Working-mommy crisis ensued again last night at the typical quarterly interval, yet in the most unusual form. It was my regular Thursday, a 14-hour work day away from my boys. I left the house before 7 and didn’t return home until nearly 9pm. I didn’t see the boys all day. But that wasn’t it. I was doing just fine with my day; I’d seen over 25 patients in clinic, made some inroads on work in social media and sincerely enjoyed the opportunities I had to help. The shift occurred after I decided to watch the first disc in The Planet Earth series. Have you seen it? I’d planned on finishing a post on Amy Chua (writing it feels like putting hot pokers in my eyes at this point) but realized my brain was fried. Decided to give in and stop working around 10. We got a new television for our basement this week; I popped in the DVD.
The show has nothing to do with women in the workforce. I don’t think the BBC producers thought once about inspiring a post on work-life-balance. Yet the series has everything to do with parenting, our connection to community, our space in nature, and our commitment to our children. The future of the health of our planet is dependent on our care now (of course). Our task in helping preserve the earth is really about more than the quantity of plastic that ends up in landfill. It’s really about how we learn to love and enjoy the woods and the wilderness, how we learn to live and travel without leaving large marks, and how our children understand what matters outside the walls of their home. And how they come to understand decision-making.
The BBC series highlights the earth from every contour and perspective while chronicling animals of all forms in their process of incubation (penguins=amazing), rearing, surviving, and dying.
I just kept watching the mothers. My stomach flipped at points as I watched a mother elephant help her young bull who’d walked right into a tree because he’d been blinded in a dust storm. Or the polar bear teaching her young cub to walk. These animals flanked their mothers. The babies would get tired during migration and sit down. Their mother urged them on… Even after the room was dark and I plopped into bed, I was eyes-wide-open thinking about those mothers.
No mention of fathers the entire 3 hours outside of mating rituals (I’m serious). Only the mothers, with their babes in tow, marching through the dessert, feeding after hibernation, teaching their young to walk, feed, and survive. And it struck me. Is this why this tension feels so much stronger for me? Often I’m not the one in the front of the line with my kids. I’m at clinic with other people’s children. I’m writing or tweeting. I’m at a meeting. Is this struggle with balance hard-wired?
It’s not guilt I feel. It’s far more complicated than that.
As a friend wrote today in an e-mail, “I totally go through phases of extreme despondency from missing the kids and elation at being in an exciting, fulfilling job. Don’t think that a happy medium exists in real life.”
Dr Stephen Ludwig, a cherished mentor for me during medical school, wrote a lecture that will be published in the February Pediatrics (it’s unfortunately behind the Pediatrics pay wall). The topic was work-life-balance. He talked about the struggle of raising children during his internship 38 years ago and how work-life-balance is an issue for us all but that women of childbearing age may, “bear a disproportionate share” or the burden. He wants pediatricians to “Strive for Polygamy,” and recommends that pediatricians maintain a balance and respect for three marriages. He discusses them in order of priority: marriage to our partners and families, our marriage to our work, and our marriage to ourselves. But then adds a visual of an equally over-lapping Venn diagram of these three unions. As pediatricians, he asserts that we need to be at the forefront of creating workplace day care (we aren’t), flexible work schedules (we aren’t), and vacations that span 2 weeks time (we don’t do this). We need to find ways to find silence in our lives to reflect on our biggest challenges. We need a to learn to say, “no.”
He ends the lecture with a Chinese philosophy:
Happiness is somebody to love,
Something to do,
And something to hope for.
And with that I’ve found a bit more peace. But I still need to figure how to find more time to be around my little boys, in case of a dust storm.
Mellissa (Confessions of a Dr.Mom) says
Oh Mama Doc, this brought tears to my eyes. I do wish there was more support for working women everywhere. I think we do innately struggle with guilt of being away from our children much more than men do.
I wish I was a better multi tasker, this elusive balance seems hard if not impossible to achieve. I suppose like you say, it comes and goes in waves.
I wish you much luck in finding the right balance for you and your family.
Sakina Bajowala, M.D. says
As a physician caring for other people’s children, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling like your efforts are disproportionately spent on offspring other than your own. But the ability to share our compassion and abilities with those outside our bloodline or “clan” is part of what makes us human. It is a trait to be celebrated.
I struggled for so long with working mommy angst during both residency and fellowship. During training, there were entire weeks when my son’s every meal was fed to him by someone who wasn’t his mother. I felt supplanted in my most important endeavor.
The decision to go to part-time private practice was intensely liberating, not only for me, but also for my boys. There is something very comforting about feeding my children with my own hands at least once a day, and my being able to be the “class mom” once in a while puts the biggest smile on my kindergartener’s face.
When I’m with my kids, I’m 100% with them. When I’m at work, I’m focused on my patients. Medicine retains it’s intrigue, and my work is now truly a vocation, rather than the job that pulls me away from my children.
