“You make time for the things you love.” That’s what I have always said when asked how I am able to be a writer and a doctor-in-training. Over the past decade, I have stood firmly balanced on these twin pillars of my identity. That is, until motherhood changed everything.
I thought having a baby would also be easy to balance, but as my body and mind made room for my daughter, I found less space to write. For me, pregnancy and its exhaustion made putting pen to paper impossible. I didn’t feel like myself and even worse, I felt like a failure.
As a psychiatrist I tried to practice the same self-compassion I preach to my patients, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of inadequacy. I really believed that pregnancy was not an acceptable excuse for any concessions in my professional life.
This toxic seed took root in my mind during medical school. After ranting about how he worked more than some of his female colleagues, the emergency medicine physician I was working with asked: “You’re not going to become one of those fake mommy doctors, are you?”
I recognized how callous and disdainful he sounded, but I didn’t want to contradict my supervisor, nor did I want to fulfill this stereotype of a woman in medicine. I promised him, and myself, that I wouldn’t become a “mommy doctor.”
I did not know what I was promising.
Determined to carry my own weight and keep my doctor-self intact, I took 24-hour call shifts the week my baby was due. It was hard, but passing this test of perseverance gave me a perverse sense of pride. But my writer-self lagged behind and I wobbled on one pillar without the strength of the other. The longer my column lay dormant, the more fragile my identity felt.
My writing made me feel special and that I had something useful to contribute to the world. Who was I if not a physician-writer? I loved my child even before she was born and I imagined that motherhood would make my life more full. But, as my drive to create dwindled, I struggled to recognize myself. Was this — becoming a “mommy writer” — the sacrifice of motherhood? The exchange of one love for another? I wondered, what would happen to my ambition?
After my baby was born, I sat down and talked to my mother, Dr. Adetutu Adetona, my first female role-model in medicine and the hardest-working woman I know. Her story was both surprising and familiar.
When it came to balancing her training as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon with motherhood, she said “there was no doubt in my mind that it was easily doable.” But no sooner did she start the training did she begin to understand that her dreams of being a surgeon came at a cost.
My mother described her weekends on call — leaving home on a Friday morning and not returning home until Monday night. “It was the worst. … I would cry until I got to work.”
Like me, she feared failure, what she labeled as “that sense of letting myself down.” But eventually she recognized that motherhood was an experience and opportunity that opened new doors. The moment she decided to transition to family medicine, a specialty that ultimately allowed her to thrive both personally and professionally, she felt relieved that she had time for both her patients and her family. Things happen in life for a reason, she counseled, it may be unclear in the moment, but eventually it all balances out.
I don’t know what I’ll say when people ask me how I’m able to be a mother, a doctor, and a writer. As the writer Sarah Manguso explains, through motherhood I am able to “perceive the world more carefully and more lovingly than before because I am more aware of the effects of love and of time on an individual person. And I am more aware of the limits of love and of time.”
I hope my newest, and perhaps most important role, will make me a better doctor and a better writer. Of this I am certain: In facing my struggle with failure, I’ve learned to lean into the wisdom and grace of the “mommies” around me.