’d rather spend those few hours rolling around on the floor playing dinosaurs.