– With Maria José Diógenes
Imagine the motto for the following tragicomedy movie: a 43-year-old woman, with two daughters studying remotely at home and her husband working full-time, loses her cleaning lady and finds herself confined in full lockdown and needs to manage the house, daughters and her scientific research career. Glimpse of chaos? Not yet. During lockdown, she finds out that a third daughter is on her way. Thus, the eldest, Lúcia and the middle one, Francisca, were joined by Inês.
Good beginning of a script that describes her to the point. Were it not for the mildness in her words, which is her characteristic, we would understand that there was some irritability hidden in her tiredness, or even an attempt to escape from the whole scene. But if any of these thoughts challenged her personality, it did not affect the patience that characterizes her.
Maria José Diógenes is a Researcher at the Institute of Pharmacology and Neurosciences and a professor in the same area at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. She studies ways to re-establish the effects of BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a brain-derived neurotrophic factor in diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease and Rett's syndrome. Both with similar dysfunctions in the brain, they need treatment responses. To maintain her two main paths of study, and despite opening the door to a third form of analysing schizophrenia, Maria José Diógenes needs teams to move all the clues they follow when studying BDNF. This team dynamics happens all the more when national or foreign funding is available, which allows it to continue and develop teams and topics. A whole woman, she cares for her family at different levels, depending on what the pandemic permits. She looks after her daughters, who pose quite different challenges. The eldest has plans to be a doctor, while the other wants teaching to be more focused on her well-being and balance. There is also the baby who allows her time in the morning so that the mother can simultaneously plan home duties and the return to the Faculty following maternity leave.
Let's go back in time, when we first spoke of the need for general lockdown. Responsible for the management of all hospital resources, her husband had to remain on the battlefield, “he was not on the front line, but on the 1st floor, where everything was done to reach the teams and the sick”. He endured sleepless nights, and slept in a separate room so as not to jeopardize the whole family. The husband learned what materials and which suppliers to look for to ensure maximum efficiency in his hospital, since the home effectiveness was ensured by another manager, Maria José Diógenes. And while one took care of the others “outside”, the other member of the team ensured everything else “inside”, at home, worked well.
Management became managing priorities and doing what was the most urgent, because for what was just important, perhaps there would never be time.
At the first signs of sickness and extreme tiredness, she thought that the permanent malaise could be early menopause, or excessive stress that had changed her personal balance. "Pregnant?", she thought, "it couldn't be, because the two previous daughters needed to be medically planned". But the evidence finally came, after a pregnancy test bought by a friend, “take the test there, surely you are pregnant”, she recalls with a smile that almost resembles euphoria. In fact, it was this euphoria that made her cry out in ecstasy when the test was positive. That was the truth, yet another member to enrich the family. The joy was proportional to the clash of the different emotions that would come next and which are also a reflection of hormonal changes.
Between the home with piles of clothes that required dealing with and the agitation to remain inside closed doors, which required buying food and gathering strength, there was a woman who manages, at a distance, a laboratory team that was finishing the project and leaving to follow new post-doctoral paths. There were also two daughters asking for routine and stability and a tired woman with a changing body. She cried, of course, and there were times when she just wanted to run away, run away from everyone.
Perhaps because she knew she was not now in the role of being cared for, but of being the caregiver for everyone and herself, she realized that there was no other way than taking action.
She always moved on, because that was what life expected of her. Faced with the question, “how will it be emotionally, when all the turbulence goes away”, she replied with the wisdom of those who manage pain without anxiety, in a pragmatic way. “I will not come out of this worse, because our worst has already been experienced when we spent almost two years in hospitals”(accompanying one of the daughters). Now I was only closed at home with them, but always at our house, so the worst is long gone.
Maria José Diógenes is the example of those who needed to face reality and, looking at it in the eyes, put everything in place and faced fate. She went about her job only when no offspring needed her; Lúcia, the teenager who wants to spend her life looking after others, took care of some light housework and the shopping was done by her husband at weekends, when he was able to take a break from the hospital.
She did not ask her closest family for help because she decided to protect it. As such, she only went to see her own parents when baby Inês was born on 12 November at her beloved hospital, Santa Maria. With the family gathered in the car, they ran between doors and windows to introduce little Inês, the little miracle who, with a smile and peaceful attitude spread joy to all others around her.
“It was a moment of true happiness”, she says dreamingly. It looks as if she is writing a charming story when she recalls when her younger daughter was born. She says that it is not easy to control pain with a mask on, or to find a student on the ward whom she now meets in a clinical area. But everything turns into unique and remarkable moments, and she always has a positive attitude about things.
She has been strengthened by having to manage so many areas at the same time, mainly emotions.
In just a few days, she will return to work at the university. She will have to create a new research team, since some members of the previous one have moved on in their academic paths, as usual.
She will fully resume her role as lecturer and maintain pedagogical ties with the Faculty. She will remain attentive and present in possible actions that motivate new students to come to the Faculty Candidates’ Day, which she coordinated in the past. With Francisca at school and Lúcia still at home studying online, she now divides her parenting times with her daughters' father.
In her space, engulfed by responsibility, she always has the sweetness of someone who only by going through difficult times truly knows how to look after others.
Our interview was soon over. Baby Inês did not interrupt, but the truth is that she was already expecting her mother Maria José, with a wide smile and arms in the air. I know because I received a photograph. And then a message that makes the title of this conversation.
“You know, Lúcia is our oxygen, we don't live without her, she is part of us, but we see little of her, because she is always studying in her room. Then we have Francisca, our sun, she warms us. When she is at home it is impossible not to feel that heat and her constant presence. Then comes our little light, Inês, who in the middle of the pandemic, from this terrible darkness of doubts and some fear, appeared to show how magnificent life is and give us hope. There is a lot of talk about people on the front line, doctors, nurses, people who, like my husband, are ensuring the management of these wards. But those who are at home working, taking care of the house, doing meals, taking care of the children, are surely on the front line, leading another boat. This is the boat of the children who are our future and who need us so much. We are after all the front line, too!”.