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My Goal as a Woman in Medicine? To Be Happy

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There is a line in “Pretty Hurts” by Beyonce where she recalls a beauty pageant interview during which she is asked, “What is your aspiration in life?” Stunned, she repeats the question, and then answers, “To be happy.” So simple yet often so challenging, especially for women in medicine. 

The day I realized I was miserable I was 40 and an academic pediatric surgeon. A photo shoot had been done for a marketing campaign and the photos had arrived in the office. The office staff was commenting on how great I looked. I picked up the photos expecting to see me, and by that, I mean the me in my mind. My mental image was the 32-year-old me: fit, strong, happy, and optimistic, who ran like a gazelle. Someone who was ready to take on the world. Instead, for the first time, I saw the real me. Lines etched deep in the corners of my eyes, slightly overweight, the gray streak in my hair — thicker than before — paneled my face, and my eyes were tired. I was punched in the gut. These photos showed struggle, fatigue, misery. The realization hit me. I wasn’t happy. 

Life was a grind. I was in a marriage that was emotionally imprisoning, I had three kids, ages 2, 5, and 9, who also seemed miserable. At home, we walked on eggshells. I worked harder and harder and came home less and less. I held the title of associate professor but was striving to make full professor, while taking every other night call for the third year in a row. I drank too much coffee and wine, I exercised too little, and I loved even less. I loved my work – I always have. For me, pediatric surgery was a calling, and patient care and medical education was an oasis away from challenges in my personal life. 

But the job was grueling with no clear opportunity for advancement. Like most women, I was, or at least felt, judged on all fronts at all times. Judged on my physique and appearance, subjected in the doctor’s dining room to analysis of seemingly every female doctor and nurse that worked there. Left to assume I was analyzed when not present. Constantly judged on my mothering and subjected to “well-meaning” comments about how hard it is to be a good mother and a physician. Nice. The impossible scenario of being told you are not home enough, while it is simultaneously suggested that you have put your career on hold to have children. Constantly judged by myself: Was I pretty enough, fit enough, making enough money, a good enough doctor, mom, financial planner, wife, housekeeper, friend? And as a surgeon? The stereotype of the woman surgeon is slow to change: It starts with “bitter” and ends with “cat lady.”  

I didn’t feel valued at work. Despite my role on multiple committees and leadership roles, I had frequent opportunities to speak but I was rarely heard. Diversity was promoted, but inclusion was overlooked. I am a good surgeon, and a good person, and I yearned for purpose. Women from many departments at work came to me to ask advice on everything, from breastfeeding while working, to getting promoted. Who was I to give advice? Was I the picture of success? If so, the future did not seem bright.

That day, I made a decision to be happy. Happiness is a choice. I repeated the mantra daily. I forced a huge toothy smile in the car mirror each morning. I chanted statements of affirmation. I began to exercise again. I opened up to my children more. I started to play the piano again. I got a divorce. I worked just as hard, maybe harder, but I worked differently. My personal life swung completely around, but my professional life was met by the same boundaries.

Spurred on by an experience in wellness coaching with the Association of Women Surgeons, I made the decision to pursue coaching certification to better aid myself and those around me to get to where we want to be personally and professionally. I also decided to seek out a new career opportunity and found a leadership position with a health care system whose motto is “Lead with Love.” I lead a team of 10, which includes eight other women – four surgeons and four APPs. I am engaged in resident education and mentoring and launched year two of a coaching program for pediatric surgery trainees. Last summer, I completed my coaching certificate. Physicians don’t need to come in and get advice to find out how someone else did it — they need guidance and to give themselves permission to develop the solutions that are accessible to them for the outcome they want. Happiness and success aren’t one-size-fits-all (or even most) — they are choices.

What is my aspiration in life? To be happy. To love my profession and feel inspired and supported in my job, to give myself permission to devote time and space to my personal life and family, to give myself permission to take on new projects and roles in and out of the hospital. Every morning I awake to a sense of purpose – to my family, my community, my team, my patients, and myself. I don’t have to force the smile in the car mirror or convince myself. I already know it. I’m happy. 

How do you choose happiness as a woman in medicine? Share in the comments.

Holly is the Division Chief of Pediatric Surgery at Joe Di Maggio Children’s Hospital and Associate Program Director for the Memorial Healthcare System Department of General Surgery. Holly is happily remarried, has three children: Zack (20), Camille (16) and Chloe (13), two rescue dogs, loves cooking gluten free, vegetarian food, exercises regularly and recently completed the Mackinac Island Long Course Otillo with 15 miles of running and three of swimming. She still drinks coffee, but is there such a thing as too much?

Image by Jorm Sangsorn / GettyImages

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