Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest post: Get your boots on

Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to see Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, featured in The New Yorker. Considering her TEDWomen talk in December, and her recent commencement speech at Barnard College, she has been front and center in the effort to support women’s success at the very tops of their fields.

For those who can’t access the links, Sandberg’s main points from her TED talk are these:

1. Sit at the table; own your own accomplishments. Studies have shown that for men, success and likability are positively correlated, whereas for women, success and likability are negatively correlated. Women need to attribute their own success to themselves, even though there is a risk of not being liked. In her Barnard speech, she says, “[But] I know that the truth comes out in the end, and I know how to keep my head down and just keep working.”

2. Make your partner a real partner. Women still do twice the housework and three times the childcare as men, even though they also are working outside the home. In homes where responsibility is equally shared, the divorce rate is halved. “It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner, and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further.” (Side note: a recent article in Time magazine notes that women and men work about the same hours in the day, although women work more unpaid hours, i.e. in housekeeping and childcare. This is usually accomplished by the woman scaling back her paid hours.)

3. Don’t leave before you leave. It is so common for women, from the moment they even start thinking about having children, to start leaning back from their careers, sometimes without realizing it. “Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave…and then make your decision,” says Sandberg.

I watch these videos of Ms. Sandberg, and wish she could have teleported herself through the last decade and shaken some sense back into the old college me. You see, I made the wrong career decision ten years ago, and the only reason was because I didn’t believe in myself. I became a nurse when I really wanted to become a physician. Even ten years ago, there was no question in my mind that I would have made a good physician, and no question in my mind that I would love, adore and provide for my future family. But I still feared becoming a mother in medicine.

So why didn’t I go for it? For years, my pat answer was that I wasn’t sure medicine was for me until I was well into my nursing career. Now that I can finally admit this to myself, I think the real reason went deeper than that. I chose nursing because I was afraid that if I chose medicine, my boyfriend might get cold feet, and I might emotionally damage my future children. I was afraid that medical school rejection could be the ultimate social suicide. I worried that my friends and family might judge me for “choosing career at the expense of my family” and turn their backs when I most needed their village around me. As Sandberg might say, I was simply afraid of not being liked—in the most extreme way.

But ten years later, I do have something else to say, and that is that I did go to medical school, I did marry my college sweetheart, and I do have two happy, well-adjusted children. I am surrounded by friends and family, and I have done well in school. The sky, in fact, has not fallen.

While I am so proud of the above accomplishments, I still find at times I still revert to my old ways. I apologize for everything—for taking 20 minutes to pump breastmilk on clerkships, for passing off daycare duty to my husband, for not knowing when I will get home. But here’s the kicker: I don’t actually feel bad about any of the above, and I don’t think anyone in my family even expects me to feel bad. They know it comes with the job. What I feel bad about is that I should feel bad and I don’t. It’s as if I’ve been conditioned to believe that worry is synonymous with love, and that constantly shortchanging myself is penance for wanting children.

This, to me, is the fundamental problem of women today. It seems like we have no faith in our social or professional supports to help us get done what we need to get done. We’d rather hide behind the façade of martyrdom than find a way to get what we need—and then we tell the next generation “I gave up my career because you can’t be a good doctor and a good mother” or “I had to work 100 hours per week, and that is the only way you can deserve this job.” And so we saddle the next generation of mothers in medicine with the baggage of choosing either success or likability. Again.

What if we women did something radical instead? What if we thought long and hard about what we really want and actually asked for it proudly? Maybe that means finally having “the talk” with your significant other. Maybe it means keeping the kids in daycare one more hour to get something important done. Maybe it means daring to ask for part time—or partner. Maybe it means saving your apologies for when you have actually done something wrong (and, ahem, it is not wrong to have a career and a family).

When I think of the two most radical things I have done in my life—applying early decision to medical school with a marginal MCAT score and asking the cute guy in my dorm to come swing dancing with me, I realize that they are two accomplishments of which I am most proud, because those risks have given me a thousand-fold return. What if, when it came to big decisions, we honored our id as much as we do our superegos? What if we not only made radical decisions but celebrated other women who dared to do the same?

I was a child in the 1980s, and the message to little girls was “you can be anything you want to be.” I still believe that. But I think our daughters need a stronger message: “You can be anything you want to be, on your own terms, and you deserve to be happy.” And when we live out this message, it won’t be in an aggressive, cold-hearted way, but rather our way—with kindness, creativity and collaboration.

I just got back from a U2 concert, and my ears are still ringing. The turning point in the concert for me was watching four men singing at the tops of their lungs:

“You don’t know
you don’t get it, do you?
You don’t know how beautiful you are!”

