Doctor moms: Let go of the ‘working mom guilt’ and do it all

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 20, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Female physicians often experience microaggressions and patronizing comments at work, contributing to self-doubt among women in healthcare.

  • Mentorship is a crucial resource for physician mothers, who significantly benefit from role models who exemplify successful work-life integration and provide doctor mom support groups.

  • The key to juggling doctorhood and motherhood is striking a balance: You can do both, but you may need more familial support and flexibility than mothers in other professions.

Holding the titles “mom” and “doctor” may feel more than overwhelming at times. Hafiza Khan, MD, described being a young mother while honing complex procedural skills in cardiac electrophysiology as “probably the most difficult thing” she’s ever done.

Khan, who wrote about her experience in a SheMD.com blog post, wouldn’t be the only doctor mom to struggle.[]

Many physician mothers face struggles that can make juggling the two roles seem unsustainable.

However, by striking the right work-life balance and seeking support from mentors, they may find what they need to shine.

Unique challenges

Let’s be honest: Physicians who are also mothers deal with a number of struggles.

Of course, doctor dads also face the challenge of juggling parenthood and their physician duties. But for the purpose of this article, we're looking at the particular challenges facing women, who already deal with other hurdles as doctors because of their sex.

According to a critical review published by Mayo Clinic Proceedings, there are three types of challenges physician mothers often face: Individual, organizational, and societal.[]

Among the individual challenges is creating successful work-life integration and facing the threats that motherhood poses to one’s career. Pregnancy issues—including infertility and delays in adoption or childbearing, as well as subsequent mood disorders and burnout—also frequently show up in doctor moms’ lives.

Organizational struggles consist of a lack of mentors, role models, and networks available to moms in healthcare—all leading to barriers to professional development. Family leave policies and a shortage of part-time work present additional hurdles.

All doctor moms are subject to societal struggles, too. Pervasive gender and sex inequity in the workplace, maternal bias, and childrearing/childcare challenges arise for many, as mentioned in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

So, how do doctor moms master the act of raising children and meeting the demands of their job? It depends on who you ask.

Finding balance

Tiffany Bell, MD, has overcome many obstacles as a physician and mother of three.

In an article published by the American Medical Association, Bell told of finding support in a physician mother Facebook group.[] It allowed her to hear about the experiences of fellow doctor moms who persevered through numerous challenges.

“Hearing the stories of other female physicians teaches me that it is possible to achieve a healthy balance between my personal life and work,” Bell told the AMA.

Finding that balance is crucial. Doctor moms who struggle deciding when to wear which hat can take cues from Bell and be as present as possible at work. When it’s time to clock out, leave work at work—even if that means seeming “less committed” than other colleagues.

Securing a female role model is also a surefire way to feel more supported.

Mentorship, according to the Mayo Clinic Proceedings piece, provides physician moms with grounded knowledge from others in their position who’ve successfully integrated personal life and work.

Managing guilt

For Khan, striking the right work-life balance meant accepting that sacrifices were necessary.

She detailed her struggle to decide which professional route to take when the pressure was too much to handle: “I made the difficult decision of leaving academic medicine, and joining a private practice in the Dallas area.”

On top of feelings of inadequacy at work, Khan rarely had time to make the cookies and cupcakes non-doctor moms could bake.

She missed sports events, award ceremonies, and often hired a nanny to take care of her kids while she served patients—a dynamic which spurred a lot of guilt.

Through that turmoil, however, Khan came out on the other side as a proud mom of another aspiring doctor. One of her sons is now majoring in biology and intends to become a cardiac electrophysiologist—just like her.

Khan encourages other moms to let go of the guilt they may feel about working full-time. 

"Do not underestimate the transformative power of your love and all that you do."

Hafiza Khan, MD

"Everything turned out fine for me and my two boys,” she wrote. “And I know it will for you and your children as well.”

What this means for you

As a doctor mom, you may have difficulty striking a work-life balance, finding opportunities for professional development, and navigating discrimination in a society steeped in sexism. To overcome some of these obstacles, seeking out mentorship from other doctor moms is a must. While the healthcare system may take time to address barriers to career satisfaction and maternal bias, focus on releasing the guilt you may feel as a full-time doctor with kids. You can excel in both roles—even if it means making difficult choices.

Related: Pregnancy during residency? It’s possible, but keep these factors in mind
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