Doctor mum dilemma: The difficult choice between being a mother and an oncologist

Leaving clinical training is a difficult decision for many, but it's especially difficult to choose between being a great mother and a great doctor.

I met Dr Fiona when she was hiring a research assistant for a palliative care research project. Little did I know that it would be the start of a friendship that would last many heartfelt conversations. I Ieft clinical training very early in my career, but leaving is a difficult decision at any stage of one’s career. Fiona was at the end of her oncology training when she decided to make a decision that would change the course of her life. I spoke to her to gather pearls of wisdom. Here is the story of a brave woman who had to make a decision between chasing career goals and being a mother. 

Going into medicine, what was your plan in advancing your career?

Work as a doctor doesn’t have to come at the cost of family.

Just like anyone else going into medicine, my goal was to be better at my job every day. I wanted to be a specialist in a field of my choice. Having spent a long time in the oncology department, I found it a fulfilling and unique experience to be able to journey together and support patients and their loved ones through the cancer journey. 

Why did you leave clinical training at such a crucial point? You were so close to the finish line.

It never occurred to me to leave clinical training and it took me a lot of consideration before I made the decision. When I had to resit all my exam papers, I was exhausted. By then, I knew deep down that even if I struggled and managed to pass, I will not be a good oncologist who can serve cancer patients well. It was the hardest thing to decide. However looking at my family needs, I chose to let go of my pursuit.

At that time, we had a young family, the youngest still a baby. The older toddler had social and learning difficulties and her teachers encouraged us, her parents, to spend more quality time with her to help overcome her developmental issues. Doing a Masters, therefore,  wasn’t the easiest feat. There was a lot I didn’t consider. I suppose I now see several reasons why this didn’t work out.

The first clearly being how I miscalculated the family support I had. With my partner also working, having extra hands to look after children is not always easy to come by. I’ve had my fair share of dealing with less than ideal baby sitters as well. Hence, it was extremely difficult for me to juggle my responsibilities. 

The second reason being my inherent character as a mother. To me, a mother needs to care for her children, and not just think about her work and studies. It was slowly dawning on me that I was neglecting my children, or at least, not giving them the attention they needed. I noticed how they were falling behind at school and not developing the social skills they needed. To me, a family is dysfunctional if parents work every day of the week without spending substantial time with children. Absent parents rob children of a lot. My partner shared the sentiment. This worry was slowly affecting my performance at work. 

These eventually led to me being unable to concentrate on work and my studies. I could see I wasn’t performing well on exams, having to resit several times. I had no energy to keep studying repeatedly every 6 months, neglecting my children. It took a toll on me. It was affecting my mental health.

I finally had to reevaluate my priorities. On reflection, I realised that I no longer wanted to advance my career. There wasn’t a great need to be a specialist but a greater need for me to become a good mother, so I took a step back to remain a medical officer, and a mother present for my children. My partner supported me every step of the way, including in making this very important decision. It was a difficult decision indeed, but one that was taken after rational consideration, weighing the pros and cons with my partner, colleagues and supervisors. It wasn’t my decision alone. 

I was blessed to find a vacancy within the Clinical Research Centre when they were in need of a medical officer for research on cancer.  I took the opportunity and applied for the position.

Is it not possible then, to have a family while going up the ladder in medicine? What should doctors out there consider?

It definitely is possible. Having a family is not a fault, but having a young family with no support is difficult. A Master’s programme will require 100% focus, and it needs strength of character. 

It’s important to do your research before embarking on postgraduate studies. Survey the course and consider deeply if you have it in you to endure 5 to 7 years worth of studying while juggling a job and a family. Do you have courage, resilience  and commitment to see it through? I did not find out enough about what was required as a young mother to pursue further studies and feedback from those who have pursued a Master in oncology. I now know that I should have. 

You really do have to evaluate if this is the right path for you. Backtracking midway can come with consequences. If anything, look into alternative specialising pathways and see if that’ll be more suitable for you. There is no one size fits all. It’s very important to research. Financial reasoning is one thing to consider, but also consider how you’ll plan your family. Ask if you’ll have adequate support, if you can sort out the logistics and if you have someone who can be of immediate help should you need it. 

That is sound advice. How would you define your priorities now?

I’d say that my priority is my family, and that includes having a better work-life balance, spending more time with my children and tending to their emotional and social needs.

Time moves regardless, it doesn’t stop for anyone. Before you know it, your children grow up. I am still a doctor, albeit not in the clinical field. I still do meaningful research and so I want to be good at what I do. More importantly, I don’t want that to come at the cost of my children. I am both a mother and a doctor.

My focus has always been on raising my children and passing the baton to them. I want them to have strength in character. It’s not something that I have, so it’s important to me that they do. Strength in character is more important than academic excellence and knowledge. 

You were brave to make a decision for yourself. It’s never easy to let go of career goals. Reflecting on how things have turned out, is there anything you’d like to share?

I’d add that you should never regret your decision, and what I mean by that, is that you have to know what you want, give it serious thought, and make a decision that is in line with who you are and what your needs are. I was lucky to be able to let go before it was too late. I cannot imagine how things would have turned out had I stayed in training, on the verge of depression. That would have affected my family even more. Yes, I managed to function but indecision was eating me from the inside.

Looking at my children and our relationship now, I am grateful that I had the courage to choose the best outcome for myself and my family. I’m eternally grateful to be a mother to my children. 

Interested in finding out more about alternative careers for doctors? Check out our career guides and find inspiration from our case studies. For those based in Malaysia, you can sign up for updates here, and follow our MF Malaysia Instagram and Facebook pages to stay updated on our events, webinars, job vacancies and more.

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Victoria Navina

Victoria Navina is driven towards policy and practice-changing public health interventions, and is a strong advocate for mental health, aiming to make the conversation surrounding it louder and unrestrained.

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