Female Physicians’ Tough Work-Life Choices

April 9, 2013
Jennifer Frank, MD

Can women, especially in medicine, have great professional success and a healthy family life?

I recently read about a woman who penned a letter to the Princeton female college student of today. It got a lot of press because she advised women to find their future mates in college while they were surrounded by a lot of smart men. I’m sure you can imagine the reception this advice generated.  This is not an age when women go to college to snag a husband.

However, she has a good point. Many women desire to get married. Somewhere in the opportunities and push to attain an education and a career, that worthy desire has been less valued and less important than achieving personal success. Women have successfully learned how to spend their 20s and 30s climbing the ladder of their respective professions and do it quite well. While women still haven’t closed the gender gap, they are making steady progress.  Smart and hard-working women can realistically reach for and land in the corner office.

But many women still want a husband, children, and a home. While spending so much time and energy on professional success is valued, spending this type of time and energy on personal success is not.  Women seeking husbands remind us of the 1950s when going to college to land a husband was more the norm than the exception. While the advice to seek your future mate in college seems anachronistic, I admire this woman’s willingness to share a truth she learned too late.

Similarly, a recent opinion piece written in The New York Times by Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers, detailed the author’s regret at devoting herself to her career at the expense of her life. Interestingly, she is not leading another company, writing a bestseller, or giving motivational speeches. She is working on her second marriage after her first marriage became a casualty of her all-consuming career. In her late 40s, when she could be enjoying the rewards of decades of sacrifice, she is trying to have kids instead of having a title. 

Fortunately, many women don’t make an either or choice. They are able to get married, have kids, and be successful at a profession. They may not make homemade cookies for the school bake sale and they may not get to the highest rung on the professional ladder, but they achieve a balance that allows them not to have it all but to have it almost all. 

I still think women feel embarrassed at times when they are seeking a spouse or seeking to be more present at home for their kids. While a goal of professional success is laudable both at work and in society, the goal of a healthy family life is still not admired in quite the same way. However, I think any woman (or man) who has achieved a measure of success in a marriage, relationship, or as a parent realizes the incredible value of devoting time and energy to one’s life and not just to one’s livelihood.