So ladies, strap on your boots. We are a new generation of mothers, and we are proud to have it all, and share with each other in our successes.

mamascrub @ gmail-dot-com
So now it’s your turn, anonymous or otherwise: Tell me one way in which you have shortchanged yourself. Now tell me one way you might do something radical. What would you do if you knew you could not fail?


  1. I just wanted to add 2 things that didn't make it into this post:

    1. Nursing is a fantastic job. I consider it a privilege to have worked so many years in the field. I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that nursing is in any way an inferior career to medicine. It's definitely not!

    2. There are still many external barriers facing women in professional careers, and they deserve to be discussed as well. But that is another post for another day....

    Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks so much for this post! I think a lot of us can relate to what you went through. And you're so right about successful women not being likable. Gah! Not sure what to do about that one, except trust that your real friends will be there for you with or without your career successes. Do you mind if I link this in a post on my blog (which I will hopefully get around to writing later today....)?

  3. Whoo Hoo Scrub Mama. Absolutely love your post! I chose my field and love it but have sometimes sacrificed my career advancement at the altar of "family." I realized I was playing the martyr as my husband climbed the corporate ladder without any regrets or shortchanging. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do and my 3 girls are amazing but I made a resolution to myself this year that if I needed to stay late I will. My husband can stay home for the doctor's appts and go to the PTA meetings too.(I do have to plan ahead and get it on his calendar but that is a success for me. I used to just expect to do it) I have also let the comments from my very traditional MIL finally run off the duck's back. If my husband wanted a SAHM, he would have married one. Thanks for the affirmation!

  4. I'm a big proponent of 'you can do anything you want', but I wish my 20-year-old self would have thought more about what I would need to sacrifice in order to achieve those goals I wanted (not that I would have listened if someone tried to tell me).

    I was (am) a high achiever, Ivy League grad, born into a long line of academic physicians. I was a great student, a smart girl: that was my identity. To get a master's degree and work as a tech would be 'beneath' me, embarrassing for someone of my over-achieving mindset. And yet, that's really, in my heart, what I wanted to do. My heart was never in medicine as a love, a passion. What I really wanted to do, what I was embarrassed to admit to my friends, family, and parents, was that I wanted a low-stress, low-responsibility career so that I could focus on having a family.

    I went to med school instead, and it went reasonably well. I've got a job I really like, my husband stays home with our passel of kids, and he loves what he does. We've got a good relationship and I wouldn't exactly complain about where I am, but if I'm honest, I wish the tables were reversed. I wish *he* would be the one out there working all day and I were the one at home.

    So I guess you could say I shortchanged myself by not allowing myself to do the 'radical' thing of NOT getting the highest degree I could. I wish I would have been strong enough to feel confident in my worth without that "MD" behind my name.

  5. Like this blog, this post is very inspiring (so is Sandberg's TED talk). Thanks, scrub mama!

    If I had fought for what I truly wanted to do, I would have gotten a B.S., not a B.A. my first go 'round. But to do that I needed to live on campus or away from my family to attend a 4-year school. That, however, seemed impossible and out of the question because I was expected to stay close to family.

    As a 1st generation college student, my family thought I'd get a degree and stay close to home or get a job straight out of high school and start a family immediately. So I made decisions in that belief because I thought that was the right thing to do. But that is not what I needed or wanted (I have lived 2 hours from my family for 6 years now and miss them a lot).

    Now I'm trying to follow my dreams, no matter where they take me, and accept the fact that it's not wrong if I have to live away from family.

  6. Great comments, ladies! Thanks for sharing!

    OMDG-by all means. I can't believe that anyone wouldn't ever like you, no matter how successful you became. (And if they do, it's their loss!)

    Sunni-Good point! The TIME author said a similar thing-the only way she got her hubby to pick up more childcare duties was to simply make herself unavailable at times. Thanks for sharing your story!

    Mariko-I am SO glad you shared this. I think the next generation of girls will feel more pressure than ever to achieve the most career-wise, even if that's not what they want.

    Beth-I guess I'm a first generation terminal degree, and *I* think it's hard navigating uncharted territory. I can't imagine what kind of challenges you have as 1st-gen college student. Wow! I'm glad you are figuring out what you need to be happy, and I'll bet you're inspiring your family members to do the same.

