National Women Physicians Day

The sacrifices women physicians make: Balancing a medical career and family

The idea that women should be able to do it all—have a career and also be the perfect mom and wife—was prevalent in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s an expectation that my generation, Gen X, grew up with.


Every year on Feb. 3, National Women Physicians Day recognizes women in medicine. This year, I am thinking about how women in medicine navigate the complex terrain of balancing their careers with the responsibilities of family life. This article delves into my experiences and the broader narrative of women in medicine, highlighting the choices made and the need to overcome fear and imposter syndrome to pursue a fulfilling career while nurturing a family.

When I was young, there was a popular commercial on television for a perfume. It had a song with the lyrics: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man. ‘Cause I’m a woman.”

This idea—that women should be able to do it all, have a career and also be the perfect mom and wife—was prevalent in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s an expectation that my generation, Gen X, grew up with.

As a family physician, I have seen many women in my office with burnout, depression and anxiety because they were working themselves to death trying to “do it all.”

It is possible to be both a successful physician and a loving, present mother. However, achieving both goals while preserving your mental health requires that one sets boundaries, receives help and support from their partner, family and/or community and has realistic expectations.

A career in medicine

Upon completing my residency in 1999, I embarked on a medical career that included a wide range of responsibilities, from caring for newborns to managing inpatient care and handling outpatient services. My enthusiasm for medicine led me to take on local leadership roles, driven by a personal philosophy that encourages proactive involvement in improving health care systems.

This drive, an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to build things pushed me to accept leadership positions both locally and at the state level within medical societies, including serving as president of the North Carolina Medical Society and chair of the Department of Medicine at my hospital.

A family and a career opportunity

One of the early challenges I faced was the opportunity to become a program director for a new residency program just as I was seven months pregnant with my first child. As a new mother, I grappled with the fear that this position would consume more of my time, further reducing my ability to spend time with my child. Lacking female role models in similar situations, I declined the offer, choosing to prioritize my family over a potentially demanding career move. Looking back, seeing 30+ patients a day with one nurse and paper charts was probably more demanding than most other positions would have been.

Paving my own path

As I continued my medical journey, I began to realize that there were better ways to manage a medical practice. After completing a health policy fellowship, I decided to start my own practice. The aim was to create a flexible work environment that allowed me to spend more quality time with my growing family, which now included two daughters, age 8 and 4.

Running my own practice came with its own set of challenges. My family became involved in the clinic’s daily operations, helping with tasks like building furniture and unpacking boxes. Although I was physically present, the demands of running a practice often meant I wasn’t as “present” as I wanted to be. Nonetheless, I was prioritizing my family’s needs over my career aspirations—or so I thought.

Fear and imposter syndrome

As my children grew, I repeatedly put the brakes on my career to prioritize my family. This is a common experience for many women in medicine and other demanding careers. Women sometimes choose specialties that allow for more work-life balance, decline promotions and pass on better job offers to accommodate their family’s needs. Sometimes, supervisors even make assumptions about women’s priorities without asking them directly, limiting their career progression.

Looking back, I realize that I made decisions that were really based on fear of the unknown and imposter syndrome. Private practice, with its demanding patient load, was not the best fit for me as a mother. Running my own practice was one of the most time-consuming jobs I have ever had. My choices were influenced by a lack of female role models in leadership positions. I didn’t know what it was like to be in a leadership position with a family. I made assumptions based on inadequate information.

In 2009, I did the Osteopathic Health Policy Fellowship. There I met some amazing female role models. They showed me that there are indeed better ways to practice medicine and be a part of making health care better. The year after that, I started my own practice and ran it very successfully for nine years before I sold it. This allowed me more flexibility in my time, but as anyone who has ever owned a business knows, you are bonded to the business. My oldest worked at the front desk for a time and my husband was my office manager for three years.

Where I ended up

Shortly after going out on my own, I started teaching and loved it. I got into teaching and administration more and more. In 2019 I decided to go into teaching full-time as an inaugural chair of primary care at Sam Houston. This led to being the interim dean. I was not expecting to move up that fast, but the opportunity was there, so I took it. A year later, I became dean of Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM). My daughters are now 18 and 22 and doing well.

Moral of the story

For young women physicians out there: Try not to let fear of the unknown or imposter syndrome stifle your career aspirations. You can be a dedicated parent and a successful professional simultaneously. Leadership roles can provide you with more control over your time and greater opportunities for career advancement, and they do not necessarily mean time away from family.

My mistake was thinking leadership meant more time at work. You have to draw boundaries, stick to them and not feel bad about them, regardless of title.

Giving yourself permission to take time for your family without guilt is vital. Drawing boundaries at work and saying “no” to extra projects is important as well. You cannot do it all. You are not a machine—and that is OK. Write down your priorities and stick to them.  

When I gave up my “errands” time to work more in education, I got a housekeeper. I joked with my husband that it was cheaper than marriage counseling.  It did wonders for my mental health and our relationship. So, if you need help with the house or the kids or the yard, get it. It is worth it.

The path of a woman in medicine is often marked by sacrifices and challenges. The choice to prioritize family should not hinder career progression. It is possible to overcome fear and imposter syndrome, but you must recognize it first. Make mindful decisions based on your priorities. Seek out mentorship. Seize opportunities that align with your goals, and decline those that don’t.

Find someone who has done what you want to do and ask them to mentor you. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Those of us who have fought the fight are usually happy to share our hard-earned wisdom with others. Working physician moms are superheroes, but we do not have to sacrifice our health and our sanity to be good moms and good doctors.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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