Some mentors are assigned, some develop organically, and some are chosen. I met one such mentor as a medical student, when I saw her running from meeting to meeting, patient to patient, and in between calling her daughter to find out about her school day. She has a national reputation and balances life as a clinician, educator, academic, and advocate, all the while maintaining an equally strong identity as a mom. Throughout residency, she continued to impress me, so as my chief year comes to an end, I figured I should carpe diem and not only learn from observing her but ask her the secrets to her success. Luckily I chose a mentor as crazy as I am and she enthusiastically and immediately made plans for us to get coffee. I believe that one should have many mentors in their life, maybe mentors for each aspect of your life, but this person could mentor me in many domains and my life would be richer as a result.
“How did you manage to reach the level of success you have in your career and still have a close relationship with your husband and kids,” I jumped right in with the “how do you do it all” question before she had her first sip of coffee. “It’s not easy,” she warned. We both smiled though, because we know that nothing about being a woman in medicine is easy, nothing about being a mom is easy, so why would the combination of the two become easier. “Ok, there are 3 components to my success that I will share with you.” And this is her recipe:
1. A supportive husband. You have to have a husband who is willing to work outside typical gender roles, be an actively involved father, and have more flexible work hours than you. Check.
2. Subscribe to the “Turtle Theory” of parenting. This, she informed me, is when you spawn your children on the beach and then wave goodbye and wish them luck in the ocean! I laughed because I thought she was kidding. She went on to explain that she wasn’t the mom who micromanaged her kids’ homework or who was at every soccer game or tennis match. She set expectations for her children that they would be independent, responsible, and productive. There were a number of hilarious stories to follow of times when her kids were none of these things (like when her one daughter ate her soccer fundraiser box of candy bars instead of selling them, costing her $120 each year), but in general, she had a routine that allowed her to work long hours and her kids to become successful members of society. This was in part due to the help of her husband, mother-in-law, and a series of au pairs (in spite of one misstep with a “hoe-pair” who slept with everyone in Philly).
3. Luck. She made no excuses for the fact that some of her success was due to pure luck. She had an amazing husband, easy kids (“one was on auto-pilot since birth”), and a career that grew out of accidental opportunities that presented themselves at the right time. This piece she admits was a crucial component to the whole story. She knocked on her wooden desk as she said this, as if there was still a chance it could all come crumbling down.
In the end, her message was that you can be a productive physician mother if you work hard enough. You need a village of support and to let go of the idea that you can simultaneously climb your career ladder and bake cupcakes as the school room mom. You will miss things, either at work or at home, but she endorsed leaving work at work whenever possible to avoid that eventual creep into your personal life that comes with over-achievers and technology. Your children will have other people in their lives that fill the role of mom when you can’t be there, and you need to be ok with that. Most importantly, your kids will be fine and grow up with respect for your career, admiring your success, and aspiring to find their own passion like you. She talked about how on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, her daughter met the hospital CEO, watched her mom give a speech in front of the press, and had her picture taken with the Governor, and she told her daughter that “no matter what the other girls did, you win.” We agreed that we aren’t the stay-at-home type of moms anyway, so we need to let go of thinking that is the standard by which we should judge ourselves.
Her story may depress some of you, as it isn’t one where everything is perfect or one that is easily emulated. For me it felt like the permission I needed to continue on my current path, a path that her generation stamped out in a man’s world, that now allows me not only to be a physician, but to be a mother, and maybe even to be better because of it. This “hour of relaxation” as she called it, refreshed me. “Katie, you know me. I’m sure my kids didn’t want me around any more than I already was because I would have driven them crazy.” This time I laughed because I knew it was true.