Finding Balance As A Mother and Surgeon

By Kara Hessel

The same afternoon that I offered to write an article espousing all of my triumphs as a resident successfully balancing work and motherhood, I fought back tears in an airport halfway across the country because my daughter didn’t seem excited to see me on FaceTime. My nine month old daughter was more interested in a book she had read 10,000 times than she was in seeing her mother. I hadn’t held her in 36 hours and my arms ached as much as my heart. I would not see her that night or the following morning. Self-pity engulfed me and as I boarded the plane I wondered whether all of this really would be worth it in the end.

My husband and I are both 4th year general surgery residents. We met, started dating, and got engaged during medical school. We couples matched into the same program. We knew when we married during second year of residency that we wanted to have a child soon. I was turning 30 the following year. The clock was ticking. We determined that we wouldn’t try to get pregnant, but we wouldn’t try not to get pregnant either. We were elated to find out I was pregnant a few months later, but there was definitely a component of fear intermingled as I stared at those pink lines. I was afraid to tell my co-residents, my program director and my staff. They are all approachable people, but I knew my pregnancy and subsequent motherhood had the potential to negatively impact their workflow.

Nine short months later, my daughter was born and our world was forever different. I returned to work five weeks after her birth. Through a combination of nannies, help from my mother, daycare, friends/co-workers, and tireless effort on my husband’s part, we are somehow making this parenting while in residency thing work.

I am not a perfect mother. I am not a perfect resident. I will not always be there when my daughter does something for the first time, when she has a soccer game or a ballet recital. I hope she will understand why this is. I tell myself that she would prefer a mother who is happy and fulfilled but has limited time to a mother who has unlimited time but is miserable. Likewise, I will not always be able to attend resident events and there may be some elective cases I am unable to scrub. This is what work-life balance means to me: making sacrifices as a parent to be a good doctor and making sacrifices as a doctor to be a good parent. But please don’t take that to mean that I think of myself as a martyr. I wanted both this career and motherhood. The “sacrifices” that I make are of my own design. I may not always be able to do everything that I want, but such is life. I am making the most of the limited time that I have in training to become an accomplished surgeon. I am making the most of the limited time I have with my daughter by being present in the time I do spend with her.

Work-life balance is not a static measure. It is dynamic with goals that evolve daily. Everyone will tell you the formula that works for them, but in all likelihood it won’t be what works for you. My mother currently lives with us, but both my mother and my husband are incredibly easy-going and pleasant people. This is not the case for many people with their in-laws. I also have a husband who not only sympathizes with the demands of my career, he lives them himself. Not everyone has that either. I have a daughter who is adaptable and doesn’t seem to mind change in the slightest. We have been able to go from having a nanny to starting Montessori school without a hitch from her. Again, not something that all people would experience. However, we have had many sleepless nights. I didn’t know what tired was until I was a resident and a new mom. We have had days where we scrambled to find coverage when our nanny called in or the baby had a fever and couldn’t go to daycare. I could not live without the help of the nurses on our surgical ICU. I have depended on people I never imagined I would have to lean on. It takes a village to raise the child of a surgical resident.

I will not pretend that there are not days that I feel guilty over the time I spend at work, away from my daughter. I will not pretend that there are not days where I have felt guilty for leaving work on time, though I knew my patients were well cared for. There will always be those days, regardless of the career one chooses. But most days I do not feel guilt. Most days I feel pride. Pride in the work I do to help heal patients. And pride in my ability to simultaneously raise a small human who, despite me being a surgical resident, will very likely turn out just fine. Knowing that carries me through those guilty days. And since the days when I feel proud outnumber the days that I feel guilty, I’m happy with the “balance” we have achieved.

About the Author

Kara Hessel is a 4th year resident in Kansas City. She enjoys spending time with her family, reading novels, attending musicals/plays/concerts, and relaxing.

Skip to toolbar