Updated: Nov 17
Wondering if you can be a doctor and have a family? Or how you can manage being a parent AND a physician? We are bringing you stories of female physicians that prove you CAN do it! Dr. Sriraman joins us on the blog to discuss "mommy guilt" and how our children REALLY see us, as incredible Moms in Medicine.
Flashback, 2004. I introduce myself to a female neighbor who I had never met and we started chatting. At this point, I had 2 kids in diapers (2 ½ and 9 months old) and had recently started my first job after completing fellowship. I was working 3 days/week in a pediatric clinic in an urban area in New York City. While I had a nanny the 3 days I worked, I was by myself the rest of the week and most weekends due to my husband’s call schedule and I was exhausted. This woman from the neighborhood says to me: ‘I don’t understand how you can leave your own children to take care of other people’s kids!’ And yes, her voice was dripping with judgment.
When I think about that moment, I immediately get a visceral reaction of how angry and hurt I was. I really don’t know what I would’ve done or said if my husband hadn’t noticed the look on my face and immediately intervened. Unfortunately, when I tell this story to other trainees/physicians or mention it in one of my lectures, while there are some gasps, they’re really not surprised.
Mommy guilt, it’s real folks. As a mother, whether you’re a brand new mom or a seasoned mother with teenagers, we, as women, have guilt. We feel guilty about leaving our children to go to work, we feel guilty not doing certain things around the house, we feel guilty if we have to work late and miss bedtime.
However, this maternal guilt many of us feel is compounded for us as female physicians.
Let me explain. For me, returning to fellowship after the birth of my first child was very difficult. While I knew that I only had a year left, I honestly thought it would be better for me to stay home with my daughter. Luckily, my husband and father (both physicians) reminded me how important it was for me to complete my fellowship since I was already halfway done! A close female friend told me how my career was different than her job. I had worked so hard and put in so many years that I had to go back—that pediatrics was a career, a calling.
So while I went back to work, even though I knew she was in good hands with a wonderful nanny, I cried when I walked to my car, cried when I looked up at her through the apartment window and started bawling as I was greeted by my staff in the waiting room—work bag on one shoulder, breast pump on the other. It is hard. There is no other way to describe it. And while it may get easier in some ways, in other ways, it may become more difficult.
My children who are now older (11, 15, 17) still need me, in some ways more than when they were babies. The needs of our children and the demands on our time change as our children grow and mature. While, now in my late 40’s, I have learned, and am still learning, to manage home and career while deciding what works for us as a family, I can’t help notice the judgment we still get as women physicians.
No matter if you husband stays-at-home or has a career that is more flexible than medicine, there is still a societal construct that MOM is the primary care-giver and will be available. How many times have you missed a Mother’s Day Tea or a Valentine’s Day party because it is scheduled in the middle of the morning…with 1 week notice?!? As physicians, we cannot leave our office, clinic or operating room at 1030am to attend a school event in our child’s classroom—it just doesn’t work that way. Our careers are not only extremely stressful and very demanding, but we are CARING for other human beings. Our patients and their families have rearranged with work and school schedule to get that check-up, have taken that day off to get their child’s fever evaluated or have been anxiously awaiting their surgical procedure to get the answers they and their physician need.
While my career is very important to me, my children and husband come first, always will. However, when I am caring for children, mamas and attending to their needs, they will get my undivided attention, no rush, no distractions. Because, after all, isn’t that what anyone expects from their physicians?
Being a mother for the past 17+ years has taught me a lot, especially about myself. First, others will continue to pass judgment on my lifestyle and career choice. I will miss recitals or take a call from the emergency room during family time. And that is okay.
Second, for women who don’t do what we do, while they may be supportive, cannot truly understand our careers. Our long hours, our levels of stress and the demands we have are just not the same in other careers. For me, I never know what time I will be done nor how long my day will run with patients, charting and research demands. And that is ok.
Third, surround yourself with those women who uplift you and add joy to your life. They may not fully understand our days and demands on our time, finding that non-judgmental and fun group of ladies is so important for as women, especially as we get older.
While I still get calls or texts in the middle of the day about something I helped plan at school or I get the incredulous “I don’t know how you do it all!” just know this.
While I will try to rearrange my clinical time to make it for every event, sometimes that is just not possible. And trust me, I have forgotten to sign a permission slip (or 2!) and yes, that was my kid who didn’t get to go on the field trip. And while I may feel bad, I give myself permission to forgive myself and to just let it go. All that matters to me is that my children know the importance of what I do, they see the love and passion I have for the care of my patients and their needs. Unconditional love—it’s all about quality, not necessarily quantity.
In 2015, I took my children with me to a meeting in Washington DC where I was presenting my research. While I set them up with candy bars and books in the back of the lecture hall to plan ahead for their boredom, something completely different happened. They listened intently to my talk, they noticed others nodding along as I spoke, they clapped the loudest when I was done. And best of all, they ran up to the front and rushed me for a giant group hug. (I still tear up thinking about it!) That to me is the epitome of what we do as mothers, what we do as physicians. Our children see us as these incredible women. We are Moms In Medicine.