Truth and Challenges of Being a Doctor and a Parent
Being a medical professional is challenging.
Being a parent is challenging.
Being both a medical professional AND a parent is doubly challenging.
Yet all over the world, brave men and women wear the honorable badge of both.
For many medical professionals who are also parents, learning to compartmentalize both lives can be difficult. Both roles may cause a lack of adequate sleep, an irregular schedule and an array of negative (and positive) emotions and stress. It oftentimes takes a strong support system and a lot of mindfulness to get through the double load.
To the medical professionals-parents out there, we salute you. In this piece, we’ll dig into the difficult challenges you face every single day, and how you overcome them.
1. You don’t have all the answers
Doctors are not gods, the old adage goes, and that certainly is applicable when it comes to their own offspring. Chris van Tulleken, a celebrity infectious diseases doctor in England, shares how he often has no idea how to help his daughter, Lyra, when she is sick. “I have a Ph.D. in virology but my mother’s ginger-lemon-honey recipe is the staple antiviral in our house,” he writes in The Guardian.
Being a specialist in, let’s say, dermatology isn’t going to necessarily give one the knowledge and experience to handle their child’s 101 fever and bouts of explosive diarrhea. Doctors take their children to doctors and hospitals just like any other parent. Interestingly, while many doctors feel like being a medical professional doesn’t make them a better parent, being a parent makes them a better doctor.
“Becoming a mother has not taught me any more pediatric medicine,” writes Dr. Julia Michie Bruckner in Op-Med. “I have learned a whole slew of practical things like diaper sizes, how to safely remove onesies covered in poop, the art of distraction, and so many Disney songs. But primarily, parenthood has humbled me.” Now, Brucker writes, she truly understands what a fearful parent is going through because she sees her daughter in her patients’ children.
2. You might obsess over your child’s well-being
While the phenomena of worrying about your child’s health don’t happen to every doctor, it isn’t uncommon. And though you might not have the answer to your child’s ailment, that won’t stop many from trying to diagnose the issue or prevent possible issues. “Your children will be prohibited from doing normal things just because you happen to have seen an unfortunate case,” writes Nisha Mehta, MD, for KevinMD. “Things our kids can’t do: Jump on a trampoline, put their hands on the escalator rails at the mall, pet an unknown dog…the list goes on.”
When asked if being a medical professional made him extra worried for his children, Dr. Paul Weinberg, M.D. of Tucson, Arizona, replied with “Greatly!” “Not so much about medical illness,” he says.” He worried more about trauma, drowning, and burns. “As they entered teens, substance abuse of all sorts, tobacco use, binge drinking, STI, reproductive issues. The hardest times were prior to their going away for university. After that point, they were quite launched and we were not helicopter parents.”
3. You’re not always available
According to a survey by the American Medical Association, forty-nine percent of doctors work over 50 hours a week, and almost one-third of doctors work between 60-80+ hours a week.
Nancy Brook, RN, MSN, NP, a nurse practitioner at Stanford Healthcare in Palo Alto, California, knows this well. As a very busy medical professional at one of the most reputable hospitals in the United States, she says the two greatest challenges of being a parent and medical professional are time and energy.
It’s not uncommon, she says, for her to be late for family dinner or events because a procedure ran over, a patient was late to their appointment, or a complication arose. “My kids have been the last ones left at daycare more than once,” she says. This leaves her feeling tremendously guilty, though she has found ways to make sure work doesn’t always interfere with her family time. When she can do remote work, like filling prescriptions or making phone calls, she stays at home. “I try to work my schedule around special events like games or recitals,” she says. She feels lucky that she’s been able to attend most of her children’s events. “I’m grateful to say that I missed very few important school functions and was present at all of my children’s special events.”
4. Life-work balance can be challenging
We’ve discussed before the increasing percentage of burnout within the medical community. Anywhere from 44% to 78% of medical professionals, the majority being female, experience burnout due to a variety of factors including long work hours and inadequate pay. Extreme stress often begins in medical school, and physician suicide is consistent fear in the medical field. Stresses from work can often trickle over into the household.
According to the American Medical Association, partners of doctors experiencing burnout notice increase isolation, irritability, less communication, less time spent together, and lack of emotions. While this is specific to spouses, it certainly can be applicable to the children of a doctor experiencing burnout. Thankfully, the issue of physician burnout and how it affects families is a topic that has been researched and discussed at length. The American Medical Association even offers a variety of helpful resources on how to plan, grow and manage your family during residency and beyond.
Dr. Katerina Gallus, co-founder of and plastic surgeon at Restore Plastic Surgery in San Diego, CA, manages her work-life balance by setting small goals and setting realistic expectations. “I try to manage my schedule so that I can take my kids to school because I know I am not there for the pickup after school,” she says. She makes sure that her calendar reflects both her work life and family, reminding her that “they are of equal importance.” “Understanding that [work-life balance] is a dynamic process—your responsibilities and control of your schedule change over your career and your children’s needs do as well—that is the best framework to ensure you continue to re-assess the balance.”
5. You’re not alone
If you’re a doctor AND parent and are finding both gigs challenging, you are not alone. It can be extraordinarily stressful juggling both roles. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other doctor parents you work with or know through your community and ask about their experiences. Do they have any tips?
Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. You are not superhuman, even though others might think you are. Try to surround yourself with a helpful and loving network so in case you miss a music recital or soccer game someone is there to cheer on your child. Also, try to have honest conversations with your family about the realities of your job. Remember: You are doing the best you can to care for your patients AND children.