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Balancing Motherhood and Medicine: Navigating Maternity in Ophthalmology

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Balancing motherhood & ophthalmology: Prioritize family planning, set boundaries, integrate work & personal life. Insights from ophthalmologist-moms.

A mother and her daughter laughing (Image Credit: AdobeStock/fizkes)

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/fizkes)

On the ‘Motherhood and Maternity Leave’ episode of RWO: The Podcast, ophthalmologist-mom-extraordinaries Nicole Bajic and Alison Early, and podcast host Lisa Nijm, are joined by Andrea Tooley to discuss personal experiences navigating motherhood in the field. The group share their experiences and provide valuable insights on balancing personal and professional life, overcoming "mom guilt," and negotiating relationships as ambitious new mothers in the field of ophthalmology. Here are some key pearls of wisdom from their discussion!

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Prioritize family planning when you’re ready for it, and seek inspiration from successful female mentors in balancing medicine and motherhood
  2. Establish clear boundaries, protect personal time, and outsource if needed to achieve work-life integration – you want to spend time with your babies!
  3. You can be a great mother while being a great ophthalmologist, it’s not binary - you are both!

“Once you feel ready, don’t delay [having kids]”

Everyone in the discussion agreed on one thing - the decision to start a family is highly personal, and the timing may vary for each individual. While the demands of medical training may initially delay the desire to have children, you don’t have to postpone that decision if it’s something you want! Deciding to have children is something that can be managed at any stage of training – medical school all the way through fellowship – as long as you have the right support system and you feel like you are ready. It’s important to have strong female mentors who successfully manage a career in medicine with motherhood, because this can inspire and encourage early family planning.

“Protect your time”

Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life is crucial, but what those are can vary per person. Tooley shared some rules she sets for herself like completing all work-related tasks, such as writing notes, sending emails, or charting, while at work and not bringing anything home at all. This extends so far that she doesn’t even have her work email on her phone (unfathomable for many of us, even without kids!) and commits to not checking work email when she is at home. That said, it’s important to realize the ease of establishing boundaries when in the ‘attending’ phase of your career, as trainees may not have this flexibility to own their schedules.

“I don’t feel [mom guilt] at all…there’s no dad guilt!”

The trio of ‘ophthalmologist moms’ - Tooley, Bajic, and Early - all say it perfectly in this episode that it’s empowering to succeed at home and to succeed at work; there should be no guilt for doing both. ‘Martyrdom’ and feelings of guilt can weigh heavily on working mom-ophthalmologists. But, it’s important to recognize the distinction between feeling sad because you miss your children versus feeling guilty about your passion for patient care and responsibilities as a surgeon. Remember – we never really hear about dad guilt!

“Balance may be unrealistic, but integration is possible”

Striving for work-life integration rather than the elusive “work-life balance” can alleviate stress and promote a healthier mindset. So much falls on women ophthalmologists to be caretakers at home and also high-performing surgeons at work that balance may be an unrealistic goal. Finding ways to integrate personal and professional obligations may be a better lens (no pun intended) to view things. If you really want to take integration to heart, turn professional conferences into opportunities for family vacations! In fact, Tooley argues it’s a must if we want to encourage young ophthalmologists to build their careers while simultaneously raising young children.

“The word ‘no’ is a complete sentence”

As a new mother, it is important to be mindful of personal relationships and their impact on energy and well-being, especially when you have a child who is completely dependent on you. Being selective about how and where to invest uncompensated time can help manage the demands of motherhood. Learning to say "no" without extensive explanations and setting boundaries to protect personal and family time are essential strategies for maintaining healthy relationships while juggling multiple responsibilities. In a post COVID-era, embracing virtual learning opportunities can also help protect your time and effort from “energy vampires” – relationships that drain you without any replenishment.

“Negotiate your strengths and outsource the rest”

Every relationship, including those with significant others and colleagues, can be negotiated and re-evaluated to ensure they align with personal and professional goals. This may involve adapting your work schedules to be less than 100% full time or working with your partner to divide and conquer. In some cases, it may make sense to - gasp! – embrace outside help and outsource; as Tooley reflects, “What good is money if it can’t solve your problems”. Recognizing personal strengths and outsourcing tasks that can be delegated can alleviate some of the burdens associated with motherhood and career responsibilities.

Ultimately, surviving motherhood in the field of ophthalmology comes with its own set of challenges. However, by embracing the right time for motherhood, setting boundaries, overcoming guilt, integrating work and personal life, cultivating healthy relationships, and negotiating for support, women ophthalmologists can navigate these challenges successfully. Remember, motherhood and a fulfilling career in medicine are not mutually exclusive!

For more on this topic, be sure to tune into the Real-World Ophthalmology Podcast, available Spotify, Apple podcast, Cast box or on realworldophthalmology.com.
Bela Parekh is a fourth-year medical student at The University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, MI. Join us for the next episode of the Real-World Ophthalmology podcast to learn from experts in the field. Real World Ophthalmology is a platform made for and by early ophthalmologists and trainees to learn how to succeed in their early practice.
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