A few years ago, I spoke at a women in medicine day for a university surgical society. The theme of the day was how to have it all. I felt more than a little nervous. I don’t know that we can. But I had decided in fairness to both sides of the debate to try and tell these young women how I try and ‘have it all’. What was ironic was the morning of the presentation, I had been called in at 4am for an aortic dissection. What was more ironic was that 5am was when I was supposed to be finishing my talk because I hadn’t had time to finish it before then. But I did my best. My opinion was that you can have it all as long as you work out what ‘it all’ means to you as an individual, family or couple and that it may not all happen at once. A fellow speaker who was a rural GP/surgeon stood up at the end of my talk and wanted to know if I ever ‘take me batteries out’. I don’t know what she meant by that but she may not have listened to the bit where I said do what is right for you.
A friend of mine is applying for surgical training and I fully support her and I think she will be wonderful. We had a bit of a talk last night about one thing that is really worrying her about embarking on a surgical career. That is, meeting someone and having a family. How do you do both? Can you have both? Or do you have to choose?
Women, regardless of professional standing, are more likely to spend more time with household chores and child rearing tasks. If they are married to another professional, for example two doctors, the woman is more likely to forego or change her career to a different specialty that is more conducive to family-related tasks. Even if her specialty is perceived as ‘more prestigious’. Women physicians are more likely to be married to another physician while male doctors are not. And when we look at a doctors’ formative years, women doctors are a lot less likely to have children than their male counterparts. But it’s not doom and gloom, we’re not a lonely barren lot. Women doctors are married and procreating at rates comparable to the general population. No need to break out the cat lady starter kit just yet.
I am going to go back to the statement that I made at the university function. Everybody is different. I don’t think you necessarily have to pick one thing over the other. It is surgery or it is a family. It is work or it is a marriage. It is operating or exercising. The scalpel or drinks with friends. It is balancing these in a mixture that makes you happy that I think you really need to work out. At the same time, I also don’t think that if you for example see family as your number one in life, the thing you will be most whole with and that you’re worried how surgery will impact on that, well that’s cool. Nobody wants to spend their life in a career that they resent away from something or someone that they love.
I think what I want to say is that I think it’s possible to tick all of the things in life that you want. I’m reluctant to say ‘have it all’ because really, I think that saying in itself is rubbish. But you need to work out what the important things in life are to you. Then it’s just a matter of timing.