My Kids Have Hijacked My Weekends

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

There is a high level alert going on in our household these days. What’s terrorizing me, you ask?

My kids’ activities.

I recall the time BK (before kids) when my time off of work was my time. Time to plan and to do (or to not). Sometimes I just spent all day in my pjs if I was lucky enough to have a weekend off. No agenda. Just a day away from the frenetic pace that  was the hallmark of my day job (and my night job and my weekend job!).

IMG_4007Then came the kids. Okay, it was work when they were infants. They had to be fed and diapered and generally kept alive. But their needs were simple and if I didn’t need to be in to be at work on a Sunday, I could sip a cup of coffee and read the Times while the baby (and later the toddler and the baby) were in my proximity. I kept them from sticking a fork in an outlet but essentially got IMG_4006to do my own, grown-up thing that made me happy. And when everyone was old enough, I was even lucky enough to sleep past 8am–a true luxury for a surgeon.

No longer true. Every weekend is now consumed by my kids activities.

Whether it’s 8am baseball practice or a 9am Field Hockey tournament over an hour away, forget sleeping in even though no one is awaiting a soggy overnight diaper change. Then mid-day rolls around and there is likely a dance show, a classmate’s birthday party, and another practice that vie for my kids’ time. And they don’t drive yet.

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IMG_3656We are forced to divide and conquer (thus separating me from my awesome husband who I actually like to spend time with when I am off). We are forced to eat in the car on the run when there just isn’t enough time between activities to sit down to a meal. We guzzle gallons upon gallons of gas going to and fro from event to event, some of which are on opposite sides of the state.

I can’t remember the last time I had an unscheduled weekend for myself. I struggle trying find time to get together with friends who are experiencing the same level of terror in their homes. I literally have gone years without seeing friends who live in the same very small state because with our kids we just don’t have time to be with anyone else on the weekends. In fact, I was so pleased with myself heading into this weekend. I managed to arrange both a work outing on Friday and a Sunday BBQ with my Ragnar van mates. I planned this as soon as the call schedule came out. And wouldn’t you know, out comes the email that the make-up baseball game starts a half hour before the work event and the playoff coincides exactly with Ragnar reunion.

Aaaaaaaaaargh!

My kids have hijacked my weekends and it’s infuriating. I want to support their interests (trust me I’m no Tiger mom; other than encouraging physical activity and retaining some cultural interests these kids a choosing to over-extend themselves with extra-curriculars and parties and playdates) but I can’t say I would shed a tear if they up and quit dance or ball or hockey.

Well maybe I would. If my kids end up too unidimensional to get into college then they’ll have nowhere to go after high school and I really need to get my weekends back.

Reflections on ‘The Great Work Life Debates’

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

Last week I, along with nearly 10,000 other surgeons of various specialties, attended our profession’s premier annual meeting, the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress. Of these, some 50 attended a panel session I chaired called the “Great Work Life Debates.” Embed from Getty Images

Quite honestly, I was so relieved by the turnout.

Every conference needs to have a last day and the desire of attendees to duck out before that day (especially given work life issues such as not spending another night away from your nursing infant or not missing another OR day) is totally understandable. Nevertheless, some sessions will be assigned the dreaded last session of the last day.

So yes, leading up it, I was filled with dread that the co-moderator, six speakers, and I would be the only people in attendance. I was delighted to be wrong.

Embed from Getty ImagesWhy did these hearty surgeons stick around for this session? Why were there so many men (also much to my delight) in the audience? Were they there searching for the right answers to the Great Work Life Debates? Did the panelists even have any answers to provide?

The committee sponsoring the session was the American College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Committee (WiSC). I would posit, however, that in the modern era issues of balancing the demands of work and the demands of life at home (or as I like to think of it, the joys of my profession with the joys of my personal life) are not limited to women surgeons. WiSC just happens to have taken the lead in bringing such issues to a format that I imagine years ago was limited to the best technique for such and such procedure or what’s new with such and such surgical disease.

