1. Accept that you can't have it all - at least not at once - but you can have a life that is rich and full and satisfying. I watch resignedly as other (childless) physicians at my clinic leave to spend months working in Afghanistan and Peru. I'm the mother that arrives late to the preschool Christmas potluck and sets a box of mandarin oranges next to the homemade cheesy noodle casseroles. My son's school uniform pants are embarrassingly short and I couldn't make a recent cross-cultural mental health conference because I'm home with my daughter on Thursdays. But I have kind, secure children and what is arguably the most delightful, rewarding patient population in the city. It's enough.
2. Be clear about your boundaries and don't apologize for them. I work Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. I can't start any earlier than 9AM due to school drop-off. I've had potential employers rework schedules and change clinic start times when I tell them my availability.
3. Don't compare your finances to others'. Recently, my six-year-old son asked me, "Where do you and Daddy get money from?" He was taken aback when I explained that we are paid for our work. All this time he had assumed we were going to work for pleasure and to help others. This pleased me no end. I don't want money to be the prime consideration in my decisions.
Every year the BC Ministry of Health puts out the "Blue Book", which lists what every physician in the province billed the Medical Services Plan. I've perused it before, but no good comes from seeing that my family physician neighbour bills more than five times what I do. I start to gauge the wrong things in terms of money; what are quiet days at home puttering in the yard with my four-year-old worth?
4. Say no. This may be the most important skill I've learned in the last five years. If I feel awkward saying no to someone's face, I say I'll consider their request. Then I say no by email. I don't bother with reasons or excuses. I came across a quote from one of Dr. Gabor Mate's books a few months ago that I think of almost daily: "Always choose guilt over resentment."
5. Write. I take ten minutes once or twice a week to document for myself what was memorable. This has a magical way of allowing what's important to rise to the top while the irritations of daily life drift away, affording perspective. Here's something lifted directly from a journal entry this summer:
Playland yesterday, Leif smiling as he soared through the air, Saskia looking non-plussed even when having a great time. It felt wonderful to give them a day of whatever they wanted, unlimited rides, mini-donuts, cotton candy, a snowie despite wasps hovering over the syrup spigots, eaten cross-legged on concrete in makeshift shade. They were good as gold. Felt strange to see legs dangling from a great height, delighted screams, ferris wheel buckets the colours of candy against the North Shore mountains, and think that the same world has refugee camps.6. Consider exhaustion the state of having given, rather than having been taken from. A few months ago, as I rounded the bend to approach the Second Narrows Bridge on my way home from work, CBC's Rich Terfry on the radio and Ariana strapped in the backseat, I thought with dismay how overwhelmingly fatigued I was. I felt drained, spent, exhausted - and reflecting on these words I realized that resenting others having taken from me was passive and inaccurate. I had given what I had by my own choice. When considering Dr. William Osler's words, "Let each day's work absorb your entire energy and satisfy your widest ambition," anything short of collapsing into bed completely spent each night feels a waste.
7. Travel lightly. I try to apply minimalism to every aspect of my life. People remark on how tidy my home is, but the truth is that we have very little stuff. I decided two years ago to leave the HIV clinic to focus my part-time work at the refugee clinic only. We eat simply. Any commitments are carefully selected and for a defined period of time.
8. Hold an AGM with your spouse. Once a year, Pete and I hire a babysitter and take an evening to take stock of where we're at in every major area of our life: his work, my work, finances, church, where we live, parenting, friendships. We identify what's working, what needs to change and when we need to reevaluate. We like to feel that our choices are deliberate; we don't want to float up to our forties to say, "Huh! So this is how we live." I have such fond memories of these evenings, full of gratitude and brainstorming and collaboration, and everything recorded in my notebook.
9. Three projects. At any given time, I have three projects on the go that require one to two weeks to complete. One relates to work, one to home and one to something creative. For example, I might apply for a research grant, order a coffee table and frame some of my photos for our front entry. No new projects can be tackled until all of the original three are completed. (See zenhabits for more.)
10. Marry well. Pete (who works full-time in a non-medical field) is supportive, a non-complainer, hands-on with the kids and flexible around gender roles. We've both made sacrifices. He is undoubtedly the linchpin to my current contented state of mother-doctor.
I've loved William Wordsworth's poem "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room" since I studied it in English 103, particularly these lines:
In truth the prison, unto which we doomI'm a mother in medicine by choice. I accept any challenges and restrictions inherent to this position, for this is exactly where I wish to be.
Ourselves, no prison is.