Carpe Mentor

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.

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  1. Nice entry Katie.
    FYI – my generation pretty much the same thing trying to balance it all and break thru the glass ceiling…so many of the emotions you are experiencing, I experienced at your age as well.
    What I have learned is these emotions are all part of the journey we are on through our life as we grown. What works for one may not work for another and as I have grown older the one thing I realize is most important is family, a job/career can be replaced but once my parents are gone, they are gone.

  2. Really amazing post! The saying “It takes a village” is really appropriate. Our children can learn something different from different people in their lives. And only by allowing them to explore and give them the independence will they be able to find out these things!

  3. Your blog entry and sea turtle analogy is honestly horrifying. It makes me feel ill. You are fooling yourselves if you believe your children will be so impressed by your accomplishments in your career that it will make up for missed soccer games. Nobody else is going to be able to fill the huge void in your child’s life, and as an adult child of a mother like you, I can promise you it will be a lifelong hole in their heart.

    You should reflect upon why in your heart, climbing the career ladder and being über-accomplished is a higher priority for you than your child’s well being. This is not because you are a woman. Same sentiment goes for fathers. If you cannot be truly present in your child’s life, you shouldn’t be a parent. Your child will spend their entire life wondering why you are choosing xyz over then and it will scar their heart more than you can imagine. And you will never know because despite your flaws, they will love you too much to tell you. I hope you quit lying to yourself and convincing yourself this is right. Adoption doctor? You don’t know the first thing about attachment and should be ashamed to call yourself a professional in the field. To thine oneself be true.

    1. First, I’d like to preemptively apologize to the author of this blog that my very first comment here is going to be somewhat contrary, argumentative and definitely really long, BUT, oh my goodness, just… NO.

      Ms. Lauren:
      As an adult child of a physician and a stay at home mom for the past six years, I’m confused by your blanket generalizations about scarred childhoods and empty holes in one’s psyche. Sorry, but my mother’s accomplishments do impress me to the extent that I’m okay with the fact that she missed a few extracurricular activities here and there. As a stay at home mom who is pretty much on every volunteer parent association on the planet, I don’t think I’m doing parenting any better than my mom did.

      Just differently.

      I love and respect my mother so much that it would not be an exaggeration to say that I near worship her and that I always have. She worked 40-60 hour weeks. She rarely sat with me to do my homework that I remember. I don’t have any recollection of her baking cookies or doing a lot of play dates that weren’t just “drop off” deals. Definitely not a PTA member. I had a nanny when I was growing up. We had a housekeeper. When she was on call, we didn’t always get tucked in by mom every night.

      I think about how I was raised, though, and I realize that I was very privileged in some ways. Not because of money, but because every single bit of attention my mother gave me was pure and unfettered. It was a blessing to have such an extraordinary, gifted and fulfilled person to hang out with every evening and to guide me through life (even today).

      I learned about integrity, entrepreneurship and perseverance as she excelled in her career. She modeled courage and “moxie” to me as she worked in field where the ratio of men to women was double digits to one. She showed me that I could trust that the world was full of helpful and able people by delegating some of the minor responsibilities of my care to others. She taught me to value those individuals and treat them with respect. I carry those lessons around with me every day. People read about heroes, but I was raised by one.

      And, yeah, I was raised by a woman who believed from the time that I was very small that I was capable of taking care of myself. This kind of respect has translated into a kind of self respect that is rare among adults. There’s an entire method of teaching children that’s based on this idea of simply preparing an environment for a child and stepping away so that they can take care of themselves as soon as possible. It’s not rooted in selfishness, it’s based on the belief that children can accomplish much when left to develop in a natural pace that they set. Lots of stay at home moms adopt this paradigm and I’m one of them.

      Nobody’s childhood is perfect and nobody grows up without a few holes in them. That’s not about parenting, dear, that’s just life. I’m sorry you have so much pain associated with your upbringing, but I find your efforts to project responsibility for that onto people like the women in this post and my mom misguided and just generally offensive.

