Free Write Friday: Birthday

When she was a kid the coolest birthday parties were hot tub parties. Skinny seven-year-olds wearing Care Bears swimsuits would pile into the spa, overflowing the water, grinning through their giggles, secrets whispered past wrinkled palms as bubbles rose from the churning jets. Some parents would let them snack in the tub: sticky caramel corn or lollipops. After soaking there’d be cake and ice cream, opening presents and receiving favors dropped in plastic handled bags. 

She didn’t have a hot tub at her house, always admired the girls who did. One year though her mom threw an elaborate birthday party, a carnival theme. Their sloped backyard was transformed, different stations set up for children to explore. Her mom manned the face painting, tiny lions and rainbows inked onto rosy cheeks as she perched on the picnic table bench. Her older brother told fortunes in the green canvas play tent, towel fashioned into a turban as he passed predictions on to the little partygoers. There were balloons and plastic door prizes. With three kids in her family, it was rare to have such an elaborate birthday celebration. All her best friends and girls she wanted to be her friends were there; she was overcome with glee. 

Her mom always made the birthday sheet cake, sprinkles on top, tube frosted lettering: Happy Birthday! This was before Pinterest, long after and decades before handmade was considered worthier, the hipsters’ and modern moms’ claim to superiority. It was the progress and image-obsessed eighties: Hypercolor t-shirts, squared polyester shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow were king. She always, ungratefully, wished she could have a store-bought sheet cake or an ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins; perfectly frosted corners and magenta lettering sprayed on. Her parents were frugal though, and her mom’s cake surely tasted better. Two facts lost on a child who wouldn’t know, until decades later, what was best for her. 

Now, with three children of her own, she bakes tiered birthday cakes, carefully procures themed party favors, plans activities and decor to suit each child, so their memories will be bright. But she’s also exhausted in the stretched way every modern mother is; she’s gained perspective. Maybe every other year will be a big birthday party when they’re young. Sometimes store bought treats, sometimes just one friend over for a special outing. Because she knows: you really only need one outstanding birthday party memory to last a lifetime. 

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Mothers in Medicine

I’ve long been a fan of Mothers in Medicine, a collaborative blog of supportive mama docs. Many of the contributors are still in medical training and the community is made up of various different specialities. I’m delighted to come onboard as a regular contributor to MiM. You can find my posts under “MP.” I’m so grateful for this community of mama docs who get it. If you’re a mom or momma-to-be and at any point in your medical training or career, I recommend checking out Mothers in Medicine as the candid posts are honest and instructive about the challenges of holding these two important roles. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Sink

Author Kate Ristau writes about her son’s heart surgery in “The Sink.” She starts the essay remembering her mother’s farmhouse sink, then describes the simple motions she went through at her own kitchen sink the morning of her son’s surgery.

I like how Ristau uses a common utilitarian object as a focal point in this piece. She describes in detail washing her hands at the sink in the hospital waiting room. She implies that these actions grounded her – loading her dishwasher, washing her hands – during this tumultuous life event. Ristau relays the telltale sign that her son, when well at home, has actually brushed his teeth: “That’s how I know he brushed them–the splash of color sliding down the porcelain.”

The reader is thrust into the narrator’s experience waiting for her son to wake up from anesthesia. When he does, the details she provides allow the reader to enter into her experience as the mother of the young patient: “…we used words like valves, clots, stitches, glue and morphine. Complications, IVs, shots, and applesauce, along with fluid in his chest cavity and so many possible futures balanced on the edge of his hospital bed.” Ristau reflects on how her son eventually asks for something quite surprising, out of his usual character, when he is finally able to get up and out of bed. The reader gets the sense that, on the other side of this surgery, he is changed, as is Ristau.

Writing Prompt: Think of an object in your home or workplace that is also found in a doctor’s office or hospital. Consider a plate of food, a chair, a computer, a bed. Describe the experience of that object when at home versus when you or a loved one were ill. Write for 10 minutes.

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Free Write Friday: Pump

She’s pumped in bathrooms, in locker rooms, in economy class on a six hour flight wedged between the narrow aisle and a couple on their honeymoon. She’s pumped on a Washington State Ferry, in the passenger (and driver’s) seat of a car, at her desk at work over a harried lunch. She’s pumped at writing conferences and medical conferences and her own weekend island retreat just to get 24 hours away. She’s pumped while consulting an orthopedist, a psychiatrist, a radiologist; she paused her pumping before calling a patient with the difficult diagnosis of breast cancer. 

