There’s Hope For The Rest of Us

This morning I had the opportunity to speak about radiation oncology before a group of high school girls in a program called BeWISE, which stands for Be a Woman In Science and Engineering.  The organizer of this morning’s seminar had purposely chosen an all- woman faculty, so that the students would get an opportunity to mingle with and question those of us who had chosen the pathways of scientific research and medicine.  During a break in the program, these two conversations were overheard.

From an accomplished female radiologist who is married to one of the country’s greatest gastrointestinal cancer surgeons—“I was picking up my husband downtown at a conference with the kids in the car and as my husband hopped in, another speaker at the conference leaned into the car window and asked my daughter if she wanted to be just like her dad when she grew up.  She said, “No, he’s just a SURGEON!  I want to be a Doctor, like Mommy”.”

From a female gynecologic cancer surgeon, also married to a physician—“I took my daughter to work on Take Your Daughter To Work Day.  We were in the OR, all scrubbed and ready to go, and my scrub nurse said, “Do you want to be a doctor like your Mommy or like your Daddy.”  She said, “I want to be a MOMMY, like my Mommy.”

Whether we identify our busy lives with respect to our children as “benign neglect,” or whether we prefer to think of ourselves as allowing—no– EXPECTING our children to “step up” and take more responsibility for their schoolwork, their pets, their siblings and the household chores, we must be doing something right, ladies!

Happy Mother’s Day

They lied to us, they did–Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and all the others who told us back in the 60’s and 70’s that we could have it all. Or maybe they weren’t exactly lying to the impressionable girls graduating from high school and like me, beginning their college and subsequent careers as professionals in schools and fields once exclusively reserved for men.  Maybe they truly didn’t know the physical and emotional tolls our lofty goals would exact on ourselves, our marriages and our children.  We have come of age now, and we are tired.

To the stay at home moms, who ran the carpools, acted as room mothers, cheered at every Little League game and had a healthy dinner on the table at six pm, I salute you.  I was secretly envious of the time you were able to spend with your children.  You didn’t miss a thing in their lives, and if you were secretly envious of me—my financial independence, my ability to walk out the door in the morning and leave the chaos behind to enter the adult world where you could actually reason with people most of the time—I never knew it.

To my fellow female doctors, lawyers, business women, veterinarians and leaders in industry, I salute you also.  No matter how tired you were at the end of the day, you made time for your children—you rushed out of work to get to the ballet recital, you helped with their homework, you got down on the floor and you played games when your back hurt and your eyelids were closing as you read “Goodnight Moon” one more time.  You were consumed by guilt most of the time—at work when you felt you could not give it your all after a sleepless night, at home when your child called you by your caregiver’s name.

This Mother’s Day is my first without a mother—she passed away in January, having lived her life as the wife of a busy plastic surgeon—the endless nights of caring for three children while he was on call, the arguments over promised wealth as a private practitioner versus the academic life he chose, the pampered later years when she could and did have anything she wanted.  But when I was a sophomore in college, majoring in English, she took me aside and said, “You have to DO something!  Don’t be like me. You must choose a career where you never have to depend on anyone but yourself.”  I listened and went to medical school.  Forty years later, it was the right choice for me.

When I was a junior medical resident at Beth Israel Hospital, Betty Friedan’s daughter Emily was one of my medical students.  In a week, my own daughter graduates from medical school.  As my children grew up, I had only one bit of advice for them that I remember repeating like a mantra:  Whatever you do, wherever you go, at the end of the day, every day, be able to look in the mirror and feel good about yourself.

And don’t think it’s going to be easy.  Motherhood never is.  Happy Mother’s Day everyone!