Not a Bird, Not a Plane, Not Supermom

Time moves on, babies grow, toddlers become preschoolers and before you know it they’re filling out college apps. As predictable as the sunrise and sunset, our children grow up and leave us, and still we wonder if we did it right.

Did I spend enough time? Was I the teacher I wanted to be? Did I model the right life?  The tape of self doubt begins with that first cry and keeps playing until … well, pretty much forever.

One of the toughest questions moms face — can I have a demanding career and still raise a happy, healthy family? — is the subject of a new study about attitudes towards working mothers at the University of Washington.

The study found that ideas about balancing work and family, rather than the actual choices made, had the greatest impact on life satisfaction. It turns out that whether you’re a full-time mom of the stay home variety, or one of the millions who live parallel lives at home and at the office  (as if any of us are anything other than full-time moms), how you feel about the road you’ve traveled is what makes the difference.

Moms who hold a job are likely to have improved mental health and well-being, but not if they have unrealistic expectations and feel guilty about being less than perfect at home and at work. Stay-at-home moms tend to have more signs of depression when interviewed at age 40, but not if they had the expectation of being at-home moms when they were 20.

In other words, the myth of the Supermom who can have it all and be it all can make you miserable. And take it from me, the myth is seductive. My own path tells just one version of the story …

As a young medical student I already had one child and one on the way. Thanks to a very hands-on husband and good child care, those days were doable. Go to school, soak up as much information as possible, come home and be Mommy ’til bedtime, wake up and start all over. So far, so good.

Even the clinical years and a pediatric residency worked out okay. Sure, the schedule was grueling. Yes, I missed entire chunks of time with my little guys (Husband and the kids have great, funny stories about whole weekends I couldn’t possibly remember ’cause I wasn’t there). But we thought it was temporary and we made it work.

It wasn’t until I was deep into pediatric practice that reality hit hard.

As a working physician there are never enough hours in the day. Patients are scheduled in small, predictable slots, but there was never enough time to do the job the way I wanted to do it.

Talking a new mom through her fears, soothing a crying toddler, explaining why immunizations are important, teaching parents the nuts and bolts of a new scary diagnosis — all that takes extra, unaccounted-for minutes. It’s an important part of the job, and the part I like best, but there was never enough time. Especially with the constant drumbeat of my own kids waiting at home.

So when I was at work I felt bad about missing what was happening at home, and when I was at home I obsessed about what was left unfinished at work. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night, heart pounding about a test result (did I review that blood count?) or an extra phone call that might have made a difference.

Then one Sunday evening, as I was on the phone reassuring a mom who was worried about her child’s worsening cold symptoms, I watched my then 3-year-old daughter tumble down the stairs from our second floor landing. At that moment I decided that there are plenty of good pediatricians in the world, but my kids only have one mom. That was my ‘A-HA’ moment.

I’d love to be able to say I never looked back; to claim that I never questioned my decision to leave my practice, spend more time at home, and use my training and skills in other ways. But even now, years later, I occasionally wonder if I was too impulsive and if that sent my children the wrong message about making hard choices when things get rough.

We’ll never know. The decision seemed right. I’m pleased with the results. Making it forced me to let go of the myth of the Supermom and accept that I could only be the best at the job that was most important to me.

Questions, maybe. But no regrets.



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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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