Motherhood, Medicine, and Career Challenges

Shelly Reese


May 03, 2017

In This Article

Women Doctors Juggle Competing Demands

For physicians trying to manage professional and family demands, the scarcest of their resources are the mere 24 hours in the day.

Although physicians of both sexes feel the constraints, female physicians are more likely to make significant career adjustments—such as taking a hiatus from the workforce, adopting a part-time schedule, and modifying their professional role—to accommodate the needs of their families. In Medscape's Physician Compensation Report 2017, research showed that 22% of women physicians work part-time, compared with 10% of men.

How do those types of career tweaks affect careers, professional standings, and approaches to medicine? There are a variety of answers.

Great to Take Time Out, Hard to Get Back In

Conversations about "having it all" or "staying home" are invariably fraught with the possibility of misinterpretation or clash of opinions. Suffice to say there is no single model for a successful "work–life balance."

Many female physicians achieve equilibrium without altering their careers, and those who do make adjustments in accordance with their individual circumstances, such as their specialty, practice setting, family finances, medical school debt, spousal support, age of the children, and access to child care. In short, there is no monolithic "mommy track."

The whole notion of a "career track" or a "career ladder" is flawed, argues Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, MD, a family practice physician and mother of three in Nashua, New Hampshire. "For women in particular, we have seasons in our lives," she says. "There is only a certain amount of time during which we can procreate. The idea of a career ladder is a very linear approach and our lives don't necessarily move in a linear fashion."

Given that the mean age at which an American woman gives birth to her first child (26.3 years) closely coincides with the average age of students graduating from medical schools in the United States (28 years), navigating the "season" of childrearing requires planning, conscious choices, sacrifices, and flexibility on the part of female physicians.[1,2]

Dr Ramas recently gave up her position as medical director in a rural California clinic and moved her family across the country; she is now closer to her extended family and works 32 hours a week as a physician employed in a federally qualified health center. The move shaved more than 40 administrative hours from her weekly schedule.

"I am in a season where I am making more conscious decisions to be there for my family. Right now, I am at a place where I can't burn the candle at both ends," she explains. Although primary care specialties tend to be more receptive to such choices, Dr Ramas says they still run counter to the medical ethos. "In medicine, we are taught to take on more and more and not complain, not show that you can't handle the extra burden. That is part of our training. The frustrating part of my journey has been recognizing and accepting my humanity."


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