Reflections of a new mother in medicine

Months before my life was upended, a doctor friend tried to explain my forthcoming role in terms I’d understand. “Imagine being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “You’re in charge of a single patient, but she is needy as hell.”

Medical training prepared me for motherhood in some ways (the assortment of facts blurrily retained from my pediatrics rotation in medical school; the skill, or delusion, of combating the inertia of sleep), but not at all in most others. And now, after two months devoted to tummy time and 5am staring contests with my sweet, saucer-eyed baby girl, I join the ranks of countless men and women attempting the uneasy balancing act of work and parenthood. I’m doing so at a time when the terms of re-entry for new mothers into medicine seem particularly disputed.

Internal medicine is a fast-evolving field (since my daughter’s birth in late October, experts have decided to lower the bar to treat high cholesterol and raise it for high blood pressure, so I have some catching up to do. But I’ve quickly realized how essential maternity leave has been in allowing me to heal and to connect with my daughter. It is incredible, and a disservice to women as much as to men, that we do not offer fathers this right to the same extent.

Maternity leave has also confirmed for me what I already guessed: as much as I enjoy being a mother, I am my best self when I am also taking care of patients. I suspect that the vulnerabilities inherent in being a parent may make me a more empathic doctor, and I hope that one day my passion for my work might inspire my daughter to pursue something she loves.

For me, returning to work is both a personal and a practical decision (crippling debt and all). Some have even argued that, as a doctor, it is the only socially responsible one. In 2011, anesthesiologist and mother Karen Sibert contested in the New York Times that the women who choose to leave medicine for parenthood are to blame for our shortage of doctors (my reaction here). Recently, J. Meirion Thomas, a “leading” male surgeon and “feminist” in the United Kingdom (parenting status: unknown) decided that female doctors are stealing from taxpayers and crippling the National Health Service because they are more likely to work part-time after starting families.

The particular absurdities of his argument aside, such claims completely miss the point that our workforce shortages are an institutional failure, not because women finally represent a proportionate share of doctors but because we haven’t made the best use of our doctors to begin with. If fewer women than men are staying in medicine, which is indisputably a bad thing, then we ought to figure out how to accommodate mothers in the profession — through equal pay and accessible childcare — and to do away with the pervasive and anachronistic expectation that women shoulder the bulk of responsibility for raising children.

In the meantime, my pager just went off: a certain someone needs a diaper change and my husband won this game of rock-paper-scissors.

Ishani Ganguli is a journalist and an internal medicine-primary care resident who blogs at The Boston Globe’s Short White Coat, where this article originally appeared. 

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  • Eric Thompson

    I agree that assuming that women (or men) who leave medicine to be parents are stealing from health care is absurd. It belittles parenthood. I don’t understand the equal pay point. With my interations I don’t see female doctors being paid less. Nor do reimbursement rates reflect different rates by sex. I do see differences in annual income for those who work fewer hours. Time with family is important. I would not agree that paying someone who works 40 hour weeks the same as someone who works 60 hours. There is a choice: family time vs money. I prefer the family time.

    • rbthe4th2

      Well let me put it to you this way: say myself and one other female is in medicine. I have to cover for her for 5 months for pregnancy because she feels the effects of pregnancy and can’t work. Then she takes off a few months for maternity that I have to cover for. Then she takes the first year for breastfeeding duties and I have to cover for that, working overtime without pay, so they can work part time. Then its the story that “I have to take off and leave because the nursery said they have a fever and the contract we sign with them says someone has to get them and take care of them”. The doctor has no backup to watch the kid. However, the work place pays the other doctor more money.

      You’d feel a bit differently on it also.

      That being said, yes, if you have a physician who leaves for several years, a lot of money (via the subsidy for residencies) went to educating someone, a lot of tax dollars. If they decide to leave and take several years off, that means there are less doctors to go around. A position that could have been filled by someone who doesn’t have that responsibility.

      The comment about supporting mothers in the profession, how are you going to do that without requiring others to share the burden they could have expected with those other doctors?