Tuesday, October 05, 2010

somewhere between all and none

I've long ago come to the conclusion that as a working parent, "having it all" is a myth, one perhaps not purposely designed, but nonetheless effective, in making normal hardworking people feel bad. I'm going to say it right here, and go ahead and quote me: you cannot have it all. I mean this realistically, not pessimistically. I just think it's not possible, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you'll stop beating yourself up about not being superhuman.

There was a time when I was younger (read: more naive) that I thought that "having it all" was a real possibility so long as I was willing to work hard at it. I would be really, really good at my job and I would spend a lot of good, quality time with my kids, and everyone was going to grow up with good moral values and excellent study habits and we would talk about how our days went over family dinner every night, a meal which I would not necessarily cook, but could certainly heat up. (Even at my most idealistic, cooking well never entered into the fantasy. Some limits I have always been aware of.)

I am now what the me of the past would consider a grown-up. And this is the reality of things. Aside from on the weekends, we never have family dinner. I am not home for the kids' dinnertime about half the time, Joe almost never is. The time I spend with them in the evenings is more goal-oriented than quality. Finish dinner, hustle everyone into the bath, let the kids play in the basement while I catch up on other things that have been ignored during the day, and it's the wind sprint of snack-milk-toothbrushing-books-bedtime. If Joe is home by bedtime (which thankfully he usually is now), we divide and conquer--he takes one kid, I take the other. And then we go to bed, usually by nine, because we have to get up early the next morning and we're tired, don't you know. I don't feel like I get much quality time with the kids during the week. And I definitely don't feel like I have time to do the things that will make me better at my job--reading journals, studying, reviewing questions that came up during the day. And that's what working parenthood feels like a lot of the time. Trying to do two important jobs in parallel, and half-assing both of them.

There are probably people with jobs more amenable to the constantly fluctuating schedule of the preschool child, but medicine in general is not really one of them. I have never been to one of Cal's classroom get-togethers. I can rarely make it to parent-teacher conferences. It is only through extensive planning, switching dates with other parents, and taking overnight call the night before that I can even hope to make it to such big events as Cal's Gold Star Day or his Person of the Week or his Lucky Strike or whatever they hell they're going to call his Super Special Snowflake MVP Day this year. Everything in schools seems to happen mid-morning, and having a mid-morning reliably free on a week's notice is just not something I can reasonably expect to accommodate.

On the other side of things, I have a stack of papers two phone books high of anesthesia study material that I've been meaning to go through for the past six months and which I have not touched. I have textbooks sitting hopefully on my bookshelf with their spines still pristine, because I have not yet had time to read them. I never spend time with adult humans outside of work. During the course of a normal work week, I almost never have cause to eat a meal unless it is as fast as humanly possible (at work) or standing up behind the sink (at home). So it seems that on both fronts, I'm not really making out very well.

The thing is, though, I'm starting to be OK with that. That's just how things work. Time spent doing one thing is time necessarily spent not doing another thing. I can't change that. I love my job and I love my kids, but I can't do both things at once. So depending on what's going on and the time of day, I have to prioritize. It's triage, plain and simple. And you do the best you can with what time and resources you have.

Some days I feel like I hardly see my kids at all. And some days--mostly a day after a day that I haven't seen my kids at all--I'll have the chance to get out from work early. And maybe that's the day that I decide, you know what, instead of trying to cook dinner and return all those e-mails and stressing about how many CME credits I still need to get this year in order to keep my medical license active, maybe I'll pick Cal from school and take both kids to the park. And then we'll play ball and feed the geese. And maybe we'll just hang out, and not worry too much about what time it is, or what cases I have scheduled for tomorrow, or the fact that the inside of Cal's lunchbox smells like carrion. We can worry about that later. Right now, we can just, you know, sit here. Sit here in the grass together and feed these fat geese.

It's not having it all, and it's not perfect, but most days, it's enough.


  1. it was well-written, beautiful, and honest, but this post made me sad. because i am not looking forward to having to do what you are doing now, in your words "trying to do two important jobs in parallel, and half-assing both of them."

    not that i think you are doing a half-assed job at either of them (!), but because i fear feeling like this myself someday in the not too far future.

    i guess i wish there was a way to work in medicine without having to make such sacrifices . . . hopefully i'll forge some sort of path like that for myself.

  2. Hey, as half of a two physician marriage with child, I feel ya. But I don't even get to the half-ass point--I'm lucky to reach 1/4 ass. But as the son of two physician parents, I gotta say all this has given me mad respect for the folks...not sure how they did it with 3 little punks.

  3. Anonymous7:56 PM

    This made me sad.

