Wednesday, July 31, 2013


I know there's a touch of irony in adding this disclaimer given that I haven't updated this blog in, like, half a year, but: LONG ENTRY AHEAD.

There's a snippet of a cartoon I remember from my childhood--I can't remember if it was "Tom and Jerry" but if it wasn't it was in a similar vein--where a mouse is reclining in a hot tub. He's sitting back with his arms along the rim of the tub, maxing and relaxing as cartoon mice do, wearing that look of smug satisfaction he was prone to. (As an aside: I never liked Jerry. I always thought he was a real jerk to Tom, a cat who was just fulfilling his evolutionary imperative after all. Ditto Road Runner. Ditto those capering harpy kids that keep taking the Trix away from the rabbit. JUST GIVE HIM A BOWL, YOU ASSHOLES.)

So anyway, the mouse. He's enjoying the hot tub. He's relishing the water, the heat. But the water starts to get a little bit hotter. And a little bit hotter still. Suddenly it's not so comfortable anymore. Not hot enough that he wants to get out of the tub or anything, but just...hotter. He starts sweating. His fur starts getting a little frizzy (from the humidity, you understand). Then, finally, he turns around and notices the cat behind him, slicing onions and carrots to add into the now boiling water. (My memory of this part is not quite as clear, but the cat may have been wearing a chef's toque.)

I've thought of that cartoon clip a lot in the last year.

But let me back up for a second.

If you've ever followed this blog with regularity in the past (though I'm sure with my sporadic updates I've winnowed that number down to only the die-hardest of die-hards) you've probably noticed that I haven't had the time to write much of substance since I went back to work after my maternity leave last September, and that I haven't updated basically at all since December. The reasons are all those that you could probably expect: busy job, three kids, and the responsibilities and duties associated therein. The explanations are always boring because everyone's reasons for being busy are pretty much the same, but to put it in medical terms: it's just a matter of triage.

It's hard to know where the tipping point was--though I have to presume that it was at least in part associated with the addition of our much-beloved third child into the mix--but at some point in the last year, things started getting hard. Not impossible, not un-doable, but subtly, Joe and I started to notice just how tight things were getting. Time was tight, at home, with the kids, with each other. Emotional resources were tight. Patience was less of a resource we could reliably depend on. The days and weeks started becoming these things that we were enduring, rather than living, let alone enjoying. Again, the imagery from an old movie comes to mind--inmates in a prison, grimly notching off yet another day on the wall of their cell.

I don't mean to imply that our life is a joyless dirge--far from it. We love our family, we love our jobs. Even working the hours that we do, we try carve out quality time when we can--long weekends, holidays, family vacations where they fit in. We bolus our family time because our basal infusion rate is so parsimonious, but we do make an effort to compensate. And we liked to tell ourselves that this bolus dosing was sufficient, and it worked...not well, but well enough.

But it didn't change the fact that over the past few years, and over the last year in particular, the feeling of our everyday lives becoming something that we were tolerating started to feel more an more pervasive. When you only see your kids for an hour or two at the very tail-end of each day, only to perform the most basic of maintenance for them (bath! brush teeth! yell at them for not taking their baths and brushing their teeth quickly enough because I'm tired and they're tired and everyone's tired so LET'S ALL GO TO BED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE) you start to feel like you're consisting on a diet of discarded crusts in an otherwise empty pizza box. Maybe you can piece together a life in these scraps of the day, but split between three kids, it's simply not enough time.

Joe and I have been discussing for years our long-term outlook for modifying (read: decreasing) the work hours for at least one of us to have more time with the kids, and for the longest time, our party line has been: soon. We're going to do it soon. "Maybe in a few years or so," was the stock phrase. But there was always the next thing. We'll think about it when I finish my fellowship. We'll figure it out it when I get more settled in my job. We'll do it if I make partner in my group. Later. We'll do it. But later. Meanwhile, time marches on.

Then: I was talking with one of my partners at work a few months ago. He has four kids, the oldest of whom had just turned eight. "I just realized," he said as we were chatting in the front hall of the OR, sidestepping a stretcher careening down the hallway from the PACU, "that he's eight. In another eight years, he's going to be in high school, driving, getting ready to go to college. Half my time with him is already done. I mean, they come home after they go to college and all, but you know what that's like. It's not the same. Half my time of having my son in my house is over already."

There feeling that I had after having that conversation was not unlike being wrapped in a piece of wet burlap and gently asphyxiated. Because Cal was turning eight too. Half our time raising our oldest son in our home was done, and not only had this particular calculus not ever occurred to me, but looking back, I can't say I really know where those eight years went.

