“So, what's your story?”
I knew right away what the medical oncologist was really asking. She and I were meeting for the first time while caring for a mutual patient. While getting to know each other, she asked me if I had children; when I answered in the affirmative, she asked me, “So, what's your story?”
The question meant many things all at once, including (but not limited to) “What's your childcare arrangement? Who does the cooking and housework? How do your kids get to school and to activities? Do you commute to work? Do you have family close by? Are you a single mother? What does your spouse do for a living?”
My new acquaintance was also a mom, wife, and oncologist, so she understood immediately that I would have thought-out arrangements for every situation involving work, kids, friends, and everything in between. It struck me how different her question was from the one I typically am asked: “How do you do it?” Instead of “How do you do it?”—which is often asked with the implication that it really can't all be done—this question was speaking to the reality of how it does get done.
So what is my story? The answer is, it's complicated.
We mothers think through each situation and make a decision about what's best overall. We sacrifice on some things and not others. We prioritize day by day, month by month, year by year. Mothers are doing what all human beings do every day: making decisions about our lives, careers, and relationships, and hoping for the best.
Let me share with you some trade-offs I've learned both in my life and from other physician moms. Some of us commute hours to work each day so our kids can grow up close to extended family, rather than close to the hospital. Some have stay-at-home partners. Many women have a housekeeper or nanny who lives with them, and others pay extraordinary sums of money for daycare. Many of us work remotely at night from home (and the mom who seems to leave work early at 5 PM every day may actually work more hours overall). A majority of physician/mothers I know don't go out with friends on a regular basis, and many have their groceries delivered. Some prioritize exercise and home-cooked meals, and others don't at all. Some of us carve out time for hobbies; for others, our hobby is our family. Every working mother has her own way of making sure that her responsibilities in life and at work are handled well.
So let's stop asking the incredulous question, “How in the world is it possible that you're a mother and a physician?”
Let's instead focus on how we moms are currently managing, and how to make things better. Let's stop assuming it can't be done. And let's not insult the physician-moms of the world by questioning their commitment to medicine, to their patients, to their research.
I know I speak on behalf of all physician/mothers when I say clearly: Our commitment to our profession isn't tarnished because we have interests outside of medicine, even when those interests happen to be our children.