  7. Oh wow! I love this post! You are so right. And I love the part about thinking "worry is synonymous with love". I find myself doing the exact thing. I also did the rn thing first, mostly out of fear of ruining my family in the end. But God has def called me to medicine, so I'm going for it.
    Let's see- I think I short change myself by believing the lie that stay at home moms are better moms. Bc of that, I fear leaving my son (even with my mom, who keeps him when I'm in class!) and I worry he'll be damaged by my pursuing medicine somehow.
    For me, my radical decision would be just to trust. Trust that God can take care of my boy while I'm out, that it really is okay to do well in (and enjoy!) my classes, and that being where I'm meant to be is the best thing I can do for my family.

  8. Love it. Let's also all vote for protective job environment, so our society does not loose such a wonderful work force as women and women-mothers. So many times I observed my colleagues who returned after maternity leave do a far better job than single guys (sadly). And so many times it made me proud of being a mother and also a professional. Reading this blog and all your stories is so inspring!

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  11. Anon320--Thank YOU for recognizing when a woman gets a job done well, despite extra challenges. I hope you share that with your mom-colleagues, too. What a powerful thing.

    Elle-I'm SO glad you shared your story. I was thinking of you when I wrote it, and how powerful it is to see you make your choice with pride. The great thing is that both you and your hubby are doing what you love, and your baby is so happy. You are a role model for me because you take the flak so well, and still *choose* to be happy despite what anyone says. Actually, you *were* the woman who kept her foot on the gas pedal, and then made your decision. Nice!

    Re: long posts--the only way I got this done was because we were on a long car trip and Mr. Scrub was driving!

  12. ScrubMama - excellent read! Thanks for posting this. You're a fantastic writer!

    I am in Mariko's boat. The most radical thing I did in order not to short-change myself was leaving the legal field to stay home, in spite of having racked up a ton of law school debt and only practicing for 3.5 years. I know that some family members think I'm crazy... and think I'm short-changing my kids if it turns out we can't pay for top-notch private colleges. Others have been very supportive. None of it matters much to me because I love my life every day, and I wouldn't give up what I now have for any amount of money. Nor do I think my children will wish I'd gone back to work to make more money for them.

    Similar to Mariko, I was born into a family of professionals and it was always assumed that I would *want* to be one, and that is what I would "do" with my life. Like Mariko, I found that the sacrifices required to be an excellent lawyer were more than I was willing to give of my life on this Earth and the things I enjoy and find meaningful.

    Mariko, I think it's great that your husband stays home, and Amy, kudos to you for telling women to expect more of their spouses! I don't think it's too much to ask that your spouse's career take a second seat to your own if you're really passionate about a career in a demanding or competitive field. I feel lucky every day that we can afford for me to have this choice. I'm happy for my husband that he loves what he does... and I'm even happier for me that in spite of caving to the expectations that I'd be a professional, I can still have the home life I always knew I wanted.

  13. Scrubmama - what a fantastic post. Wish I had made #2 a realization years ago - not that it would have changed my current situation but at the very least I could have known that it was OK to have those expectations of a partner.

    Having said that, I feel stronger and more confident now in my career and as a MiM now that I am a single mother than I ever did in my 13 year marriage. I can do it all - manage finances, run a household, and shine as a pathologist. I feel like I am finally entering my "zone" in late 30's. Life is no longer a chore, but a joy to experience every day. And yes, I am proud.

    Here's to new beginnings - whether it is a career change or life change. We always need to be open to change - it is so good for us! One of my good friends just got back from U2. Wonder if you all were there together.

  14. This really is a great post, and sort of a birthday present for me. Yesterday was my birthday-- I just turned 30!

    The reason why it's a great present, is because I've short-changed myself in not going for medicine when I was in college, choosing (and following) a completely different path, that although it was good, was not what my heart and soul kept telling me to do.

    I have finally decided that age doesn't matter and that I really CAN do this med-school thing. So here I am! Hopefully I'll get the family someday too, but for now, I'm going to focus on what's right in front of me, and try not to run scared again...

    Thanks for this very encouraging post! :)

  15. Gizabeth-One of my mentors said that her 30s were the best years of her life; I'm starting to believe her! I think that's why I love reading your posts so much. My kids will be your kids' ages in a few years, so it's nice to get a glimpse into the future, and hopefully I'll have as much pluck as you do!

    Live Life~Go for it! And happy birthday!

  16. What a fantastic post! I share your sense of the pressure to feel guilt, the mild surprise of not feeling any, and the challenge of reconciling the social expectation of "mommy guilt" with the complete lack of that guilt within me.

    I love my children beyond words. They are the reason I exist as the person I am today and without them I would not be even 1/1000th of who I am. If I can take upon my body and soul all their pain and challenges, no matter how large or small, for the rest of their lives, I would gladly suffer all of it (from a paper cut to the worst thing you can imagine). I would donate my heart to them on this very day if they needed it.

