“Parents are expected to parent like they don’t have a job and work like they don’t have kids.” Speaking as a neurologist and a mother of three, this familiar saying couldn’t be truer than it is for physicians. Parenting as a doctor means that you’re expected to give both of these challenging roles your best—all the time. Your kids and your patients may need you anytime, day or night.
Of course, there are plenty of physician parents who are happy at home and at work. At least for me, the key to balancing parenting with being a physician is acknowledging that you can’t please everyone. Consider the following tips to achieve great parenting while also providing strong medical care for your patients.
Finding the right work environment
Many of us like to believe that we’re strong enough to resist the influence of a negative environment. But being your best is difficult in a bad work setting, and your workplace has a major impact on your ability to provide top-notch patient care. What is a “good” workplace setting for physician parents?
First, consider your options for work arrangements, which can vary widely. Choosing a workplace means juggling several factors that can determine your quality of life: the length of your days, your rate of pay, your level of autonomy, the length of your commute and so on. No matter what you do, there will be some tradeoffs. But be sure to take a close look at an organization’s parenting-specific policies. For example, according to an article in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 67% of general surgery residency programs offered maternity leave, while only 48% offered paternity leave. This is the type of criteria you might need to consider when making decisions about your job. If parental leave or other family-related benefits are important to you, find out which programs provide those benefits before you rank them.
Other workplace factors may be harder to pin down on paper. Research published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality shows that physician burnout is higher and errors are more likely to happen in medical clinics perceived as chaotic. Since physician parents may be as busy outside the office as they are inside it, give yourself an edge by netting a job in a system that is well organized for optimal patient care.
Next, reflect on the values held at your workplace and how they impact your life. Does your employer prioritize high volume over anything else, or does it encourage its employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance? As an article published in the Journal of Primary Care & Community Health notes, burnout may be associated with poor work-life balance, among other things. At the same time, the concept of work-life balance can be difficult to define, especially for physicians, so it helps to confirm that your definition of balance matches that of the environment where you choose to work.
When it comes to values, workplace leadership sets the tone. Results of a survey published in Orthopedics show that 83% of female orthopedic surgery program directors believe that parenting as a doctor doesn’t impair work quality, while 53% of male program directors perceive that parenthood does impair work quality. Get a sense of supervising physicians’ views about parenthood before you accept a job offer.
Embracing the positives
There’s no shortage of judgment bestowed on parents who are physicians, and you will undoubtedly be subject to harsh finger-wagging. A research article in the Journal of Psychology describes feelings of shame and guilt as part of the parenting experience. The study showed that parents exposed to prompts promoting self-compassion were more likely to feel compassion toward themselves.
As a physician parent, you may be criticized for any variety of things, such as your children’s clothes, school district, birthday party goody bags and your kids’ absolutely normal inability to sit still. Hopefully, you will also be fortunate enough to receive kindness and wisdom from a few treasured pearls as you parent. I am still grateful for my daughter’s preschool teacher, who gently reassured me years ago that it was perfectly fine that my toddler insisted on wearing the same outfit every day. Try to surround yourself with people who have the insight and self-assurance to be a positive force, and do your best to ignore those who entertain themselves by “grading” others.
In this same vein, avoid the fruitless parenting contests so common in the 21st century. Curated social media posts and perfectly strategized family photos can make anyone feel inadequate—especially parents who already wonder if they work too much. If you love to coordinate matching outfits for your brood, or if your little one is a gifted dancer, then by all means enjoy these special moments. But if you feel pressured to create flawless homemade treats for the school party even though baking isn’t your thing, give yourself a break and buy a snack for the kids instead.
It can be difficult to adopt patterns of self-care when you aren’t used to slowing down to give yourself attention. But stopping to look after yourself can alleviate parenting and work stress. An article in Women’s Health Issues describes a resilience-training project for mothers on staff at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Within 12 weeks, the healthcare professionals who participated in the program reported a number of positive outcomes, including diminished parenting stress.
It’s easy to become consumed with the hard work that goes into parenting. It’s also important that you don’t forget to enjoy your family. Take time to laugh with your children and to watch them as they try to entertain or impress you. Be sure to take plenty of photos so you can remind them of their challenges and successes and the fun times in between. Listen to their exciting stories and their worries, and let them know that they can count on you for big and small things.