  4. Thanks for everyone’s feedback and comments. I don’t pretend to have this working mom thing figured out and am not preaching here that my way is the best. I certainly don’t endorse everything that my mentor told me that I documented here either, but rather am sharing her advice to me with everyone else. You can pick and choose what applies to you. I appreciate that there are many people who disagree with my opinions, as Lauren did, and I like having an honest, open dialogue on this blog, and in life. Faiqa’s reply, however, is magnificent and gives me a lot of hope and pride as a physician mom like hers. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Lauren, I too am sorry that your childhood leaves you with such pain that you need to project your feelings onto other mothers. The ultimate message I would like to convey is that there is no one best way to parent and as women and as mothers, we need to support each other so that we can each be our own best and not judge, discourage, insult, and berate. I know my own truth, and your personal comments about me show how little you actually know about me. That may be a failure of my writing, so I will strive to help all my readers get to know me better.

  5. Have you read this month’s Atlantic article by Ann-Marie Slaughter?

    It’s getting all kinds of interesting buzz..there seems to be a few parallels between your mentor’s advice and her article.

    I have worked with a female oncology physician who is the child of a physician mother, and her siblings are all doctorate-educated as well (one a surgeon, the other in research) She was strongly encouraged/impressed by the example her mother set, and a very well-adjusted, down-to-earth sort of person herself. It’s definitely possible, but I do think it’s true that when you chose a demanding profession, there are certainly some sacrifices/compromises made that you might not otherwise be faced with–certainly if done well, and thoughtfully, I do not believe that children suffer.

    This is an aside, but one of the things that I think makes parenting more challenging today is not only are most of us in situations where 2 wage-earners are mandatory, many of us do not have a built-in ‘village’ so to speak, to help with child-rearing and those emergencies that inevitably come up. American families are no longer living near relatives and generally I would say that less than 50% of the folks with young children I know have close relatives nearby that can offer support. People like Anne-Marie truly offer a bit of an elitist perspective, but I would have to argue that many women in lower-paid or even middle-class positions struggle with many of the same issues, and without the luxury of additional options afforded by a higher income (such as paid help with household chores, nannies, and so forth).

    For my part, I recently quit my oncology nursing job (patient educator/case management) at a well-respected NCCN center since we were unsatisfied with our daycare situation, kicked out of one daycare with a 1 month notice with no explanation (it was a home day care, and apparently the Chinese lady who ran it mistook my asking her to repeat what she says–as I have a hearing loss–as not being satisfied with her English!). In addition there had been so much illness from being in day-care that even while working in an institution with a fairly liberal and generous sick leave/sick leave for children policy, my attendance was in question. It certainly did not help our situation that no back-up childcare exists for the days it wasn’t appropriate to put her back into daycare, and that my husband did not have paid time off available to take (and I did).

    Fortunately my husband was offered a bit of a promotion around the same time the daycare fiasco hit, and we also found out the number 2 is coming in December shortly after I made the decision to quit. I can only hope that in hindsight I have learned enough about myself and what it takes to keep our little family going that when I do return to work, it will be with more balance and happiness for all!

    1. Rae– I did read Slaughter’s article and I thought it was very interesting. There are some striking generational differences between the feminists who blazed the way for us and the new generation of moms who are trying to find balance in a changing climate. I agree with her that we need to change the way society values family and maybe the way to get there is to have more women at the top. The bigger question is how will they get there and keep their integrity intact?

  6. Mommycall I love this. I have but one small beef with your mentor’s wisdom. The impostor syndrome plagues us all, and #3 suggests to me your mentor is no exception. I’ve heard it from 10 year olds and department chairs – mostly all female. The classic line I’m sure you know well, that women will give credit to luck and those that helped direct them along the way, while men are more likely to claim credit and self-efficacy. I’m sure her career also grew out of hard, albeit perhaps enjoyable, work.

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