The overwhelm, the not-so-ideal worker, and the exodus

Ah vacation. Two weeks of vacation and two weeks of elective. One whole month of remembering myself. People have been asking whether I went away for vacation and I say: Why would I? What could be more exotic than actually spending time every day with my own spouse? The calm quotidian is my tropical island. I have been reading E a couple of books before school in the morning. I have been cooking and doing a better-than-usual job of trying to clean. I sleep in my own bed every night. I wake up after the sun. I can participate in things like day care pick-up and happy hour. A couple of times, I had half a beer with dinner. To quote Natalie Merchant for probably the first and last time: These are the days, the days you will remember (unless, of course, residency and parenthood has destroyed both your short- and long-term memory, but that’s a whole other thing). I’m in love with my own life again.

Not to mention that Spring finally arrived. It’s just as good and even better than I remembered. Every afternoon now, E and I walk around the neighborhood, soaking the sun into our pale skin, delighting in the tiniest little flowers and stray stones. There is a small hilly yard outside of an apartment building a few blocks over that is covered with well-maintained grass and E plays on it like it’s several acres of wild field. Hey E, I say. Wanna walk over to the grassy knoll? And she always does. Only spring could make a destination of this humble little square of green.

Vacation has allowed me to realize that raising a child and maintaining a household, a marriage, friendships, and one’s place in a community takes a lot of time. These tasks, these labors of love and fellowship and participation, used to constitute an adult person’s entire job in each household. Expecting people to do these things in the small cracks of time between work and work is asking too much. For the past 22 months C and I have been trying to do all these things in addition to each working double full time and parenting and it’s just not possible. Over the past three weeks, I managed to finally purchase an appropriate dining room table, to finally buy new shoes for E several months overdue, to finally RSVP to upcoming weddings and a baby shower, to host several dinners, to volunteer at E’s school, to open the last four months of mail. Every day, every week, every month I live with guilt and shame and panic at the things that are undone. There’s so much toxic negative self-talk in my head that sometimes I can’t hear what other people around me are saying. It’s time to acknowledge reality: Our household doesn’t have a full-time manager. We have two people doing the best they can. And looking ahead into the future, I want there to be dedicated time in my schedule for these things. These things are as important to me and, in the case of raising E, more important to me than work.

As I write this, it feels like a transgressive sentiment. More important than work? I hope that no one who might employ me in the future reads this! I think to myself. But then I think: in what world would people be expected to prioritize work above their children? And then I remember: our world. And more specifically: America.

I am reading an interesting book by journalist Brigid Schulte called “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” (highly recommended! Buy it here from Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore). The book is full of interesting information about the history of our relationship to work, the frazzled state of American working mothers, and many statistics that illustrate just how work-obsessed Americans are when compared to other industrialized countries. But the thing that has been catching in my throat is the chapter titled “The Ideal Worker Is Not Your Mother.” In this chapter, Schulte describes the ideal worker thusly:

“The ideal worker, freed from all home duties, devotes himself completely to the workplace. He is a face-time warrior, the first one in in the morning and the last to leave at night. He is rarely sick. Never takes a vacation, or brings work along if he does…. So tied to his job is the ideal worker that he works endless hours, even if it costs him his health and his family.”

She then goes on to describe study after study showing that Americans perceive mothers to be less committed, less competent, less worthy of promotion, and deserving of less compensation than women without children or, of course, men. She describes several case studies of mothers and fathers who were striving to be ideal workers, who were embodying the ideal in every way possible, who were nonetheless passed over for promotion because they were perceived to be less committed. (Not to mention the women who were instructed to have abortions by their employers. Yes, this does happen.) She also reports the high cost of the ideal worker model in lost productivity due to burnout and chronic workplace dissatisfaction. I don’t know how these statistics are derived, but apparently it is costing us 1.5 trillion dollars a year.  So I guess we should be calling it the not-so-ideal worker.

