I describe work-life balance not as a see-saw with one side going up while the other goes down, but more like a wobble board with imbalance possibilities in infinite directions.
Now that I’m in my fifties with grown kids, I feel compelled to share what I think I did right — and on what I feel I wasted time/energy with the disclaimer that it all depends on your values and this is one academic anesthesiologist-wife-mother-dog lover’s experience.
First, in case you don’t read on, I highly recommend Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, about coming to terms with our “finitude” and how to manage time in the complete opposite way of typical time management books.
Here are the things I did right:
1. I waited to have kids until fellowship, so I’d have more control of my time (maybe no longer necessary with the newer, kinder ACGME).
2. I bought out of call when I had three kids under 4 — well worth 20 percent of my salary, but I was blessed with less debt than most.
3. I went down to 80 percent at work and used that time off to take my kids on individual “mommy days” without their siblings — it delayed me making full professor, but I don’t regret a minute of it. When we get together as a family now, it’s one of the things my kids recall fondly and frequently.
4. I went on a date night with my husband every Thursday, no matter how tired or how much I wanted to just cuddle the kids — we’re still married.
Once you have a sitter coming on a predictable schedule, it’s much easier to plan social outings and harder to cancel.
5. I joined a gym, first at the hospital, then elsewhere with bootcamps at 5:30 a.m. and went and still go religiously. Working out with others keeps me motivated and challenged.
6. I reevaluated and reinvented my career every ten years (as advised by a mentor) from intense medical student teaching to intense research to residency program director. I am now 60 percent clinical and part-time medical thriller author. Starting something new ignites the stale parts of your brain!
7. I made time to give back. Early on, it was to the kids later it became medical students needing extra attention, now church and STEM education.
8. I planned an intense week-long family vacation every summer — usually hiking in a national park. Not expensive, but recharge time.
9. And the best one: I hired a nanny to care for the kids, clean some, start dinner, and a housekeeper to do the deeper cleaning. And I was blessed with a great administrative assistant. Think of it as supporting the local economy. Hire people to do tasks that are time-consuming but not life-affirming.
And the things I didn’t:
1. I worried way too much about time away from the kids — first smiles enjoyed by the nanny instead of me, etc. They are well-adjusted, and the time I spent with them was much higher quality than if I’d been home all the time.
2. I worried too much about what my work partners thought of me being part-time and not taking call. I did and do my part and am paid commensurate with that.
3. I didn’t take all the vacation allotted to me and should do better. With four weeks per year, I should take one week per quarter. My self-employed husband can’t take that much time, but even hanging at home with the dogs and writing can be energizing.
4. We eventually bought a lake house but I was told years ago I should have a retreat. I couldn’t imagine keeping up a second house. It’s 45 minutes away, and it’s heaven. I wish we’d had it when the kids were younger and able to enjoy it more (they’re all off in grad school).
5. I wish I’d realized earlier the whole “life is a journey, not a destination” so I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking, “It’ll be better when … I pass the boards, I get the grant/patent/publication, I make professor …”
When those happened, it felt great for a few minutes, but life went on as it had before — no bright lights or fireworks or grand symphonies.
6. I took too long to read the really good books that would have made me a better person and doctor: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. And then newer books like those from Atul Gawande, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, books on Stoic philosophy, Think Again by Adam Grant, The Power of Moments by Chip Heath. And the best one I’ve read in years: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
All in all, I’m living an extraordinary life, and I hope, when you’re in your mid-50s, you’ll feel as satisfied with your life choices as I am with mine.
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