Everyone dreads the Friday 5 p.m. consult.
As a physician-in-training, I had more than one of those. But having young kids waiting to be picked up from daycare made that decision tougher.
In one particularly memorable event, I left work, picked up my daughter from daycare, and headed to catch the commuter train when I received the consult. In those days, bringing your infant with you to work would have been deemed unprofessional. So I did what I thought any other working mother would do: I returned to the family daycare I had just left, dropped my daughter off with some jumbled explanation to the Hispanic caregiver, and went to the emergency room. I still remember how the caregiver’s eyes widened in surprise when I showed up at her door and thrust my child into her arms.
It is these small things that stay with you: the widening of the eyes; my sense of helplessness.
As women physicians with children, we always make these decisions; we weigh the balance between being a “good clinician” and being a “good wife and mother.” I was left, alone, to sort out my own conflicting emotions. Feeling like I had fallen short of parenting by wanting a career, and similarly feeling like I had fallen short of being a committed clinician and researcher by being a parent.
And even though I eventually did the Friday 5 p.m. consult, got the patient sorted, and finally brought my infant home, what I had done that day and other Friday 5 p.m. consult days still didn’t count for much.
I was told by my boss that I prioritized my family over my work. I knew, even then, that such a statement was utterly ridiculous, because shouldn’t we all prioritize our family over our work? But even though I knew that this perspective was preposterous, I didn’t know how to speak up about that.
It is now over a decade later. In describing some of these experiences to my coach, she pointed out to me that these and other experiences were abuse. Plain and simple.
And while there was relief that someone else could acknowledge and validate how dreadful and painful these experiences were, I also felt shame. That I allowed it to happen. That I deserved their judgment. That I didn’t stand up for myself. That I was grateful for their occasional kindness. That I didn’t just say no, this is not okay, this is not how you treat people.
I remember watching while a fellow male colleague and trainee made a last-minute request for time off work to spend with his partner who was having an elective medical procedure. There was no outward shame or embarrassment; he expressed no remorse or guilt for not being around for his scheduled service duties. His first and foremost priority was his partner. I remember feeling awe and envy that he would seem so unconflicted. I wished to have what he had, in spades.
And the reality is, in fact, that I can and I have. But it took me years to build up the self-confidence, self-belief, and self-compassion that is needed to get there.
Coaching was integral to that process. Through coaching, I learned to uncover my own limiting beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations of situations that shape my subconscious and frame my perspective; accept my failings and humanity for what it is, and nothing less or more; make the conscious choice to think and live intentionally; and then to take action and move forward.
I had to let go of the superhero vision of myself and what I thought I should be: a physician-scientist and mom, and replace it with a different superhero me.
I am now a life and leadership coach helping women physician/academics who are successful by any other measure but are not personally or professionally fulfilled get out of their own way so that they can lead lives with more self-compassion, self-confidence, and self-belief.
I’ve lived the process, and I can help others through it too.
I also lead clinical trials and studies, do hospital ward rounds, teach students and postgraduates. And I still do school drop-offs and pickups.
I can prioritize my family and still be a committed clinician and researcher.
I think the new superhero me is pretty awesome. Are you ready to be a new superhero you?
Pui-Ying Iroh Tam is a pediatric infectious disease physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com