Can you have it all?

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.

2 thoughts on “Can you have it all?

  1. I agree with you, when you mention working out what “have it all” means, with this statement meaning different things to different people. My aunt “had it all” travelling the world, lecturing and having a great career but didn’t get marriage or have kids as these were not on her “have it all” list. She claims no regrets.

    If your “have it all” list spreads to kids etc you can do that too with the assistance of a support person. This support person needs to be invested in your success which becomes a joint success. The support person (generally a partner) forgo’s their career so you can be totally focused on your career, They take care of everything including you. Kids, house bills etc so you are free to think of surgery and your career. You could of course pay someone as a nanny/EA to assist. But you need someone that is available 24/7 so you are available 24/7.

    It is a big ask but it seems to work. Friends of mine have three kids, he is a home dad doing pick up drop offs bills you know the deal and she has her Phd and works with her clients and on her career.

    Great website, some really good advice and insightful comment. Keep up the great work!!

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  2. Great post. My tutor was commenting on one of his colleagues who had a successful surgical career and family, but spent two afternoons a week with her children. To my tutor, that was not the definition of having it all, but to others it is.

    You mention having a support person to possibly forego their career. The problem with society is that we still see men as breadwinners and women as the carers. I know two medical couples, where each member of the couple was in surgical training. When they decided to have a family, the male continued with their surgical training and the female went into a less intensive medical practice. Besides the biological pressure of the physical strain a woman is put on in pregnancy, men also have a societal pressure to be the providers. But things are changing, slowly but surely, and its fantastic to see role models like you making the change from within surgery.

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