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10 Ways to Improve Work-Life Balance as a Physician and Mother

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The difficulty of raising a child as a woman during residency or fellowship is often questioned. Given how these trainings are structured, physician moms are spared no trouble, often resulting in delayed and high-risk pregnancies. 

Achieving work-life equilibrium requires equal prioritization of the demands of one’s personal life and career. But how is that achieved? In my experience, 10 focus areas have helped me optimize my available time to do so. 

First, start early. Starting the day early always wins, even on weekends. There is plenty that can be accomplished. With my husband’s help, I’ve cooked, cleaned, and sometimes done laundry in the morning before heading to work. Some days, I’ve also had enough spare time to read to my daughter. 

Second, simplify daily wear. Ironing and laying out outfits on weekends is a way to get dressed in the morning swiftly. I exclusively wore scrubs when I first started fellowship six months postpartum, mainly because nothing else in my closet fit me, but also to avoid spending too much time on deciding what to wear amid pumping, making breakfast, feeding, changing diapers, packing lunch, etc.

Third, optimize work tasks. This includes not procrastinating. Respond promptly to messages in your InBasket, review labs, and discuss follow-up plans at the same time. Pre-round preemptively on the next few patients, including writing notes and sending potential labs; utilize time between patient care and research days to work on presentations, manuscripts, and quality improvement projects; and lastly, answer pages promptly when paged after hours. The habits you develop in training will stay with you throughout your medical career, which will be much more demanding.

Fourth, prioritize well-being and nutrition. Incorporate routine well-visits, labs, vaccinations, and dental and eye care into your schedule ahead of time. Use lunch breaks to take time away from the computer and phone and actually eat lunch or go for a walk instead. Skipping meals or avoiding restroom or water breaks to tackle yet another nonurgent work task is imprudent and only harms you in the end. Making healthier meal choices is another way of prioritizing self-care.

Fifth, get moving. I shamefully admit that I have no interest in leaving my toddler at home to go to the gym just to torture my body. That form of exercise is not what I enjoy. To incorporate exercise into my week, I follow an exercise routine at home that my daughter takes part in; it also allows me to spend more time with her. I set other small goals as well, such as choosing to take the stairs over the elevator and walking briskly during my lunch break.

Sixth, prioritize promoting health. I was breastfeeding when I started my fellowship. I used time early in the morning, during lectures (fortunately virtual), in lunch breaks, and in-between and after patient visits to pump. You must know what is important to you. 

Seventh, prioritize sleep. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta has said, “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brains and bodies, as well as increase a healthy life span.” Have a bedtime routine, go to bed early, engage in relaxing activities such as reading a book, meditate, follow a skin care routine, drink soothing tea, write, etc. This doesn’t just apply to yourself; training and helping my daughter to have a healthy sleep routine was a game changer for my family.

Eighth, optimize time. They measure time in seconds, but it is a perception. The more individual responsibilities you have, the more valuable time becomes. Avoid exploiting time in unnecessary ventures. The pandemic helped to restrain my already socially limited life during fellowship and directed me to develop a greater sense of self. It’s an emotional struggle every evening after work to hastily wash myself up, sanitize my phone and pager, and don on my home “uniform” to get into the gear of my “second job” while my daughter follows me around, sometimes sliding her fingers underneath the bathroom door reminding me that she is waiting outside. As I’m done with my clinical work toward the end of the day, there doesn’t seem to be any point in me sitting at my desk, staring at the computer waiting for a consult that may or may not arrive, when most of the questions can be answered through the technological advances of a cell phone, a pager, and remote desktop access. If I can avoid the extra 15 to 20 minutes of traffic and spend a little more time at home, that is time well used. Once you start valuing time, you will be able to incorporate all the factors listed in this article into your busy life. 

Ninth, ditch the guilt. Consciously decide to stop worrying when choosing between two things. You cannot physically be at two different places at once. We have different individual responsibilities. As a doctor, my role is to see patients and provide a service. Similarly, as a mother, I have many vital responsibilities to fulfill in that role. Being hounded by guilt is a disservice to every party involved. I enjoy my career. Nonetheless, I also welcome being a mother, a wife, and an individual. 

Tenth, ask for help. Help can come from many sources. It can be from your spouse, parents, in-laws, cousins, friends, coworkers, or even hired help in the form of a nanny or a housekeeper. It’s always hard to ask for assistance because no one wants to be a nuisance. There have been days when my daughter has been too sick to return to daycare, requiring me to take a sick day, but there also have been days when I’ve attempted to manage it simultaneously. I have had patient consults via phone, holding my daughter with one arm as I put orders in with the other. I have returned home during lunch hours some days to cook and feed her, giving my husband a short break in his already busy schedule. I’ve left work early some days, as needed. All along the way, my attendings and program director have aided and supported me.

Even if you feel you are not handling each area perfectly, you may still be balancing all of them effectively: One day your family wins, and the next, your career.

What strategies have helped you maintain a positive work-life balance? Share yours in the comment section.

Mehvish Khan MD is a second-year endocrinology fellow at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. 

Illustration Collage by Jennifer Bogartz / Ralf Hiemisch / gettyimages

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