Monday, December 23, 2013

Guest post: I do not want to be a vacation parent.

I will preface this blog by saying that I feel very lucky to work at the academic medical centre where I landed right after residency.  I love my clinical work and my education leadership roles. Mostly, I have good support and reasonable bosses. I try to keep all these happy thoughts in mind as we go through the painful process of developing an accountability framework in my large department. Generally, I succeed. I am 100% in support of the major requirements, which boil down to: please do the work you’re paid to do, and provide the people who pay you with some evidence that you’ve been doing that. Sounds good.

At a recent meeting, though, a seemingly minor comment about a seemingly minor clause made me quite upset. In this agreement, a small amount of income will be “at risk” if a departmental member is not deemed to have participated in sufficient departmental activities. Fair enough. However, this requirement includes a certain percentage of rounds held early-ish in the morning (not surgeon-early, but early). The comment made was: “We tried to be sensitive to family needs when planning the timing of these rounds ….  But there are also __ weeks of vacation, of course.”

There was no discussion about this. Introvert that I am, I needed to process this. Weathered faculty member that I am, I knew to shut up while reacting emotionally, until I had time to process my thoughts. They’ve been processed. They’re still emotional. They follow.

I do not want to be a vacation parent.

My husband spends many more awake hours with our 5.5 year old son than I do. As a full-time student, his hours lend themselves to this - he picks the boy up from school and actively parents the kid for a few hours before supper.  I work hard to get home for 6:30 p.m. so we can eat together. I enjoy the 1.5 hours before bedtime where I’m in charge of glockenspiel practice, speaking French (a.k.a “homework”), and then we share bath/bedtime duties. In the morning, I am in charge of the Mandatory Morning Cuddle (there are far worse jobs), and then we have a typical “get everyone out of the door” scramble together. In there, I head off to work just as the boy leaves for the bus.

If you do the math, on weekdays I see my child awake for a grand total of about 2.5 hours daily, at most. When I’m on weekend call, I am at work for about another 4 hours both days, which is minor compared to many, but does mean I miss my share of skating and swimming lessons. Most weekends I work at home for at least a few hours, though I try to do these while he is asleep, but this isn’t always possible. I do not complain about these hours. Compared to many physicians, they’re light. They are what I signed up for, and I believe they are fair.

However, if I add in more morning rounds, I’m incrementally cutting into the time I parent the boy on a daily basis. On days where there are mandatory morning meetings, my son may not see me at all until 6:30 p.m., as I usually need to leave around the time he gets up. These are mostly ad hoc meetings, so I don’t complain (much). Twice weekly rounds start to add up quickly – two days a week of no Mom in the morning.

I do not want to be a vacation parent.

This is really the crux of what bothered me. How is it acceptable to declare “you get lots of vacation time” (for which I am grateful) as a rationale for “parents should have no excuse not to attend these rounds”? At what point is it appropriate to expect parents to not be present in the day-to-day lives of their children, for the sake of non-patient-care activities? I realize that there are many other very valid non-parenting reasons why this might be problematic, but this was a direct comment about parents not wanting to attend rounds at the hours chosen by the Department.

I do not want to be a vacation parent. I want to be present in the day-to-day mundane activities of my son’s life. Believe it or not, I want to be part of the mornings where he is grumpier than a bear, and he has a meltdown because his socks don’t match his jeans. I want to be there to help with the snowsuit battles. I want my mandatory morning cuddle, dammit. I want my son to go to bed at night and know that I will be there in the morning. We worked hard to achieve this balance, and it works for us - well, it works more often than not – what more can we ask for?

It is (almost) irrelevant that I don’t learn well in lecture-based rounds, and that I have to travel more to get to and from these rounds than most in that they are not held at my home hospital. It’s (almost) irrelevant that I participate in teaching activities significantly more than most of my colleagues, so my departmental contributions are considered to be quite high overall.

Clichéd as this might sound – it’s the principle of the thing. Going on vacations with my child is not the same as being there daily. I’m quite sure my kid would forfeit our family vacations in exchange for both his parents being present daily. I would. My bosses may have the right to require me to work different hours, but let’s not pretend that it’s not a problem for families because “there is vacation time”.

