Work-Life Balance. What's That?
By Diane Arnaout, M.D.
When I was approached to write articles about “Work -Life Balance” I couldn’t help but chuckle a little under my breath. Balance? What’s that?
As a busy full-time pediatrician, wife to an even busier attorney, and mother of two small kids, “balance” seems to be the last thing in the world I’m good at most days.
I have always muttered the phrase “there needs to be two of me” at the sad hour of 9:30pm when I fall into bed exhausted. The virtual checklist in my head always seems to have 20 unchecked boxes. Those damned boxes.
But I will attempt to tell you about the personal challenges I’ve faced, and how I’ve attempted to create some semblance of peace in what I do, who I am, and who I strive to be personally and professionally.
Part 1: How Having a New Baby Changed My Practice – Both Literally and Figuratively
Before kids, life was easy. Go to work, build your practice, keep up with evidence-based medicine, network at dinners, unwind with a glass of something after work, and catch up with my husband at night. On the weekends I’d practice photography and fit in a few workouts. I constantly ask myself lately…what did I DO with all that free time?
Enter baby #1.
The nice thing about being a pediatrician is that there is no field more child-friendly, right? I could take a lengthy maternity leave, bring baby to work, and take whatever breaks I needed to pump or communicate with childcare.
But I had a demanding patient demographic and a full schedule. People were waiting weeks to see me after I returned from maternity leave. The pressure was on.
I hated to keep people waiting while I pumped. The nurses needed me for clinical questions. The front staff needed my signature on dozens of things a day. My patients had complex medical issues that at times required research and consulting with other physicians.
And through all that, I couldn’t help but watch the nanny cam between appointments, sometimes tearing up if she wasn’t feeding him the way I do, or comforting him the way I do.
My mind was torn into a hundred different directions when I returned to work, and my heart very much in one direction.
No one tells you about these little daily aches you’ll experience your first day/week/month as a working physician mom. No matter what field you’re in, the tears are real. As professionally driven as I was pre-kids, I could not deny that thick rope that I felt tying my heart to my child’s. It felt a little wrong to be at work. I was really torn mentally. And I felt alone.
I feel for my surgeon sisters, my hospitalist sisters, my specialist sisters. Hell, any woman in a very demanding career. How they fit all of this in, and more, is beyond me. It was hard enough in my baby-friendly zone.
And I don’t mean to discredit my hard-working physician father colleagues. It is a massive life overhaul for anyone who works hard and has a new child. But here I particularly would like to address mothers – those who have been through the rigors of a changing body, changing hormones, childbirth, lactation, and/or just the pull of being a “present” mother.
I am fortunate enough to work for a system that values physician work-life balance. I decided to work 3.5 days a week for a while. Being able to spend a little more time with my son every other day, rather than getting home right before he went to bed every night, made things more tolerable for me.
Despite a strict pumping routine at the office, I did have to use some formula to get my son through his first year. Me, a pediatrician, spouting forth the greatness of breastmilk daily with my patient families, giving formula to my baby. Accepting that it was okay, and making that compromise with myself, allowed me to let go of truckloads of guilt. It made me a happier mother, doctor, and wife.
I missed a few things. The first time my daughter stood up. The first chuckles of my son. But I got to see plenty more when I got home. And my patients were cared for, and felt that I valued them and their time.
I think it’s important to remember who you are as you navigate through balancing your career and your child. And I think it’s okay to let go of some priorities and replace them with new ones. As physicians we are trained in medical school and residency to get the job done, no matter what - no matter how little sleep we’ve gotten, whether or not we have eaten or peed in the past 12 hours, or who is waiting for us at home. It’s okay to let go of this mentality if we need to address new challenges like motherhood.
If the option of working less is not available to you, make time to be with your baby in other ways. 30 minutes at lunch can refresh the soul. Waking him early before the sun rises is another way to have some quiet time. Nighttime nursing, though exhausting, helped me have more time with my daughter, with the added benefit of keeping my supply up.
Some other physician mothers have tried the following:
-Seeing more patients some days so that you can leave early other days
-Renting a hospital-grade pump for more effective, though short, pumping sessions
-Having a nanny camera or signing up with a daycare that allows you to see your baby during the day
-Trading for more night shifts (or, if it works better for your family, more day shifts)
-Bringing your baby to work (I have literally seen physician moms work with their baby strapped to their back!)
-Consider private practice instead of academics, or vice-versa.
I’m writing this article series to let you know that you, physician mother, are not alone. There are thousands of us trying to figure this out.
Find us on social media – Facebook has wonderful professional mom groups that are supportive and that got me through some very tough times. Physician Moms Group, PMG, is the largest group.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to other mothers in your physician community. Recently another local pediatrician in my town set up a dinner for local physician moms. What a great way to unwind and share stories. It really does take a village.
Being a good mother, wife and physician at the same time can be hard. But trust in your needs and your abilities. And as a fellow physician mom told me, “It’s all about finding the ratio that works for your and your family. And that knowing that if the pendulum is swinging one way today, it’s going to swing the other way tomorrow.”