A Good Doctor or a Good Mom, Never Both

“Look, Mom, it’s you!” My child’s gleeful voice tugs on the edges of my overloaded mind. I resist the pull at my focus, and reply with a noncommittal murmur. My attention on my laptop screen.

“No, Mom — look!” Impatience now admixes with the enthusiasm.

“Just a sec, honey.” My fingers scurry to finish the last sentence in the progress note. I click on the button for ‘sign and close.’ Another one down, thirty-odd to go.

A commonplace Saturday morning in my house.

Until, my child, exasperated with me, makes a move to demand my attention, and thrusts the LEGO© airplane in between my face and my computer.

I shift my head to keep my screen in view. “Hey, did you build that?” I glance at it but my fingers don’t stop typing. “Pretty cool!”

“No, that’s not it.” My child has perfected the art of the eye roll in voice form. “Look inside.” Marker-stained fingers pry the top off the vehicle to reveal the LEGO© passengers inside. “See, it’s you!”

My eyes flick to it and back to my screen. My fingers get the message on some visceral level and stop their typing even as my brain catches up. I look again. A thickness in my throat makes it hard to speak. My eyes take in what my child has built. Inside, seated in the plane, a mini LEGO© woman, with a mini laptop computer.

“See?” My child beams and repeats the words. “It’s just like you!”

“Sure is,” I say. My vision blurs. “Sure is.”

Here is the point in the story where I wish I could write that I fling the laptop aside. (The real one). Or better yet, hurl it out the window. And join my child in play for the rest of the day.

But I’m not going to be able to write that.

Because here’s what happens next. I tell my child that if I can have just a little more time without interruption, I can get my work done faster.  And then, I promise, I’ll have the rest of the weekend to play. If I can have just a few more minutes to finish my work…

A few more minutes that my child knows means a few more hours.

In my parenting fantasy, I will later use this moment to figure out a magnificent solution to manage my workload so that an occasion like this will never happen again.

And then, here on the page (or screen), I will spew out some pithy work-life balance tips for all to grasp at and use to go forth and conquer their workload challenges.

But I won’t be writing that either.

Instead, I will recall a moment from some years ago, in my first years of practice. A colleague I admired for her seeming ability to juggle it all said to me, “You can be a good doctor, and you can be a good mother, but you can never be both at the same time.”

Advice that seemed both straightforward and wise. But at the same time, there was something about it that felt almost like a trick. Something I still can’t quite put my finger on. A hidden truth. Insisting I notice it—like a child tugging on my elbow.

Because, here’s something I will admit. When I’m at the clinic, I work with such single-minded devotion that thoughts of family will be so far from my mind that I will sometimes startle myself with the recollection of what one of my kids must be doing at that moment. I’ll be puzzling through a consult and realize that the field trip must already be over, the one I couldn’t go on again. Did the rain jacket end up in the backpack this morning or left on the floor? Or, in the middle of a bone marrow biopsy, it hits me that the big presentation for the final grade was hours ago. And I wasn’t even thinking about it. Did it go okay, or did the other kids laugh?

But somehow, when I’m at home, it doesn’t work the other way. I can never leave the clinic behind.

Because I am a good doctor.

One recent night, in a moment of exhaustion, sometime perhaps around 2:30 a.m., I find myself saying to my sleep-behavior-challenged child that Mommy really can’t be woken up every hour, because Mommy has lots of important people depending on her, people that she has to take care of the next day…

Important people that my child understands means my patients.

And when my child falls silent, I realize it’s too late to take the words back.

And I finally figure it out. The deception in the advice we’ve all been given. The hidden lie.

You can be a good doctor, or you can be a good mother, but you can never be both at the same time.

Dr. Jennifer Lycette, MD, is a medical oncologist in community practice for 11 years. She works and resides on the North Oregon Coast, where she lives with her husband and 3 children. Her personal blog, The Hopeful Cancer Doc, includes her writings on practicing oncology, maintaining hope in medicine, work-life balance, and various other musings.

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