Once in a while someone asks me if it is hard to be a mother and a surgeon. Certainly, any surgeon-parent can appreciate that juggling a household full of schedules, classes, meals, bedtimes, and activities with a practice full of office visits, pre-operative clearances, post-operative check-ups, and surgeries has its challenges. And to be sure, before I became a mother I had no idea how this would impact my work.
What I have found, however, has been a pleasant surprise. In many ways, being a mother has made me a better physician. Perhaps it is because I am a plastic surgeon and most of my patients are women, but I have found that my ability to empathize with my patients has dramatically improved. When a woman speaks to me in confidence about how breastfeeding has destroyed her breasts, or about how her jeans still don’t fit even though she is back at her pre-pregnancy weight, I am able to nod my head with genuine understanding. When a child shows up in the ER with a broken nose or facial laceration after taking a spill at the playground, I see their big, worried eyes in a way that I never did before I became a mother myself.
Motherhood has also added a gentleness to my demeanor. My experience in academic surgery during residency training often involved quickly and sometimes harshly cutting to the chase. In private practice, I spend time seeing patients who are wrestling with breast cancer, skin cancer, debilitating injuries, and body consciousness that can sometimes be difficult to talk about out loud. I have the luxury of more time to spend with my patients, and I make sure that I spend nearly an hour with every new patient I see. Motherhood has given me a sense of patience that greatly assists in taking the time to really listen.
Finally, raising a child from the tiny stages of infancy has made me appreciate the minute delicacy of plastic surgery more than ever before. In a field where margins as small as one millimeter are visually apparent, obtaining excellent, exacting, and meticulous results is important. Perhaps it is all those hours spent gazing at a newborn that drove home the point so emphatically in my day-to-day work life.
I certainly could not be as effective a surgeon or mother without an incredible support network, a loving family, and lots of child care — and to those things, I am forever indebted. But for young women in medical school and residency wondering if they have to choose a career in surgery or a family, I hope they consider that perhaps they not only can choose both, but that there are strong arguments for doing so.