Can women be professionals? Advice from a woman in a “man’s” world.

Merriam Webster defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.

In the past 3 weeks, a few things have happened that have brought this topic to mind.  To give you a couple of examples:

While watching the celebrity apprentice, my au pair made the comment that it wasn’t fair for the teams to be split by gender – that the women were at a disadvantage.  I expressed some surprise by this sentiment (being a product of an all-girls’ high school and all), and asked her why.  She replied, “Because women don’t work together well.”

Two weeks ago, one of the ER nurses asked me if I had been a nurse before I became a doctor.  One of the best indirect compliments I have ever received.  This is a “big deal” so to speak because growing up, (and by growing up I mean in medical school and residency) as physicians you are taught certain life “truths”, which vary by specialty and by gender.  One of these “truths” is that nurses and female doctors do NOT work well together.  It is whispered about and discussed as fact, passed down from generations of residents before you – nurses will give you a harder time, they are nicer to the male doctors, don’t let your nurses call you by your first name because then they won’t respect you, etc, etc.

Another friend who has been very successful at her job and has all the evaluations to prove it is leaving this job.  Partly because her evaluations are filled with not just job performance reports but also reports about her personality.  Personality?  Really?!  I don’t mean unprofessional behavior – cursing, being verbally abusive, etc, I mean personality.  Like, your personality is “too assertive”, etc.

So this really got me thinking – can women really NOT work together?  Are we NOT able to give or receive constructive criticism and feedback professionally?  Are we subject to interpretations of our job performance based upon how well-liked we are instead of how efficient, productive, and skilled we are?

Every Friday morning, I attend “M&M”, aka morbidity and mortality conference.  This conference is well-known to surgeons everywhere.  In this conference, complications are presented in a PowerPoint format, with at least a 34 sized font, and flashed up on a huge screen in front of all the surgeons in our department to dissect, comment upon, and quite frankly, judge.

So for those of you not in medicine, let me try and describe it to you in a way to makes this process hit home.  Think of your last mistake at work – maybe you missed or forgot a deadline, flubbed a presentation, didn’t make the best impression on a client.  Any mistake you can think of –  large or small.  Okay, got one in mind?  Now, think of a detailed report on that mistake… a timeline describing all of your missteps or mistaken thoughts… when these occurred, whether they were witnessed or not, your boss’ account of what happened, your secretary’s impressions of what happened, the outcome of the mistake, and a poll of similar people in your position around the country and whether or not they have made that same mistake also.  Your worst and most embarrassing moments, picked at, highlighted, judged, written down, projected on a screen, and worst of all – viewed by everyone in your office, company, etc.  Have chest pain yet?

Well, this is what your surgeons do every single week.  Luckily, most of us don’t have our own complications presented every week, but it happens to all of us.  And, we all have to learn to be “professional” about it.  In other words, we have to be sensitive enough to our mistakes to not make them again, but not so sensitive that we can’t move on emotionally and be productive.  In other words, not take things too personally.  We have to understand that these mistakes we make are actions, not personality traits.  I am not a “bad” person because I made a wrong decision.  One of my favorite surgeons from residency always said, “The last thing a patient needs is a surgeon who feels sorry from himself.”

Okay, okay, so what the hell does this have to do with women as professionals?

I can clearly delineate and separate professional actions and personal happiness, because I have been trained to do so.  Quite frankly, given my years spent attending and participating in M&M conferences, this “skill” is critical to emotional survival and professional success.  I have to keep the emotions at bay so I can accept the criticism in order to make myself better.  I am not perfect.  All I can hope is that I will be better tomorrow than I am today, and sometimes I need help with that.  And sometimes that help is in the form of criticism.  However, most women don’t have to sit through an M&M conference every week, and I feel struggle with this ability to separate the professional from the personal.

Let me be blunt, Women will never achieve the same levels of professional success as men, until we act professionally TO EACH OTHER, and think and judge OURSELVES as professionals.

So, do I have this all figured out?  Hell, no.  But here are some thoughts and advice on what has helped me.

All female relationships can be tricky… if we let them be.

As a species, most of us are plagued to some degree by insecurity.  We are taught at a young age to be people pleasers, and ergo a lot of us judge ourselves by how well we please other people.  In addition, we unwittingly often compare ourselves to other women, regardless of the differences in our situations.  For example, I found myself one morning, sitting in the pediatrician’s waiting room, comparing myself to another mom with a similarly aged child.  I had just finished working over 24 hours, and looked every inch of it.  She was enviably thin; her hair, her makeup and her clothes were well appointed and fashionable.  Her toddler belonged in a GAP ad.  I looked slightly homeless with my child still in his pajamas and covered in maple syrup from the pancakes I had bribed him with on our way to the appointment.  I caught myself judging how I am as a mother and as a woman based on the appearance of a complete stranger in a damn waiting room.  I have two degrees, am a double boarded surgeon and found myself in a thought process that was a complete waste of 5 minutes of my life that I will never get back.  I don’t know this woman, so why the hell was I envying her?  Because, regardless of education, our successes and accomplishments, that is what many of us do.  We judge our worth, our success at life, by how we compare to other women.  And this, is absolutely absurd.

