I was reading a book to my 3-year-old son the other day when my pager went off. I explained to him that I needed to interrupt our book in order to call back one of my patients. He listened to me carefully and responded: “But you're not a doctor at home. You're Mommy.”
I laughed and assured him that, yes, I was always his mom, but I was always a doctor too. This interaction made me think about the similarities between my two most important jobs: medicine and motherhood.
Being a doctor has made me a better mother, and being a mother has made me a better doctor. For example, the skills needed to handle a screaming 3-year-old in the middle of the grocery store are invaluable in dealing with a difficult patient who is resistant to recommended treatment. Likewise, motivational interviewing, a strategy used frequently in medicine to encourage patients to stop smoking or lose weight, can be useful when trying to encourage a child to keep his room clean or eat his vegetables.
Both jobs often require putting another person's needs before your own. At times, this can result in sleep deprivation from nights spent comforting a frightened child or caring for a woman in labor, but the exhaustion somehow subsides when we see our children happy and our patients healthy.
Both jobs require being fully present. In our society of multitasking, we often try to do too many things at once. For example, trying to do housework or pay bills while playing with my children leads to frustration on all of our parts. Instead, really being present – whether at home with my kids or at work with my patients – can lead to better relationships and better outcomes.
Both jobs require flexibility. No two children and no two patients are the same. For example, one patient may quit smoking by going cold turkey while another may need to cut down one day at a time. One child may be able to proceed through toilet training easily, while another may take months. Recognizing each person's needs and adapting my approach is crucial. As a physician I do not censure the patient who struggles to quit smoking, but rather I applaud any steps toward positive behavior change. Similarly, I do not chastise the child who has an accident during potty training, but I look for creative ways to teach and encourage him.
Both jobs require practical knowledge. Being a mom has boosted my credibility with my obstetric patients and the mothers of my pediatric patients. The very moms who had been skeptical about my advice based on four years of medical school, three years of residency, one year of fellowship and three years of practice now take my words as gospel thanks to nine months of pregnancy and 12 hours of labor. Of course, some of my advice has changed from the strict doctrine I learned from textbooks and my pediatrics rotations to more practical strategies to help parents deal with challenging behaviors. “No sleeping with your baby” has softened to “Well, if that's the only way he will sleep and you have to work tomorrow, then do it … but let's try other things as well.”
Both jobs are never ending. I have my pager on at all times in case one of my obstetric patients goes into labor or another physician has a question about a patient. I am often up at night worrying if I missed a diagnosis or treated a patient incorrectly. Similarly, I am always thinking about my children, their development and my parenting skills.
There is one major difference between motherhood and medicine, though. Doctors are replaceable; mothers (and fathers) are not. My hundreds of patients can receive good care from other doctors, but I am my two sons' only mother. Being a doctor is an extraordinarily exciting and challenging profession. It is an integral part of who I am. But being a mother has taught me that no matter how much I love my job, my family always comes first.