How do physician-mothers do it all?


So, how do you do it all?

It’s a Monday morning.  After a flurry of activities, I am walking into the office at 8:00 a.m.  I think back to the past 2  to 3 hours.  I was up at 5:30 a.m., and in my workout clothes soon after.  I managed to squeeze in a 20-minute workout, thanks to a video on YouTube.  I then reviewed my schedule and patient charts for the day, while listening to soothing music from Yolanda Adams.   I reviewed kid’s schedules for the day; then it was time to get kids ready and off to school.  Afterwards, I made dinner plans, before driving off to work.

In the office, I take a minute to recollect, to sift through my thoughts.  I want to make sure that I tackled everything over the weekend, before I settle into a typical Monday at work.  I then remember an acquaintance I bumped into at the grocery store on Saturday.  We hadn’t seen each other for a while.  We had exchanged pleasantries, and she asked me very nicely about work, family, and kids.  Afterwards, she lowered her voice, fixed a rather empathic gaze on me and said, while shaking her head slowly, “How do you do it all?”

I suspect that many female physicians get asked the same very frequently, by well-meaning family, friends, perhaps even patients.  A male physician might too, but likely not as often, in my opinion.  It’s not hard to see why female physicians might be targets for such questioning.  Considering the requirements of the job, the well-studied heavier burden of parenting that falls on women, the demands of pregnancy, childbirth and raising young children; one is justified in wondering like my acquaintance did.

How do I, and several other physician moms “do it all?”  In other words, how do we manage to merge the ups and downs of parenting with the challenges of an all-consuming career?  How do we tackle long days and busy call schedules, and still find time to stay available for our kids, organizing and keeping up with their programs?  How do we juggle the never-ending adventure called “childcare?”  How do we keep up with (often short notice) school and other activities, considering busy clinic schedules?

On that particular morning, a few thoughts ran through my mind.  I think of physician moms in various situations — single parents, married to other physicians or non-physicians — that I have spoken to over the years.  I believe I speak for most.

We “do it all” by letting go of perfection.  It doesn’t matter that the birthday cake is store-bought rather than home-baked.  As long as there is a cake to send to school, everyone is happy.   Yes, an occasional (or even frequent) frozen dinner is okay.  Perhaps that way, we may have time to read a bedtime story.  How about soccer, taekwondo, piano, and violin classes?  We don’t need to have all going on, and you know what, that’s OK.  We might pick and choose 1 or 2 activities that we can keep up with.  We trust that our children don’t need six different activities, but they’ll turn out just great.

We “do it all” by sheer courage and a fierce determination. For the longest time, women have been in the workforce, formal and informal, bearing and raising children along the way.  This is nothing new.  Yes, clinical medicine is particularly laborious, especially in this day and age, with EMR and increasing time with documentation and other administrative tasks.  Nonetheless, our generation has the help of technology.  There are smartphone apps that enable us to shop on Amazon, book babysitters, pay bills, and coordinate activities on several family calendars.  Within the space of 15 minutes, while getting a pedicure, one can get ten tasks accomplished.   Of course, it’s not all perfect and every day is a challenge, but we forge ahead, hoping and believing in a better tomorrow, hoping that it’ll all be worth it in the end.

We “do it all” by tapping into supports.  What a blessing to have spouses who try to be good team players.  Much love to those friends who offer to drive kids to swim or piano when we are running late.   How about family, friends, and neighbors who step in for short notice babysitting, if something were to come up at the hospital at an odd time.  We are indebted to them.

We “do it all” by realizing that no one can really do it all.  Is that even possible, to do it all?  I don’t think so.  I think that rather, we pick and choose a few areas that are most important at any particular time and focus on those.  Personally, as much as I’d like to do, with my very limited free time, you may not find me at a book club, or a parent support meeting.  You will find me hunting down the newest kid movie releases, but I have not been to a movie theater to see a grown-up movie in a year.  If I must, I watch Xfinity On Demand, at home, when kids are in bed.  I pick and choose social events to attend, understanding that I only have 24 hours in a day after all, and some good old rest is always a good thing.

On that particular Monday, I think of how perplexed my friend might have been, had I taken the time to narrate the points above in response to her question.  Alas, before I can think any further, I am jolted back to reality by an overhead hospital operator announcement.

I smile and glance at my watch.  It’s 8:15 a.m. and my first patient is almost ready, so I get up, pick up my stethoscope, and head on over to my first examination room.

Uchenna O. Njiaju is a hematologist-oncologist who blogs at Erica OncMD.  She can be reached on Twitter @ericaoncmd.

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