This essay appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine a few decades ago. I thought it deserved a reprise this May, when big companies spend millions on smarmy tributes to nurses.
When I drive past the hospital where my daughter was born, I look up to the 11th floor and wonder if the new moms up there are doing what I did when I was in their johnnies: I was hoping that my baby would grow up to be a nurse. Actually, hoping is kind of a wishy-washy word for it. I was so grateful for the ministrations and support of the labor and delivery nurses, I more or less pledged my newborn’s life as a thanks offering to Florence Nightingale.
This is a terribly unfashionable wish. Nobody surprises a 2-year-old with a nurse’s kit. I don’t think they even make them anymore. Hoping that your kid studies hard, gets into a good college, and becomes a nurse is something like hoping that he or she studies hard, goes to Harvard, and becomes vice president.
We are supposed to want our children to become physicians. We are pointedly supposed to want daughters to become doctors. Life insurance companies seem particularly smitten with this idea; the advertising image of mommy and daddy musing about a medical school graduation over pink bunting is pop culture shorthand for the death of sexist stereotypes.
Not that I have anything against the profession that seeks to cure. I’m sure that I would be every inch the parodied proud Jewish mother if she should go to medical school.
But I have a different fantasy. Emilia applies to both the best medical schools and the finest nursing programs in the country. She is accepted by them all, of course. And she chooses to become a nurse.
In the best of all possible futures, this decision would not cost her a penny of earning potential, not one iota of status, not a smidgen of respect. I have hope for the 21st century, but I’m not banking on that kind of revolution. I know it would cost her dearly to choose the path of the ill-paid angels instead of the route of the medical deities.
What kind of a mother wishes upon her daughter a life of awful hours, terrible smells, and three-dimensional exhaustion for which she will be paid less than a garbage collector earns? Why do I want her on the front lines of human life, staring down death and despair during 12-hours shifts, while the glory goes to some first-year resident who knows less than she does.
But really, I am no different from every other parent who wishes her child a better life than her own, though that wish is almost always understood in financial terms. I have, of course, entertained the thought of an opulent retirement at my offspring’s expense, but I have to confess that I’m not set on her becoming a member of the plumbers’ union.
What kind of emotional satisfaction would she feel after a day of cleaning clogged drains? For that matter, what kind of happiness comes of spending a 70-hour work week fast-tracking to the top of a heap of money?
I want her to do better than her father and me in so many ways. She should be more athletic than we two slugs. She should know the names of all the wildflowers. She should eat more fish and enjoy mathematics. But my dearest ambition is that she surpass us in the empathy department. Not the reading-about-sad-stuff-and-being-moved kind of empathy, but the working-to-make-a-difference kind.
I told a friend about the unfashionable ambition I harbor for my daughter. But after I explained, he said it’s not the job that matters and that I would probably be just as proud if she were a banker who helped low-income people get mortgages.
In theory he’s right. Besides, I have seen awful nurses – cold, aloof, and too busy to smile at a terrified old man. There are nurse major-domos and nincompoop nurses. The diploma does not automatically bestow a kind heart, and neither does internal plumbing. The least sympathetic doctor I ever had was a woman.
I knew from age 10 that my daughter would not be an Olympic gymnast, or thrill to the mysteries of calculus. She will go her own way no matter what I wish for her.
Nursing—97 percent female, underpaid, and undervalued—is the only profession whose official mandate is comfort. No matter what she does with her life, I want my kid to know that there is no higher calling.
From my book of essays, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith