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From On Call to Goodnight Kisses: The Physician Mom Guilt

Nicole Sparks, MD

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October 07, 2021

When I took my first 24-hour call after coming back from a 7-week maternity leave my intern year in residency, I didn't know what to expect. Being a medical resident was hard. Being a new mother was hard. Balancing both seemed quite impossible.

I remember thinking to myself that my son would not remember me. My mother and husband saw him more than I did, and I almost never made it to his doctor appointments. I wondered if I would be viewed as an absentee mother or as a mother who chose career advancement over family.

There are more or less three categories when it comes to motherhood and medicine: delaying children during your childbearing years in order to advance your career; how motherhood and the associated duties affect your career; and how to integrate the two.

Though more women are having more children in medicine, there are still gaps in research as it pertains to maternity leave, support upon returning from maternity leave, and childcare help during training.

The increasing number of women having children during medical school, training, and beyond necessitates the need to evaluate increased flexibility in training programs and increased leave without severely extending training.

One key topic that frequently comes up is the feeling of "mom guilt." Mom guilt is the feeling you are not doing enough or present enough as a parent. In medicine specifically, this is magnified as long hours and lack of sleep can keep you from being present even when you are at home. During my first year as a medical resident, the guilt was overwhelming. But now, a few years out as an attending physician, it only occasionally rears its head.

As I have traversed this journey of motherhood and medicine, here are a few tips I have learned to prevent guilt from sinking in.

Let Go of the Guilt

I used to feel guilty about not being there for every single moment in my children's lives. I missed first steps, new words, appointments and so much more. I realized that I had a support system for a reason. I did not have to be "supermom," and I did not have to do it all. While I was on call delivering babies, I had help from a very supportive husband and mother to take care of my own children, and that was okay. A support system is key to have in place.

Challenge the negative thoughts and replace them with affirmations. You are doing enough. There is no such thing as the perfect mom. Time spent away from your children does not mean you love them any less. I can now explain to my son that Mommy has to go to work to help other families, and he understands that I will be back and we will have plenty of time to play.

You Can't Always Leave Work at Work

Sometimes, you cannot completely separate motherhood and medicine, and that's okay. There is the saying to leave work at work and home at home. I do agree that when I am home, I like to just focus on my children. This means I am running outside, playing hide and seek in the pantry, reading books, and giving baths.

But some days don't look quite like this. Some days, I am charting with a kid in my lap or fielding calls from the hospital while my children are screaming in the background. Some days, I am utterly exhausted from a call shift and I don't have the energy to read Goodnight Moon .

In residency, my son would often spend hours in the call room with me during 24-hour shifts as I charted and studied. This was the only way I was able to spend some time with him on call. The two roles of physician and mother do not have to be mutually exclusive. At times, they intertwine more intricately than we realize.

What is more important than separating the two is instead learning how to integrate them. I am as much a mother as I am a physician, and I love both roles so much. Some days I will give less to one to give more to the other, and that's okay.

Be Present, Not Perfect

I recognize that I do not need the "best parent in the world" accolades, and I don't need to be employee of the month every month. What is important is that I show up. I show up for my patients who need me in the hospital and give my all to ensuring I help mothers have a positive experience on labor and delivery. I show up for my children when I am at home. I may not make it to every game or appointment, but when I am home, I make it count. My children don't need me to perfect; they simply need me doing the best I can. And that is what I will continue to do.

It is so important to remind ourselves that we are indeed good physicians and good mothers. Society would have us to believe that being a busy physician takes away from the ability to be a good mother, yet this is so far from the truth. Let go of the guilt. You are doing just fine.

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About Dr Nicole Sparks
Nicole Sparks, MD, is a general obstetrician and gynecologist in the North Atlanta area. She also has a successful lifestyle blog at nicolealiciamd.com and social media presence, where she covers a wide range of topics, including how to prepare for gynecology appointments, how to advocate for yourself during office visits, having children during medical training, and navigating a medical career as a mother. Her passions include encouraging and empowering women to pursue their dreams without sacrificing their dream of motherhood. Topics Dr Sparks like to discuss include balancing motherhood and medicine, encouraging women entrepreneurs, and discussing inequities that persist in the medical field. Her goal is to have mothers feel completely supported in the medical field, no matter the specialty. Dr Sparks lives in Atlanta with her husband, two children, and a mini Australian Shepherd.

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