Monday, October 11, 2010

the misery olympics

There's an unfortunate phenomenon that I started noticing in residency, which is that of competitive suffering. The process of medical training is, of course, grueling (you don't need me to tell you that) but also beset with the notion that no activity is worthwhile unless it is somehow miserable. I went along with this during my medical training--what's residency, after all, without complaining, the one acceptable outlet for our drudgery--but as the years go by, it just starts to become increasingly unseemly. Certain people seem to have taken the adage if it's not hard, it's not worth doing and expanded it to: whoever suffers the most wins. Which, you know, is just not true. Also, given that we're working every day with patients who I'd argue are going through much more difficult things than most of us could imagine, it's probably not appropriate to complain about doing things which, while certainly aggravating in the moment, simply boil down to us doing our jobs.

Anyway, I'm not going to do that anymore is my point.

* * *

So here's a link to an article in today's New York Times:

Where Having it All Doesn't Mean Having Equality

I think that the overarching point of the article is the gender gap persistent and pervasive in France, despite what most of us in the states would perceive as luxurious socialized benefits (four month paid maternity leave, subsidized on-site child care, what have you) but the thing that really struck me is how it echoed some points of the post that depressed people so much from last week, wherein I posited that "having it all" was impossible. An excerpt from the article:

“French women are exhausted,” said ValĂ©rie Toranian, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France. “We have the right to do what men do — as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner and look immaculate. We have to be superwoman...”
...At 31, Fleur Cohen has four children and works full-time as a doctor at a Left Bank hospital. As she drops her youngest at nursery in stilettos and pencil skirt you would never guess that she gave birth only three months ago...

...Forty percent of French mothers undergo a career change within a year of giving birth, compared with 6 percent of men. Both parents have the right to take time off or reduce their hours until the child turns three — but 97 percent of those who do are women.

Women spend on average five hours and one minute per day on childcare and domestic tasks, while men spend two hours and seven minutes, according to the national statistics office Insee.

In Paris, Ms. Cohen’s husband is a doctor, too. But she bathes all four children, cooks and does the Saturday shopping — largely, she insists, by choice. “If I didn’t prepare food for my children, I would feel less like a mother,” she said.

At work, meanwhile, she plays down motherhood. She sneaks down to the hospital nursery to nurse her baby son, and tries to stay longer than her male colleagues in the evenings. Otherwise, “everyone will just assume that I’m leaving because of my children and that I am not committed to the job.”

Anyway, if my post from last week stirred up any thoughts, you should read this article. I have come to no definitive conclusions, only that the stressors of balancing work and family are universal and not at all unique to life in these here United States.

* * *

Joe's heading to Chicago for the rest of the week to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He goes every year, and while I realize that this is an academic obligation and to some degree required for his professional development (see: networking, lectures, whatnot) it also means that there will be no divide-and-conquer school of parenting this week. Even working occasionally long hours I find it generally manageable with one kid; with two kids, however, I am quite simply outnumbered, so all I can say is hats off to the single parents, because this shit is hard. I don't wish to belabor this point, because there are plenty of people who work harder than me both inside and out of the home, so hearing about my petty first-world stressors are probably annoying at best and galling at worst.

(As an aside that I just know I'm going to get lambasted for but don't have the good sense to filter because I'm trying to write this really quickly before "Dora the Explorer" ends: I along with everyone else on the planet of course occasionally will check into Heather Armstrong's blog Dooce--I admire her business savvy and am in awe of the media empire that she has built from the ground up, though this recent spate of her Misery Olympics complaining about dealing with her 10-month old daughter alone while her husband and older daughter were out of town on a trip really tweaked me the wrong way. I admire her inimitable voice and of course her tenacity in the face of some occasionally vitriolic and usually anonymous detractors--some might include me in this grouping now, though I want to say again that I greatly respect her work and am far from a heckler--but wish that we could all just agree that her unique situation is no longer relatable to the average working parent. As a somewhat connected aside, I also don't believe in a blogosphere--gah, that word again, but there's no better equivalent--where anything short of slavering devotion is construed as "hating" and trying to tear someone else down, so I hope that this observation is taken in the right and socially appropriate way that it was intended.)

Anyway, I was stressed about Joe leaving and grouchy as a result, so we were not able to part on the warmest of terms, which I absolutely hate but had too much pride (some might say stubbornness) to rectify before he was out the door. If only we could have EEGs hooked up at all times to translate what we're really thinking and feeling, like that baby translator that Danny DeVito invented on "The Simpsons," life would be a lot more straightforward.


