Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Beef With Women Doctors

Six years ago, I walked out of a wildly successful legal career to take care of my babies. I never looked back. I rocked newborn babies. I struggled with infertility. I learned how to swaddle, cook and home-school. I never paid attention to the debate that raged around me about "retaining female talent" in the workplace. I was convinced that making my baby laugh far outweighed any theoritical legal victory I might have won in the Appellate Court.

Then came the dramatic day of September 5, 2010, when my baby girl Tess started dive-bombing towards death.

I found myself dramatically thrust into a room at Children's National Hospital surrounded by women. There were three female pediatricians, and female respiratory therapists. Female residents and female nurse. Thirty medical personnel surrounded my newborn's crib. The most striking fact to me at the time was that not one of them was male.

In that helpless moment, I felt chastised. "I was wrong," I admitted to myself. I was so profoundly grateful that some women dedicated their lives to specializing in one field. They sacrificed many things in their personal life to learn medicine, years of medical school and residency and extra long hours in on the job training. In that frightening search for the exact cause of Baby Tessy's distress, I was grateful for every single hour they spent learning how to save newborn babies.

I gave birth to my baby girl.

I loved her.

But I couldn't save her.

And in that moment, I was so profoundly grateful that a place like Children's Hospital even existed. A place where extreme specialists gave hope for the "almost goners."

For two weeks, I admitted defeat. This "Mommyhood" vocation was simply a path that I had chosen. It wasn't naturally superior. It was very important that other women chose to stay in their careers. The world clearly needed female NICU doctors.

I tiptoed around the exalted NICU doctors, especially the residents who visited my daughter's crib side often. I learned their names and their family histories. I learned who was newly married and who was divorced.

And then something happened which changed my opinion again.

First, a surgeon complained that her surgery schedule was double that week because another colleague was ordered on immediate bed-rest after her premature labor pains put her unborn twins at risk. I remember overhearing the conversation and thinking "This is not good!" and "What an irony!" Here is hospital that is dedicated itself to saving premature babies, yet it's own 10 to 14 hour a day surgery schedule put one of it's own female surgeons at risk for premature labor. The apparent lack of concern expressed by these two consulting doctors for the babies at risk really shook me up both as a mother and as the mother of a hospital patient.

Then there was my buddy Sachika. (I'm nicknaming her this because I can't clearly remember her Indian name and Sachika supposedly means kindness in Indian). Sachika was my angel in the NICU ward. She was a resident assigned to my daughter--super tiny, super petite, a newlywed with an extra large wedding ring, who gushed with kindness and knowledge. Sachika was the one who explained my daughter's frightening diagnosis in plain English. She would give us the heads up about what to expect in the NICU room before we got there in the morning. She would see us out when we left late at night. One of the most precious conversations we had was when she warned me that a cardiologist was currently conducting an "echo" on my little girl's heart "purely as a precautionary measure." It was if she knew beforehand that for a Mother to walk into a NICU room and see a doctor from an entirely unknown department working on her kid, that was enough to start a chain reaction of new panic attacks.

At the end of her hospital stay, Tess had recovered from her emergency surgery on her small intestine and we were just waiting for her special feeding schedule to end. Jon went back to work and I spent nine hours a day rocking my baby girl alone in her NICU room. I positioned the special NICU rocking chair towards the hallway door. Tess and I sat and rocked and rocked.

One morning, I kissed Tessy's little forehead. I looked up and meet the gaze of Sachika.

She had this look.

Her look was one of such intense longing.

Overcome with emotion, she dropped her gaze and stumbled into the women's bathroom across the Hall.

I sat there, holding my almost perfectly healed Baby Tess, and I realized what a profound gift I had in being her Mother. We brought her to that hospital dying, and many, many people rushed around dedicating their lives to fixing her broken body.

But now the drama was done.

And I was the one who was getting to take her home.

All around me were these wonderful amazing professional women, who dramatically saved the lives of newborns every day, while meanwhile almost none of them had little babies of their own to rock to sleep every night.

