The Doctor as Single Parent
by Alison Delory
The Medical Post
March 8, 2005
While marriage breakups are becoming common, raising kids as a single parent isn't getting any easier and huge time demands have doctor-parents suffering burnout.
Dr. Lorna Adams says at the end of her marriage she felt like she was in a wind tunnel. "I needed to just put my head down and keep going and not look up too much, or I would get blown off course. I couldn't continue to work full time and raise three children if I looked around too much."
was 1992; her son Dylan was four, daughter Leah was six and daughter Kaili was 10. She was also managing a
there are likely more single parent doctors than at any other point in
history. According to Dr. Mamta Gautam, an
"Thirty years ago, reviews showed while many doctors were unhappy in their marriages, most did not leave," says Dr. Gautam. This was partly due to high social visibility, she says, but also because doctors were men who could "escape" into their work. But times have changed, divorce is more socially acceptable and there are more women doctors with the financial means to support themselves without a husband.
While it may be a growing trend, raising kids as a single parent MD is not getting easier. About one-quarter of Dr. Gautam's patients are single parent doctors, and she says they're commonly suffering from burnout, with huge demands on their time, and from guilt.
"Becoming a single parent through divorce or death is generally a shock, and a large amount of grief comes along with the territory," says Dr. Adams, who notes the grieving period signified the end of a lot of her hopes and dreams. There were also the practical concerns of how to get children to three different soccer games in three different towns all at the same time. "You can't feel guilty because you can't watch all three of them at once. You must decide that you will ask for help in car pooling and you will reciprocate when you can, if you can."
she holds the most powerful position in public health in
wish I had more time at home. I wish I could be more 100% present when I
am home," says Dr. Basrur. Managing the SARS
crisis of 2003, while still the medical officer of health for
Dr. Basrur says she is lucky Simone's father lives just 10 minutes away, and that their arrangement since separating in 1999 has been that either will step in on short notice when the other is too busy to it all themselves for longer. Women are busier, as kids often turn to their mothers for nurturance and help with homework or projects," says Dr. Gautam. Another interesting note, says Dr. Gautam, is that women who have to leave work early report they can be accommodated but are unsupported, left out of department matters and decisions, and subtly discriminated against. Men who leave work early to care for kids are seen as heroes and fabulous dads.
"One of the most difficult things for type A personality MDs is to acknowledge when it is impossible to do it all," says Dr. Adams. Sacrifices have been made by her and her children. "I could no longer continue to deliver babies, which was the thing I most loved about practicing medicine. When two kids were offered spots on the rep (elite level sports) team, I knew that would simply be impossible, and had to disappoint them terribly. You have to learn your limit and stick to it."
Dr. Gautam is a strong proponent of asking for assistance, be it at work, in terms of child care or from a support system of relatives, friends and neighbours. “ Accept all offers of help," she advises. "Doctors are better at giving help than receiving it."
Dr. Basrur says she's fortunate to have 200 staff. "In an organization, especially when you're the head of it, you have people you can delegate to," says Dr. Basrur. "From time to time there are command performances, such as a cabinet meeting, but I'm lucky to have staff that will step in .... People are cognizant of my competing demands. Also, I can call in from home, or use email to keep the river flowing when I'm officially off."
Advice from Dr. Mamta Gautam for single parent doctors feeling overwhelmed by demands:
· Acknowledge it is harder and give yourself credit.
· Identify what you need from work and ask for it, e.g., reduced or flexible hours.
· Approach others from work who are in the same situation. Seek advice and mentorship, share information and resources.
· Get good, reliable child care. Pay well to keep your caregiver happy to be with your kids . Find good babysitters; use them without guilt.
· Organize and streamline routines-mornings, after school, dinner, homework, bedtime.
· Have a support system in place-relatives, friends and neighbours.
· Organize kid exchanges with friends and neighbours. Also, organize time with other friends and their kids. You tan enjoy time with a friend and the kids can enjoy new dynamics with other children.
· Don't try to do it all and be an "Irondoc" (Irondoc is Dr. Gautam's new book on balancing life). Set priorities and let some things remain undone. There will be lots of time to clean and organize once the children are older.
· Hire people to do things you do not enjoy, e.g., cleaning, gardening, shoveling, cooking. Take this found time to spend with the kids having fun, exercising or doing a special activity .
· Try to give each child one-on-one time, e.g., a special bedtime ritual.
· Ensure there is time for yourself at the end of each day. Get the kids to bed early. When they are older, let them know you are only available for them until a certain time and that you need time for yourself.