She’s pumped to get colostrum while her newborn was in the Special Care Nursery, to avoid clogged ducts while at a national bioethics conference, to build up a freezer supply of breast milk for the long days she’s at work. She’s pumped while reading books, while eating soup, while watching bad cable TV in a hotel bedroom. She’s pumped through frustration, through ambivalence, through hot desperate tears of new motherhood.

She’s spent the last six years pumping, off and on. She’s pumped for her three children: willful and strong, eager and growing. She’s pumped for herself: time to work, time to write, time to be something other than Mother, an unclipping of the tether, if only for a few hours. She’s hated pumping, championed pumping; she’s become indebted to the contraption. It’s allowed her to be free, to be connected, to be a distributor of sustenance and maintain her vocational and social and creative aspirations. She gives thanks for the pump, pays homage to it, lays it to rest with gratitude and an easy goodbye.

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Published: Skinnamarink

After receiving a particularly disappointing rejection for a writing residency I had high hopes for, I sent out a flurry of submissions and applications a few weeks ago. In the literary world of slow responses and recurrent rejection, I’m always grateful and pleasantly surprised to get an encouraging nod: an acceptance!

I’m excited my essay “Skinnamarink” goes live on Tribe Magazine today. Tribe speaks to all things motherhood and is a vibrant community created by the unstoppable Kristin Helms. I wrote this particular essay last year while taking Kate Hopper‘s wonderful “Motherhood & Words” online writing course. More recently, I took a Creative Nonfiction online course on writing a nonfiction book proposal headed by the superb Waverly Fitzgerald. Before taking the class I had no idea how much was involved in getting a book published. I mean, no idea. It’s a process, people. I have a whole new respect for every published author and look at each book on my shelf in an entirely new light!

As I’ve delved more into the literary and publishing world, I’m understanding the need to both trust in and defend an artistic vision, as well as develop a porous enough thick skin to harness the critique and wisdom of others to hone that art to its full potential.  I intend to keep working on my current manuscript until it can find a home for publication and be worthy to be read by others. It’s important to me that it be a final product I can be proud of, whether it takes many more months, years or even decades to finish. I want it to inspire more work as I’m already developing two more book ideas. And although I’m piling up rejections as any persistent writer will (apparently I crave professions that feed into the imposter syndrome), I’ll savor the acceptances as the jewels they are. 

Many thanks to Tribe for featuring my post today!

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Monday Morning

Audrey Shafer, an anesthesiologist and mother, writes of medicine and motherhood in her mesmerizing poem “Monday Morning“. Highlighting two simple moments at home and at work, Shafer explores the contrast and commonalities between motherhood and her work in medicine. No wonder I love this piece!

What do you think of the juxtaposition of the narrator’s young son and the cool sterile environment of the operating room? The OR is a glaringly lit, predictably ordered, pristine place. As a mother, I could picture the incredible contrast of her preschooler son’s soft body clutching his favorite blanket in the dim early morning. A home with young children is often unpredictable, littered and intimate.

Shafer comments that the one who is exposed and vulnerable in this poem is the author herself. Would you agree? What do you learn about her as a person and as a working mother by reading this poem?

Writing Prompt: Think of a moment at work that reminded you of or seemed in direct contrast to a moment at home. How does your personal life inform your work and vice versa? Write for 10 minutes.


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Free Write Friday: Monitor

Grainy pixels coalesce into view with the push of a button. Static and then there she is: a babe in a cushioned box. She’s still, motionless, but I can’t stop watching. I peer closer, hoping to perceive the rise and fall of her chest under the sleep sack, a substitute for the blankets now outlawed due to associated risks. Today’s crib is a barren landscape of one fitted crib sheet. That’s all. No stuffed animals, no crocheted blankets. No binkies, no dolls. We even sacrificed introducing a lovey, modern parents that we are, saturated by the tragic news of the information age, too paranoid about accidental asphyxiation. 

I am entranced, can’t take my eyes away. Sometimes she moves, rolls this way, then that. I glance up, glance back to find her lying perpendicular to where she was before. One side of the crib, then the other. When her eyes open they glow neon with night vision, bright discs punctuating the darkness, signaling wakefulness. Sometimes there’s a pause before she erupts in cries that echo out her bedroom, through the house, through the monitor, ringing in my ears, ricocheting through my head. 