    However, this does not mean I have ceased being a person myself. I was and am a child of this world, and my life still holds much promise too (even if it is now superseded by the lives of my children). Furthermore, in order to be the best mother I can be for them (which I believe they unequivocally deserve) I must be a happy, functional, fulfilled human being.

    I feel no guilt about going to medical school or spending long hours studying or being away from them. I am bettering my children's mother and I am bettering my children's lives by positioning myself in such a way (professionally, financially) as to give them greater opportunities for future success.

    Most importantly, I am teaching my children that having dreams and goals, giving love and kindness, sharing your talents both at home and at work, finding fulfillment both in your personal and professional halves of your life are the building blocks of a truly happy life.

  17. Your post inspired me. I am 30 years old and feel like I made a big mistake when I dropped pre-med when I was just 1 course away from having all pre-med reqs to take the MCAT. I gave it up because I felt like having a family (I was engaged at the time) and being a doctor weren't things that could go together. I constantly dream of getting up and going after it again. I just don't know where to start. Plus I'm 30 with no children, but wanting them soon. All the hurdles seem overwhelming. It is nice to hear your story and see the possibility of the same happening for me.
    Thank you

  18. I just found this blog, and as the first post to read, this really spoke to me! I made a similar decision in university - going into pharmacy instead of medicine because it seemed more compatible with family life. And while that may be the case, I'm finally allowing myself to think about fulfilling my life-long dream of becoming a doctor. I certainly don't regret the path I chose, but realized that this is not what I want to do for the rest of my career. And as a parent - it is SO true that we feel guilty no matter what we do - whether it's spending not enough time with family, or feeling like we're neglecting our jobs.

  19. So now we tell young women that the only way to ever be happy is to be a doctor? Really? Well, since 99% of women will not be, I guess the number of unhappy, frustrated, women will grow exponentially, as women who have no desire to do so, are forced into careers they hate, or guilt tripped for refusing those careers.

    Oh, and there was no need to tell us how you truly feel about nurses. You made that clear in your original post.

  20. Hey, just wanted to pitch in on original question. I left very promising job at top institution to allow me to take care of my children. 60 hour work week, and 2 nannies, I was not seeing my kids much. I have a very low key job now. But I could not believe when I saw my kids blossom just within months. I tought my 5 yo to read on 1, then 2nd grade level in a matter of weeks. And I volonteer in their schools now, and tutor them at home. They have far more hobbies now than before. All I had to give up is publications, international speaking, possible chair (it was being discussed by philantropy), high-class parties and here I am. I am pleased with my decision. Only rarely past opportunities cross my mind. Too often I met super accomplished women who did not have time to influence their kids.

  21. C.L Destin - I am the one who was forced to become a doctor. I am very-very gratfeul to my family for this. I have a great job, security, nobility of medicine, curiosity of science - all of which took years of hard work to achieve. And I am glad my family expected it of me. I would be in a miserable place should I have become who "I wanted" - No job, or low income, and no fabulous opportunities to travel, spend time with family in places I want, hiring professional help, going to quality beauty salooons, etc. Whoever chooses to be unhappy and frustrated shall remain so. Just do not speak for "all the women who were forced in career they hated". In my culture we say "love what you do" (whatever your job is,learn to enjoy, take it positively, do a good job). In my culture we respect our family elder's advise, they know more, they have experience. We do not take our family advise as "force". Simlarly "career they hate" statement is too unbalanced. The author simply wrote about her own enjoyment of her career, she personally should have pursued earlier. No need to read between lines for hidden meaning that is not there.

  22. Sorry for the late replies, everyone--just getting my sea legs on my surgical sub-i. I just have to say that these replies are fantastic- I love hearing how each of you have found what you need in life and have gone for it. I hope you share your stories with the women you know in real life, too. Kudos to all of you!

  23. Dear scrubmama,

    Having had a very similar experience myself, I can really relate to your writing. When I first went to college, right out of high school, I did so poorly that I just gave up and dropped out. Then I met my husband and we decided to start our family. In the process I realized that I didn’t have to give up just because I failed the first time around. So right after my daughter was born I went back to school. While I worked toward my RN my dream of becoming an MD was reawakened. I should have always believed in myself but being young and insecure creates a lot of doubt in your mind. Once I opened up my eyes and heart and realized that I can really have it all with the support of my husband and family the greatest gift I have given to myself and my daughter is to take this leap and never shortchange myself again. I am living my dream and teaching her to never ever give up on hers. I am currently an M2 and loving every minute of it. I find your post inspirational. Keep writing and keep sharing.

  24. If I knew I could not fail, i'd apply for med school!


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