Commentary

Psychiatry and neurology, more


 

Perspectives on motherhood and psychiatry

I very much enjoyed Drs. Helen M. Farrell’s and Katherine A. Kosman’s recent article “Motherhood and the working psychiatrist” (Psychiatry 2.0, Current Psychiatry, March 2019, p. 40-43). I would love to see a series of similar articles and opinion pieces highlighting different perspectives from other practicing psychiatrists who are also parents—in particular, mothers. I completely relate to the dilemma you pose about the multiple duties one has as both a mother and physician, as well as feeling the pull towards honoring our understanding of attachment in the face of conflicting responsibilities. I imagine it’s an experience to which many can relate.

Christina Ford, MD
Private psychiatric practice
Los Angeles, California

I doubt that anyone—male or female—would argue against the points made by Drs. Farrell and Kosman’s “Motherhood and the working psychiatrist,” which emphasized the need for breaking down the barriers that continue to exist for female physicians who choose to balance their careers with motherhood. As a female psychiatrist who has known since high school that I would choose to remain child-free, I would like to add a different perspective to this discussion and possibly help represent the 20% of women, age 40 to 44, with an MD or PhD who are also child-free.1

While Drs. Farrell and Kosman referenced many assumptions made about working physician mothers, I have not been able to move through medical school, residency, and my career without battling certain assumptions as well. Although every mother is a woman, logic dictates that the converse—every woman is a mother—is certainly not true. However, when interviewing for residency, I was paired specifically with a female attending who had children, and I was told that I could ask her questions about how to balance work-life and raising a family, despite the fact that I did not say or indicate that I had any interest in having such a conversation. There is also the assumption (sometimes more explicit than others) that those of us without children are missing out on something—that we are not included in the “having it all” category. However, in my mind, “having it all” means having the choice to remain child-free, to focus more intensely on my career, to travel when I want, and to own a white couch—without feeling the social obligation to fulfill a role in which I really have no interest.

Cherishing that ability to focus more on my career, however, does not imply that I am boundlessly able and willing to take extra calls, work holidays, or cover for all my colleagues with children (which is also a common assumption). And while I may not be a caregiver to children, that should not detract from the devotion and time I want to spend helping my parents, relatives, and friends.

The article also made the case that facilities, medical schools, and residency programs need to implement policies and procedures that guide the development of accommodations, such as flexible scheduling and lactation rooms, to meet the needs of trainees and physicians without having to jump through hoops or rely on colleagues for coverage and other assistance. Having been in situations where such policies and procedures were not in place, I can affirm that the absence of such guidelines leads not only parents but also child-free physicians to feeling unnecessarily stressed. There was no clear coverage in place when fellow classmates in my residency program went on maternity leave. Essentially, everyone else was expected to step up and take on the additional caseloads, leading the pregnant classmates to try to time things around rotations where there were lighter demands or more residents assigned—not a simple task by any means.

Post-residency, there have been continued challenges. At one point, I was working in a clinic with 2 other female psychiatrists, one of whom was making plans to take maternity leave. During a meeting with our supervisors, the other physician and I were told that we were taking on the third doctor’s patients (without any extension of our own hours or reimbursement) while she was on leave. In addition to disgruntlement over the extra work being sprung on us, I pointed out that this would, in effect, make the third physician’s role obsolete. If 2 of us were able to do the work of 3, what would be the point in keeping her position when she returned? I was assured that this wouldn’t be the case. We dealt with the weeks of covering additional patients, and when she returned from leave, she was asked to shift some of her hours to a different (and, in my opinion, less desirable) clinic.

So, yes, it is incumbent upon facilities and training programs to take responsibility and to remove the barriers that make the jobs of female physicians with children even more challenging than they need to be. This can benefit not only those physicians and their children, but also their colleagues and, ultimately, the patients, who often bear the brunt of stressed, burnt-out physicians and disorganized programs. While I am not going to take a stance on whether it truly takes a village to raise a child, I certainly do not think that it should take a village to organize maternity leave and lactation rooms.

Jessica L. Langenhan, MD, MBA, CHCQM
Medical DirectorBeacon Health Options
Cypress, California

Reference
1. Livingston G. Childlessness. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/05/07/childlessness/. Published May 7, 2015. Accessed May 9, 2019.

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