It’s easy to get obsessed with voyeurism. I can watch her every move, scrutinize her intentions. I want to predict: Will she wake now? How long will she sleep? And I wonder: Is she comfortable? Is she breathing? Is she dreaming? What about? I peer into the pixels, as into a crystal ball, willing the future to take form. Who will she be, this rolling, round-faced, murmuring babe?

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Free Write Friday: Hospital



She’s volunteering, decided what she wants to do. She catches the bus to the hospital from campus, heavy backpack weighing down her slight shoulders. She has a badge, a short powder blue jacket. She works in the playroom: coloring, washing toys, light streaming through the wall of windows as she stoops to read aloud a picture book or set up a seasonal craft on the low plastic tables. The children come in wheelchairs, heads bald or misshapen or shaved with intention. Tubes may be in their nares or arms. All of it is foreign and she doesn’t know how to act naturally so she smiles a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes she delivers a toy to a child confined to their own room: in isolation. Before entering she puts on a crinkly gown and a mask and latex free gloves, just as she was trained to do. She plays with the child, chats with the teen, tries to connect, but her own awkwardness and all the barriers for protection get in the way.


She’s in medical school, deciding what she wants to do. She rotates through the hospital, a shadow of a doctor in a short white coat, tagging along after her resident. Her pockets are weighed down with too much: laminated cards on how to run a pediatric code, a clipboard with preprinted index cards to keep track of each patient’s labs and history, black ball point pens to record chart notes, gum. She learns she always needs to have gum on hand. She walks the halls, familiar but transformed now she’s armed with some knowledge. She gets to know the palpable quiet of the hospital in the middle of the night. The ceilings here are low; everything is miniaturized to make children feel more comfortable, in this place where discomfort distinctively reigns.


She’s in residency, an MD after her name. She doesn’t wear a coat, but instead a black fleece vest with zippered pockets. Sometimes she’s mistaken for a nurse, but she still doesn’t wear the long white coat; it’s just not the way things are done. She monitors her patients and her medical students. She presents each case to the attending each morning at rounds. She knows what she wants to order in the cafeteria when it opens at 2 a.m. for all the providers who are there overnight on call. She’d rather sleep than eat, but that’s not the way things are done here. Residents review the progress of patients with the medical students, with each other, over the mid-night meal. The lights are turned down low and the children are in cribs and in isolation rooms and can’t breathe well or can’t eat well and most certainly won’t sleep well. The nurses page her and talk in quiet voices. Many patients get better and she discharges them. Some are known by all the staff and roam the halls with their IV poles like tiny emperors, because this place, this hospital, too, is their home.


She brings her infant, the youngest of her three, in to see the specialist. She parks in the newish garage built in the same place she used to catch the bus up the hill. She wheels her baby in the stroller. She waits in line to check in, gets an adhesive visitor’s badge with her picture and her child’s name. There’s a Starbucks downstairs now, in this new wing, but she doesn’t have time to stop for a latte. Her child is crying and she’s late. She wears a red raincoat, her pockets filled with the random items of a mother: a used tissue, a miniature toy construction truck, a purple hair clip, a binky, her smartphone. She’s anxious about seeing the specialist, about the prognosis and treatment plan. She has already texted her friend, the pediatrician, who made helpful recommendations, gave expert advice. She now has the luxury of giving and getting medical opinions in an instant, a byproduct of years of training and now experience as a practicing physician. She waits in the waiting room with other families. Some children read, some run, some sit in laps, some in motorized wheelchairs. Her child’s name is called and her baby is weighed, measured. She sees the physician. Her baby is prescribed medication, which she gets from the pharmacy. A girl waiting in line behind her talks animatedly about a book she wants to read. When she turns to check on her baby she can see the girl’s shaved head, the scar from surgery. So many children here so ill, so resilient. As a mother, she always feels grateful, feels guilty, in this place.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: An Enlarged Heart

Cynthia Zarin writes a detailed account of a time her daughter fell ill in “An Enlarged Heart”. She explores her own realization that her daughter was significantly sick and also documents her encounters with the medical system on the path to diagnosis and treatment. 

Writing prompt: Write about a time when you were caring for a loved one with an unexpected illness. How did you respond? What were the challenges you encountered with the health care system? What, if anything, did you struggle with yourself?



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