When two dogs meet, there are cautious glances exchanged, followed by some evaluation at a distance, then some butt-sniffing, and ending with a silent acceptance of the other animal’s existence, or some baring of teeth, or some tail wagging.  We, as women, are similar – well, without the butt-sniffing (in most cases).  When we meet another woman, often times our insecurities dictate our behavior and our opinion of her… however unfounded those opinions might be.

Now place all these behaviors and thoughts in the professional world, and let’s complicate matters by adding a real, or implied hierarchy.

Overall, this milieu can lead to a level of discomfort amongst women who are all on the same team, but with different roles and qualifications.  However, I am here to tell you that this discomfort can be overcome.  I am blessed to have worked with an amazing group of nurses throughout my career, and even though we aren’t “supposed” to work well together, we do.  In fact, I count many of them as very close friends.

My advice for success in the professional world as a woman, whether you work in a predominantly female world or male world is:

Have the confidence to separate the actions from the person.

In other words, learn how to give and receive negative criticism professionally.  Whether you are the one that “messed up”, or you are the person giving feedback to a colleague, separate the personal from the professional.  She or he isn’t “mean” because they gave you constructive criticism or had to address an issue with you.  If you have an argument or disagreement with a colleague about a project, is she or he really being “difficult” or are you just two people with two different opinions and perspectives?  You don’t need to and ask your boss if he or she is “mad” at you because you failed to meet a deadline or ask your colleague if she doesn’t “like” you because you had a disagreement.  Keep it about the job!  Ask instead how you can improve, what could you have done better.

Keep the emotions in check… in public, at least.

We have all had those days – when nothing is going right, you made a mistake, disappointed yourself or your boss with your performance, you have had a disagreement with your colleague, etc.  It is completely normal to have emotions, even strong emotions about things that happen at work.  I’m not saying you can’t have those feelings, I’m just asking that you to please not consider the public water cooler as the place to express your unfiltered, raw emotions.  Nothing wrong with crying, ladies.  There just isn’t any crying in baseball.  Hold it together until you are in your office, locker room, bathroom, etc.  It is hard to be taken seriously in a career if you are viewed as fragile, or a bundle of nerves and emotions.

Finally, for the love, let’s learn to Respect, Respect, Respect each other.

Let’s stop calling each other bitches.

Let’s start accepting and embracing our differences.

Let’s stop viewing our mistakes as personal faults.

Let’s start giving and taking negative criticism with CONFIDENCE.

Let’s stop judging ourselves based upon our impressions of other women – This leads to feelings of insecurity, which often leads to actions based on insecurity.

Let’s start having the CONFIDENCE to embrace and support each other, and let’s start proving everyone WRONG.  Functioning as either boss or employee, women CAN work together well, succeed, and LEAD.

I mean, we are the superior gender, right?  😉

Top 8 Reasons My MommyDoc Rocks!

8) Some mommies wear yoga pants, my mommy wears scrubs. More cost effective than Athleta. Less see through than Lulu.

7) I always have a pro to go to for help with my homework. After all, she had to ace test after test to get into med school. And, she studies hard even now to maintain certification.

6) She’s taught me to suck it up. To quote “Unless there’s visible brain matter don’t cry!” I think this is because, in the absence of head injury, there were no days off during her many years of medical training.

5) But, for minor boo boos she always has a stick of dermabond handy to mend my wounds. Hours in urgent care purgatory thus avoided.

4) No episodes of Grey’s Anatomy wasting space on the DVR. Because you know, like she says “That *stuff* ain’t real!”

3) She doesn’t over think the parenting advice out there. She doesn’t have time to. So if I need a little screen time to give her a chance to to rest I get screen time. If I need to stay up late to get a chance to see her I get to stay up late. If I need toilet water…. There are no rules to MommyDoc parenting.

2) She understands science. So, I am up to date on all my vaccines.

1) She is a great role model. I know she feels guilty that she spends less time with me than other mommies spend with their kiddos. I hope she doesn’t get sucked into the mommy wars because those kids don’t have her to look up to.

Let them eat frozen pizza

As I have noted in the past, I am not accustomed to taking care of my own basic needs for food and shelter or those of my progeny.

Last time my husband left town for work (which was truly one of the first times I had ever needed to be alone with my children and responsible for feeding and watering them), I almost set the house on fire with my attempt to heat up a frozen pizza.