  1. Anonymous7:46 PM

    all I can say is, if you thought there was no competitive suffering going on at Wellesley, you had a much less stressful experience than I did!

  2. I live about 3 minutes away from Ms. Armstrong, so naturally I have been a reader of her blog. But you know what? It's the very "complainy" nature of her writing that ultimately led me to deleting her from my blog roll. I can handle a reasonable amount of justified whining. But there was something about her that went beyond my limits. You, on the other hand, do a very good job of discussing crap in a way that doesn't turn me off.

    So just sayin', in my opinion, Deuce's got nothin' on you. ♥

  3. Anonymous8:38 PM

    I wonder why there's not as much competitive suffering in med school (or is that just my med school?). I can totally see everyone going that route in residency, but right now, it's more like competitive relaxation. ("Oh, I study for like 30 minutes a day.." "Really? I only study in lecture." "Pssh, you go to lecture?" etc.)

  4. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Halfway through residency I stopped participating in the Misery Olympics, mostly because it stopped feeling like a release/a good vent, and instead like there was a nasty, poisonous seed being planted. Now I try to balance it out in my head, when I vent to my husband I then have to follow it up with something positive. Now that I'm that I'm "real doctor" (with a license and everything!)I actually work much harder and longer than I did in residency for not that much more $$$ but darn does it feel good to have most weekends out of the month off!!! (Now that I think about it, I think I ended up avoiding the whiners @ Wellesley, too, which meant I had less friends approaching graduation.)

  5. Anonymous9:05 PM

    I have to admit, I find it hilarious that after writing about how competitive suffering is lame, you then criticize another working mother for complaining about the same thing you just complained about a paragraph earlier. It's almost too funny of a post to be real.

  6. Hi Michelle! I twittered a comment to u last wk re: my best friend being the current oculoplastics fellow there! She's going to Chicago too! Anyhow I hate being away from my son. Had to go on tons of interviews this past month for pain fellowships and it was awful :( needless to say I was stressed and grumpy the whole month but glad to have an understanding husband kinda. Haha.

  7. Yes, as noted in the entry, dealing with two kids is more difficult without a second adult, but every parent deals with it at some point, and complaining about it would be annoying at best and galling at worst, therefore I did not (one hopes) belabor the point.

    As always, all opinions are appreciated!

  8. Ah, good. It wasn't just me. Childless me. But I too felt a bit put off by the complaining on Dooce. I don't know, it just got to me a bit. Glad you said something - thought I was feeling a bit bitchy lately...

  9. Heidi9:34 PM

    Yeah I agree on the Dooce thing. It seems lately she's always complaining about all the "chaos" in her life, and I just can't sympathize. You & your husband work from home and you have an assistant? C'mon. I'm envious, I'll admit.

  10. My husband got a job while I was pregnant with our first kid that requires travel Monday through Friday - he's only home on the weekends for the last seven years. We have a 6 year-old and a 3 year-old. I can't hold a full-time job's just not possible with our lives, and him in another job is just not possible now either. I was lucky to find a job I can work part-time at home. I don't know how single parents manage, I really don't. When I worked full-time, all my vacation and sick time was taken up with my kids' sick days, doctor and dentist vists, etc. I came home and fed them, read to them, put them to bed, and collapsed into bed myself. The house was a disaster, our weekends taken up with all the chores I couldn't manage during the week...I have never been so miserable in my life. I work part-time at home now, and I feel like I have some little control again.

    I think, IIRC from Dooce's posts, that she was mostly complaining because her little one has been miserably ill at the same time Jon was gone. That's hard even if you are used to single-parenting. I probably whine just as much. It is so very hard to be the only one there with a sick child, no matter how tired or sick you are yourself. Just because I do it all the time doesn't make it less bad for someone else.

    Dooce's situation is about as different from mine as you can get, but I can still appreciate it. I think that even though she's got a much higher profile than most people, she's no different than many other people running their own business. I actually know a handful of married couples who both work from home for themselves, and while Dooce clearly is making more money than they are, that's not the stuff she writes about.

    Anyway, I love your blog even though we are also a long way from your situation as well. Just thought I'd post a differing opinion.

  11. I don't think it is "just" competitive suffering in med school/residency. I think, for me, there is also a component of not wanting to be too positive about how things are going because then I feel like I am bragging.

