It’s an unpopular view, but no, young ladies, you really can’t do it all. In the heady days of the 1970s and 80s, women came to believe that all a girl needed was determination enough and she could be and do anything she ever wanted. I’m here to tell you that there’s more to the story.
I’m an anesthesiologist, and my colleagues – both doctors and nurses – often ask me to take care of them and their families when they need anesthesia. Surgeons request me for challenging cases. The orchid on my kitchen windowsill was a gift from a grateful patient, and I’m lucky enough to love what I do. My husband also practices anesthesiology, and he understands better than anyone that some days I get home late because I can’t leave until surgery ends and my patient is safely tucked into the recovery room. I’m a mom, too – not a soccer mom or a hockey mom – but nonetheless, a mother of three. My older daughter has a master’s degree, a good job, and a wonderful husband. My son is a pre-med sophomore in college, and my younger daughter just left to start her freshman year.
So where’s the downside? As a woman, you can juggle many things fairly well, but you will never be the perfect wife and mother and have a high-powered career at the same time. There aren’t enough hours in the day or enough brain cells in your head.
Marriage? I’ve been divorced, and my husband deserves a lot more of my attention than he usually gets. It’s lucky that he can cook. The children? They learned early that if they forgot lunch in the morning, no one was going to hop in a minivan and bring it to school. No doubt there were a thousand lapses in my mothering that they still resent, although I did read them a lot of bedtime stories. They have borne up for the most part with cheer and fortitude – and thankfulness that they weren’t burdened, like some of their friends, with “helicopter moms” who hovered constantly and watched their every move.
My career? I started medical school in 1979, four years after my first child was born, and I have worked full-time ever since. Some procedures in anesthesia require technical skills that I would quickly lose if I performed them less often. However, I am not a department chairman in a medical school, or a researcher on the cutting edge of medical discovery. Because I have a family, I’ve downscaled some of my ambitions.
My group practice is large and enables me to take time off when it’s important. Once I’m done for the day and leave the hospital, unless I’m on call, my pager is off. Over time I have come to terms with what men have known all along: you can’t be a CEO or the president of the United States or even a hardworking wage-earner and still make it to all the soccer games, or be the room mother who brings healthy snacks to school. You won’t always be around to give a reassuring hug at the exact moment a child needs one. Something has to give. Once you acknowledge that you can’t do it all, you can figure out where you need to be when it really matters.
Recently a surgeon approached me and said, “Are you here on Thursday? I need you; I have a patient for an esophagogastrectomy.” I replied, “Sorry, no. My son is having his tonsils out.” My son isn’t a baby; he’s nineteen years old and would have been perfectly able to get a friend to give him a ride to the surgery center. That wasn’t the point. The point is that the patient undergoing a major operation deserved to have an anesthesiologist who was fully engaged in taking care of him. My mind would have been elsewhere. So we arranged for another anesthesiologist to take care of the patient, and I took the day off to be with my son. He seemed pleased to have me there.
My thirty-three years as a mother lead me to conclude that some jobs are too important to multi-task. My patients can count on the fact that when I’m at work, my full attention is with them, and the rest of the time – well, I do my best, and luckily I never set my sights on the award for “Mother of the Year.”
This column appeared in print in the CSA Quarterly Bulletin, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and in the book Torn: True stories of kids, career, & the conflict of modern motherhood, edited by Samantha Walravens, Coffeetown Press, 2011.
Good post that speaks to that uniquely female perspective that came out of the 70s that suggested to the ambitious young woman that she could accomplish ALL. What a different perspective than what young mothers of infants now are purporting. Fascinating what the experience of three decades shows and teaches us.
I recently left my youngest child, a nineteen year old computer science major, in Baton Rouge, LA to move to the northeast to embark on a new career in medicine.
I admire your wisdom, your writing and your expertise.
Hi Karen – As a husband of an overachieving wife who can’t say no to a challenge, and father of a nine year old daughter who looks like she will grow up to be just like her mom, I loved your letter to the next generation.
I’m hoping I remember to share your advice with my daughter when she’s old enough to need it. I have already sent the link to my wife Dana, aka the RockItMom. Dana was 36 years old when we had our first child, and chose to step away from her career as a litigation attorney to become one of those Helicopter Moms you mentioned. Ironically, you can’t escape the overachiever programming. The plan to stay at home with the kids turned into a busy practice as a personal fitness trainer, a fitness blog website, and an unpaid job as VP of fundraising at our kids school. If Dana went back to litigating, it would probably lighten her schedule.
In any case, I’m sure she will appreciate your writing, and share your perspective with her friends who are trying to do it all.
I know that I couldn’t agree more with the idea that it’s OK to feel good about your choices and that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it all.
What kind of work did you during the 4 (or 5?) years between quitting the journalism job and entering medical school? Were you a stay-at-home mom with your young child? Or did you do something science- or medicine-related? Or something else entirely?
Since I hadn’t taken any science courses in college, I had to complete the biology, chemistry, and physics premed requirements, as well as take the MCAT and complete the med school application process. This worked out fairly well in combination with part-time work, first as a research assistant at the Harvard Business School and then at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.
Why are you formerly an aspiring physician?
All the best,