On Becoming Dr. Mom


Today’s guest blogger is a long-time dear friend of mine, Madhura Hallman. Madhura is a Pediatric Intensivist at UAB and lives with her beautiful family in Alabama. She is a loving mother, wife, and follower of Jesus. Today she blogs about what her successful career journey has really been like, and a few lessons she learned along the way. I think we can all take heart in her honest sharing that the path can be messy and hard, but it’s worth it. Enjoy!

In true scattered working mom form, I actually didn’t complete this blog post when I said I would because life happened, I had a train wreck of a week at work, and lost track of the date.

I am a wife, a mother of two girls, a pediatric critical care physician, and much of the time I’m a hot mess. And I wouldn’t have it any other way…

Veronica asked me to weigh in on my journey towards becoming a physician and what it has taken to balance the demands of my career with my family. It took 4 years of medical school (5 with a combined master’s degree in public health), 3 years of pediatric residency, and 3 additional years of fellowship in pediatric critical care to do what I do now. I spend part of my time as an attending (lead physician) in a 24-bed PICU at an academic children’s hospital, and the rest of my time building up different advocacy and research projects of interest.

I spent 8.5 years of my training as a wife and 4.5 years of it as a mother. I was fortunate that no one discouraged me from raising a family while in medical training, and I was surrounded by women in medicine who had done the same, so I was naive to the raw challenges of being a mommy doc.

If I could talk to my 27-year-old self, right before I began residency, I’d tell myself and other young women trying to navigate a career and parenthood a few things:

You will fail…and your successes will be all the sweeter for it. I’ve known people who never seem to miss a step and have achieved far more than I ever have or maybe will. What Veronica didn’t know when she asked me to write about being a rock-star doctor mom, is that that is not my story. I lacked direction in medical school and to some degree in residency. I learned hard lessons and failed to reach my potential at multiple points in my training, and parenthood made me even more confused about what I truly wanted. It wasn’t until fellowship and beyond that I truly came alive with my own passions both for patient care and my extra clinical niche. Yet even then I very nearly quit because I was burned out after having our second child, so fearful of being incompetent that I actually became a lesser doctor and I hated going to work. It took two strong women in our division to see what was happening and encourage me to keep going, because they knew that I was where I was supposed to be. I started my job this year with terrible impostor syndrome, worried that my colleagues would eventually realize I didn’t deserve to be there. But I remind myself that I am better because of my failures, and I have a testimony for those who feel that they will never measure up, because they don’t see people ahead of them screwing up. In the last 6 months, I have successfully put several children on ECMO (total life support), walked with several families through withdrawal of support to pursue comfort care, taught lectures, passed my critical care boards, and started 2 or 3 new projects outside of clinical care that I’m really excited about. You may very well be a smarter and more focused person than I and your story won’t be the same, but no matter who you are, you will stumble at some point and it will be ok.

There is no such thing as work-life balance. I’ve never believed that “having it all” is really a thing, or that it is really important to begin with. Your work and your personal life will never be balanced…it is a fluid give and take. The weeks I’m on service in the unit, I’m going to be home late, I can’t drop off or pick up the girls from school, and I work most of the weekend including a 24-hour shift on Sunday. Even when I’m home, I’m thinking about my patients or I’m on home call and have to be available for emergencies from whichever fellow is covering the unit. But when I’m not on service, I’m all in at home. Unless I have a deadline coming up, I leave work at a reasonable time and pick up the girls when necessary and I’m always home to help with dinner. During those times, everything I leave at work can wait and my family comes first. Realizing this ebb and flow has helped me to feel less guilty about one facet of my life when the other takes precedence. Now if you’re anything like me, you will still feel like you’re never enough, and that you could always be doing more. It’s a natural feeling, and one that I still grapple with. Over time, though, I’m learning the difference in how it feels when we are taking something on that is difficult but the right thing for us at the time or meeting an important need that is worth it (like committing to living and ministering for 3 years in a poor neighborhood, letting a high school student live with us who needed a place to stay, or contemplating adoption) versus just feeling guilty for saying no when in reality there is someone else more equipped to say yes. The former has given us peace in the midst of hardship, whereas the latter has just made us feel burned out and bitter.

There will be people who will suggest that being a mother will hamper your career. In reality, it can make you better at it…if you let it. Having two little people who couldn’t do anything for themselves when they were babies and now need my attention, love and discipleship has made me much more efficient with the little free time I have left. I try my best to get my notes done at work when I’m on service because otherwise I’m stuck until the girls are in bed. When I was studying for boards, I’d take some time out every night after bedtime and listen to lectures while I was cooking or cleaning. And being a mother absolutely makes me a better pediatrician. I am blessed to have never had a critically ill child, but I can sympathize more with parents who are scared, stressed and exhausted. I can commiserate with parents over stories of nursing, sleep training, toddler meltdowns, and favorite Disney movies. I can imagine how excruciating it must be not to be able to hold your child for weeks on end because I miss my own after just one day. You may think this has nothing to do with what I learned in medical training, but forming a therapeutic alliance is as important as knowing the facts. I am friends with excellent pediatricians who are not parents so it’s not a prerequisite. But I am certainly a better doctor now with children than I was before. And lastly, having my own beautiful and healthy children to come home to helps me heal when I am grieving the loss of one of my patients. Every time a child has passed away under my care, I have made sure to hug my children just a little bit tighter, because I am reminded that I am not guaranteed any length of time with them. Again, I do not think parenthood is necessary for fulfillment or joy, but neither is it a liability.

My life and my career are all the richer for having my girls, not more burdensome.

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