Almost a year later, I'm still mixed up about all of this. I know in my bones that staying home is the right thing for my life.

Yet if one of my three girls announced that she wanted to become a pediatric surgeon at Children's National Hospital, I burst my buttons with joy. Heck, if one of my kids wanted to wash dirty hospital linens at Children's National Hospital I'd be overjoyed. That hospital is simply amazing.

At the same time, however, I'd be praying hard to Mommy Mary that if someone I loved chose the obsessive careers of medicine, law or police work, that it didn't ever stop them from raising up their own children for the Lord. Not even the most important job in the world can beat that joy.


  1. Throughout my cross of IF I have been so grateful for my vocation as a teacher. I have been able to use my nuturing instinct to help my students. I hope to be faced with the choice of mommyhood and teaching and hopefully soon!

  2. My beef with this post is that it creates this odd either/or positioning where a public life of a career is seen as not the best option for women. Most people (and I address men and women here) will have a public career in their lives, as well as raising children. Some will have a public career and a family without children and some will be single. Most will also have a period where they raise children, but also have decades of a career before and after. That's the reality I see and I don't think that this is incompatible with the Christian calling.

    Great for you that you are home with your kids. How is it not great for the Christian and larger community that other women choose to be in the workforce? Many women I know are good, loving Christian mothers who work. Some of them have husbands who are staying home with the children, others rely on people who have dedicated their careers to nurturing kids through early childhood education. On the whole, most people benefit from the diversity of paths God calls us to. Why do some Catholic mommy bloggers tend (and I use this word delicately and broadly) to deny this diversity, subtly or more explicitly like your post here does? How does seeing only one ordained path for women build up the Kingdom?

  3. Aren't we blessed to have a Saint that did just what you describe in your post - both be a dr. and bring the art of healing and hope to so many people and also raise children to glorify the Lord - St. Gianna! I have long admired her and been oh so grateful for her inspiration and intercession. While the forseeable future doesn't look that great for me being able to stay home full time after the baby is born (due to some circumstances outside of my control), I do ask the Lord to help me to travel this vocation of motherhood with no less joy and honor.

  4. St. Gianna did indeed perform her duties as both a doctor and a mother admirably...

    but she practiced medicine in a way that is not really available to female docs here in the present-day US...

    she had 4-6 month of completely being at home after the birth of each of her 3 children...

    she worked in a pediatric clinic only 10 minutes from her house for 4 hours in the morning, came home to have lunch with the children (and her husband), put the children down for thei afternoon naps and then went back to work from 3 to 7pm (a schedule many Italians keep even today)...

    she had full-time live-in cooking cleaning and child care help...

    and she and her husband STILL decided that she would QUIT after the birth of their 4th child to be at home full time (she died a week after this birth)...

    so YES she combined medicine and holy motherhood but did not work 12 hours a day with a 2 hour commute leaving the kids at daycare with minimum wage caregiver turnover...

    so you can understand why I am a bit loathe to promote her as the role model for American Catholic working women...


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  6. Very thought-provoking post! And I might be wrong here, but I think you were talking about working women in super-demanding careers that have no children because of their extremely busy schedules, right? That's a different debate than working mothers (as Anonymous brings up). I just wanted to add that I also think it's sad when many women who put off babies until their 40's then turn to IVF because they can't conceive.

    And very interesting info that Carla brings up! I never knew those details about St. Gianna (except that she worked close to home) and I always wondered how she did it. That makes perfect sense.

    I, for one, LOVE being a stay-at-home mom. But of course I didn't give up a high-profile career to do it, although I'd like to think I would've in a heart beat!

  7. Once again, you show how conflicted you are in your ignorance, which is inexcusable given your education. These women do not want to be you! And, as a non sequitor, please stop referencing Sacred Heart Academy. Your posts show how thoroughly you don't understand the five goals of sister Sophie, time and time again.