So when he recently left town again for back to back business meetings I was on a quest to not make frozen pizza (or set the house on fire). Here were my challenges:

1) My husband drives by our local grocery store on his way home from work every day and picks up what he will need whip up a quick meal. What he is going to cook is based on a scheme we devised a couple of years ago (because a lack of a scheme meant that even he was too often defaulting to frozen pizza or other pre-made processed foods for dinner) that involves “meatless Monday,” “taco Tuesday,” “wildlife Wednesday,” etc. As a result, we rarely have a meal we haven’t had before and we never have ingredients on hand to do a meal on the fly but he is always able to concoct a reasonably home cooked meal on a nightly basis. And, if I am not on call, I get to prance in whenever my 12 or 14 or 16 hour day is over to a warm meal.  I am ravenous after these long days at work. Stopping at a grocery store in such a state would be an utter disaster. Plus, my days are long enough (even when I modify them because my husband won’t be home by 6pm every evening) I don’t really have the time to get into the store and home in time to relieve the sitter. So lack of ingredients was clearly barrier #1.

2) While you might think I don’t cook because my husband is so good at it, the truth is I don’t really know how to cook. My immigrant parents were so into me and my sister being studious that our mother never imparted her amazing cooking skills onto us. (We are honestly both total domestic failures beyond even cooking!) I do think I might enjoy cooking in concept and have tried on occasion to help out with meals say for a party or a holiday event. But,  I have a hard time following recipes and, on the rare occasions that when I do attempt to cook, I simply toss things in and see what happens. With the advent of the internet, my go to method for meal prep is googling a meal I am craving and picking and choosing which parts of a series of recipes seem good to me. Sometimes the result is edible. Sometimes not. This failure of a single component of a meal or a spread might be acceptable for a dinner where my mom or my husband or my mother-in-law, or an event where the guests with “an appetizer or dessert of your choice,” make up the difference; but it won’t work if my kids are counting on this meal to fill their gnawing bellies. Absence of even rudimentary culinary skills was a high second. 

Here’s what I did:

First, I snuck out of work once to pick up a couple of things at the store that might help me through meal prep. Next, I spent far to much time during the work day contemplating what I might do for dinner. When I got home each night I rummaged through the fridge and pantry to see which of my ambitious dinner plots I could pull off. Finally, when it came to meal time, I made it clear to my kids that they would eat whatever I managed to make without complaining no matter how much it sucked. They were sufficiently frightened by my frenzied state that they dutifully complied.

IMG_2980.JPGDay 1: I cube some marinaded chicken, open a bottle of marinara sauce, toss in a shredded vegetable mix that was about to expire in the veggie drawer and cook it all up in a single pot. I find some “vegetable” farfalle that clearly predates our conversion to a low carbohydrate lifestyle and cooked it up as described on the box. I make my older kid shred the block of parmesan (my husband would never have a cheese drawer without a block of high end parm) while I cook hoping she doesn’t shred her phalanges into the mix. She does remarkably well. The result is a pretty edible pasta dish with added protein.

Day 2: We have some eggs in the fridge and some potatoes in the pot drawer (Why, I wonder does my husband keep potatoes there? Why do we even have potatoes in the house. We haven’t had potatoes in over 2 years for any meal? Oh wait, thanksgiving was a week ago and we did have mashed potatoes and lots of other carbs for that occasion.) Okay now that I have gotten beyond the existence of potatoes in my home I move on to “breakfast for dinner.” I look up a few recipes for “breakfast potatoes” online and decide to cube them, IMG_2983.JPGtoss on a bit of canola oil, sprinkle on a “French blend” I picked up a Penzy’s a while back for no apparent reason and speed cook them in the Advantium oven. I make 3 incredibly variable omelets with 2% American cheese slices as the main dish. I end up tossing in my mom’s left over apple sabzi from Thanksgiving for an added touch (I didn’t make it but it was yummy and I would feel awful if I let it go bad.) The result is a pretty okay but not so pretty breakfast for dinner.

IMG_2997.JPGDay 3: This is one of my grocery shopping days. I had picked up McCormick’s stir fry sauce and packaged stir-fry veggies from the produce section. I had grilled chicken left over from my husband’s last taco tuesday and I figured the kids wouldn’t notice any lingering lime marinade. And though I am sure there is a giant vat of basmati somewhere in the house because, well, my mom has been there, I am not sure where it is since rice has been banished along with most grains and pastas. Plus,  I am intimidated by raw ingredients that come out of burlap bags that are later turned into purses at Anthropologie so I also bought box of Jasmine rice from the store. So though not quite from scratch I did have to put some work in. I saute up the veggies in the wok with a bit of oil while I cook the rice in a pot (not the crazy two-tier rice cooker/vegetable steamer we registered for 15 years ago and have used 3 times but just a basic Farberware pot).  I follow the sauce instructions and mix it and the chicken together with the veggies and boom a dinner is born. This was perhaps the most edible of the meals reviewed here in since I didn’t challenge myself very much. It was more veggies than my kids usually eat to boot. Total win for the chicken teriyaki stir-fry over jasmine rice and I recycle the rice box (though not as a pocketbook!).

