OPINION: The Physician Mom
By May Mohty, MD, FAAP, FAAUCM
“You don’t have to choose between motherhood and a career in medicine”
This is the advice I give to the young women who feel that medicine is their calling but are questioning how feasible it is to be a mother when pursuing a career in medicine. Choice of motherhood should never be viewed as a shortcoming. From my experience and the experience of thousands of physician-moms the combination is so beautiful, fulfilling and achievable. In 1997, I was the mother of 4 sons (5 years old, 4 years old and newborn twins) while working a fulltime clinical job in addition to leadership position with the added responsibilities.
There are unique concerns in a career in medicine, like the nontraditional work schedules and the emotional toll of patient care but many others are common to other professions like time-constraints, fatigue and finding a work-motherhood balance.
Many female physicians who are trailblazing continue to amaze as they become mothers and physician leaders. Women make up a little more than one third of the professionally active physician workforce in the US. However, the majority of younger physicians are females. Since 2017 the number of women enrolling in US medical schools exceeded the number of men. These young female medical students and physicians are in the childbearing age. Since having a baby completely changes an individual’s life it is important to think about the work schedule and whether for example part time work is an option when the kids are not school age yet, or whether shift work gives the most flexibility.
Many of the questions I get from medical students are related to the choice of specialty both in terms of how accepting that particular specialty to motherhood as well as the plausibility of striking a balance between work and motherhood. Years ago surgical specialties were not the most motherhood friendly specialties and some female surgeons were made to feel selfish if they became pregnant. Thankfully things have, for the most part, changed and surgical specialties do address the needs of the surgeon mom including maternity leave policy that some programs did not have previously.
There is no question that as a physician mother there will be times when you worry and feel guilty. “Why can’t mom be a kidiatrician?” , a saying I will never forget, is a question that my then 2 years-old son Kurt, now 4th year Orthopedics resident, asked my husband when he was feeling sick while I was busy at work. Apparently a “ kidiatrician” is a doctor mom who takes care of her own kids. As physicians we rarely can leave our job at a moment’s notice to take care of a sick or injured child. Of course, everyone’s situation is different and that’s why we all need a support system. This support system might consist of parents, in-laws, close friends, reliable baby sitters, or a nanny to give few examples.
The other question that medical students, residents and fellows ask me is when is the most appropriate time to get pregnant? More and more professional woman like woman in medicine are in the reproductive age and are delaying starting their families till their 30’s but others choose to start it earlier. The average age of first time moms in the US increased from 21 to 26. Many factors are taken into consideration like age at the start of medical school, specialty chosen and the presence of a support system. I had my first child, Ralph (finishing 3rd year internal medicine residency) after I finished my residency. However, I covered maternity leave for few of my colleagues during my years of residency, and each year I see a handful of medical students start their family.
I found that I became a better physician when I became a parent and that is echoed by many physician moms. When at work we tend to give it our all and were are ready to give the same when we are taking care of our family. Flexibility is a key. Be creative but have a structure to your day or week. You may need to come early on a workday to catch up on paperwork that was left the day before because you had to attend your child’s performance/show or see the display of their amazing art work. I have worked more weekends so I can stay with the kids on weekdays while my husband (an Orthopedist Hand surgeon) could attend to their needs on weekends. This might come with less sleep but I found that as long as you have a good support system it is absolutely achievable. Connect with other female physician and hear their stories and how they balance their motherhood with their professional life.
To all the physician moms and the to-be-physician moms, remember your journey is unique and you have already shown resilience and grit and the motherhood medicine duo is just amazing.