“You make time for the things you love.” That’s what I have always said when asked how I am able to be a writer and a doctor-in-training. Over the past decade, I have stood firmly balanced on these twin pillars of my identity. That is, until motherhood changed everything.
I thought having a baby would also be easy to balance, but as my body and mind made room for my daughter, I found less space to write. For me, pregnancy and its exhaustion made putting pen to paper impossible. I didn’t feel like myself and even worse, I felt like a failure.
As a psychiatrist I tried to practice the same self-compassion I preach to my patients, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of inadequacy. I really believed that pregnancy was not an acceptable excuse for any concessions in my professional life.
This toxic seed took root in my mind during medical school. After ranting about how he worked more than some of his female colleagues, the emergency medicine physician I was working with asked: “You’re not going to become one of those fake mommy doctors, are you?”
I recognized how callous and disdainful he sounded, but I didn’t want to contradict my supervisor, nor did I want to fulfill this stereotype of a woman in medicine. I promised him, and myself, that I wouldn’t become a “mommy doctor.”
I did not know what I was promising.
Determined to carry my own weight and keep my doctor-self intact, I took 24-hour call shifts the week my baby was due. It was hard, but passing this test of perseverance gave me a perverse sense of pride. But my writer-self lagged behind and I wobbled on one pillar without the strength of the other. The longer my column lay dormant, the more fragile my identity felt.
My writing made me feel special and that I had something useful to contribute to the world. Who was I if not a physician-writer? I loved my child even before she was born and I imagined that motherhood would make my life more full. But, as my drive to create dwindled, I struggled to recognize myself. Was this — becoming a “mommy writer” — the sacrifice of motherhood? The exchange of one love for another? I wondered, what would happen to my ambition?
After my baby was born, I sat down and talked to my mother, Dr. Adetutu Adetona, my first female role-model in medicine and the hardest-working woman I know. Her story was both surprising and familiar.
When it came to balancing her training as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon with motherhood, she said “there was no doubt in my mind that it was easily doable.” But no sooner did she start the training did she begin to understand that her dreams of being a surgeon came at a cost.
My mother described her weekends on call — leaving home on a Friday morning and not returning home until Monday night. “It was the worst. … I would cry until I got to work.”
Like me, she feared failure, what she labeled as “that sense of letting myself down.” But eventually she recognized that motherhood was an experience and opportunity that opened new doors. The moment she decided to transition to family medicine, a specialty that ultimately allowed her to thrive both personally and professionally, she felt relieved that she had time for both her patients and her family. Things happen in life for a reason, she counseled, it may be unclear in the moment, but eventually it all balances out.
I don’t know what I’ll say when people ask me how I’m able to be a mother, a doctor, and a writer. As the writer Sarah Manguso explains, through motherhood I am able to “perceive the world more carefully and more lovingly than before because I am more aware of the effects of love and of time on an individual person. And I am more aware of the limits of love and of time.”
I hope my newest, and perhaps most important role, will make me a better doctor and a better writer. Of this I am certain: In facing my struggle with failure, I’ve learned to lean into the wisdom and grace of the “mommies” around me.
I’m not sure why you are focusing on one snide remark made by one man when you were a student.
As a woman who never had children, I too have felt annoyed by both male and female coworkers who come in late and go early for parenting reasons. My question to you is so what? Everyone values different aspects of life and makes their own choices. At times, the things you value change and you do things differently.
I personally love to work out and exercise and spend less time after work hours on work than some coworkers because I’m getting my sweat on. That’s my personal choice.
It’s easy for men to make sweeping judgments because they know that they’ll never have to make those decisions. Our society has two sets of rules for men and women.
The question is, are you judging yourself by other people’s expectations or your own? Regardless, be realistic and forgive yourself the same way you would a good friend or a patient.
All working moms are torn between passions for our work and love and responsibility for our children. The mindset that doctors must be super humans makes our struggles particularly difficult. It’s important not only to hire out the jobs that are meaningless to you but to allow others to participate in the joy you feel as a mother. You don’t have to do it all yourself if the father is sharing the parenting fully. I hope that is possible for you. Unfortunately for many of us, the father is less likely to be an equal partner. I hope that is changing with more parental leave available. But the Mommy Doctor Writer has to allow others to help and not feel she has to do everything herself. You will find a way to a balance that makes sense for you.
During my first interview for medical school (1970), I was asked how I would balance motherhood and medicine. Recognizing the prevailing cultural opinion was that I would be taking the place of a male breadwinner, I naively said that if I would probably not have children. Nearly five decades, four children and four grandchildren later, I am often asked how I managed to balance home and a career as a triple threat academic Otolaryngologist, married to another successful surgeon leader. The memory is hazy. I know there were some really stressful down times (grant deadlines, late night emergencies…) but what I remember most are the everyday moments and milestones of our children’s lives. My two principles were to hire people to do stuff I did not enjoy (cleaning, laundry, etc) so I could help with homework and attend activities, and tried to prioritize, limiting the number of spinning plates. If something fell off the back burner, I let it go. Learning to say “no” was the hardest lesson.
Hang in there, Jennifer. Being a mommy doctor is incredibly rewarding. There are seasons in life, and you don’t need to do everything all the time. As your child or children grow and become independent, you can do more writing, and will have a wealth of experience to share.
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