The struggle of mommy-guilt in physician-mothers is real

What does a 3 year old know?

If you don’t like our toddler’s opinion, just wait; she’ll change her mind in a few seconds.  The ever-changing mind of a 3-year-old is what makes the fact that I decided to be a  doctor at that age all the more amazing.  But, that’s how old I was when my parents took me on a mission trip to Haiti, and I decided I wanted to be a doctor.  I witnessed a delivery of twins, and I knew that I was going to grow up and be a doctor.

Becoming an MD + Mom: My personal goals seemed so simple until babies arrived

I ended up as a pediatric anesthesiologist; getting there took me from Washington to North Carolina to Virginia to Washington and back to Virginia.  Major life choices, sacrifices, and expenses were all part of the pathway for becoming a physician, and I never questioned them.   My career aspirations were simple until our first baby arrived during residency.  How was I to know that being a mom would completely derail my perspective and goals?  Other women had warned me, but I had always looked on them with a bit of disdain, priding myself on what I thought was superior ambition.  I thought it wouldn’t happen to me.  Maternity leave during residency was a rude awakening, as I immediately realized that my life would feel complete and satisfied if I never worked another day outside of the home, as a physician or otherwise.

The epiphany: Being a doctor is cool, but …

Talking to many other women, I think that this epiphany happens to all of us, to one degree or another.  It hits some of us harder than others, with some women more easily embracing the fact that they are better at their profession and better mothers because of the balance the other provides.  Some of us struggle more.  As physicians, we receive professional and personal satisfaction in taking care of patients, but for many of us, our real soul-sustenance comes from being home with our children, and it is a constant battle to keep the two reconciled.  We live in tension — thankful for an amazing job that we worked hard to obtain, but knowing that it comes at a cost to our children and ourselves.  Our efforts to limit that cost are constant, and we are always questioning if we are doing enough to minimize it.  I think many of us are surprised by how dramatically motherhood rearranges our sources of fulfillment.

I had a lovely discussion with an OB/GYN colleague the other evening.  We bonded over the fact that we are happiest when we are home with our children, and joked about how we wish we would have “just married the doctor instead of being one ourselves.”

But, this wonderful woman delivered our youngest baby, and, I cannot tell you how grateful I am that she was there.  Every woman can relate to the emotion, elation + terror, of having a baby, no matter how the baby enters your life.  This lady was away from her family that afternoon; her children were with someone else, but she was at the hospital, helping me.

Finding meaning in our jobs

During training, I think it is hard to feel important as a caregiver; we are a low member of the team and can easily feel replaceable.  Out of training, it is easier to realize that I actually do have something unique to provide – the privilege of taking a child safely and comfortably through the peri-operative experience as their anesthesiologist is a high honor, indeed.  That knowledge helps, and I am thankful for having a career that I take pride in.  But, it doesn’t get rid of the guilt.

As physician-mothers, we balance mommy-guilt, professional advancement, and our perception as uncommitted by colleagues; it is a constant challenge.  But, I take comfort in this – the things that make a good physician also make a good mom.  Good mothers are patient, selfless, loving, and thorough.  So are good physicians.  Good mothers are intentional and present during their interactions; I strive to be those things when I am at work and at home.  Even though I may not spend the most number of hours with my girls, I am fierce about maximizing the value of my time with them when I am home.

Thank you, fellow MomMDs

I am exceedingly grateful for the women who have sacrificed time with their own children to invest in me as educators and now as clinicians.  I received excellent care from my OB/GYN, and my children are seen by a truly lovely female pediatrician.  Both of these women, and countless other physician-mothers, work tirelessly as non-replaceable caregivers and educators, and I am eminently thankful for them.  Mommy-guilt is an ongoing struggle for us.  If a simple solution existed, a mom would have discovered it long ago.  We are left doing the best balancing act we can, and loving our children in the best way our individual circumstances allow.  While I seek to invest in my children as much as I possibly can with the time and resources that I have, I will continue to provide the best care possible as a physician — being present, thorough, and patient, knowing that I possess a very special skill.  Every patient I take care of has (or had) a mom, and I know that she is grateful.

Emily Knipper is a pediatric anesthesiologist.

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