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Having It All

June 25, 2019

What does it mean, to “have it all?”

I’m pondering this idea, as I prepare for an interview, which will be part of a webinar series for trainees and students in my field. I gather they will want to discuss being a working parent, since ‘having it all’ usually amounts to balancing career and family. This is often viewed as a women’s issue, but I hope some men join us for the discussion.

The idea of having it all, meant to be a liberating one, can be a weighty one. Anne Marie Slaughter received lots of attention around her article in The Atlantic in 2012, in which she explains why in today’s society, it’s not possible to have it all in certain jobs, or at least, not for long. Medicine would be likely counted among these jobs; it demands long hours in an often stressful environment. The additional domestic labor and stress involved in raising a family can be overwhelming for working parents.

When you try to do it all, experiencing any joy in life becomes just another thing to do. In my view, physicians have the resources to work flexibly, and get help. That’s why I advocate for a team-based approach to the home/ work equilibrium.  

Friday Night On Call

Here’s what being a working mom looks like for me on a Friday night.

After a day of seeing patients and doing image-guided procedures, my day miraculously wraps early, at 4:30 pm. This means I will be able to make it to a staff meeting, which is scheduled 30 minutes away. I’m on call for emergencies through the night, and this is just the distance my call responsibility will allow me to travel.  

Planning my next steps, I remember I haven’t seen my kid yet today. I drive home, and find him napping. My husband is sprawled on the bed with the shades drawn, wiped out from a day of solo parenting. In his horizontal state, he can’t handle the decision before him: will he come with me, taking care of our toddler during the meeting, so we can attend the social event that follows? We are all invited to a dinner at 6:30, but no family is allowed at the staff meeting, beginning at 5:30.

What To Do?

It is clear that my husband needs some time to himself, to recover and hit the gym. I miss my kid, and don’t want to miss him for another several hours. After fretting about this for a moment, I install the carseat and pack the baby bag. I decide to take my 19 month old along.

Our battered, pink and brown stroller does not match my professional dress. I sport a backpack instead of a handbag. Armed with a banana and a sippy, I arrive 10 minutes late. All aisle seats are occupied, so I scoot to the front.

Real Life Learning

My toddler contentedly munches segments of banana through the meeting. He points at the recessed lighting, and cranes his neck to see who is speaking. I turn the stroller so he can listen to the physician behind us, as he debriefs us on seasonal ER volumes. Wes takes it all in. With the Chair of my own department absent, I give an update on his behalf, my hands slimy with banana.  

If I had to run out of the meeting for a meltdown, I would still get credit for attending, just the same as if I were called away for an emergency. Every moment we stayed in the meeting was a win. I got to be a doctor and a mom at the same time.

Holding My Breath

Later, I enjoy a cocktail with the other attendees, as my child runs underfoot, exploring every corner of the venue. He sneaks behind the bar, fondling caps of beer bottles sitting on ice. He bolts toward the employee break room, and I catch him, just before he disappears. I feed him bites of spanakopita each time he returns to my side.

I enjoy catching up with colleagues, but the conversations are admittedly limited by my roving toddler. I’m OK with that, since this is the phase of life we are currently in. It’s temporary.

Dinner

Wes enjoys dinner with us like a tiny adult, strapped to a regular chair using a harness. He eats delicious bits of chicken, risotto, and cake, followed by Cheerios, when he gets restless. Seated with another doc in my department, a good friend, we chat with a hospital board member, a former nurse turned malpractice lawyer. She tells us about some of her experiences over dinner.

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Not every toddler would have tolerated this setup. But I know my kid, and I knew my options. I did the best I could, from moment to moment. We could have cut the evening short at any time, grateful for the time we had to network, learn, and eat. Though some may object, my parenting style is to bring my kid everywhere, and ask for forgiveness when needed. As a result, I hope I’ll raise a more tolerant, flexible child, who experiences more of the world, and spends more time with his mom. On any given day, I’m doing my best to fulfill this mission.

Toddlers Are Polarizing

Everyone at the event was gracious and welcoming. Ironically, I have felt more disapproval at a family event at the local pool than at my work event. There are just too many opportunities for mom shame in our society, and it sucks the joy from parenting, and drains our precious energy.

I’ve wondered how we can eliminate shame for working moms in our society, and how freeing that could be. As a mom, I don’t want to have to worry about my son’s potential to disrupt a meeting where he’s not welcome, but I don’t want to feel guilty for coming home late, or leaving him with my exhausted husband either. My son and I showed up, and we had a bailout plan. If I was called back to the hospital, or Wes became unmanageable, we could leave. I use my parenting values, not shame, to navigate through each day the best I can.

Why Is This A Women’s Issue?

Although women are still a minority in medicine, particularly in the field of interventional radiology, I see plenty of my colleagues having it all. I see them marrying, having children, and sometimes divorcing, just like everyone else. I see them saving life and limb with compassion. Our work is consuming, but we are not only our work. We are people with lives too. This is a delicate balance for many, and it’s not just a women’s issue.  

What does having it all mean to you?

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