  4. Anonymous8:07 PM

    yeah. sad. but inevitable it seems.

  5. Anonymous8:31 PM

    I have to be devil's advocate here because you are such a great writer that many are going to read this and become depressed -- like those who have already commented. I totally get that you are in a happy place and good on you. The worst thing isn't being at home full time or work full time or whatever mix of that, but rather being unhappy and whiny about it and not doing anything to change it -- you are NOT THAT and that's the most important thing for good family functioning in my opinion. Noone likes a martyr.

    But for those who don't think they can do it like this -- IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. Lobby for part time work! Take a day off a week (surely anesthesia of all things should be perfect for flex time). Pick one "extra" thing to do each semester and stick to it (research, teach, read journals, whatever). Practice saying "NO!" to extra stuff at work, and don't apologize for it or justify it. Book a sitter to put your kids to bed once a week and have a date with your partner. Pick a specialty that lets you do what you like to do but not BE someone you don't want to be. eg. Want to deliver babies but not be an OB-Gyn? Be a family doc who delivers! (note: may have to move to Canada to accomplish this. That's where I am.) Surround yourself with friends who are trying to do the same thing and avoid those who are workaholics with full time nannies (not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you're trying to be something different, find people who are at least in the same ballpark).

    It will always feel a little too busy. You'll never have your days just quite right -- we don't. But the beauty of being a doctor should be that you are paid well enough that you CAN work less than full time...not that you must be enslaved to working more than full time. We must work vigilantly to improve this!

    Phew. Rant done. Sorry about that. This as I interrupted my leisurely evening run to SPRINT home as my husband was called in to do anesthesia for a stat Csection and all the kids are in bed. Sigh.

  6. Anonymous9:18 PM

    Thank you. As a woman and future doctor in only-God-knows-what specialty, I appreciate your honesty with where life has you at the present moment. I can so deeply resonate with the desire to be everywhere at once doing everything, and yet always coming up short. I feel as though you have given me hope that while things may never be exactly as I imagined them, they really will be wonderful anyways.

  7. Thanks for the comments! Sorry, didn't mean to depress people. And I totally understand--I think Young Me would have been depressed by reading what Now Me is doing. But I'm just trying to be completely honest that these is what the challenges are in my day-to-day life, and I know other people are struggling with a lot of the same things.

    This is what my life right now is like, and I am OK with it. But definitely, if I was not OK with it, there would be things I could do to change it up. But it's always going to be more of one, less of the other, how and where you place your levees is and will always have to be an individual choice.

  8. On one hand, I agree with Ms. Anonymous devil's advocate that if it's that important to you, one or both of you could try harder to structure your work more around your family life.

    On the other hand... yeah, I hear you, and I've been there. You just do what you can, and you try to be 100% wherever you are at the moment.

  9. I blogged about this some time ago....

    No, your post is not depressing....it's just telling it the way it is. Reality check.

  10. Anonymous10:09 PM

    I was not the perfect mother before I started medical school, nor was I the perfect anything else before or after having my children.

    I do believe that it would have been more challenging if my kids were younger, but at this point, my older son will already be in high school and my younger one will be in middle school when I start residency, and by the time I begin practicing in earnest, they will have very busy lives of their own. The time that I do spend with my kids now is much more "quality" because they are older and can do most of their "activities of daily living" without any time investment from me.

    It will get better as your children get older. :)

    Yet, even before then, (like the good former math geek that I am,) I would first like to define the parameters of this problem. "Having it all" is a little too nebulous, especially the "all" part.

    Do most mothers who are SAHM feel that they fulfill their "mothering duties" 100%? I doubt it. Do all the single women in medicine feel like they are "rock star" doctors? I also doubt that. We engender myths within ourselves and then we spend years telling ourselves that we are half-assing our lives, until one day we realize that we simply cannot walk around with these feelings of inadequacy and guilt heaped upon our souls and we begin the long process of convincing ourselves that it's "ok", that we are doing just fine, etc.

    If we define our "all" in a rational and realistic way a priori, we avoid much of this angst altogether.

    For me:
    All= [providing a stable, loving environment for my children, instilling a strong sense of humanism and decency in them, and giving them opportunities to realize their potential (through good school choices, extracurricular activities, etc.)] + [becoming, and later being, a caring physician who will do her best to provide appropriate and meaningful medical care to her patients] + [being a good friend and spouse to my partner in life by supporting him in his endeavors and encouraging him to be his best] + [being a caring and thoughtful friend and family members on whom others can count] + [being kind and generous to all of the above and any and all strangers who come into my life (until or unless their actions compel me to withdraw said kindness and generosity)]

    "Perfect" is not part of the formula, nor does it say that those things have to happen in equal measure at all times - there are no constants, only important variables that in combination make the "all".