Just because male surgeons of a particular generation may have propagated a particular stereotype about how they valued or prioritized their work relative to their life outside of work does not mean that the male surgeons of today fit into that stereotype. Just because women are increasingly represented in surgical careers does not mean that socio-cultural norms for women surgeons’ roles outside of work have dissipated. An so, I believe that both men and women sought out this session because more circumscribed professional meetings are less likely to address non-biomedical topics even though concerns for wellness both in and out of work—wholeness as a person inclusive of professional and personal needs—transcend surgical specialties, and yes even gender.

Surgeons, irrespective of specialty, gender, or sexual orientation, who haven’t found a life partner, may be prone to wonder whether they should marry another surgeon or seek a non-surgeon with whom to spend the rest of their days outside of the hospital. Those who do have partners, may wonder how to make it work for the long term irrespective of their lifemate’s profession. Surgeons of both genders who do not have children may be experiencing deep inner desire to start a family or may be frustrated by the perception that choosing not to have a family is somehow not acceptable. And, those with children surely have days when inevitable stress of modern day parenting leave them wondering why they did it just as they surely have days when every worry, whether it is about work or home or world peace, is dissipated by boundless giggles of a toddler or the unexpected talkativeness of an otherwise moody teen.  Surgeons whose careers or family situations throw childrearing into chaos must consider the pros and cons of care rendered by nannies in the home or childcare in the diverse, highly regulated environment provided by out-of-home daycare. And, no matter what option or combination of options they choose there will be less than perfect days when both work and child(ren) will be needing you at the exact same moment.

Surgeons—not male surgeons, not female surgeons—but just surgeons sharing similar work life concerns came together to listen to these Great Work Life Debates. These points (and barring time limitations we could have point/counterpointed countless other work life dilemmas) were argued by women with different life experiences, different perspectives, and different debate tactics but both the pros and the cons resonated with the women and the men in the audience who it seems, based of their feedback thus far, simply desired a venue that acknowledged that we surgeons are in fact humans—we have lives outside of work, lives that are made ever more complex by long hours, possible lives at risk while we are working, and myriad other professional demands (which include, by the way, attending such meetings for so many hours/year for continuing medical education credits).

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So what was the bottom line for the men and women who stayed for one of the last sessions on the last day of our conference? Not surprisingly there wasn’t one.

Thus, while marriage is challenging no matter what your day job is (if it wasn’t they would just call it dating forever!) you can’t always control who you fall in love with; a loving, supportive spouse will make your work more manageable whether he/she understands to a tee what you go through every day work or has a vague understanding of why you sometimes come home tired or distracted or not at all. But you too have to be loving and supportive in return and that rendering of love and support may take different shapes.

While children come with the stress and anxiety of raising them along with the costs (~250-500k per child up to 18 years before including the costs of college according to one debator) raising them also brings the joy of nurturing, chubby cheeks, Disney World vacations, etc. but choosing to be childfree also brings many joys (e.g. unfettered travel that need not involve animatronics, increased focus on nurturing your relationship with your partner, increased time to pursue personal wellness) that parents often forego or delay.

Finally, both a nanny and daycare can provide a loving, caring environment replete with both educational and emotional growth while you are working but relying on a single individual may limit diversity and back-up options while relying on daycare increases the day to day burden of prepping the child(ren).  Either way, your children will know you are their parent and they will love you back even on the days when things don’t go smoothly.

My hope is that listening to a spirited debate on these issues related to the dilemmas of partnering, parenting, and childcare will have enabled the audience thoughtfully consider what matters to them and various strategies to help alleviate the strain between the joys of work and the joys of personal life. While there are no perfect solutions (and to strive for a vision of perfection is to set yourself up for disillusionment in your choice of life partner, your decision to (or not to) have children, or your childcare preferences), it’s about crafting a reasonable approach to your own great work life debate based on self-reflection and practical needs.

A decade of mommy guilt

Originally posted on heelskicksscalpel.com

My first born turned a decade old the other day. Surely hitting double digits was a huge milestone for her. For me it was a time of reflection on how fast the time has gone by and how much of her childhood I missed in the last 10 years. I want to close my eyes and turn on the reel of memories I have stored away of the day she rolled over for the first time, her first steps, losing her first tooth….. The list goes on and on.