This is so ironic.
I was thinking about you as I made lunch for the kids today. No, seriously, I really was.
I was wondering if you ever doubted yourself for working, because I doubt myself every. single. day for not working outside of the home. And you always seem so at peace, happy, and confident with yourself as a mother and a professional. I hope you don’t mind that it helps me to know that even you have moments of “wait a second. . . ” (not that I am glad you do, just that I think it’s a universal that so many people don’t talk about).
I agree with your friend about the balance. I don’t think that there is a right choice. There are different paths in life. We show our children different things by stay home, we show our children different things by working outside of the home.
When I was thinking about you, I was thinking about how you are such a model to your children and I wonder if my own children will someday be disappointed in me because I was “just” a mom. I (willingly) gave up a large piece of myself and my identity when I stepped away from the workforce. It isn’t a decision that I would change, BUT it is one that causes me to feel fear, indecision, and guilt on a fairly regular basis (probably even more than quarterly, to be completely honest).
Much like there are days when you feel like a superhero, there are days when I do, too. There are days when there is no place where I’d rather be. Then there are days when I long for the outside world and some of that confidence and self-assurance that comes with it, that I wonder what it is that I will really “teach” my kids.
I guess all I am saying is, mom-to-mom, these choices are never easy. I don’t know you outside of the clinical setting and glimpses through social media, but I know your children are very fortunate to have you as their mommy and that if a dust storm comes, they know you will be there for them to show them the right way.
Wonderful! So insightful! I sent this on to both my daughter and daughter-in-law.
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD says
Sam Ewing once said, “Nobody ever asks a father how he manages to combine marriage and a career.” My ah ha moment occurred in the dust storm…I need to say thanks for reminding me of the dust storm and its meaning!
My children span a decade in ages, and I am proud to be the mother of five. There is no substitute for the time that we, as adults, spend with our children…remembering each and every minute that we are together, Children Do Not Raise Themselves.
But when my children are doing well, when they are thriving in their friendships, in school, in their hobbies…who am I to meddle in their success? I am doing my job to live in the background as the example of healthy eating, of an active lifestyle, of enjoying my own hobbies and interests. They know that my husband and I are around should any need arise.
But when the dust storm appears out of nowhere (and they always do), you can be sure that I my own “Mamma Bear” side takes over. I never left the bedside of my hospitalized child. I made time for Reading Moms because it was important to one that I be “like all the other kindergarten moms…only older!”. We share a dinner meal together every day because it creates a family meeting time where each plays an important role and where a brewing dust storm often announces its possible arrival so that we might turn east and avoid the storm if that was meant to be.
As for Tiger Mom…maybe we could all use a little more self discipline but there are many ways to be a mother. Her way does not have to be wrong so that my way can be right. We will all love our babies through the Animal Planet…because that’s how Mother Earth creates work-life balance.
I was actually just thinking a couple days ago about how “I wish I could be such a confident, calm mother like Seattle Mama Doc seems. Her kids are so lucky!”
I think I know what you’re talking about. I have a career but through pure luck and some wrangling on my part, I only have to work part-time which means I can be home 98% of weekdays in time to pick my daughter up from gradeschool and I can leave work to stay home with her if she’s sick without worrying. It’s easier too now that my daughter is in 1st grade and thrives on space away from me each day (she’ll often run into school and off-handedly say “Bye Mom!” over her shoulder as though it’s the last thing on her mind). But I remember when she was three years old and I needed to go back to work, I actually started to get really depressed. I even thought one day, “What is the point of having a child if I can’t be with her every day and have an active role in raising her?” and it was a very heavy feeling of grief. It wasn’t guilt it all – I knew that her daycare was excellent and as long as we had quality time after work she would be fine. It was for *me* I was grieving because I wanted so badly to be a major contributor (time wise) to her upbringing – but we couldn’t afford for me not to work. So, I’m very thankful for my situation now where I feel like I have a lot of balance between needing to work and needing to be a mom.
Yes. I definitely think our biology is a HUGE part of the guilt. I yearn to be the one with my child as much as I can.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Julia, (and all) thanks for the comments. I hope I am a calm mother. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m not, of course. Most days I’m entirely pleased with my fortune of having the skills to care for children outside of my home and for the children in my home. But then there are days like the one I describe above where I really wonder. This is a process that evolves and on the days that life seems short, I want to race home. On the days where life feels long I want to work to help other children and parents understand and access exceptional care.
But I am always floored that my husband, a physician, doesn’t struggle with these choices like I do. He adores our kids just like I do and we share our parenting responsibilities. We have similar training and similar earning potential. But he doesn’t wrangle with these feelings of conflict/pull or guilt. Maybe it’s part culture, part biology (as Barb suggests), but it is obviously a very different issue for him.
Would love to lift the conflict and struggle off my shoulders and be fully peaceful in the choices I make. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.