Separate Roles

August 10, 2010

I think the modern workplace requires a sensitivity to both mothers and fathers and the very admirable roles they wish to play in their children's lives. However, how to maintain professionalism while acknowledging the personal can be a tricky balance.

I am reading a great, lively, truly laugh-out-loud book (the reviews always say that but in this case it is true) called “When Did I Get Like This?” by Amy Wilson. It is a treatise on motherhood.

One passage struck me as so true in the work-life balance conundrum. It reads: “If a mother wants to sojourn in the non-child-centered world, she is better off keeping her Shutterfly brag books tucked securely away. The ideal of the woman who ‘has it all’ is predicated on that woman keeping her worlds totally separate. We mothers can continue to participate in grown-up society only if we don't let our mothering lives leak into our professional lives.”

In family medicine, and in particular in the clinic where I now work, I feel very supported as a working mother. I think the modern workplace requires a sensitivity to both mothers and fathers and the very admirable roles they wish to play in their children's lives. However, how to maintain professionalism while acknowledging the personal can be a tricky balance.

Last night, I headed to the ER to admit a patient with the resident physician. It was a complicated case, the patient was a poor historian, and it took us a couple hours to sort through her records, labs, exam findings, and history to come up with a cohesive plan of care. After we were finished, we headed to the newborn nursery to see a recently delivered baby. I joked with the resident and the ER nurse that now that the kids were in bed, I had all night to spend at the hospital if needed.

Walking to the nursery, the resident asked me how I balanced four kids with a profession as demanding as being a full-spectrum academic family physician. I briefly saw myself through his eyes. By virtue of more experience, I automatically appear smarter and more competent to (most) residents. My experience also enables me to more quickly assimilate a patient’s data and remember small details that residents inevitably forget. So, I imagine he views me as a pretty put-together, accomplished physician. That I do this with little ones at home likely seems a daunting task.

What he doesn’t see, though - because like Amy Wilson I have learned to keep my mothering life from leaking (too often) into the professional realm - is what I am like at home. Last night, before heading off to be a doctor in the ER, I was just a plain wife and mom at home. This found me at various times throughout the evening, picking up individual pieces of corn off the kitchen floor before my toddler came back for “seconds," yelling, cajoling, and bribing three kids into their pajamas, negotiating teeth brushing duties with my husband, and sighing in relief as the last little head hit the pillow.

Like most professionals, I am a different person at home. Most days, being a mother is far more demanding than being a doctor and the stakes can feel much higher. I think that I have learned, over time, that the expectation remains. While I can be a mother, have pictures of my kids on my desk at work, and leave early for a baseball game on occasion, I am still expected to be a cool, calm, and collected professional at work. This is probably fair.