  12. As the mother of an 11-week-old I keep commenting over and over that I don't understand how single parents do it, especially if they don't have family or friends willing to help out. My mom was a single mom and this experience has really given me a new appreciation of what she must have gone through.

    As for Dooce, I liked her when she had something to write about, but she's on easy street now and all the conflict she writes about is manufactured.

  13. Anonymous2:01 AM

    Outstanding post and an excellent follow-up to your previous one. Thank you for sharing your adventures on the road to finding your "all". Even for someone who thinks she has found the balance and found her "all", being able to reevaluate things from different angles on a regular basis is extremely helpful.

    @apotential: The "competitive relaxing" in medical school is much less about relaxing and much more about safeguarding the ego. Many students are used to being the big fish in their ponds before coming to med school and their egos simply cannot handle being average in medical school. If they claim that they only studied for 1 day before the exam and they score 80%, they can still convince themselves that they appear brilliant to everyone around, whereas if they admit to having studied 10 hours a day for 10 days they fear they will appear obtuse.

  14. Kinga6:11 AM

    Long ago, I stopped reading Dooce. Though I respected her and her ability to speak from her heart, I just found her complaining about the smallest thing really annoying. I read that post that you linked to, and my anger just went sky-high, so it's best if I stay away from Dooce for a while longer.

    I've done short stints of single parenting (one when my daughter was 2 weeks old, my son was 2.2 years old and I was still recovering from a c-section...but my husband's father was dying in another country so we had no choice) and they were really difficult experiences. Pacing up and down at 2am with my still-not-asleep daughter, knowing my son would be up at 5am for his breakfast I found myself thinking "It bloody well does take a village to raise a child!". It's hard so I send lots of warm sympathy thoughts in your direction from our home here in the UK. A whole week is a long time and having a difficult job, with two young children and no partner will not be easy. But hooray for Dora and tv's ability to keep our children entertained for a tiny bit of time so you can, you know, wash the dishes and microwave some food! :) And hooray for husbands and partners who help out! When my husband's away, I really begin to appreciate just how much he does.

    My husband works full-time and, this year, I decided to quit my job as a teacher (that I wasn't really enjoying anymore) and stay at home with out 1 and 3 year-olds. It's very tough financially, but better for us as a family. Most people don't hate their jobs as much as I hated mine, so quitting is not an option. And I worry about what will happen when I find a job I love and I'll want to do...but, for now, as mad as things get in the day, I know I'm lucky to be able to stay at home, not starve, and have a fantastic husband who comes home and loves playing with the children, washing up and bathing and helping with the evening routine.

    I've loved these posts of yours...sorry about the rambling, but it's all spilled out of me.

  15. Michelle -- It really irks me when people tell me things like, "You're planning on having a baby in grad school? Wow, it's going to be REALLY REALLY HARD to be a mom. And a doctor. AND a researcher. Don't try to have it all!" (It's usually a man with small children who tells me this.)

    I've learned not to share my life plans with anyone, because I'm tired of hearing it. You do what you gotta do, you know? I'm not NOT going to have a baby because it *might* screw up my career (10 years from now). I'm not NOT going to finish grad school because I LIKE what I'm doing. I'm not NOT going become a doctor because, what the hell, I gotta pay for the kid somehow.

    I never really planned on being the mom who did all her kids crafts projects and baked cupcakes for the class. I guess all of this depends on what your definition of "it all" is anyway.

  16. Dr. Katie4:00 PM

    Dooce lost me at the first line: "Monday morning when I met my trainer at the gym..." WTF? I can't afford no trainer, lady. I can't even afford a gym membership. So yes, I agree she's lost her claim to "the common voice."

  17. Anonymous5:00 AM

    I never got into Dooce. I think I just came late to the party when it seemed like she wasn't writing about ANYTHING, so I wasn't an established reader from back when she did have stuff to write about. My husband reads her blog and yours, and he tried to get me to read both. I like yours (obviously, or I wouldn't be here!), but never liked Dooce.

  18. Anonymous10:17 AM

    I hope that the pursuit of "having it all" (and stress linked to the impossibility of that ever happening) doesn't get in the way of appreciating the present.

    I was on call earlier this week when I found out that my friend passed away following a tragic accident. He was a fourth year medical student working on research in East Africa. Delayed by visa issues, his mother arrived only hours before her son went from being deeply comatose to being gone forever.