Truth is, I was gone for most of those other milestones in her young life. It wasn’t just the firsts either. There are countless pediatrician visits, parent teacher conferences, sporting/dance events, etc. that I just could not make. Though I know better than to feel guilty anymore about the extra stuff that I might have taken on as a mom like being a coach or a troop leader or a school volunteer, what I wouldn’t give to have been able to console her when she got her shots or to be the one she ran to when she had a nightmare (I am sure she figured “Why bother, Mommy’s side of the bed is empty most nights.”)

While for much of the time I was, as this now wise young lady believes, “taking care of people,” there were plenty of times when I was simply busy doing the other part of my work where people’s lives were not in my hands (e.g. research, education, volunteer efforts for professional societies). While the trickle down effect of each of these efforts will certainly someday improve the care people receive, the guilt of being away from my child–the most amazing thing I have ever accomplished (albeit with some help from my remarkable life partner)–has been heartbreaking at times. Healing the heartbreak has been daunting. I am talking about healing me let alone the lingering effects my absence may have on her. (Luckily she has a great dad and amazing grand parents to counteract my absences.)

TIps for Healing Mommy Guilt found at http://dailymom.com/nurture/beating-back-mommy-guilt/
Tips for Healing Mommy Guilt

I have done more and more, in particular after finally getting my first grown up job in her 7th year of life, to assuage that guilt–to be there as much as I can.  When she was in preschool, everyone assumed that my husband was a single parent. I was that out of the picture. Entering into the picture has meant asking my parents to sacrifice daily contact with their grandkids so that I can have a more favorable commute that theoretically frees up times for the kids (alas most activities, events, and meetings still tend to occur between 6am and 6pm and I remain the forever absent mom). It has meant asking my husband to do every more to sustain our household so that I can get in some mommy time (i.e. he will do the dishes, bang out a few loads of laundry so I can maybe, just maybe be awake enough to read a chapter or two to my child). It has meant allowing myself to fall behind on the things where a life is not on the line or where someone else is not holding me to an expectation (I can’t ignore my billing or my employer gets on me, I can’t not proofread a paper that I told someone I would review for them, I can’t put off a grant that has a prescribed federal deadline but I sure can put off my own internal deadlines). In the end, an extra night or weekend of work will sort everything out. I am hardwired to get the job done, so I will. But every long day, every night, and every weekend of getting it done will come at a cost, another empty reel in the memory bank of my daughter’s childhood and, unless I pay re-calibrate the push and pull between work and family, I will find myself at her 20th birthday still ridden with guilt.

I attended a faculty seminar on work-life balance a couple of years ago. Everyone entered that room with a ton of baggage related to their inability to balance work and life with work seemingly winning every time. The upshot of the seminar was essentially: lose the guilt (if you are at work don’t feel guilty about not being at home and if you are at home don’t feel guilty about not being at work). While I have tried especially hard since then (not that I needed to be told but it was a good reminder at a time when I was really, really buried in my work life) to sneak in quality time with my daughter (and her baby brother but I will get all sappy about him when his birthday rolls around) the problem is that it has felt just like that–sneaking around. When spending time with your child feels like sneaking around, the Mommy Guilt has gotten out of hand.

The decade of Mommy Guilt I have built up won’t dissipate easily and surely my profession can move the dial a bit (both surgery and academics) so both men and women don’t have to “sneak around” so much when they choose life over work. But in the end, rather than letting the Mommy Guilt mount in the years to come, I am resolving to feel Mommy Pride for each of the moments that do make it onto the memory reel in my daughter’s teens. Guilt won’t make the reel amazingly devoid of gaps so why bother. I am better off feeling pride in the moments of parenting I am super savvy enough fit in given the nearly (but not completely) all-consuming career I have chosen (and do deeply enjoy).

So yeah, I am pretty proud that I proactively requested a day off over a year in advance so that I could be at my daughter’s birthday party, and that I might have put off writing a manuscript late one night to brainstorm venues and a guest list with her.  I ended up delegating the evites, the cupcakes, booking the actual venue to my husband (I could blog pages and pages about how amazing this guy is about getting it done at home while I work and work some more) but I wasn’t entirely absent and that is an accomplishment worthy of pride rather than guilt.

