A Woman Who Left Academia Wonders, “Am I Enough?”

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It’s been 14 years since I made the decision to leave academic medicine and to, as they say, “cross over into the dark side” of private practice. I still miss it very much, but I know I made the right decision for my family, which by default was the right decision for me. But, even now after a successful career in private practice, I struggle with the what ifs of the life not lived. I recently had the opportunity to counsel a younger pediatrician, who was just finishing residency and was struggling with whether to stay in her dream job at the university or to start a really nice job in private practice, which would be better for her family. She was really torn with the notion that if she left academia she would no longer be relevant. I really hate that medicine has done that to women.

As I spoke with my fellow female physician, I was transported back to one of my final meetings with my mentor in academic medicine, in which I shared my challenges with balancing my time on clinical service, with research, with marriage, with two small children, with teaching residents, and, occasionally, with self-care. I was the only female in the department who had small children and one of the few who was married. I was constantly being advised by men…men whose wives were at home, often raising their children; men who thought it was okay for my children to be in a 24-hour day care; men who thought it was okay for me to leave work, pick my daughter up from day care, and come back to the office to finish more work with my child in tow; men who dangled tenure in front of me, along with research and publications, and who invited me to just get it done because, after all, that’s what they had done. And finally, a man who said to me — after I shared I was leaving to save my family, to save my life, to see my children, to see my husband, to breathe — like a solemn proclamation on my D-Day, “I hope your husband appreciates that you just threw away your career.” To which I responded, “I just appreciate the fact that I still had a husband.” God knows I had no idea how, since I had spent more time at the hospital in the past year than at home, a fact I was not proud of but have worked hard to make a distant memory.

Fast forward 14 years. I did indeed join a private practice. I worked exclusive weekend nights. I loved it. It allowed me to, yes, become a mom, join the PTA, have family dinners, help with homework, and to make sure my children knew that they had a mommy and a daddy, not just a work-tired mommy but a mommy they could play with. I went on to nurse my passion and interest in neonatal palliative care and build two successful neonatal palliative care teams for my practice. I published stories in two bestselling anthologies and went on to enjoy public speaking at a variety of national conferences. I became a tireless advocate for the work of March of Dimes, even winning Volunteer of the Year during my tenure as Chair for one of our program services committees. I am still board certified in both pediatrics and neonatology. I still provide the gift of hope, of compassion, of laughter to every family I meet, especially their children. But most of all, I have been happily married for the past 24 years — to date, I believe one of my biggest accomplishments.

But it was hard to walk away. I’ve always loved teaching. I miss residents terribly. I always wanted to see “professor” near my name; for a time, I did. I celebrate the attention to work-life balance that so many women in academia have now. There are alternative and modified work schedules, flexible paths to attaining tenure, and more attention to the kind of research I had hoped to do. And I still can’t help but wonder, “What if.” I am strong, successful, and excited about my future. But, in the still moments, I still hear my very-senior male academic mentor say, “I hope your husband appreciates that you just threw your career away.” I hate that even now I hear those words. I hate that with every accomplishment post “University” I still want to say: “No. I did not throw my career away. My career is just fine, thank you very much.” Maybe one day I will.

But in the meantime, I encourage this young pediatrician on the cusp of her career. I let her know to consider very seriously what she wants and figure out a way to have that, whether in academia or private practice. I believe it’s possible to be successful as a wife and a mother in academia, but our junior faculty need mentors, mentors who understand what it’s like to be a wife, a mother, and a faculty member. Everyone can’t leave, and I look forward to celebrating those who stay. But in the meantime, I will remind myself that in this moment I am enough. I have done enough. And it is okay. And so it is.

Dr. Terri Major-Kincade is a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist practicing in Texas for the past 20 years. She currently serves as Chair for the March of Dimes Steering Committee for African American Outreach. She is a prior recipient of the Physician of the Year award. She can be reached at www.drterrimd.com or drterrimd@gmail.com.

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