Medicine is a demanding career choice and it’s no secret that being a mum is a demanding job too. Though gender parity has improved dramatically in recent years, there’s still very little research into the experiences of mothers who are doctors.
Maternity leave, childcare and even attitudes towards mothers in medicine can have an impact on women’s career progression. One US-based study published last year reported that; “Today’s young women physicians still struggle to have it all and therefore reduce their work hours at substantially higher rates than men in an effort to reduce work-family conflict.”
One of the issues is that there’s still no consensus on maternity leave for doctors. Many feel dedicated to their patients and don’t want to slow their career progression, so they don’t want to take time away from work to have children. The industry still has a long way to go, but many medical mums would still argue that medicine and motherhood are the two best jobs in the world.
Being a mum in medicine
Melbourne-based paediatrician Sarah Arachchi is a busy mum of two. As a young student, she was drawn to medicine because she loves working with people and wanted to help make a change in the community in which she was raised. She became a paediatrician because she loves working with children.
“I also enjoy helping families and working within a team to achieve the best outcomes for my patients. The multidisciplinary nature of paediatrics allows it to be super rewarding,” she says.
“When I first had my own children, I realised how little I knew about parenting! You learn very quickly how to juggle life and medicine. It is definitely a balancing act.”
After her first son was born, balancing motherhood with full-time work during her last year of training was difficult. Dr Sarah says she couldn’t have done it without the support of her family; “to this day, I appreciate their sacrifice in helping me to complete my final year of training.
“I worked every day from 8am – 5:30pm and once a week, I worked from 8am – 9pm and was on call that night. One in five weekends, I worked all weekend and was on call both Saturday and Sunday. My son would leave to Melbourne on Thursday and I would not see him again until Sunday. It tore me up inside to see him cry when he left me each time although I knew he was in good hands. I guess you could call it mum-guilt and it’s real.”
Dr Sarah’s husband also travelled a lot between Ballarat and Melbourne. The family were constantly packing and unpacking. Sometimes, Dr Sarah and her son were alone together in Ballarat – when Dr Sarah was bitten by a spider and ended up in hospital, she had to bring her son with her.
“It was one of the hardest times in our lives. I learnt however, that the challenges I faced that year, pushed me to become a better doctor and a better mother.
“Sometimes, it may feel like a storm is coming. It is not the storm, but the ship that learns to sail through the storm that will ultimately conquer the storm.”
Now, Dr Sarah has a better balance in her life. She’s now working part-time and is enjoying the time she gets to spend with her sons.
“Motherhood is definitely a journey that I enjoy. I think finding that balance is necessary because it is important not to miss the little moments in life.”
She also makes time for personal health and wellbeing. She enjoys cooking and making healthy meals, and loves exercise.
“I value exercise so much. It is so important to get some fresh air. It changes your perspective on things and helps you to reflect. Every day, I try to go out for a walk for at least an hour. My little one usually accompanies me in the pram. We have a special route we take, and I am always equipped with food, water and toys to keep him occupied!”
Her advice to other doctors, particularly mums, is; “Take time out for yourself. You cannot be the best doctor without being the best version of yourself. Look after your mind and your body.”
Dr Sarah’s tips for medical mums
• It takes a village to raise a child. Ask for help. Join a mother’s group – even if you cannot meet in person, join one online.
• Be organised. Plan in advance. Makes a huge difference to the day!
• I have had so many conversations with my own medical mum friends who feel conflicted about going back to work/staying at home for some time. Mum-guilt.
I have definitely suffered from this more than once! But I have learnt that it is okay to take time off during maternity leave (or after). Kids grow up way too fast and it’s nice to spend time watching them grow. It’s also okay to go back to work, whenever you want. Your kids will grow up admiring you as a role model no matter what decision you make.
• Take time out for yourself. You cannot be the best doctor without being the best version of yourself. Look after your mind and your body.
Finally, Dr Sarah reminds us that all doctors should prioritise their own health and wellbeing. We cannot be good mothers, doctors or community leaders if we are not well.
“In medicine, we are taught some of the most important concepts about being healthy and the importance of preventative strategies in achieving a healthy lifestyle. Yet, as life goes on, and work gets busy, it is easy to forget.
“Sleep. Exercise. Eat healthy food and try to prepare it yourself. Mindfulness. Take time to pause and reflect.
“Lead by example. Invest in yourself. Believe in yourself. Your journey starts there.”
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