  8. This one gives me a lot to think about...I'll have to digest slowly.

  9. Carla - you bring up a lot of good points and many of them prove exactly why I think St. Gianna is a great role model for working women anywhere - because she maintained a good balance as far as I could tell, and I would love to be able to incorporate many of those same practices in my own day to day life after our baby is born (and no I don't work in the medical field, so there I do have some flexibility). 12 hour working days and 2 hours commutes are extreme - yes they are, no doubt about that. So, no I wasn't saying St. Gianna is a role model for that, I am sorry for any confusion. Many of us that do work, don't do so with such extreme schedules and I have no interest in doing that, but I still think it is a good idea to have role model - especially one among the Saints to look up to, not to mention Blessed Zelie Martin (St. Therese's mom), another working mom. Again, my preference (and big hope) would be to stay home and my husband and I are working toward that goal, but in the meantime, I am so glad I have some Saints to look up to who have had to travel this road before as well. Thanks Abigail for a thought-provoking post. St. Gianna, pray for us! Bl. Zelie Martin, pray for us!

  10. You have a way of reading my thoughts. Yes, yes, yes...

  11. So....where's the beef? ;)

    I mean, you title is clever but it doesn't sound like to me like you have a beef. You just recognize the tradeoff faced by those of us who pursue both parenthood and careers at the same time. It's a juggle -- sometimes a struggle -- but we all do ouot best, make our choices, and live with them.

  12. This kind of post fuels the "mommy wars" that divide our society. I'm sure most of your readers know great mothers who work and not so great mothers who are home all day. Being a good mother is not defined by whether we work outside the home. Sweeping generalizations about women who are highly educated and have careers does everyone - especially your daughters - a huge disservice. I also take issue with your referring to yourself - a woman with 4 children and one on the way - as one who has struggled with infertility. Any person who has truly suffered through infertility would certainly be more sensitive about it.

  13. Thanks for being so open about something you don't really understand - I wish more chrisitan women would just say 'I don't get women doctors!' And let me show them the beauty of my life. I'm a family practice resident - yes, just a resident, but with maybe more demands for my time than a full doc. I had 2 years of infertility before being graced with my daughter, now 15 months, and I have loved every minute of this 'difficult' life of mine! What many stay at home moms forget is that my patients are in a very real and spiritual sense, my children. Even the elderly. I love them and pray for them just like my daughter, and my life would not be complete without them, like my daughter. It's not that I want the money or prestige od being a doctor - God just made my heart this funny shape, a shape that is not typical for women, and not every woman is called to do what I do. Have pity for the women you've mentioned because they have not found the true fulfillment of their true vocation, not because they are doctors. :)

  14. Joy Beyond the Cross - I think you and I ultimately have the same perspective...

    I am an attorney (have been the last 20 years)with 6 children. I do mostly wills for people and the occasional real estate closing.

    I go downtown to probate court maybe once a month (and my mom or MIL watch my little ones or I take them with when I have a nurseling)...

    I just want to make clear that while I LOVE that women can now have a career and highter education, I cannot agree that tons of separation from your very young babies/children is OK if you have a really important job (like anonymous seems to be saying)...

    my children always come first, my vocation as a wife and mother comes BEFORE my avocation as a lawyer...I certainly don't mind if others disagree and I love a spirited debate, but I think we all see from the comments here that just questioning the "full-time working mom" American paradigm can get ugly...

    you and DH are in my prayers as you try and figure out a way to be there for your precious baby as much as possible! It can be done!! I do wills at people's dinner tables in the homes in the evenings when my DH is home so I do not have to pay for an office or use daycare!! Get creative and yes, pray to St. Gianna and Bl Zelie (who made made and managed lacemakers with her daughters at her feet and along with their mama!)


