Doctor Mums 101: How to Doctor and Mother While Staying Sane

Juggling motherhood and a full-time career in medicine can be prohibitively hard. Doctor mums certainly don’t have it easy out there, but they admirably make it work (thrive even!) through the low points, chaos and exhaustion.

I have witnessed a friend of mine broke down in tears because she felt guilty as a mother leaving her unwell child with the nanny while she looked after other people’s sick children at work. I felt sorry for my fellow teammate who went on working long hours despite her hyperemesis gravidarum because she could not get sick leaves. Oftentimes, I wondered how doctor mums cope with the demands of a career in medicine while raising families. I did not fully understand their plight; I even thought they were half-crazy to be having kids during the early years of medical training!

In retrospect now that I have two cheeky boys of my own, I am awash with a renewed sense of respect for all doctor mums out there. It is certainly no mean feat juggling hectic doctor duties and being a mother. Combine that with gruelling postgraduate training, sitting for professional exams and at times unsympathetic colleagues, it is enough to drive one to the brink of insanity.

To the world you are a mother

To your family you are the world

I reached out to a few amazing doctor mums to hear about their struggles and to learn how they make their days tick over a little more smoothly. This article hopes to encourage mothers in medicine to let go of their mum guilt and follow their dreams.

Stop feeling like you are the worst mum ever

Years-long medical training required to become a fully-fledged specialist certainly was not designed with parenthood in mind; Dr Goh knows this better than anyone. Trying to balance her rigorous schedule with being a young mother was probably the most difficult thing she had ever done. She used to come home feeling guilty that she had prioritised work over her son and family. The baby milestones, football games and recitals she had had to miss. The time lost can never be regained. After her marriage ended, Dr Goh raised her son on her own and learnt to stop faulting herself. “Nobody can be the perfect parent so go easy on yourself,” she understands that now. Looking back over the last fifteen years, she realises now that she did not screw up too badly as a mother. Her son turned out fine; healthy, happy and above all, loves her very much!

Sometimes you may think that you are failing, but children are resilient; they are learning from you and they understand that you love them. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to pack a cute home-made organic lunch so your children eat canteen food. Don’t beat yourself up if you could not drop off or pick up your children from school yourself. Focus on the precious moments you have together: that time you sang your children to sleep or that time you kissed their boo-boos and made them all better. Your children need you to be a part of their young lives, yet it is not impossible to have a satisfying career in medicine even while staying engaged to your little ones. 

Getting reliable childcare

Being a doctor may mean working long, stressful and unforgiving hours. Let’s face it, not all of us have the luxury to be there for the little ones all the time. Having reliable childcare providers that you can trust is thus paramount, especially when you have preschool-aged children at home. It could be your spouse, grandparents, a best friend, a nanny, a crèche, whoever – as long as they can be depended on to love and nurture your child when you can’t be there yourself.

Not without a heavy feeling in her heart, Dr Nur left medicine to look after her three young children. She had decided to give medicine a break after weighing in the cost of schooling and daycare. At times, she misses the joy of doctoring, but as a full-time homeschooling mum now, she finds rewards in the happiness of her children and knowing that she is making an impact in their lives. Dr Nur hopes to return to medicine when her children are much older and wishes that there will be more support for doctor mums returning to clinical practice after a career break in the future.

I hope flexible working arrangements for doctor mums would be more widespread in our country one day.

Dr Nur

Dynamic duo

When asked about her secret to keeping it all together, Dr Evelyn humbly attributed her success to her dedicated husband of ten years. She and her husband divvy up the daily tasks between the two of them. When their children were younger, they took turns waking up for middle-of-the-night feedings and baby duties. Now she drops off the children at school before work while her husband picks them up. When she cooks dinner, her husband does the grocery run or washes the dishes. It may look like a relay race but to them it means working together to share the burden (and joy!). 

The duties of caring for your family and maintaining your home should fall on both mother and father – you are a team after all. Having a partner who pulls his weight and does his fair share of work therefore can make a world of difference. Increasingly employed in a household with dual-earners, the ‘tag team’ parenting strategy may work really well for some couples to maintain a balance between work and childcare. Spouses can work alternating schedules so that one parent can look after the children while the other one is at work. If you are good at managing the household finance, your partner can be the fixer of all things broken. When each parent shoulders the responsibilities they signed up for, this translates to a fairer and happier family arrangement. 

