By Richa Dawar, MD, and Estelamari Rodriguez, MD
The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably been one of the most challenging and disruptive global events experienced in several generations. It has placed an exorbitant burden on the health care system and rendered the health care workers helpless with increased risk of infection, mental and physical exhaustion, and impaired work-family equilibrium, taking an extraordinary toll, especially on physician mothers. Finding a balance between a demanding job and being a mother has always been a hustle, aggravated by schooling at home and the pressures of telemedicine from home, meant to curtail the risk of infection.
A large-scale survey conducted by Athenahealth in 2017 found that the majority of physicians under the age 44 were women. Physician mothers from all walks of life attest to their struggles in balancing professional and personal responsibilities. These struggles, often complemented by a sense of “mommy guilt,” really have intensified amidst this pandemic. With the paranoia of transmitting the virus to one’s family, the endless guilt of working long hours and missing out on children’s activities has multiplied. I have heard so many heart-wrenching stories from my fellow mothers about how they give up their lunch time at work to search for better children’s activities at home, how they cook homemade food for their kids while finishing their clinical notes in kitchen, how they’ve had to quarantine at a hotel while waiting for their own COVID-19 test results after a presumed exposure.
As an oncologist seeing a broad population of patients with cancer, the emotional drain is quite unique. This pandemic really threw a wrench at an already delicate work/life situation that now looks a lot like a house of cards. The obligatory telemedicine visits, although necessary, don’t entirely rise to their expectations and often end up consuming more time for less productivity. To sum up a normal work-from-home day: blend telemedicine patient visits with your toddler’s interruptions, preschooler’s virtual school, making pizza for lunch because Wednesday = Pizza Day, and the science project that has a deadline—as I said, house of cards! Living in a COVID-19 hotspot in south Florida, it has not been easy for us to let the kids go to daycare or summer camps. We found an expensive nanny with no social or family obligations to babysit our kids and help with some household chores. Just after 3 weeks, she resigned because of her concern about the potential exposure by working closely with a doctor’s family. Once she left, we were able to hire someone who had lost her job at the mall due to the pandemic closures—but she needs to be reminded every now and then that the pandemic is real!
I try to do it all; every day, I give it my all to be a better mother, better wife, better oncologist, better teacher to my students, better leader, better community member, but I constantly fall short of my own expectations. Just like many others, the pandemic has toppled our family routine and embedded a new level of “normal.” Never did we imagine that we’d have to firmly turn our kids away upon returning from work, when all they want is a warm hug. The routine of stripping in the garage and no touching until after shower still doesn’t feel normal. The mind doesn’t stop thinking about the what-ifs, if we let our guard down and inadvertently bring the virus home. My heart goes out to the physician couples working on the front lines, especially those without any family help close by—heaven forbid life throws them a curveball. Despite having close friends nearby, my partner and I know our options for childcare are very limited should either one of us get sick at work. We recently signed our living will and helplessly pray from time to time that the reports of good outcomes in children are 100% true. Every morning before parting for work, I kiss my kids and wish them a great day. I pretend to promise them the fun we’ll have once I return from work, knowing that one day my fears may come true.
Undeterred by the battles each day brings, like my amazing colleagues, I forge ahead wearing a smile on my face and pride in my heart, celebrating all the positives and cherishing the companionship with my workmates. These unprecedented times have brought out the best in us. It’s humbling to see my comrades covering shifts for each other when one’s feeling down; sharing lunch when the other didn’t get the chance to go to the cafeteria; doing grocery runs for each other; making sure the PPE was done right; showing little acts of endearment; or even caressing the other’s shoulder with a simple, “I got your back.” The fear for my own health, and for my loved ones, gets overshadowed by a renewed purpose in life, once I don my PPE and put aside my mommy hat. Even outside of work, the pandemic has strengthened us as a family and bonded us closer with our true friends. It surely has made us more appreciative of things in life we took for granted.
Having witnessed the life of a physician mother, as a daughter of one, I do genuinely believe we have a special gift—an extraordinary superpower—for it’s nothing short of a miracle to raise little humans while keeping a household together, and also be able to honor the oath we took to care for those who are ailing in our extended human family.
Dr. Dawar is an assistant professor with breast and thoracic medical oncology at the University of Miami. She is a firm advocate of compassionate and comprehensive care of her patients, and a champion for women’s health. She is a mother of two and loves spending time outdoors. Follow her on Twitter @RDawar_MD. Disclosure.
Dr. Rodriguez is a medical oncologist and the associate director of community outreach for thoracic oncology at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of Miami. Disclosure.