Much has been made lately of whether women are leaning in or opting out and why. Are women who opt out weak? Afraid of challenge? Falling back on tired gender paradigms? What I suspect is that many women who opt out are quietly rejecting the ideal worker paradigm because it contradicts their values. They do not want to leave sick elders and children with other caregivers, no matter how competent. They do not want to miss school recital after family wedding after anniversary. They do not want to lose touch with their spouses. So maybe instead of gritting our teeth and leaning in, we should be working to retire the not-so-ideal worker and replace him with a worker who is healthy and productive across all of life’s domains. A worker who is allowed to admit, for goddess’s sake, that their children are the most important thing. A worker who can choose to be present for their dying parent without fear of losing their job. A worker who can take time every year to rest and renew their energy. The good news is: a lot of other countries are doing it. It is possible. In fact, a more proportional and reasonable relationship to work was the norm for centuries:

“In the Middle Ages, though peasants and serfs worked in the fields from sunup to sundown, they broke for breakfast, lunch, afternoon nap, dinner, and midmorning and midafternoon breathers. Church holidays, Sabbath days, saints’ days, official rest days, public feasts and festivals, and weeklong “ales” to celebrate major milestones like births, marriages, and deaths took up about one-third of the year in England. In Spain and France, Schor estimates that even the hardest workers had nearly half the year off.”

Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

In the midst of this feast time of ecstatic normalcy we hosted Passover seder for the first time. Here I must pause and acknowledge my mother, who hosted a beautiful and delicious seder for 15+ people every year. Making Passover seder is hard! When it comes to life, I stand on the shoulders of giants! But I digress…. Now that E understands what we are saying but doesn’t really understand much context, I didn’t have much appetite to go through the ten plagues. Killing of the first-born? I think not. In fact, a lot of the passover story is not really rated G. Instead, I opted to talk more generally about justice and freedom, and then about spring and fertility and the renewal of life.

Jews are commanded that in every generation they are obligated to see themselves as having personally come out of Egypt. So I got to thinking about the difference between slavery and freedom, what slavery might feel like, what newfound freedom might feel like. As Americans in 2014 we are all of us freer than most of the rest of humanity past and present. But still, in every life there is an echo of slavery and the possibility of greater freedom. Freedom from addiction, from fear, from shame. Freedom to be more self-actualized. These days we are more than likely our own slave-masters. I asked the people gathered around our seder table to focus on their own experience of moving toward freedom. And the first thought that came to my mind was:

I want to be free to rest.

It’s not a lofty goal. It’s a first-world problem. It’s nothing to be all that proud of. But that’s the exodus for me this year. From restlessness to rest. From the not-so-ideal-worker to something else that we will all have to create together.




13 thoughts on “The overwhelm, the not-so-ideal worker, and the exodus

  1. oh no! what happened to E’s bangs? 😦 😦 I think I have PTSD from a haircut like that as a child!! 😦

    • Sadly I’m her barber for the moment and cutting her hair is like trying to do surgery on a hummingbird — she hates it and I can only get a snip in here and there while watching cartoons. Hopefully by the time she’s old enough to remember her bangs, she’ll be old enough for a real haircut! 🙂

  2. We bribe D with M&Ms for the monthly bang trim. Not ideal, but it seems to help.

    This probably doesn’t help you now, but hopefully in a year or so when you’re done with residency (!) it will. Remember that medicine is a choice. You can choose to do something else if you want to. Most people have to work, and most people don’t have nearly as many good choices as doctors do. When your training is done you will have the opportunity to carve out the life you want for yourself. When you do that, don’t let medicine steal away the other pieces of your life that you value. Give it the finger. Steal your life back.

    Enjoy the beautiful spring!

    • Thanks, OMDG! You are absolutely right — physicians are among the luckier folks when it comes to carving out work/life balance, though moving into positions of leadership and administration still requires a pretty non-stop work commitment. I’m looking forward to carving out the life I want and always on the look out for role models in this. I still think there is stigma and lots of judgment directed at women no matter how they decide to carve up the pie for themselves and I wish that there were more sane standards for both working and parenting.

      Hope you too are enjoying the spring!

      • I also feel judged. I feel judged by parents who think I’m selfish for starting residency with a two year old. I feel judged by residents who have their parents do the daycare dropoffs where we have to use a nanny (I also feel judged by other parents who have more flexible schedules and are able to do this themselves). I feel judged by attendings who think that taking time for your family is selfish and a waste of resources. I wish there was less judgement also, but since I can’t control what other people think, I have no choice but to live by my own values and do the best that I can, and I try not to cut down people who make different choices. And for what it’s worth, you have a great kid, and you’re going to be a great influence on her whether you choose to work 70 hours a week or to take more time for yourself. I really do believe that a happy mom is a good mom.

