Saturday, June 7, 2008

You didn't tell me you're a doctor!

Our painter, a fifty-something fellow, has done many jobs for us over the years. He works hard, grunting and thumping and wheeling the roller around whatever room he's working on. I commented once on the superb quality of his work. He responded kindly, "I'm sure there's something you're good at, too."

Months later, touching up our living room, he caught sight of my medical degree tucked in a corner of a bookcase. "You're a doctor!" he said accusingly when I saw him next. He felt deceived because I hadn't volunteered that information.

This has happened to me on many occasions, where someone who has known me only as a mother discovers that I am a physician. A neighbour is seated in the clinic waiting room and is shocked to see me with a stethoscope around my neck. A mother at the playground asks why I'm carrying a pager, and is taken aback when I explain that I'm on call for the clinic. The response is usually dismay, and I know it's because they are madly working to mentally recategorize me. They're disconcerted because they realize they've been using the wrong set of assumptions.

The response to both occupations bothers me. I resent being patronized as a mother, and I feel embarrassed when I'm congratulated for being a physician.

While doling out hot dogs and orange drink to my kids at the school barbeque recently, I remarked that the energy and enthusiasm of students made teaching look attractive. A teacher grasped my arm and replied earnestly, "And I'm sure you could do it, one day!"

What was I supposed to say? I just nodded and thanked her.

Cross-posted at


  1. When I was struggling with the decision to give up my pursuit of a singing career and apply to medicine, I used to get so angry with these sorts of interactions. I would be working some horrible, soul-destroying day job (or combination of day jobs), singing in (unpaid) community theatre productions at night, and people would treat me like the hired help (which I was). But tell them that I was applying to medical school and I was immediately someone special.

    It used to alternately enrage and embarass me. First of all, the fact that I was working minimum wage in retail didn't automatically mean I was mentally defective (I did after all, posess two undergraduate degrees, which admittedly were little more than expensive pieces of paper). And I used to hate the double standard, which seemed to value so little the art which I hold so dear and consider such a valuable pursuit.

    And it seemed somehow desperate and needy; that casual mention that I was "applying to med school." I felt dirty for doing it, but couldn't help myself. I still wonder whether those years of fruitless applications were partly an attempt at ego stroking. In the end, I stopped telling people I was applying, so that this last time, when I actually got in, it was a shock to a lot of my general acquaintance.

    But no, medicine was an itch I couldn't scratch as an opera singer. So now I'm scratching it; and have to get used to the inevitable "You're in med school, how wonderful! We need doctors! You're planning on family practice, are you thinking of settling here?"

    But when people hear I'm a classically trained singer, they often respond with the same respect and wary admiration. I think that people realize that achieving proficiency in any difficult discipline (like medicine, or opera singing, or circus performing, or airplane piloting) requires discipline, sacrifice, and lots of hard work. It's the insecurity in people talking, that little voice inside them that says they couldn't possibly do something that interesting and difficult.

    And yes, there is that initial disconnect, when someone's initial image of you is replaced by another one. I've come to realize that if someone sees what I do as somewhat superhuman, that's their problem, not mine; that I'm just the same as they are, only crazy enough to aspire to excellence and to ruthlessly follow my dream(s).

  2. You nailed it! I happen to be a geriatrician (working "part-time," whatever that means) and also a homeschooling mom. Talk about getting it from both sides: I'm apparently not committed enough to my career to work full-time (despite being on-call about 90 hours per week - and do you think the elderly only fall out of bed between 9a and 5p? Nope!), and I'm not committed enough to my child to be a "true" stay-at-home mom (despite the fact that I'm the primary teacher for dear son). Doctor colleagues can't imagine that I would value teaching my child, and "mom-colleagues" think I'm being selfish by working.

    Committed ... yeah, *that's* what we should be!

  3. Glee, I homeschooled my son as well. When I got my first article published, (and not for a homeschooling publication, nor having anything to do with homeschooling) it was like I'd betrayed homeschoolers everywhere.

    When I got my book published, that wasn't even about parenting ... most homeschoolers I know, won't even acknowlege that they've known me. (especially since I sent my son to high school) They do think the 2 are related. I abandoned my son for a writing career. (not so)

    On the other side of the fence, now that I've decided to go back to school to become a child psychologist, you would not believe the accolades and respect I've gotten just by making the decision.

    The most common comment? "Your kids will be so proud of you!"

    It's crazy, isn't it?


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