5 lessons every woman doctor must learn

Recently, I wanted to find some inspirational articles for female doctors. This letter to the young female physician by Dr. Suzanne Koven was one of the first things I came across. I wish someone had written me a letter when I was young and dumb and entering internship. Maybe it would have been a good warning. I mean, I was clueless about what lay ahead. I might have had an inkling about the ambivalence I would feel about what now is known as “work-life balance,” though I called it “lifestyle” back in the day, and it was less about children and more about sleeping in and staying out. But I had no idea about the sexism I would eventually encounter or the double standards that would become the bane of my existence.

Dr. Koven touches upon impostor syndrome — an integral part of my daily routine, seeing as how I shake in my clogs every time the phone rings because I just KNOW someone finally figured out that I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. (Psst: I actually know what I’m doing.) She discusses ways we seek validation and the secondary measures we use to gauge our success and worth, like knowledge of minutia or speed with which you can perform a menial procedure. These are nothing but secondary measures, and yet they seem to weigh so much.

She urges the young female doctor to realize that she is “a flawed and unique human being, with excellent training and an admirable sense of purpose.” And that “[her] training and sense of purpose will serve [her] well.” Can’t really disagree with that.

Some advice I would add to all of this, for any woman entering into medicine is:

1. Do not put your own life on too far of a back burner. A little bit on the back burner maybe, in training, to make it easier for yourself — but only to make it easier for YOURSELF, and not because someone else tells you to. And don’t put it too far back, so you forget all about it. Remember, after all this is over, you still have to be you somehow.

2. Don’t sacrifice your biological clock if you don’t want to. The fact is, it’s different for us girls. I’d like to fight for equality, but unless we turn into seahorses, things are not equal as far as what men and women do on this earth, if even physiologically. Thanks to the amazing women who have paved the way, at least we now can expect to have a family and a career in some shape or form without outright rejection. How or when to do it, is a different matter. In medicine, we are always looking to “what’s next?” After pre-med, it’s med school, and after that it’s internship, then residency, and after that maybe fellowship, then you’re looking for tenure or waiting till you’re a partner … And how can I do this to my colleagues? And who’ll cover me? It’s good to plan ahead, but you know what comes with endless planning? Infertility. And IVF. If you want children, don’t delay them for the sake of medicine. There comes a point when no further f*cks can be given.

3. Don’t sacrifice your career if you don’t want to. On the other hand, don’t give up what you want professionally either. People will sometimes say it to your face and sometimes whisper behind your back: “How hard is she gonna work now that she’s married … pregnant … has kids … has a vagina…” The answer is as hard as you f*ucking want and can, and no one needs to be making assumptions without asking what you want, and giving you a chance. Don’t let anyone pigeonhole you into some idea they have of what your life should be either professionally or at home.

4. Try to internalize that you have nothing to prove. On the third hand, I don’t mean that if you can’t do it all, you fail. I advise you to realize that the elusive “having it all” depends very much on what “it all” means to you. And it should only matter what it means to you. I struggle with this constantly, as I have a competitive streak I didn’t even know I had. In addition to impostor syndrome, I feel like I have something to prove. It’s torture. Just don’t. Your only reference point for comparison is you, and no one else. So, if you feel you mustn’t outsource house help b/c you have something to prove as a mother or woman – stop it. And, if you feel you must do research and publish or do extra fellowship. Or even simpler — if you feel you must work until you’re in labor or with preeclampsia because you have to prove that as a woman doctor you — stop it. No one will thank you. There are no hero points. You shouldn’t have anything to prove.

5. Live and let live. Chances are it will take a long time for you to figure things out, and that’s fine. Once you do, remember that what’s right for you isn’t necessarily for everyone. Nora Ephron said in some of her writing that the constant subtext in feminist rhetoric is that yes, it’s all about choices, but obviously, the only right choice is mine. Let go of that. It’s hard but work on it. So what if your co-resident left her medical career to be a stay at home mom after all that? It feels like waste to you? So, you won’t do it! She did, and great. So what that another friend has eight nannies so she can do eight jobs and be an administrative leader. It feels like not enough time for the family? So, you don’t have to do it that way. Stop judging. Everyone is doing exactly the same thing you are: their best in the way that works for them. Let people do their thing as you do yours.

Good luck, young female doctor and I promise to try to make it easier for you like others made it for me.

Sasha Retana is a gastroenterologist who blogs at And Why Not!

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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