“There is no such thing as balance, just different degrees of imbalance at different times,” said the speaker. I was at a work-life balance panel for women in medicine during medical school. As a young woman just starting my medical training, I found that statement liberating and unsettling at the same time, and it stuck with me. I have lived those words many times over as I’ve navigated the past several years as a trainee and then faculty member in general pediatrics. Yet, over the last several months, with the arrival of a new baby and a new pandemic, the swinging pendulum of work and life has hit the extremes.
Just six months ago, my biggest worry was whether I would get my career development grant submitted before going into labor. After delivering my first child early, I knew I was racing against the clock. I was designing conceptual models instead of nursery décor and organizing citations instead of baby clothes. I recognized the pendulum had swung too much to the “work” side when my toddler quoted part of my research aims. I, of course, felt guilty, as working moms often do, but I kept rationalizing that it was worth passing off all of the parenting duties to my husband to prevent work from hanging over my head once the baby arrived.
I submitted my grant on a Monday and delivered my daughter that Wednesday. I had made it! Now it was time to simply enjoy welcoming our daughter and share that joy with friends and family. And for the first few weeks of her life, that is just how things went. My imbalance was back on the “life” side.
Then COVID-19 hit. The new-mom joy was replaced with new-mom panic. Daily visits from friends and family instantly stopped. Grandparents, our main support system, were now only seen on FaceTime. Despite our daycare remaining open for essential workers, I kept my 3-year-old home as I was still on maternity leave. The pendulum had hit the “life” extreme.
The term “stay-at-home mom” took on new meaning with the stay-at-home orders. My husband, a physician in the health IT sector, was working long hours from home while I led “mommy school.” I felt grateful to have time to focus on my kids without the added stress of work. But that working-mom guilt somehow has a way of finding you whichever side of the work-life spectrum you are on; this time brought on by not joining my colleagues on the frontlines and reading about physician moms separating from their children to keep them safe. I attempted to push the guilt away by reminding myself that keeping two tiny humans alive was also important.
As the days and then weeks went by, the anxiety started to set in. What would we do with our kids when maternity leave ended? With my first daughter, I was eager to get back to work. Work provided a sense of control, compared to my colicky infant who seemed to cry no matter what I did. But this time felt different. A return to work no longer offered a return to control, but rather overwhelming uncertainty on both the work and life side. I was going back to a job that would look very different from the one I left, and no childcare options seemed ideal. Daycare was shifting between open and closed based on exposures. Finding a nanny who was willing to work for a healthcare worker and would take social distancing seriously was daunting. Keeping our kids at home while both trying to work in our small rowhome seemed challenging, but we decided it was our best option.
Returning to work in the age of COVID-19, I find myself in a new place along the work-life continuum where everything blurs together. My attempt to telework while simultaneously caring for a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old eliminated any division between work and life. I never realized before what a luxury it was to be able to consciously shift back and forth between the two, even when completely out of balance.
As I navigate this new work-life blur, I am grateful to have colleagues who don’t give a second thought to my breastfeeding during a Zoom meeting. I am grateful to have patients who are not fazed by my daughter’s nursery functioning as my office during a televisit or a toddler tantrum overheard from another room. I get a glimpse into their work-life blur as well, and there is an unspoken understanding and solidarity. One day if I am asked to speak on a work-life panel, I hope I will find some wise lessons to share how I learned from this experience, but for now, I am just taking it a day at a time.
Rebecca Seltzer is a pediatrician.
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