Day 4: During my previous trip to the store I had picked up some tricolor tortellini. The kids love ravioli and I thought the shape of the tortellini would tickle them. I know, yet another moment of weakness for my otherwise low-carb life (we literally stopped eating pasta at home in 2011 and haven’t looked back) but I’d been on a carb bender all week so what was there to lose? Turns out that I had used the last jar of pasta sauce on Day #1. What?!? What the hell kind of yuppie American household doesn’t have multiple jars of Newman’s Own Marinara in reserve in the pantry! Argh. I am already ravenous. My mind is set on the tortellini. I have no time to leave home and go back to store lest I buy its entire contents due to IMG_3004.JPGmy hungry state. So I find a can of tomato paste and some milk and some cream that have yet to expire (if my husband were he home these would have otherwise been in his coffee). I dump them together in a pot while the older child puts her shredding skills to work yet again. I look in the spice drawer and toss in some dried oregano and garlic and later I mix in the cheese in an attempt to make some sort of a tomato cream sauce. I slice the remaining taco tuesday chicken and serve them a really, truly, awful chicken with a side of tortellini in a tomato cream sauce. Luckily, my kids are so pumped by the overdose of carbs that they ignore the hideous taste of the sauce.

Day 5: A weaker woman might have lost steam after day 4 but not me. I am determined. So I bounce back intent to use the ready made pie crusts that are still in the fridge from Thanksgiving. We caved at the last minute and bought an apple pie so the crusts remained. According to the packaging these unopened crusts should have already been frozen but like expiration dates on meds I don’t take this too seriously. And, for some reason (probably because I hate broccoli more than any other vegetable in the world) my husband has left 2 giant bags of broccoli florets in the vegetable drawer. There is also a half cut white onion.  There are still a couple of eggs left and the open carton of egg whites only expired 48 hours previously. No biggie. And of course we have parmesan. I spend all day contemplating a quiche. I google a few recipes. There a many options but essentially eggs, cheese, dairy, flour, +/- crust, heat and voila a quiche is born. But should a crustless quiche be cooked for as long as one with a crust? Will a glass or metal pie pan make a difference? I quickly sort through this. I settle on 25 minutes in the Advantium in the Pyrex pie plate. I let my little guy whip together the two eggs with the egg whites and the place is not a total mess. The older one is on parmesan duty again. I reach into the kitchen for the gallon of milk that I swear was half full when I left that morning and it’s gone. I send the other kid to the garage fridge, no back up milk. What!? No dairy for my quiche. Dammit but I really want quiche! Luckily there is also a soon to expire half empty carton of non-fat plain Greek yogurt. I just toss caution to the culinary wind and go for it. I mix the eggs with diced onions and broccoli that I sauteed with a touIMG_3005.JPGch of olive oil in the wok that is my new best friend and add in the yogurt, a cup of shredded parm, and two tablespoons of quick mixing/gravy thickening floor. I am not sure if this is or isn’t the same as the all-purpose flour noted on multiple recipes I consulted but I don’t bother finding out. I am too flustered by the dairy debacle. My kids no never to drink the last of the skim milk ever again.  25 minutes later there is a sort of watery mess in the center of my pie plate but after cooling for a bit it hardens up. My older one’s only complaint is that the onion pieces were too big. My little one says he hates cheese and refuses to eat it. He went to be hungry that night. I proceeded to have quiche for lunch for 3 additional days. I really loved it. I think it was the yogurt.

Day 6: I am craving Indian food. This is the one thing my husband hasn’t tried to tackle but my ego is getting the best of me after 5 days of being super mom. All the dishes were done and the kitchen was spotless after each of these previous meals. Each was consumed with the three of us at the table (often I take my meals on the chaise where I eat in a half crumpled, totally exhausted state while the kids have typically already eaten or are still finishing up at the table) actually interacting. I am reminded of my youth and the family meals of my mother and I am set on Indian food. I have freeze dried chana masala and I have canned chick peas. I opt for the latter because, you know, I am feeling like a total badass by now. How to make the sauce I wonder? I don’t bother to look it up. I have no sauce ingredients and my kids won’t like anything spicy. I find another half onion in a different part of the fridge. There are also these miniature bell peppers strewn about the bottom of the vegetable drawer. I chop them all up. I once again pull out my trusty wok and saute it all up with a bit of olive oil and several pinches of spices that smell Indian when I open the jars then I toss in the chick peas and a can of Campbell’s Plain tomato soup. While I am doing this I mix up from whole wheat flour, oil, and warm water as suggested by a googled recipe to make dough for rotis. I apparently add in too much water and it becomes a gross tacky mess. There is no more whole wheat flour and my hands are covered. I ask my little guy to help get some all-purpose flour (of course, now I find it!) mixed into my sticky mess of dough. He proceeds create a snow scape on our kitchen island but we finally get to the point where texture of the dough sort of reminds me of when I used to beg my mom to help roll out rotis as a kid. Now my own child is begging to help me do that same but I think she must have failed geometry because clearly she does not know what a circle is. So I take out the flat pan that my mom clearly put in my pot drawer for roti making and proceed to make a series of rorschaIMG_3006.JPGch test rotis for accompany the bizzaro tomato soup chana. I also made some jasmine rice again which was a piece of cake compared to everything else. The kitchen looks like a storm came through and this whole process takes me a full 90 minutes. The result is reasonably tasty rotis, a decent mild chick pea something that is decidedly not chana masala and, well, thank god for that box of rice.

