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Surgeon and Mother: The Right to Take Care of Ourselves

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“I can see where it is supposed to be, but … it’s not … right?”

“Yeah, I mean, I can see it, but just barely.”

To my and my husband’s surprise, we were indeed pregnant with our first child. The second line on the pregnancy test was not a representation of where a second line should be, it was itself the very first sign of the life inside me. Although we didn’t quite believe it at first, we came to realize it was true over the course of the following days, as repeat tests revealed a clearer and clearer answer. We tried to conceal our secret excitement so that the focus could remain on my brother, as we just happened to be gathered with family and friends for his wedding that particular weekend. We eventually shared our joyous news and returned home, where we faced the real challenges regarding how, when, and to whom to divulge our secret. 

At the time, I was a relatively young attending, only a few years out of fellowship. I had joined a practice where all my many partners were several years or decades my senior. Only a few were mothers. I had no idea how the group would react to my impending need for maternity leave, and I didn’t know how to tell them. 

Despite having trained in a program where one of my female colleagues birthed two children during residency with what I would consider to be only a minor amount of grumbling, the message was always still clear: Child-bearing during training puts immense pressure on an already stressed system. What no one tells you during training is that this is no different when you become an attending. It’s not as if you can simply wait until you graduate from training and then be away for maternity leave without stress or guilt. In the case of my friend who had children during training, she at least had already put years of blood, sweat, and tears into our program before she went away. In a sense, she could feel as if she had earned the right to take care of herself. But here I was, the most junior partner in my practice, about to tell everyone that I would need to be away for three months and that they would need to pick up my slack. How was that going to go? 

As it turns out, fine. My partners were not just supportive but seemed genuinely excited for me. Unfortunately, this did little to alleviate my deep sense of guilt about needing time for myself and my soon-to-be-growing family. As my gravid belly grew and my leave approached, one of my partners announced that she was leaving our practice to move out of state, further amplifying my mistaken sense that I was abandoning my partners. 

But then came delivery day. Everyone tells you the birth of your first child is an earth-shattering event. Despite having felt as prepared as possible, I can say it is impossible to comprehend the gravity of that precise moment until it happens to you. As I gazed upon my baby’s tiny, perfect face, consumed by a profound new love, I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be. 

I would like to say that I am a fast enough learner not to have struggled with similar feelings when the time came to announce my second and third maternity leaves, but unfortunately, that is not the case. What I can say, though, is that the intensity of guilt I felt decreased substantially with my second maternity leave and fell to the level of a dull roar by my third. Somewhere between the arrival of my second child and finding out we were pregnant with the third, one of the female medical students at my institution asked me how I was able to find time for my two small children despite the demanding schedule of a surgeon. Without thinking, I spit out the answer I had been grappling to accept all this time, “I absolutely love my job. I can’t imagine anything I would rather be doing. But I love my family WAY more.” 

I’m not sure why I found this obvious truth so hard to accept. Maybe it was all the years of training, during which I convinced myself that putting my personal life on hold was always the right move. Maybe it was that I didn’t meet my husband until later in life,  subsequent to the sacrifices I had made to chase my dream of being a top-rate physician. Regardless of my reasons, I am glad that I finally moved past them and accepted my role in the world. Sure, I am a damn good surgeon and a lot of people are alive today who might not have been without me. I love that and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But when it’s all said and done, and I’m cold and in the ground, the accomplishment I most want to be remembered for is being a mother. 

What has been your experience with parental leave as a clinician? Share your experiences in the comment section.

Dr. Danielle Pigneri is a trauma and acute care surgeon practicing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. When not working, she enjoys her other job, being a mom to two sweet young children. Dr. Pigneri was a 2022-2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow, and continues as a 2023-2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Image by Mary Long / Shutterstock

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