Elisha Talley is more comfortable with impermanence than the average person. She knows that life can change directions or come screeching to a halt, at any time. That stoutness of heart is part of what makes her uniquely qualified for two of the hardest jobs on Earth: single mom and pediatric nurse in the Congenital Heart Center at the C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Talley moved to Ann Arbor from Washington in 2004 with her partner, their 3-year-old daughter, Zuvuya, and 3-month-old daughter, Luda Moon. A natural caretaker, Talley was attracted to working in health care. Her mother passed away when she was 11 and she wanted to help others find comfort with the death process. Thinking she would become a hospice nurse, she was doing her residency training when a rotation in the pediatric cardiothoracic intensive care unit changed her life. She says, “My jaw dropped and my heart exploded” when she saw the brilliance, compassion and unwavering commitment of the nurses on duty. “I could do this,” she thought. “I could take care of these babies.”
Shortly after starting her degree, Talley’s relationship with her children’s father fell apart. Without a family support system, she found herself on welfare and foodstamps while working full-time and studying late into the night after her girls were in bed. “Anyone who looks down on people for being on public assistance doesn’t know what it’s like. I would not have been able to succeed the way that I have without it.”
A teenaged girl from the neighborhood was her saving grace, offering low cost child care so Talley could finish her degree. She was hired by Mott, one of the most prestigious children’s hospitals in the world, and has been there ever since.
“It’s a dream job,” she says, adding, “It’s a really hard place to work.” But the collaborative spirit of the healthcare providers on the floor is phenomenal. Doctors and nurses work closely together. “My patients suffer from serious heart defects. Twenty years ago most of these children did not survive infancy,” she says.
Talley is there for people on the hardest days of their lives, which puts her own life in perspective. “Never take your children’s health for granted,” she affirms. “That’s the most important thing in the world. Without it, what have you got?”
Perhaps she is more morbid than the average mother, she muses. Every time she says goodbye to her children she hugs them extra hard. “Mom, we’re coming back!” they grumble. But she insists her abiding knowledge of life’s impermanence is not a downer. It simply helps her to appreciate the time she has.
Rituals like cooking together with her daughters every night are an important part of Talley’s home life. And, when it comes to chores, they’re a team. As a result, she is raising independent young women who can do things for themselves. She still misses her own mother, a native of Puerto Rico, whom she adored. Many nights a week Talley and her girls make Puerto Rican food in her honor. “She was my favorite person,” she says. There’s no doubt she would be proud of her girls.
What kind of self-care do you do to unwind?
I am rigorous when it comes to taking care of myself. In the winter I take baths for hours. Music, candles, the works. In the summer I go to the lake every day and float. I also love to walk, do yoga, and take care of my plants.
How do you balance work and family life?
I believe people make space for what they really want. I’ve always committed to certain rituals and am really present for those times. During the week, it was always dinner, bath and bedtime. As the girls got older, the rituals changed, but we always spend time together.
Is it hard to be a mother to teenagers?
Communication is key. We’ve been talking about the awkward teenage stuff since long before they were teenagers so it’s less embarrassing. My oldest is 17 and she still curls up in my lap. It’s the best part of my life, being a mom to these kids.