Day 7: And on the 7th day I was brimming with pride but exhausted. So I sat on my chaise nursing a sea salt dark chocolate caramel and let my 11yo set the house on fire with the frozen pizza.







Does my husband rant about me?

It’s 2014. Men and women are sharing, though perhaps not equally, more of the household and parenting responsibilities than ever before. So I was aghast when I recently read on a doctor mom site I have been following recently a “husband rant” from an exasperated woman who literally does everything in terms of home upkeep (cooking, cleaning, organizing, bill paying) and childcare (feeding, bedtimes, school drop offs) while her husband apparently enjoys his recliner and a beer. Whoa!

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Are there modern men who really do not help around the house or with the kids? At all?

I am struggling to wrap my head around this unbalanced relationship because I have honestly not witnessed this in my generation of women friends across many different career paths. Even among my friends who have chosen to be housewives (if you want to know why I didn’t use the term “stay-at-home mom” read here) their husbands go out of their way when they get home from work or a business trip or just a day on the golf course to help with the kids or do some chores around the house–and not just the traditional male household tasks like lawn mowing and snow shoveling. Among my surgeon mom friends, even among some who are married to other surgeons, the balance of homemaking and child rearing falls on their husbands though there is often a village or a metropolis involved in making it all work.

sea-salt-dark-chocolate-caramelsAs I was reflecting upon this husband rant, I was obvious to me that I am that person in my relationship. “Does my husband rant about me?” I wondered. I don’t have a recliner and I don’t drink beer but if you replace the former with a chaise on the sectional and a dark chocolate salted caramel…..yup, that’s me.

He was travelling for work last week and I was a fish out of water keeping the house and the kids afloat. I had to fend for myself for a variety of daily tasks (making my morning cup of coffee, making my lunch, taking out the trash, charging my phone, setting my alarm, going to the grocery store, putting gas in the car, walking the dog, getting the kids do their homework or take a shower or go to bed or do anything that involved not annoying me, getting the kids to school, making an evening meal that doesn’t involve a frozen pizza, cleaning up after said meal, paying the nanny and the house cleaner, doing my delicates [yes he does my delicates, I am that lucky!]) that I too often take for granted because he gets them done without me ever asking. It’s as if he always has and I honestly don’t know another way of life.

Sure this way of our life started because I was always working a lot more than him. Early on, there were so many days where I was just too tired to even brush my teeth or walk the 10 steps from the couch to my bed that chipping in with housework did not even occur to me. At first, I tried to use my one weekend off to help with household chores but it quickly became apparent that such precious moments away from work were best spent enjoying each others’ company and building memories that didn’t involve Lysol or writing checks (recall, this was the pre-online banking era).

Since my husband’s mom had raised him well, he was able to take over most all of the housework even though both he and I were raised by a generation where fathers were not particularly involved in household responsibilities unless there was a power tool involved. In our life he does everything that his mom and my mom traditionally did around the home and everything that our dads did too. Luckily, as we have grown older and more financially stable, we have been able to outsource some of the more onerous household tasks.

When we had kids, I couldn’t be the one who stayed at home. It’s just not something that exists in the career path that I chose. So, he did. He was a great stay-at-home dad and I was not that person who came home after 37 straight hours at work and offered to take the kids off his hand so he could have a break. I suppose in retrospect it wasn’t fair for me to do nothing (though I did supply 26 months of breast milk that I hoped  offset the fact that I changed <1% of my two kids’ diapers) but I was in survival mode during those years. And he’s done 99% of the school drop offs, doctors appointments, etc. since these kids were born, even when he was back in the work force full time because his 40-50 hour work weeks were always more forgiving and flexible than my 60-120 hour work weeks.

So, as hard as this life must have been for him, we fell into survival mode together. He and I fell into a routine together where he was the rock of our domestic life. It continues to this day. As an attending surgeon with a research focus I have some more flexibility to attend to homemaking and childrearing but still a lot less than him. And, he’s just a natural at it after all this years while I am, well, a fish out of water.

