Reflections on ‘The Great Work Life Debates’

Last week I, along with nearly 10,000 other surgeons of various specialties, attended our profession’s premier annual meeting, the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress. Of these, some 50 attended a panel session I chaired called the “Great Work Life Debates.” 

Quite honestly, I was so relieved by the turnout.

Every conference needs to have a last day and the desire of attendees to duck out before that day (especially given work life issues such as not spending another night away from your nursing infant or not missing another OR day) is totally understandable. Nevertheless, some sessions will be assigned the dreaded last session of the last day.

So yes, leading up it, I was filled with dread that the co-moderator, six speakers, and I would be the only people in attendance. I was delighted to be wrong.

Why did these hearty surgeons stick around for this session? Why were there so many men (also much to my delight) in the audience? Were they there searching for the right answers to the Great Work Life Debates? Did the panelists even have any answers to provide?

The committee sponsoring the session was the American College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Committee (WiSC). I would posit, however, that in the modern era issues of balancing the demands of work and the demands of life at home (or as I like to think of it, the joys of my profession with the joys of my personal life) are not limited to women surgeons. WiSC just happens to have taken the lead in bringing such issues to a format that I imagine years ago was limited to the best technique for such and such procedure or what’s new with such and such surgical disease.

Just because male surgeons of a particular generation may have propagated a particular stereotype about how they valued or prioritized their work relative to their life outside of work does not mean that the male surgeons of today fit into that stereotype. Just because women are increasingly represented in surgical careers does not mean that socio-cultural norms for women surgeons’ roles outside of work have dissipated. An so, I believe that both men and women sought out this session because more circumscribed professional meetings are less likely to address non-biomedical topics even though concerns for wellness both in and out of work—wholeness as a person inclusive of professional and personal needs—transcend surgical specialties, and yes even gender.

Surgeons, irrespective of specialty, gender, or sexual orientation, who haven’t found a life partner, may be prone to wonder whether they should marry another surgeon or seek a non-surgeon with whom to spend the rest of their days outside of the hospital. Those who do have partners, may wonder how to make it work for the long term irrespective of their lifemate’s profession. Surgeons of both genders who do not have children may be experiencing deep inner desire to start a family or may be frustrated by the perception that choosing not to have a family is somehow not acceptable. And, those with children surely have days when inevitable stress of modern day parenting leave them wondering why they did it just as they surely have days when every worry, whether it is about work or home or world peace, is dissipated by boundless giggles of a toddler or the unexpected talkativeness of an otherwise moody teen.  Surgeons whose careers or family situations throw childrearing into chaos must consider the pros and cons of care rendered by nannies in the home or childcare in the diverse, highly regulated environment provided by out-of-home daycare. And, no matter what option or combination of options they choose there will be less than perfect days when both work and child(ren) will be needing you at the exact same moment.

Surgeons—not male surgeons, not female surgeons—but just surgeons sharing similar work life concerns came together to listen to these Great Work Life Debates. These points (and barring time limitations we could have point/counterpointed countless other work life dilemmas) were argued by women with different life experiences, different perspectives, and different debate tactics but both the pros and the cons resonated with the women and the men in the audience who it seems, based of their feedback thus far, simply desired a venue that acknowledged that we surgeons are in fact humans—we have lives outside of work, lives that are made ever more complex by long hours, possible lives at risk while we are working, and myriad other professional demands (which include, by the way, attending such meetings for so many hours/year for continuing medical education credits).

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So what was the bottom line for the men and women who stayed for one of the last sessions on the last day of our conference? Not surprisingly there wasn’t one.

Thus, while marriage is challenging no matter what your day job is (if it wasn’t they would just call it dating forever!) you can’t always control who you fall in love with; a loving, supportive spouse will make your work more manageable whether he/she understands to a tee what you go through every day work or has a vague understanding of why you sometimes come home tired or distracted or not at all. But you too have to be loving and supportive in return and that rendering of love and support may take different shapes.

While children come with the stress and anxiety of raising them along with the costs (~250-500k per child up to 18 years before including the costs of college according to one debator) raising them also brings the joy of nurturing, chubby cheeks, Disney World vacations, etc. but choosing to be childfree also brings many joys (e.g. unfettered travel that need not involve animatronics, increased focus on nurturing your relationship with your partner, increased time to pursue personal wellness) that parents often forego or delay.

Finally, both a nanny and daycare can provide a loving, caring environment replete with both educational and emotional growth while you are working but relying on a single individual may limit diversity and back-up options while relying on daycare increases the day to day burden of prepping the child(ren).  Either way, your children will know you are their parent and they will love you back even on the days when things don’t go smoothly.

My hope is that listening to a spirited debate on these issues related to the dilemmas of partnering, parenting, and childcare will have enabled the audience thoughtfully consider what matters to them and various strategies to help alleviate the strain between the joys of work and the joys of personal life. While there are no perfect solutions (and to strive for a vision of perfection is to set yourself up for disillusionment in your choice of life partner, your decision to (or not to) have children, or your childcare preferences), it’s about crafting a reasonable approach to your own great work life debate based on self-reflection and practical needs.

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