Choices in the operating room

Sick Child
Sick Child Photo: Getty Images

The waiting rooms for children in hospitals have a strained kind of cheerfulness. Like the perverse cheer you concoct for that first goodbye to your child at the kindergarten gate. They cry for you and you want desperately to acknowledge them but instead you tell them - “It’s going to be so much fun!” - in that voice you get that cracks at the edges. This is what hospital waiting rooms are like - exactly what is necessary, but with the extra chore of pretending you’re somehow enjoying all of it. And small children will certainly give it their best shot. They play with the Lego and read the storybooks like they’re not there in their pyjamas, pulled from their beds in the dark. Like their mother’s hand isn’t shaking when she fills in their paperwork and their father isn’t sighing about the lack of reception for his phone because he really wants distraction right now.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in one of those waiting rooms, and with its atmosphere of cheerful reasonableness I asked our four-year-old son if he would like me or his father to be with him when he went into the operating theater. The anesthetist had explained to us in pre-surgery that only one parent may come in to hold the child’s hand as he goes under general anesthetic. I had nodded politely at the time, but leaving his office I managed to startle him by telling him firmly to be sure to do a good job.

Back in the waiting room I wondered why the hospital gave parents this kind of impossible choice. And I would soon wonder why I subsequently offered the choice to our son. Because, when asked, he considered it for a very short moment and then chose his father.

I couldn’t help but feel stunned and hurt about this. But brave, too. I thought about what a good thing it was to let him have a say. I thought about how egalitarian we tried to be as parents, his father and I. How my offering the choice was proof of my commitment to shared parenting. I thought about how well-adjusted this kid was, too. How he’d progressed quickly through the early stages of his life when all a little one wants is his mother. How that meant he was sufficiently secure in his attachment to me as to be now able to focus on other relationships.   

And then I wasn’t so brave.  

As progressive as we were attempting to be, I was the mother and it suddenly meant something. There had been this bond, you see, and it persisted in ways I underestimated. Because in spite of all our contemporary approaches to parenting, somehow, I was still the one to make all the hospital arrangements, and the one to sleep curled around our son the night before surgery. Now he was going to become unconscious on an operating table and as though bewitched, he would temporarily leave himself. But I couldn’t forget that it had been inside my body that the enchantment had begun. His first flicker of life had happened there and I’d monitored it when no-one else could. I have been the keeper of his flame his whole life, and the yearning to be with him as this flame was subdued and then breathed back was about the strongest obligation I had experienced.

So, when I heard our son choose his father for the duty I felt terrible regret. I saw that I had tried to be more courageous and decent than I could manage. I felt a surge of guilt, too. What did my child’s choice say about me? That if you prioritise career and personal time too vigorously, as a mother, if you argue that child-rearing is not just a joy but work to be shared between men and women, then you might attain selfhood but your child might not think you all that special. And with this sudden self-doubt came despairing selfishness.

“I really wish he’d chosen me,” I whispered to his father. I knew it was unfair, but I admitted it anyway. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” I asked our son again. I was done with the equality and any illusion of it. “I think your mother would really like you to choose her,” his father prompted. And with that our son casually switched his choice to me. Why not? At his age he gave the question no more consideration than he gave to which of us he’d prefer to read his bedtime story. I wish I had understood this at the time, it would have brought me such comfort, but it was much later that I realised this about his choice, its implications and even, my manipulation of it.

After all that, was it nice to be with him as he went under? Not exactly. He stayed so very stoic as he watched me put on a surgical gown. And he remained that way as he was wheeled down hallways to the operating theater, as he was transferred from trolley to operating table, and even as the surgeon and the anesthetist re-introduced themselves. But then all of a sudden, like me, he wasn’t brave anymore. His eyes pricked with tears and he looked at me plaintively. I reassured him with that special cheerful voice I use to say goodbye to a crying child at the kindergarten gate. He watched me as he breathed in the gas, he was panicked and gasping, and then he looked around the room and his eyes grew more distant and finally, he was gone.

But - and I didn’t know this can happen under anesthetic - his eyes stayed open as he lost consciousness. Frankly, he didn’t appear asleep, he appeared dead. The surgeon invited me to kiss my child goodbye before I left and whatever part of me had stayed whole now fell apart and I burst into tears. It was then that the anesthetist locked eyes with me and with incredible solemness said - “I promise I will do a good job”. And in that moment I knew I had done the right thing. I was meant to be here for this, this vow, this pretense of providing protection to my child. I needed it.

So, I thanked them and left them to their work. And then I cried for another hour and a half in hallways, waiting rooms and elevators before we were told that the surgery was a success. We were both with him, his father and I, when in the recovery room he emerged out of that strange slumber of anesthetic. And we took it in turns, so very equally, holding him to us in relief.