I’m a physician and a mother, and sometimes it feels like I’m drowning

By Courtney Manser, MD, CCFP (PC) | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 19, 2023

Key Takeaways

Mothers are often said to wear many hats—they cook and clean, organize and plan, comfort and nurture, drive everyone where they need to go, and fix the various problems that arise in day-to-day family life.

For physicians, the mental and physical load of caring for patients, as well as the long hours involved in our job, can sometimes leave little emotional and mental space for anything else.

As a physician mom myself, I have often felt the disparity between genders in bearing the mental load involved in caring for a family. 

I’m pulled in so many different directions

There is no doubt that being a physician mother is hard. Physician mothers face many problems including less job satisfaction, increased home responsibilities than their male counterparts as well as discrimination in the workplace.

"Finding a balance between work and home can be extremely difficult, if not near impossible for physician moms."

Courtney Manser, MD, CCFP (PC)

So, what can be done to overcome this? How can we move forward as individuals as well as a society to achieve fulfillment at home and at work?

“Treading water”—that was always my answer when a close friend or family member asked how I was doing when my kids were young. I’d say it with a smile. But on the inside, I was most often already planning what else had to be done in the day. It wasn’t just the act of doing the things that needed to be done, it was remembering that they had to be done in the first place. 

I would have to start planning summer activities and camps in January, or else the programs would fill up. By the end of summer, I was planning Halloween costumes. October was when I began Christmas shopping. I planned vacations, special outings, and had a never-ending list of things the kids needed. I planned the meals, organized birthday parties, and made sure to remember family traditions. My brain was full.

I needed more support

Now, please don’t get me wrong, my husband was, and is, amazing. He’s a fantastic father and a supportive husband. His list was just as long as mine—but, and this is a big one, his list was mostly physical things. Things that did not require mental load. He cut the grass, removed the snow from our driveway, did the dishes, vacuumed the floors, and cleaned the bathrooms. 

"He would do anything I asked of him—but I was tired of having to ask. I wanted someone else to do the remembering."

Courtney Manser, MD, CCFP (PC)

A couple years ago I became part of an amazing community of physician moms on Facebook, and lo-and-behold, I found out that I wasn’t the only who felt this way. I read story after story of physician moms who were struggling with their domestic responsibilities, with mental load most often the predominant concern.

Other moms discussed the societal gender disparities—even small things that feel significant when you’re stretched thin, such as a Mother’s Day celebration at a child’s school taking place during the school day, and a Father’s Day celebration taking place early in the morning. 

Unfair expectations

The doctor-moms felt frustrated that what was expected of them as mothers was different from expectations for their male counterparts. A 2019 study provided evidence for these, revealing that  physician mothers reported having more domestic responsibilities than their partners.[] And, unsurprisingly, those with more domestic responsibilities reported more career dissatisfaction.

We have come so far in terms of gender equality—there are so many of us that are both moms AND doctors—but we are just not there yet. So, where do we go from here, as individuals as well as collectively? 

We talk. We change. We don’t accept things as normal if we are unhappy or not coping. I spoke to my husband and realized that a big part of the problem was my ego: I wanted help, but I also liked being the one who did it all.

"I was proud of juggling so much, even if it meant I was drowning. I was the mom. Wasn’t I supposed to be able to do it all?"

Courtney Manser, MD, CCFP (PC)

And that in itself was the problem. So, I sucked it up, let go a little, and learned how to say, “I’m not coping, and I need your help.” The change first needs to happen at home, but we also need to speak up outside of the home. 

If your child’s school schedules an event for mothers during the work day and only gives you 2 days notice, you should feel free to complain. If it happens again the following year, complain again. Speak to the principal. Discuss your concerns about gender disparity among parents.

Find a community, whether it be a physician mom group on Facebook or a local one—find your people. Change happens when people work together (and the support of feeling less alone is also pretty great).  

There are so, so many other challenges that women and mothers in medicine face, but change has to happen by taking small steps towards a larger goal. Don’t be silent if you’re treated differently after you return from a maternity leave of any length. Don’t laugh off the male colleague who jokes about your “vacation” while you’re still recovering from a C-section and you’re sneaking off to pump between patients. 

We deserve better. Our daughters deserve better. Ask for help. Let go of the guilt. The only way to change societal expectations, and our own, is to do it together. 

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