  15. I think life would be easier for women with demanding careers if they had more family support than is typical. My best friend is an acute care dr at a major hospital (Catholic) and a wonderful mother to three small children. However, she has a live-in mother-in-law and a husband with a flexible schedule. They make it work fabulously. Her children are wonderful kids who are always surrounded by people who love them. Their mom saves people's lives every day. It is the society we live in today (away from extended family, both parents having demanding careers, too much emphasis on materialism, etc) that makes it difficult. Poor women have always worked. My great grandmother went back to work in her sewing factory job when she was barely a week post-partum and her own mother acted as wet nurse for the baby. It was what you had to do. I always laugh at this notion that women only started working outside the home after the women's liberation movement. My many ancestors who were cleaning women, maids, telephone operators, factory workers, and other menial workers would beg to differ.

    If the dr was looking at you with some longing, it was probably because she feels conflicted between two vocations and is only supported in the one (dr) but not in the other (mother). Too many women are presented with either/or situations due to extended family living far away or unwilling to help out and husbands who are hooked on their own careers. I know that study after study shows that working moms still do more of the housework and childcare than their husbands who work comparable hours.

  16. Carla - yes we are on the same page! And thank you so much for your prayers! I will be praying for your family too during this amazing time!

  17. Sorry that earlier comment to Carla was from me - I was signed into the other account.

    Oh, and one of my favorite perks of working from home 1 day week (such as today), walking 10 steps to the kitchen to make lunch. Baby B is hungry! :) God Bless!

  18. I think that's real love! Being able to be thankful for the choices someone else has made in her life that has made it possible for your little one to be healed is quite an eye opening one. A mother is never more terrified than when tragedy strikes her child, but when it's over and I see how someone has helped my son and I see how blessed I am to stay at home with him and BE his mother, there is no better choice in this world for me :)

  19. My first time commenting and while I agree with your post, it left me somewhat confused. Your post is titled "My Beef with Women Doctors" but you don't really have a clear gripe or complaint.

    I do agree with a few comments that state the conflicting feelings between moms who work both outside the home and raise a family. I am blessed enough to be able to stay home with the kids and feel no need to search for any other fulfillment. The job I do as a SAHM is just as hard as the jobs outside of the home. However many women don't get this opportunity and so for whatever reason, have to seek outside employment.

    My beef is for the working mother that does not need to work outside of the home but does so to fulfill a selfish need to find herself or have another identity other than her first vocation which is that of a wife and mother. This is a result of the so-called "women's liberation movement. Okay i've said too much. I like your blog by the way :)

  20. Thanks so much JBTC!!

    I am praying for your baby and for you...I cannot imagine giving yourself so many shots!! I give birth at home with a midwife just because I am such a weenie and HATE needles...YOU ROCK to make such a physical sacrifice for your baby!!


  21. I am a ChildCare Worker and take care of Children. I get great joy from my career. I make triple minimum wage and have been at my work for 15 years. THe turnover is so low with many of my colleagues going on there 20th year. I work and will tell you without a shawdow of a doubt that many working mothers/families do a marvelous job of striking a balance and are very happy with their choices of leaving their kids in Childcare. A few are conflicted about there decision and this makes for miserable children and families. Do not lump everyone together...all situations are different. I honestly know more miserable stay at home moms and kids than I do mothers that work outside the home..honestly. I also know more ill mannered children that have stay at home moms than mothers that work outside the home. My husband and I scratch our heads and wonder WHY is this but reading your post gives me an idea...many stay at home moms are to busy patting themselves on the back and tearing down "those working moms" to build themselves up. Its a big world out there seize the day for good. I for one am grateful to work for a Hospital Childcare Center. Those Working Nurses, Doctors, and Therapist are AMAZING PARENTS.

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  23. First, regarding anonymous comments. If you log on as an anonymous commenter, please give me the courtesy of signing your name (or at least your initials) to your comment. It's very difficult to respond to multiple anonymous comments all in a row.

    The most recent anonymous commenter, I'm very sorry that you see so many miserable stay-at-home Moms. I am most likely one of them. I do not handle Target shopping well with my four children. I mess up regularly on a host of other normal activities during our day.

    Have a good day and squeeze one of your kiddos extra hard for me!