    While grappling with this news, I was paged at 3am to admit a kid with croup. Over the following day (rounds, etc), it was striking to observe all the medical busyness overlaid upon my grief. Intern: "Can you believe that the nurse paged me at midnight about this when it could have waited until morning?!" Attending: "Bloody H*ll! I was talking to *** (adolescent patient) when her friend walked and they started chatting. I have a busy life, I can't have my time wasted like that!"

    At first, I was frustrated by the seemingly petty nature of these comments about mere annoyances, particularly in light of the tragic news I had heard. But then I realized that everyone was overworked and overstressed. Both the intern and attending had young children at home, which I likely added to the stress they felt at work. I truly hope that they both get some time off soon to spend with their families & to de-stress a bit.

    The NYtimes had a recent article about physician suicide ( Apparently studies have shown that physicians have higher rates of suicide than the general population — 40 percent higher for male doctors and a 130 percent higher for female doctors.

    I can't help but think that this may be linked to our expectations that we "have to be superwoman" -- have it all, do it all, be it all -- and when that doesn't happen, we get distressed.

    My friend's death has led a great deal of reflection about what's truly important in life. Though I am saddened that he is gone, I am inspired by how passionately he pursued what he believed in (global health equity, human rights, & much more) and how vibrantly he lived life. I am now motivated to spend less time focusing on certain things (rotations? studying? debt? ahh!) and to devote more time in active appreciation and enjoyment of the amazing things in my life. After all, I'm alive and have people that I love & who love me in my life. Pretty wonderful, eh?

    On that note, your kids look uber-cute in their photos. Go give them a hug?

  19. Anonymous8:50 PM

    So, competitive suffering and doctors - true story - a week after my bilateral mastectomy with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction (I am a young breast cancer patient - not that age matters - but it does seem to elicit more sympathy for some reason - unfairly to my mind) my plastic surgeon went on about how difficult his week was because he'd had to do 2 bilateral DIEP procedures that week (mine was the 2nd). I get that it was stressful - those surgeries are looooong (even though his residents did most of the surgery while he did his other cases in another OR - didn't think I knew that, but I have insider info), and bilaterals provide no safety net - you need both flaps, but really, did he think his week was worse than mine? I really didn't know how to respond. Later, I thought - yeah - doc - how much of your body was mutilated? Soooo sorry I ruined your week.

  20. Anonymous11:03 PM

    I stopped reading Heather years ago - it just became too over the top - and she whines about stuff not a whole lot of people can truly relate to - and dare not suggest an alternative or be outside of the kool aid drinkers' praise - because they will tear you limb from limb. I have seen it happen which was another reason I left. I hung on as long as I could tho' because I really like Chuck the dog.

    Now do you mind terribly if I make this anonymous? Because if her minions find this post and read this comment I do not need the heartache they can mete out.

  21. Anonymous6:27 PM

    I had the same reaction to the post from Dooce - I thought my fuse was too short, so it's good to see that a lot of you did, too. Michelle, I love reading your blog. Your posts deal with *real* parenting issues without being over the top or whiny. As far as Dooce goes, even if her husband does go out of town and she had to handle parenting responsbilities by herself for a couple days, that does *not* make her a single parent. Single parenting is not about being by yourself for a few days. Single parenting means relying on you and you alone for your kids' well being. It doesn't mean having to take out the trash and do all the diaper duty. I'm deleting her from my blogroll and as of now will not self-flagellate by making myself read her just because I used to enjoy what she had to say. Sweet freedom!

  22. Anonymous6:50 AM

    Thanks so much for writing. I just recently discovered this blog and it has helped me feel much better. Was 18 wks pregnant with first baby coming when my mother-in-law calls my husband saying that she didn't think i loved my husband (or fetus/son) enough as I wasn't willing to sacrifice and love is about sacrifice. Look at sister-in-law who gave up career (as receptionist to hair salon) for husband and son - why wouldn't I (doctor)? "It is not possible to have equality if you love someone, she is not sacrificing so she does not love you as much" (presumably as one should). What kind of messaging do some women tell the next generation? Could not believe husband who did not say anything until I countered why no one thought he should give up his career as architect or thought he would be a lesser parent for it. Imagine if I told him he didn't love his son because he was not sacrificing his career. Was then accused of being argumentative rather than acquiesent. Anyway, made husband read and he has now changed his mind - yay! - also he is working on advocating for feminism - yay! - but why women have to insist the only way they did things is the best way is beyond me. I have the utmost respect for stay-at-home-moms, why can there not be a respect in return, and support such that everyone can have choices that work for their families?

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