Updated: Mar 5, 2019
Ever wonder when you should have children as a female physician? If there is a "right time"? Or if the answer is just "never"... Ever wonder how to balance being a mom AND a physician? This post on touches on how Dr. Jia Hwei Ng was able to have children during her training and how she balanced being a "Mom in Medicine".
My eyes darted back and forth the wall clock. I am two hours late. I cannot just possibly interrupt ICU rounds now! What do I say? I have to show my commitment! A fever crept up my neck and the tenderness intensified. I nodded intently as I pretended to listen to what my attending and co-residents said. Rounds ended. I slipped out of the ICU, gathered my supplies and ran discretely towards the pumping room.
I had two pregnancies during my internal medicine residency. My first child was born at the end of intern year and my second child was born in the middle of chief resident year. Within a span of four years, I matured substantially as a person and as a physician. My back-to-work experiences were vastly different with both of my kids, in part because things always seemed easier the second time around, but mostly it was my attitude towards motherhood. I was no longer apologetic about my personal decision to start a family during residency, but felt brave and proud to be a role model to other residents who were thrust into parenthood. Parenthood and medical training were intensive each by its own accord. Doing both at the same time overwhelmed me. My weaknesses and insecurities amplified. Inefficiencies at work meant that I only saw my children at their most tranquil time, in the dark. Watching my co-fellows answer questions correctly without hesitation while I feigned contemplation made me certain that I was a fraud. Like all other mothers before me, I learned to improvise, adapt and overcome. Now that my children are 5 and 2.5, the mental fog has evaporated. My energy has returned. As I have seen other physicians become new mothers, I recognized the same struggles and frustration. I wanted them to learn from my mistakes. I wanted to show them integrating motherhood and physician life was possible, as long as they did in it in their own terms.
1. Normalize the realities of motherhood
During the first several months upon my return to work, I struggled to provide enough breastmilk for my firstborn. My own uneasiness with the words “pump” and “breastfeed” at work, and the need to prove my commitment to medical training resulted in countless missed pumping sessions. After several episodes of blocked ducts and narrowly escaping mastitis, I made drastic changes. Before my new rotation, I informed my attending and interns that I needed certain time off to pump. To my surprise, everybody was very accommodating. Older male attendings who were not comfortable using the word “pump” would just say “don’t you need to go?”
There was an appeal to detach work from family. However, in reality, my work life and family life intersected frequently. I took days off for my sick child or for the dreaded snow-day closure. On some nights, I worked because my co-worker was ill. While I missed all the resident lounge chat, the medical version of watercooler talk, I brought my family to happy hours. My co-residents and co-fellows saw my little ones make a mess at the table and interrupted our conversation every few seconds. They saw my husband draw pictures on napkins to entertain the children. They took turns playing with my children while my husband and I wolfed down our meals. They saw my low points. They protected me. The fervent support from my co-residents and co-fellows were crucial in my motherhood journey. I found comfort and hope in our next-generation internists and nephrologists. I knew, that these fine men and women would continue to support all mothers and father alike.
2. The power of pairing
Multitasking has a bad reputation, particularly in our ever-distracting world. While I was unable to give full attention to my children while trying to finish clinic progress notes, there were countless tasks that did not require similar attention. With strategic pairing of tasks, I became more efficient and had more time with my family.
I nursed both my kids for up to a year each. In order to fit three 30-minute pumping sessions in a workday, I made a rule; if I was going to sit, I needed to pump. Thus, while I pumped, I collected data, completed progress notes and called teams to give recommendations. I reserved walking to see patients and round. At home, I read stories to my son while I nursed my daughter. That removed some of the hostility my son had towards his younger sibling.
Commuting to work
I had a long commute to work. After listening to the same music on the radio for several weeks, I jumped on the podcast and audiobook bandwagon. I have not looked back since. While I occasionally listened to podcasts geared towards medical education, more often than not, I indulged in non-medical podcasts or audiobooks. The non-medical genre lightened my day and gave me a different perspective on life. I used to feel resentful in the evenings after being stuck in traffic. Now, I came home excited to try out the shiniest new technique to make my kids eat more vegetables, or inspired by strong leaders who changed the world.
3. “For it is in giving that we receive.” ―St. Francis of Assisi.
Being a physician and a doctor seemed like we were constantly giving with our last shred of vigor. However, true givers must learn to receive with grace and gratitude. I received the delight of my baby’s belly laughs. I received the proud moment when both my children said I was their best friend. I received self-approval when my patient told me that she never missed my clinic because she knew I cared. When family and friends offered to help, I swallowed my pride and accepted their gift of kindness. The reciprocity continued as I gave appreciation to my husband who did most of the school drop-offs and pick-ups. I gave a nod of encouragement to a hospital staff who carried the familiar breast pump bag. I gave advice to my junior resident who planned to start a family.
We must define motherhood in our own terms. To me, motherhood is about learning who my children are, providing my children love, tools and wisdom to thrive in this world. I believe that I can only do so by being the best version of myself – a physician mother.
I inserted the keys into the lock. As I turned the keys, the chitchat came to a halt. The squeals and laughter echoed from inside the house and the pitter-patter of tiny feet rumbled through the floor. I opened the door and saw two dirty faces grinning. They buzzed, they bounced, they called “mummy!” in unison. My body received the sticky sweaty hugs from my children. I felt complete again.