So, a portion of my income may well be at risk. Currently, I’ve decided they can keep that if they like. I will cope with the consequences of my dereliction, because I cannot put a price on my Mandatory Morning Cuddle.

I do not want to be a vacation parent.


  1. The department I'm in is constantly adding "requirements" to what we have to do; the only way anyone gets anything done is to pick and choose what they go to. While it's monumentally annoying that the commentary in your department was directed at non-attendance by parents, and it's downright obnoxious that they are threatening to dock your salary (!) for not attending rounds, you can also think of that as an opportunity. They are simply affixing a price tag to non-attendance which they may or may not enforce.

    Hearing this would make me REALLY mad too. However over time I learned that it was best to keep my mouth shut and just do what I was going to do (maybe go a few times in the mean time to appease the Gods). Then if someone actually calls you on it (rare -- unless they're mad at you for other reasons too), you can change your behavior then.

  2. You are much calmer than I would be.

    Your boy is only going to be young once, and I commend you for recognizing what is important to you and your family.

    When I was pushed to increase my hours (without compensation of course) I simply said no. I didn't explain why or act angry. I just reviewed my contract and said I would follow my current understanding of it. Upper management had a fit but ultimately the quality of my work and calm attitude won out... I never had any negative repercussions.

    Having said that, I was really flexible otherwise. But there is always a line in the sand for me...

  3. Of course your salary is tied to the work you do, and your employer has the right to set concrete standards. That's how the real world works in every single business of which I'm aware, from retail clerk all the way up to CEO. If you don't like it, change employers or live with the consequences.

    Every single person I know would prefer to spend less time at work and more time with family and friends. Just about everyone I know works weekends because employers try to get by with fewer employees doing more work per capita. At least you know what portion of your income you're sacrificing, and it sounds like you don't have to worry about losing your job to "cuddle time".

    1. Yup. I think the author does a good job of acknowledging that in many ways she has a good thing going. She gets to have her struggle, too, even if it's not the WORST STRUGGLE EVER.

  4. The unacceptable part of this is the comment aimed at parents. Do they at least acknowledge that they're shoving these meetings into the early-morning hours because they won't sacrifice potential reimbursement? That's the issue.

    Before I had children, I struggled with the clear implication that I had no right to "family time". Early rounds were still problematic for me - I had a long commute and I wanted time with my husband. I also had dogs who needed attention and couldn't be left alone for 12+ hours. It's not just about kids, and it's not just about vacation. It's about self-care and sanity and preventing burnout.

    It's also not OK that they're counting some forms of departmental and educational service more than others - and if your department is like many of the ones I've been in, it just *happens* that the women end up doing more of the uncompensated, uncredited work. You do whatever you need to do to make this work for you. I'm not saying you need to do anything at all to change it. I'm saying "I see you. I see the work you do. I see that it is undervalued, and I see the patriarchy at work".

  5. I sacrifice 20% of my income to work less. Absolutely worth it to me... the money isn't nearly as important right now as the time with kids. I'm sure your salary is high enough that a small portion of your income being lost won't make a dent.

    However, if it doesn't say in your contract that you have to attend rounds, it might be worth arguing that they shouldn't be allowed to dock your salary for failing to do so. Depends how much you care.

  6. You go girl! Stand up for yourself. You mentioned that you spend considerably more time teaching than other colleagues. Perhaps they should come up with an equation to determine what they feel appropriate "departmental activities" are and those should include time spent during Rounds, time spent teaching medical students/residents, etc . . . .

  7. I hear you, and have certainly sacrificed career development for protected family time. We are part of the change of all institutions, and I hope our kids will have a more family-friendly environment!

  8. My mom was not a doctor or anything of that nature. But she worked a full 40+ hours every week since I was a little girl. There were many days where she was at work before I woke up for school and got home around dinner time. Never did I ever feel growing up that my mom wasn't around enough. I thought "My mom goes to work, I go to school, we do dinner and nighttime activities." That was that. I wouldn't beat yourself up over it if you do miss a few mornings. Even as I was older and look back at how my mom raised me and the many mornings I got myself ready to get on the bus for school, I think of all she did for me and how selfless she was to work full time and be a mom full time. You can do it!


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