Embed from Getty ImagesI find it heartbreaking that this woman is in a position where she feels so unsupported in her home life and in her work as a parent from the person she is hoping to share the rest of her life with; but I am grateful to her for making me take a moment to really appreciate how lucky I am to have found a partner who makes it so very easy for me to do the many, many other things that I do when I am away from our home and our family. Is it perfect? No. Do we ever fight about chores or kids? Hell yes. Do I say thank you often enough? Nope, definitely not.

I am fortunate that I don’t really have much to rant about when it comes to our home and our family. So, really, does he ever rant about me?

He should. But only after he brings me my dark chocolate sea salt caramels as I lounge sleep on my chaise.

asleep on couch

Will all part-time mothers please stand up?

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Hmmm… Don’t see anybody yet… Wait, wait maybe… Oh, nope that was just a cricket I heard chirping in the corner.

Oh, riiiiight, maybe no one is standing up because it doesn’t f’ing exist.  You want to go find a part-time mother?  Try going to find a unicorn instead, you’ll have better luck.  And while you are at it, find a Kardashian that doesn’t take selfies and a toddler that doesn’t become an invertebrate whilst strapping them into a car seat.  Because aaaallll off that mess is going to happen before you find a “part-time” mother.

Unfortunately I just saw the intro to a House Hunters episode where the wife introduced herself as a “full-time mother and part-time advertising consultant”.  Son of a b!t$h, when are we going to stop doing this to ourselves and each other?!  The phrase full-time mother implies that there is another type of mother.  Like, I don’t want to be confused with a non full-time mother so I really need to spell this s&:! out.  But this begs the question, is there really another type of mother?

Sorry peeps, but, no, there isn’t.  I have friends who are divorced and share custody with ex-husbands, friends who stay at home but spend almost 20 hours a week training for marathons and triathlons, friends who work outside the home part-time, full-time, and in my case, crazy-time.  And guess what?  We are never off duty, none of us are ever not mothers.  Even when it is your ex-spouse’s visitation day, who fields the phone calls from the school nurse and settles disputes between siblings?  Plans birthday parties, does infinite loads of laundry filled with socks without mates and grocery shops for the “good” lunchbox snacks?  Yep, that’s you, mom.  Even if you need a “wife”, you are still always a mother.  I have been covered in blood and had a cell phone held up to my ear to tell my nanny, “No, my child can not eat a fifth packet of oatmeal for dinner.” (Yeah, that’s a whole other story…).

Anyways, the point is, regardless of your hobbies, your interests, or your career, whatever takes you out of the house or away from your child for whatever amount of time, you are still a “full-time” mother.  There is no time card to punch in and out of as mothers.  (I mean, if that were the case, then I would gladly clock out next week when we take our 2 year old’s pacifier away, *&%$!@)  But, the bottom line is, we can’t clock out, check out, or hand off to another person this special role that we have.  Let’s drop this full-time, part-time nonsense.  Let’s have enough confidence in ourselves to not feel as if we have to use these terms, and enough confidence to not let anyone make us feel anything less than awesome.

Now, off to find that Kardashian…

Why everyone needs a wife.

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Last week, my FaceBook status read, “I really, really need a wife.”

For those of you that don’t know me, I am a woman, married to a man.  No, I am not trying to spice up our love life, and I have not changed my sexual preference.  I am, in fact, a wife myself… in addition to being a mother and a full time academic trauma surgeon.

Two weeks ago, as I was sitting in my office trying to coordinate the schedules for my 3 nannies, arrange for the repair of our hot water heater, and prepare a manuscript about pulmonary embolism while taking trauma call, one of my partners walked in while on the phone with his wife.  She was out running errands, and wanted to know if he needed more undershirts or socks for work.  May sound little to some of you but me?  I just sat there… dumbfounded and jealous.  Here was a person who was #1 – out running errands for the family and #2 – anticipating the needs of another.  In other words, she was working to make her husband’s life easier.

These past two weeks have been crazy, to say the least.  Managing a trauma service with over 50 patients, a manuscript deadline, a broken water heater, a broken clothes dryer, a bathroom leaking through a ceiling, a 2 year old, a nanny who quit halfway through a 36 hour call, and, oh, did I mention my husband is in law school 2 and a half hours away and only home on weekends?  Hello, Tums, meet my new gray hair.

Anyways, I flashed back to a zoo trip that I had with the aforementioned wife of my partner a few months ago.  She is college educated, has three ridiculously cute daughters, and successfully survived her husband’s overseas deployment and frequent moves with the Navy.  Did I mention she has some mad crafting skills?  In short, I admire her.  She is organized, hard working and has hobbies at which she excels.  However, during our zoo date with our toddlers on one of my rare during-the-week days off, she expressed to me that she often felt like people looked down on her as a stay at home mom/housewife.  Because she wasn’t doing “anything” with her life, her degree.  Implying that her current roles and responsibilities had no real world value or worth.