  3. Was so happy to wake up the other morning and read this post. Really well written and came at a time when it’s particularly meaningful to me (deciding on a residency specialty…). Thank you for taking the time to share! PS – I love E’s bangs. Little girls are adorable no matter what! 🙂

    • Hi ms3 — thanks for your comment! I’m glad my post came at a timely moment. And thanks for looking past the uneven bangs to the underlying adorableness :-). Best of luck to you as you move to the next stage of training. I hope that the path you choose brings you lots of satisfaction and happiness.
      All my best,

  4. This post resonates with me strongly. I am a resident, married to another resident, and mother to a special needs child, as I mentioned on my last comment to your blog… It’s true that medicine is a choice. But so is being a mother. And there actually *is* a very real impact on my son of me working 80 hours per week. When I am on vacation, he is suddenly calmer, less anxious, and does better in school. I go back to work, and nanny is caring for him full time — he’s not as calm anymore. Still doing ok, but not at his best. It does make a real difference to our children to not be their full time caregivers. Does that mean I’m not going to work? No. I’m proud of being a doctor. But I *am* choosing to sacrifice some things for my son’s quality of life and his care for this choice. I am causing him anxiety because I work. These are *real* impacts of me being a resident and a mom. I have to accept that during residency. The truth is that working 70 hours per week does mean less influence over your child’s life than working 40 hours a week. The 30 extra hours do mean something, for lots of reasons: the life lessons you can teach, your emotional response to your child (and therefore the security they feel, which is different than from another caregiver), etc. So I will say that mothers and fathers who work 80-100 hours per week, as many residents do, actually do have an impact on their children, and it’s not always positive. It is the system of medical training that does not allow us to be connected to our children while working, not our own desire. And no amount of willpower can produce the equivalent of an extra 30 hours per week with my child. So while medicine may be a choice, the actual working conditions of residency are not. I think it’s easy to say “just keep doing it, medicine is a choice, it will get better.” But for those of us in the trenches, actually doing the 80 hour work weeks, it doesn’t feel like it right now.

    • Hi Amom — sorry it’s taken me so long to respond! I think it is so important to be able to acknowledge the sacrifices that we are making and asking our children to make, and the grief and conflict we feel around these sacrifices. There is a pressure to claim — on behalf of feminism and as a balm to guilt — that children are not impacted by these working hours or even that it is good for them, but I thing this is disingenuous. My daughter too seems to shine brightest when I’m home more. I try to make up for my long absences by making her the top priority for all my time at home, and by trying to squeeze in every hug and story and joke that is possible in every crack of time, but the reality is that she would probably be better off if I worked less. But that’s not a possibility for me or for my family for many reasons. I feel calmest about the stress when I can acknowledge it. Also there is such pressure for parents to provide the perfect childhood, instead of an understanding that every childhood will have its riches and its poverties. I try to keep this in perspective and realize that my child will have the narrative of her life such as it is, and that I can do my best to be a present, loving force in that narrative but I can’t protect her from everything. Good luck as you continue to navigate the less-than-ideal circumstances. I do believe that we can be fierce and passionate and engaged mothers despite the enforced periods of distance.

  5. Really great post. I feel guilty a lot for not meeting the “ideal worker” goals, but like OMDG said, I live my life by MY values, and our family is doing really great. I’m definitely on the other side of this, done with training, and working to create the type of schedule and career that allows me to spend time with my family and even (gasp!) have time to rest and renew my own self. It feels pretty freakin’ good. You’ll get there, hang in there.

  6. She’s precious! Reminds me of a haircut I gave my little sister when she was 3 and I was 4. Seems like we both got in trouble-me because I did it and her because she let me!

  7. Ohh reading all the comments above makes me think..Im starting residency this july and I have a 2 yr old girl and right now being in “vacation” because I still have plenty of free time to share with my baby, I always think of those moments to come: when she gets sick and Im on call or maybe I wont be able to drop her at daycare like I used to, or playing with her…When I was studying for my boards I missed so many things, not big things but daily living things and I felt such a bad mommy….but I think this is for her and a better life so I go on. At the end it doesnt matter so much the amount of time but the quality in it.

  8. Excellent post! This embodies all the struggles I have going on most of the time. I recently decided that I am accomplishing maybe 40% of what I “need” to in all aspects of my life… which seems mostly depressing but i am trying not to be my own “slave-master” and cut myself some slack! My goal would be to feel more present in the moment with what I am doing and try not to worry about all the other things that aren’t getting done! i also graduated last year and am starting to see the upside of life post-residency… hang in there it does eventually start getting better! Thanks for sharing!

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