Parental validation with a haircut

Originally posted on heelskicksscalpel.com

The other day I decided on the spur of the moment to get a haircut during the day on a work day. I was really nervous leaving work to get this done. Ordinarily I just ignore personal needs like haircuts, doctors visits, pedicures, etc. that tend to occur during regular business hours for as long as possible since my typical work hours extend before and after regular business hours.

Luckily, some personal needs can be put off longer than others.

I have a great head of hair and, as such, am one to ignore care and maintenance of said hair for months and months at a time. I average 1.5 haircuts a year on a good hair year. It’s just not a priority which is good because I have so many other things I can’t seem to get done be they personal or professional. Looking and feeling good are definitely on the priority list but they compete (most often ending up on the losing side) with making our house a home, parenting, and work.

My daughter also has gorgeous hair.  She is only nine and thus also requires little maintenance of her lovely locks. Lately, however, it has been getting really hard for her to comb the tangles out no matter what products we try in an effort to dissuade these tenacious tangles. My husband is arguably great at doing basically all of the homemaking and the parenting but with our daughter he has drawn the line at putting in earrings and combing out tangles. (I wish I could say this is because he has experience with neither but there was that unfortunate period in the early 90s when my then boyfriend rocked a pony tail longer than mine.) Of note, we have both drawn the line at doing braids since we collectively suck at it despite how long our hair is or has been. So, lately a lot of my quality time with my daughter has been spent trying to get the tangles out of her hair.

It hasn’t been fun torturing her, especially since overall I have precious little time with my little girl. I have been working 60-120 hours a week since the day she was born. About three years into it, I made it even harder for her to get ‘mommy and me’ time by bringing her baby brother into the mix. All those days when I went to work before they were up and came home (if at all) after they were asleep broke my heart over and over again. To this day, I always make it a point to crack open the bedroom door and blow a kiss to my sleeping babies on my way out the door because it makes me a little less bad for leaving them for such long stretches of time. (Luckily these days I am heading out for fewer 40 hour single stretches of work compared to my training days; and occasionally, I even get to see them awake in the mornings.)

These past nine years I have been catching as catch can as a parent, first with her then with them both, first as a trainee and now as a faculty member. Some days I feel good about how I am doing and others I feel down right awful. Getting the work-life balance equation “right” is a constant challenge when you want to be the best parent you can while also doing “okay” (see, I didn’t say perfect) at everything else including self, home, and work. This past year, as I have focused more and more on my own wellness (because, after all, I want my kids to grow up knowing that taking care of one’s self inside and out is important no matter how challenging) I have also spent more time thinking about how to make the most of my fits and spurts of parenting. So I decided that my daughter and I should both get haircuts, not so much because I needed to (I had my last cut just 6 months ago) but because she badly needed relief from the tangles and I badly needed time with her. I was not on call. There were no imminent deadlines. Work could wait for a couple of hours.

It was her first time going to a real salon rather than a drive through haircut chain. That, in and of itself, was a thrill for her. Plus, she got to spend 2 whole hours alone with me when I was in a good mood. Driving there and back, discussing the futures of our hair, and marveling afterwards at how much difference a good haircut makes brought such joy. I was falling seriously behind on some grant writing and my work inbox had over a 1000 messages in it; but, somehow I managed not to think about that during those two hours as I enjoyed my daughter who, it seems, is becoming quite a smart, thoughtful, and pretty young lady.

I hope some of that has to do with the fact that I have been a good role model for her these past nine years despite my frequent absences from her daily life. (I know that bulk of it is due to her great dad and grand parents who have been raising her while I have been advancing my career but still I wonder if perhaps some credit might be due.) In the car I said to her, “You know, I am really sorry that sometimes even when I am home from work I am just too cranky or its just too late to spend time with you.” Her response, “That’s alright Mom, you’re busy all day taking care of people.”

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So proud of this little girl with the great haircut.

(Tears. Again. As I write this.)