Because see, we've always lived like this. Cal was born when we were residents. His entire life--and thus of course, Mack and Nina's entire life too--we've worked. Both Joe and I have worked our tails off. We're not residents anymore of course, and some of the specifics of our jobs have changed from year to year, but the fact of it is that we each work on average 50-60 hours a week, more if we're taking weekend call, and although we've been saying for years that we were going to try to get more control of our work schedules to put some more time into our family life, it hadn't happened yet. The decision point was always pushed off down the road. Later. Soon. Not yet. Someday. And now Cal was turning eight and I have no idea how time passed so fast.

If I'm going to be completely honest with myself I'm sure some of this particular grim inertia was also linked to a perverse macho pride. I've always spoken a lot about work-life balance in medicine and how these antiquated notions, about doctors functioning as around-the-clock automatons sacrificing their personal lives for the greater good, would have to evolve along with the rest of the world. But I think that in some ways I felt safe championing the choice for others to go part-time because I myself chose to work full-time. You do what works for your family, everyone's definition of work-life balance is different. But saying it from the vantage point of someone with three kids and still worked full-time herself felt like a secure platform from which to proselytize, like I was somehow above reproach from people who might accuse all part-time doctors of being lazy or uncommitted. DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO; BUT AS FOR MYSELF, I AM DOING ALL THE THINGS.

And to be honest, we were getting by. It wasn't wonderful, but it was OK. We were surviving. Maybe we weren't "living our best life" to invoke an Oprah-ism (and I don't even know how I know that since I never even watched Oprah) to day, we were getting by.

And then, the week before Memorial Day, our nanny of five years quit. With no warning, and giving zero notice. She just left one day and mentioned on her way out the door that she wasn't coming back.

Boom. Game-changer.

I'm not going to talk too much about the nanny thing because frankly, after probably the most stressful two months of our lives, I'm just over it. It wasn't even so much the issue of finding a new nanny--though that, obviously, was a huge part of solving our problems, at least in the short term.  But the larger and more important part was having to honestly evaluate our life, our choices, and just how much time we did indeed spend at work, away from our children. It was like turning the stark, faintly buzzing fluorescent exam light onto the fish-white underbelly of what kept things functioning at a level that passed as "OK" for the past five years. And what we realized was that: it really isn't OK. Having to outsource this much of our children's care--of our children's lives--to someone else, particularly someone who after five years could walk out on them without so much as a backwards not OK.

(This is putting aside the obvious logistical difficulty of finding a non-live-in person to work 50-60 hours a week. It's a tough sell to say the least. One suggestion, perhaps less helpful than most, was that we should just hire two nannies. To which my reaction was, if you have to hire two people to take care of your kids while you're at work, it's possible you're not spending enough time with your kids.)

So. Joe and I discussed and agonized and number crunched and evaluated. We talked to a lot of people. We agonized some more. And what's going to happen now is this: as of September 1st, I will be going part-time at my job. Joe and I would have been fine with either one of us working less, but because of the ways our jobs are structured, it makes more sense right now for the part-time working parent to be me. My new schedule will have me working three days a week, mixed in with my share of nights, weekend and holiday call. And my main goal for the other two days of the week? To do some of the things that I've never been able to do with my kids because I've haven't had the time. Simply to be around more.

I know this all seems unnecessarily melodramatic of an announcement to some, because plenty of people in a multitude of fields choose to work part-time. But for me, it is a big deal, because to be honest, when you're accustomed to following a prescribed path, swimming against the current for a change can be scary. And there are a lot of issues--job guilt, fear of resentment from co-workers or being perceived as less than fully committed to medicine, concerns about crippling my career potential--that I'm working through having finally made this decision. There's a fear of not wanting to let people down.

But that's it on the other side too, isn't it? I don't want to let people down. I want to do my job well. All my jobs. And I think that right now, I need to spend more time with my kids. Nothing's broken, I still love being an anesthesiologist, and the fact that I've worked full-time for the first eight years of parenthood wasn't the wrong call nor has it damaged our family. It's just that our choices then are not the same as our choices now, and when we have better options we owe it to ourselves to take them. We could be making more of this life. We could be doing better.

I'm not going to be there hovering in the periphery for every single second of my kids' lives, nor frankly should I be. But I'm looking forward to just being around more.

So that's what's going on with us. In most ways, it's really no big thing. But in other ways, it's the biggest thing.