    Another important thing to keep in mind is that this kind of existential angst is a luxury not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of mothers in the world. Being mindful of that and living with gratitude can be very helpful as well.

    Do I feel like I "have it all" - my "all"? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes!

    P.S. Sorry I wrote a dissertation (I am too tired to study, and this was just too perfect an opportunity to procrastinate). ;)

  11. This post made me teary, but not in a sad way. In an "awwww, Michelle loves her babies so much and I bet that afternoon in the park was awesome" kind of way. I'm a working mother too, a nurse, and our schedules are definitely not as flexible as some people think. So when I get some unexpected time off I usually do what you did -- forget everything else and just try to soak up as much of my daughter as I can.

  12. Anonymous11:31 PM

    Tangent: Mack is adorable, but he usually has a worried, furrowed-eyebrow-serious-expression. Is he a serious baby or do you just happen to have a lot of pictures with him squinting in the sun?

  13. this is my first time posting a comment; as a first time mom who is exploring returning to corporate america this is something i've debated as well. can i do both jobs well?

    i'm wellesley class of '02 and i remember speaking to a mom i babysat for about this in college. even prior to graduation with no intention to marry and have children soon, i was so scared that i wouldn't be able to balance both. in the end whate each woman chooses to do as long as she's ok with it, as you state, i believe is fine. however, in the end you have to ask, "is it worth it?"

    i vividly remember my mom staying home with me until age 3. i remember our mealtimes and playtime together. we didn't have much money in my family but the time my parents spent with me is ingrained forever in my mind. the times that were tough financially for my family pale in comparison to the quality family times we had. quality, not quantity, is the key i believe. make those memories count and that's what i intend to do with my daughter.

  14. Anonymous1:04 AM

    Another med student writing in to say that while this post saddened me b/c I still want to believe I can have it all in the future, I found it beautifully written and inspirational in its realism at the same time. Thanks for writing honestly...
    - a HCHS alum

  15. Anonymous7:46 AM

    The reason people's first instinct is to judge is because of fear. My first instinct in reading thise post was to judge you, to say, "Well, she shouldn't be okay with half-assing her parenting duties, she should *find a way* to spend more time with her kids, even if that means cutting back her work hours." And then I realized that was a bitchy way to respond to something that was so honest, and I asked myself why women respond that way to each other, and I realized it's because I am afraid that this will be MY life in a few years. A practicing anesthesiologist with no time for her kids (or very little time) and a constant feeling that I'm not doing well enough. A fear that I won't be able to find my ideal job which allows me to work in an academic setting 3 days a week and be home with my kids the other 2 days.
    And THEN I wondered, how often do you think MEN have these thoughts? I think they entertain feelings of being a "bad Dad" far less often than women put it on themselves. Even within your own relationship, how many times has your husband seemingly been okay with blowing off family commitments (i.e., leaving you at home with your newborn while he went away to a work conference) in order to excel in his job? Men are trained to be the breadwinners and to be okay with that being their main household role, and women are trained to be the caretakers and to be okay with that being their main household role. It is because women, not men, are changing their roles in the workplace that we are confronting feelings of failure when we "can't do it all," in a way that men do not seem to feel. How often is the stereotype of the nagging wife portrayed in entertainment and the media, the wife who is SO BOTHERSOME because she wants her husband to - gasp - take out the trash on time? The men roll their eyes and the laughtrack explodes, and the resultant emotion in the man is one of impatience, rather than guilt. But the working mother is made to always feel like she is not good enough or not doing a fine enough job. I never grew up thinking I'd work part-time, I always wanted to be a doctor and always "knew" I could do it all. Fast-forward to my 29th year, and I'm a doctor who isn't married and doesn't have kids yet, and barely has time to go out and meet somebody, and who is facing the very real possibility that I will never have even HALF of what I envisioned for my life (the marriage and the kids,) and I have to say, at least you've gotten there. You have two beautiful kids and a husband who seems to be a pretty good guy most of the time, a beautiful home and a flourishing career. You're not doing any of those courageous and important endeavors flawlessly, but you're DOING them, and that is the most important thing, in and of itself.
    I hope in five years, I can be doing them all, too. And I hope that when my first instinct is to judge myself, the way your first instinct is to judge yourself and my first instinct was to judge you, that I can silence the internal critic and just go to the park to feed the geese with my kids.

  16. Anonymous8:39 AM

    You're in good company, Michelle.

  17. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Now that Joe is an attending, why don't you move to part time?

