Please tell me what a “mommy-friendly” medical career is

I had a familiar conversation the other day with yet another female medical student.

“I really loved surgery!” she said, “but I was concerned about the lifestyle, so I decided on ______.”

Lifestyle — it turns out — almost always seems to be code for having a family.

Maybe it’s just the kind of students who seek me out. I have yet to encounter someone concerned that a surgical career will hamper their aspirations to compete in triathlons or become national fencing champions or write books for the general masses. I know surgeons who manage to work full time and do all of these.

The other day, I came across yet another discussion board on what advice to give to women in search of “mommy-friendly” medical specialties. There were lots and lots of suggestions: Some were full time jobs with predictable hours, and others were part-time jobs but not one of the suggestions was a surgical subspecialty.

Not. A. Single. One.

Sigh. This makes me sad for my chosen specialty and for all the promising young women who will not go on to realize their potential as amazing surgeons.

I would be lying if I said that surgery is lifestyle friendly. In fact, anyone who has followed me for more than a millisecond knows that many of our daily woes outside of work arise from the demanding hours and high stress of our career choice. But the question is: What does “mommy friendly” even mean? This is not the same as the “mother’s hours” often noted as selling points in help wanted ads. There may be ways to go part-time or certain very specific specialties that enable a woman only to have to be at work when her kids are at school I suppose. But I have to believe that “mommy friendly” is about more than just the hours.

I know, I know. You are just waiting for me to launch into the cliché of “it’s quality, not quantity.” But I won’t.

The truth is, I wrote all the words above nearly 500 days ago. It turns out I never finished because I don’t know what “mommy friendly” means when used as an adjective for a career.

Since I first wrote the beginning of this blog post, I have spent well over a year of my life as a surgeon and a mother. I even wrote an open letter to young women with the same opening line evidently having forgotten about this draft. That letter, now read more than 15 thousand times, doesn’t define “mommy friendly” either.

Paid maternity leave. Private pumping rooms. Childcare. A promotion clock that doesn’t penalize for maternity leaves.

Any workplace can provide these, but do the amenities in and of themselves mean the associated profession is “mommy friendly?” Not if the backhanded comments or outright displays of resentment persist. Often, the culture of the profession is at odds with these progressive workplace policies. And these message board replies on what medical career to choose explicitly indicate that the culture of medicine has not caught up to modern times.

Luckily, however, not everyone is reading the same message board. And so across the country, a whole new crop of women begin training as surgeons. They are less a minority and more just reflective of the demographic of modern surgery. Hopefully, they will all become surgeons (there is still some attrition in our programs nationally) and some will become mothers. And my hope is that, together with the men they are training with, they will foster a culture in which is it no longer necessary to ask if surgery is “mommy friendly.”

Heena P. Santry is a surgeon who blogs at Hot Heels, Cool Kicks, & a Scalpel.  She can be reached on Twitter @SurgeoninHeels.

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