As I sat at my desk stressed, frustrated, and not just a bit overwhelmed, I saw and felt all the worth, the value, and the privilege of having a “wife”.  Someone to be there when it starts raining from the ceiling, to cuddle your child when he is sick, to remember to buy toilet paper so you don’t have to use Kleenex (ummm, totally hypothetically speaking, maybe), and pave the way for you to be the most successful you can be at work is no small thing.  It takes your life from drinking from a fire hydrant to drinking from a nice, perfectly cool water fountain.

I can’t even tell you how much I would have paid to have had a “wife” for the past two weeks.  That, my friends, is value.

And no, this person doesn’t necessarily have to be your legal female spouse in order to be a “wife”.  This person could be your husband, your mother, your best friend, and maybe even your non-stay at home wife.  Regardless of age, gender or legal status, this is the person who helps you live life a little easier… and this person is priceless.  Now, please do me a favor.  Go hug this person as soon as physically possible.  I am guessing they have no idea their true worth, and no one likes drinking from a fire hydrant.

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.” Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty ImagesWhy 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).


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.

What Should (and Shouldn’t) Be Said by Women Surgeons

Recently, the American College of Surgeons — our profession’s premier organization encompassing all surgical sub-specialties — launched its updated website. Included in this website are online communities where surgeons from around the country and even further away, can connect. In my interpretation of these communities, surgeons can connect over shared subspeciality topics (e.g., colorectal surgery, general surgery, orthopedic surgery), shared clinical interests (e.g., ethics, geriatric surgery, surgical safety), or shared circumstances (e.g., surgeons practicing in rural areas, newly trained surgeons, women surgeons.)

While perusing the women surgeons community, I came across a comment essentially chastising another surgeon for having posted an inquiry about managing pumping and maintaining breastfeeding with a busy operative schedule. Evidently, this woman surgeon thought that it was inappropriate to ask such a question in a forum of professional women. She was yearning for more “academic” topics it seems.

Let me be clear. Women surgeons, be it as clinicians, or teachers, or researchers, or business owners, or quite often as a complex combination of the above, are every bit as professionally capable as their male counterparts. However, while women surgeons might seek counsel, mentorship, and friendship from their male colleagues for academic and clinical needs, it is highly likely these colleagues just don’t have the perspective to advise on certain elephants in the room of a women surgeon’s career. Similarly, while women in many different careers share work-life balance and professional development concerns, many who are not surgeons simply will not have the perspective to give advice to women surgeons. So, I think it is great that women surgeons have a forum, provided to them by an esteemed professional organization, to come together in a way that is still not available in either their workplaces or their social circles where they are likely to have few women to bond with over shared professional and personal interests that are fairly unique to women surgeons.

For example, there may be subtle sexism in many professions. But what if that sexism emerges in a shared call room? Are there many other professionals (firefighters maybe?) who could relate to this surgeon’s experience and advise her on how to go about addressing the issue and making it stop?

It’s not uncommon for women to seek advice from other mothers when it comes to nursing. But can a woman surgeon whose friends outside of work largely hail from more office based professions get advice on where and when to pump with an erratic daily schedule and days with long OR cases?

Lots of mothers who work are often conflicted when their child has an important school event but they have to work. But who can speak to them about how gut wrenching it is to face the dilemma of a sick patient asleep on the table and a disappointed child at school?

The glass ceiling and about leaning in are applicable to women of all professions who seek to advance their careers. But can the ambitious women of Silicon Valley tech companies,  or DC’s K-street lobbying firms, or Wall Street’s banks advise women surgeons on how to lean in to bust through that ceiling?

And, despite the rising numbers of women in positions of leadership in the profession of surgery in recent years and the increasing gender balance in surgical training programs, women surgeons are still relatively few and far between. Thus, the technology of an online forum is a welcome way to for women surgeons to connect for all matters related to their work. And, yes how they structure their life around work (or as is in the case of pumping, during work) is just as important to discuss as professional issues. Some might argue that it is even more important to discuss these other issues as the other communities on the site might be well suited to a variety of professional concerns.

And so, I would argue that any woman surgeon should feel free to seek counsel from her virtual colleagues by saying any that is on her mind regarding her career or managing her life around such a demanding career. Meanwhile, her peers should feel free to say something in response if they have something constructive to say, even if it is constructive criticism (we’re surgeons; our skins are thick enough to take the good and the bad and learn from it). If they feel that the topic is not worthwhile, or that they have no experience with which to opine on the topic at hand, then they need not chime in.

But, no woman surgeon should ever say anything to another female surgeon to minimize that other woman’s concerns. She may not share the same concerns; but but we are already in a profession where it is sometimes hard to relate to our male peers at work or to find females to connect with outside of work, so we need to buoy each other up (because if we do this for one another consistently then someday we may not need a special online community for women surgeons) and be silent if we can’t or are unwilling to do so for our peers.


