Across all industries, studies by the U.S. Department of Labor have shown that women, on average, earn 83.7 percent of what their male peers earn. While a lot has been written about the struggles women face in medicine, there have been decidedly fewer analyses that focus on women who choose to become mothers while working in medicine.
I’ve been privileged to work with medical students and residents for the last 8 years as the director of graduate and medical student mental health at Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine in Mt. Laurel, N.J. Often, the women I see as patients speak about their struggles with the elusive goal of “having it all.” While both men and women in medicine have difficulty maintaining a work-life balance, I’ve learned, both personally and professionally, that many women face a unique set of challenges.
No matter what their professional status, our society often views a woman as the default parent. For example, the teacher often calls the mothers first. The camp nurse calls me first, not my husband, when our child scrapes a knee. After-school play dates are arranged by the mothers, not fathers.
But mothers also bring to medicine a wealth of unique experiences, ideas, and viewpoints. They learn firsthand how to foster affect regulation and frustration tolerance in their kids and become efficient at managing the constant, conflicting tug of war of demands.
Some may argue that, over time, women end up earning significantly less than their male counterparts because they leave the workforce while on maternity leave, ultimately delaying their upward career progression. It’s likely a much more complex problem. Many of my patients believe that, in our male-dominated society (and workforce), women are punished for being aggressive or stating bold opinions, while men are rewarded for the same actions. While a man may sound forceful and in charge, a women will likely be thought of as brusque and unappreciative.
Outside of work, many women may have more on their plate. A 2020 Gallup poll of more than 3,000 heterosexual couples found that women are responsible for the majority of household chores. Women continue to handle more of the emotional labor within their families, regardless of income, age, or professional status. This is sometimes called the “Mental Load’ or “Second Shift.” As our society continues to view women as the default parent for childcare, medical issues, and overarching social and emotional tasks vital to raising happy, healthy children, the struggle a female medical professional feels is palpable.
Raising kids requires a parent to consistently dole out control, predictability, and reassurance for a child to thrive. Good limit and boundary setting leads to healthy development from a young age.
Psychiatric patients (and perhaps all patients) also require control, predictability, and reassurance from their doctor. The lessons learned in being a good mother can be directly applied in patient care, and vice versa. The cross-pollination of this relationship continues to grow more powerful as a woman’s children grow and her career matures.
Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s idea of a “good enough” mother cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Women who self-select into the world of medicine often hold themselves to a higher standard than “good enough.” Acknowledging that the demands from both home and work will fluctuate is key to achieving success both personally and professionally, and lessons from home can and should be utilized to become a more effective physician. The notion of having it all, and the definition of success, must evolve over time.
Dr. Maymind is director of medical and graduate student mental health at Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine in Mt. Laurel, N.J. She has no relevant disclosures.