Balancing Medical Practice, Family Life Takes Many Paths

April 10, 2012

Family provides a lesson in work-life balance and being happy with the choices you make in your roles at home and at your practice.

Over spring break, I headed to the East Coast with my four kids and my mom to visit family. My husband enjoyed a week at home by himself, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Two of my family members highlighted a truism about work-life balance that was striking in its polarity.

My younger sister is a corporate attorney. She’s newly married and kid-less. Not unexpectedly, her job is very demanding. She puts in long hours, usually working seven days a week. It’s typical for her to skip lunch and bring work home. All of this, in her view, is necessary not only to advance in her firm but even to keep her job. Her dedication is inspiring but can also be frustrating. This is especially true when I’ve traveled 750 miles with four young kids who are excited to see their aunt but end up just joining her for dinner since she wasn’t able to take off time from work.

Since this is such a typical refrain for her - work comes first - it’s disappointing to us but not surprising. I want to lecture her on how to say no, remind her that no one will suddenly look up at her and say “Hey, I noticed you’re working too hard,” and the things she’s missing are important, never to be repeated moments. But, I’ve learned that my advice isn’t particularly welcome and won’t be followed, so I no longer offer it.

In contrast is my uncle who’s worked for 30 years for a large corporation in Manhattan. Recently, he received a “golden handshake” and is enjoying the first few weeks of an early retirement. During a leisurely walk, he described his younger co-workers to me, including a boss with three young kids who used to send him urgent missives at 6 a.m. on Sunday. Since my uncle only checked his e-mail at work, he never responded before Monday morning. His other co-workers frequently worked late and were semi-appalled when my uncle left every day at 4:30 p.m. He used to tell them that there was a reason there are wheels on the bottom of their office chairs. It’s so that once the company works you to death, they can roll you out and roll someone else in.

I’m not sure if it is primarily generational or personality driven, but in looking at my sister, nearing her 30th birthday and my uncle, nearing his 60th, I see the extremes of what your job can mean to you. My sister’s dedication is impressive but also relentless, slowly blotting out interests, exercise, and time with family and friends. My uncle’s dedication to his job was limited to what was reasonable. As a result, when he left his job, multiple possibilities are open to him. He will have more time to spend at his vacation home, the opportunity to expand his vegetable garden, and be able to rollerblade to the beach on weekday mornings.

Being a physician is different than working in the corporate world. However, I hope to learn from my sister and my uncle’s examples so that both at the end of my day and the end of my career, I’m proud of the choices I made.

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