It Takes a Village, Or Something Bigger–A Lot Bigger

I got home from a work related dinner at 9:30 on Tuesday. I left for work again at 5:30 the next morning. Last night a got home after a professional event at 10pm only to be back in by 6:30 the next morning. On the bright side it was within the realm of reality that I might be done by 6pm today.

This is a snapshot of my week. I have no patient care assignments this week, no overnight call. So in general this would be an easy 60-hour work week for me. It’s the life of an academic surgeon with multiple administrative responsibilities. It’s the life that I have chosen to persist in despite the scheduling woes. So I wouldn’t even be writing about it really, except this week is truly unusual for me for another reason.

After a decade and a half of sacrificing any career ambition in favor of his wife’s career and the care and nurturing of his family, my husband has finally accepted a job that he loves. I couldn’t be more proud of how hard he has worked for the last 14 months embarking on this career opportunity despite the many years essentially out of the workforce. All the while, he has continued to be the stalwart of our household. If I have to be at work at 5:45, he ensures that there is a cup of coffee in my hand. He proactively fills out my passport application for me and the reminds me to get photographed along with a handy map of where I can get it done. He does the majority of the parenting, all the cooking, and nearly all the day to day home upkeep. He provides the steady state to my occasional manic episodes when I take on a task like overhauling the garage, cleaning the fridge, helping with a school assignment, or weeding the flower beds with an imperturbable zeal (and occasionally a label maker or a glue gun or some surgical suture).

Which brings me to the reason why this is an unusual week for me. You see, my amazing, superdad, uber-husband is away for business. And my family needs someone to maintain the steady state. Now is not the time to show the pantry who is master, I simply must keep the wheels of our household turning until he returns. This is the second time he has had to travel since he started the job. The last time I was so busy trying not to burn the house down with an attempt at “cooking” frozen pizza that I could not put down the words of how overwhelmed I felt. In fact, jobs with frequent travel were just off the table for my husband when he was looking because he provides the vast majority of effort to keep the delicate balance of household wheels turning while I am vacillating between my usual 60-120 work weeks and nearly one work/related trip per month. It’s just a way of life that we have part knowingly negotiated, and part unwittingly fallen into, in the decade and a half since I chose to become a surgeon.  This time, though, he is away for nearly a week and I can’t just get by with keeping the house from going up in flames. So here’s how I am managing.

First, it takes a village and this village is everywhere around you.

When the first iteration of the call schedule came out, it was obvious that this was going to be one of my 110-120 hour patient care weeks. Luckily I have partners who are willing to be flexible when they can so with some planning, I was able to find and craft an easier week for me with my work village.

Despite this relatively easy work week, I am missing most bedtimes and drop offs–things that my husband routinely manages within the confines of his full time job. So my parents are staying with me this week. It is a luxury (a deliberate one I would say since proximity played a large role in my job choice a few years ago) to have parents who are nearby, available, and healthy enough to participate in raising my family. So when I missed bedtime last night, someone who loves my kids as much as I do was able to make sure they were fed, showered, and safely tucked away. When I couldn’t do the suggested math review with my son, my dad grabbed his reading glasses and went into full on teacher mode. When the temperature fell and our general disorganization meant that my rapidly growing son had no long pants to wear to school, my mom was able to make a daytime Target run to get the job done. In essence, my blood related (could be adoptive but you know what I mean) village means that  my kids kind of have 3 parents this week. One absentee and two totally engaged.

I am also so grateful to actually live in village of friends. When looking for our home in close proximity to this job that I at once brings me great joy and great guilt about everything else that the job pulls me away from, we were drawn to a neighborhood with lots of families and lots of kids in our age group. I am not home often and the idea of being surrounded by people who I could naturally fall into friendships with was very appealing. We have grown to get much joy from these friendships over the years. We may not be the best of friends who spend every moment together but we all get along and we know we can all count on one another. If any mom or dad are in a bind there are literally a gaggle of friends who will step up to help out.  And so, though I have my folks this week, I am comforted that if I need a hand someone will lend it.

And finally, another key villager who is integral to maintaining our family’s steady state is our part-time nanny. We have been extremely lucky to finding such loving, wonderful people to help care for our children who with each passing year require more and more effort in the after school hours before either of us gets home to ensure homework gets done, lunches are made, and extracurricular activities flow smoothly. Our most recent hire is living up to the task and then some in my husband’s absence. She stayed late today so that I could get in a workout and I came home to a couple loads of laundry done and the trash already out on the curb.

Come to think of it, it’s not really a village that helps this traumamama keep her $#!? together. It’s more like a metropolis. I am taking advantage of the many neighborhoods of my city to prop me up while my better half is away.