  18. Anonymous1:25 PM

    Michele - Thanks for the unvarnished truth. I am right there with you! But, I agree with the comment that it is our culture that needs to change - not the several million women who are killing themselves everyday keeping the wheels on the family bus!

  19. Anonymous5:05 PM

    flashback for me as well. working parent of youngsters...fraught with worry....feeling inadequate...having kid with chronic illness on top of it all....now they are teens and 20 somethings with minds of their own and I wish i had let myself off the hook when they were little.

  20. I worry about this some, as I plod my way through undergrad towards medical school an residency with two kids, one with who is a bit on the medically-needy side. Right now, I feel like I can be a student and a parent and do both well, but it only gets more demanding from here on out. I wonder how much of my kids' lives I will miss during the next 10 years of my training, they will be 15 and 18 when I finish residency! I love medicine and can't imagine doing anything else, but I do think about this sort of balance/trade-off/sacrifice a lot.

  21. Anonymous6:10 PM

    Beautiful post that captures my own situation too. I'm a pretty good dad, but not awesome, and not nearly as amazing as I thought I could be when I was young. My kids are basically happy and healthy, though, so I can't complain. Life is a zero-sum game....

  22. Anonymous10:07 PM

    The feelings of inadequacy you have are bumming me out here. After reading your blog for years now it seems so obvious to me that you actually DO have it all. You might be stressed on a daily basis, but everyone I know (whether they have children or not) living and working in America feels that way. You've worked incredibly hard and now have a career you love, a great family, a happy home in a great city. Your kids seem interesting and well-balanced. Christ, you've even the discipline to write a memoir in your few free hours. It saddens me that you feel the way you do - because so many women would kill to have accomplished what you have and to wake up to so much each day.

  23. just wanted to add that i brought up this post on my blog today: here

    so far, it looks like my readers with experience as moms see it your way. perhaps not yet being a mother just makes things difficult for me to conceptualize at this point . . .

    anyway, thank you again for a thought provoking post even if it stirred up feelings of inner turmoil!

  24. Anonymous6:45 PM

    This post actually makes me happy because Michelle, whom many of us idolize, also struggles.

  25. Anonymous8:53 PM

    I worry about the lack of real-life community that we working mothers have - especially those, like me, who have intense academic medicine jobs. My mother had/has an incredible community of friends, friends who were very important to me growing up, and who remain an important support. Some of this is related to personality, but I worry about the "bowling alone" aspect of working motherhood.

  26. Anonymous11:39 AM

    Re: "bowling alone".
    These feelings are not just for mothers. As the male half of a two academic physician marriage, with kids, I too understand what you mean. Except the only bowling I have time for is on the Wii.

  27. sharon7:47 PM

    That was a very beautiful post, and it made me cry, but not in a sad way as one commenter also noted. It was just very beautifully written, you know, soaked in emotions, which you convey very eloquently. You have a great talent. I am in my 3rd year of medical school, and with a husband who is not in medicine, I feel it may be easier for me in the future if I have children. Even now I barely get to spend time with my husband, but I am very happy. I love medicine, and when I do hang out with my husband, it is time well-spent. I can't speak for how it feels as a mother, which must be on a different level, but for me as a wife, I am valuing quality much more than quantity.

    ps Cal has such beautiful eyes

  28. Anonymous4:29 PM

    I loved this post.

    p.s. where did you get those McQueen Crocs?

  29. McQueen crocs courtesy of Amazon.com (via a third party distributor). Mack is insane for them.

  30. This is definitely one of my very favorite posts of yours.

  31. Anonymous12:10 AM

    Love this post...and your blog. Please don't stop blogging! You are a very talented writer.

  32. I too love this post, and though I am not a physician, I am married to one and we have a 3 month old son, so I am a mom.
    I mention that I am married to a doctor simply to indicate that I understand very well the life of a med student, resident, and attending. I've lived with it. If I'd done the right thing in my own life I'd be living it. But, now I'm a mom, and this post actually made me feel better about the entire slog. It's hard. You can't have it all, this is the truth. And to see it stated as you have, simply, matter-of-factly, is encouraging.
    I think in this culture we are led to believe that we can have it all and then some, and it will be clean and shiny and new and lovely and happy all the time. I've never bought that load of crap. Life is full of trade-offs.
    Thank you for this, and for your awesome blog in its totality.

  33. Oh my gosh, this is exactly how I feel. My husband and I are both physicians, we have a 1 year old daughter, and it is SO HARD to balance everything. I feel that I'm not doing nearly the best job with both my career and motherhood. And I feel no one quite gets it from my perspective. It's complicated, it's not so easy, but you managed to describe the struggle that I have to go through on a daily basis. Thanks for blogging and keeping it real! - Fellow physician mom

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