Remember to carve some time out with your partner too; do something together just the two of you. Being with your children is important, but so is staying in sync with your other half. Flip off the ‘mummy’ switch once a while and breathe life into your relationship! 

Outsource your chores

Imagine being at work all day, and then coming home to starving children and even more work. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare duties; the list can go on and on. Life can feel like an endless cycle of chores sometimes, doesn’t it?

But dear doctor mums, you don’t have to be a martyr and do everything! Ordering in pizza or eating ready-made frozen meals every now and then is not going to brand you as The Most Terrible Mother of the Year. Buy your groceries online and have them delivered to your door. Pass your errands to efficient time-hacking machines – tumble dryers, robotic vacuum cleaners, slow cookers (or a ThermomixⓇ if you can afford one!). Hire a housekeeper to take care of the cleaning and washing. If you have the means to spend on services that save your time, why not do it? Think about it as an investment in your personal sanity; buying more time for your children and also for yourself.

My weekends were miserable until I started hiring help.

Dr Shamala

Saturdays and Sundays for Dr Shamala used to be a slog: polishing the house top-to-bottom, rushing to the supermarket and laboriously cooking a week’s worth of meals. She was often too frazzled to keep up with her twins or indulge in hobbies. It wasn’t a good strategy for her marital harmony either. She and her husband could not stop getting into spats with each other until they discovered a simple solution: to get hired help. And it is so worth it. Now, weekends are for enjoying more quality time together – baking muffins with the twins, taking a stroll at the park, and even squeezing in a nap or two. She knows her time is valuable and it’s much better spent on making memories than stressing about piles of laundry.

Plan ahead

Dr Maryam chose to get pregnant straight after her graduation, during the long wait for housemanship. She and her husband really wanted a family and it seemed like the perfect timing for them. Blessed with an adorable daughter now, Dr Maryam discloses that many of her friends have advised against having children until her two-year housemanship is complete. Nevertheless, it was the best decision she has made for her little family. Currently in the third rotation of her foundation training, Dr Maryam enjoys coming home to her bubbly bundle of joy after a long day at work. 

When is the best time to have a baby? Every couple has their own timeline and set of circumstances. Some may be in the “sooner-the-better” camp whereas others may prefer to wait for a more convenient time. Having a baby is a life-changing decision, so couples must map out their life plans together – think about your goals, work schedule and atmosphere, availability of support, financial situation, et cetera. This should also include a discussion about the ideal family planning method so as to avoid surprise pregnancies.

Bottom line is, there really isn’t a perfect time for everyone. Regardless of what stage of training you are in, having a family is hard work. If you are seriously considering trying for a baby, work out with your partner how all the pieces of your puzzle fit together.

Can doctor mums have it all?

Why, YES of course! Success is not only measured by reaching the highest rungs of your career or by having a flawless marriage and an impeccable family. For so long, the concept of women’s ability to “have it all” has been tied up to having the perfect combination of an impressive career and a successful motherhood. It’s high time we reframed this definition however. We each have our own unique interpretations of both professional and personal success. Just because we are not striving for the same things does not mean that one vision of “it all” is any less valid than the other. So long as women get to make choices about what we value most in life – we can have it all. 

On behalf of the Medic Footprints Malaysia community, I would like to wish all Supermums out there a Happy Mother’s Day and a heartfelt thank you for all your sacrifice and contributions! Click here to read about one of our amazing doctor mums who has found her calling in the digital healthcare industry. We would love to hear how you too manage it all as a mother, so do drop us a line.

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Aishah Ibrahim

Aishah is a trained medic who consistently tries to fly under the radar but keeps on seeking more feats to be responsible for. Working the room is the last thing she would do, so when aspirations collide with her personality, she reverse-engineers her way through. Currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, Aishah loves spending time with her two boys and gets worked up when discussing children’s rights and gender equality.

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