I’ve always wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. Even as a child, I dreamed that I would be a heart surgeon one day. As an adolescent, adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and when I told them, they would invariably ask, “But don’t you want to be a mommy one day?” as if surgery and motherhood were mutually exclusive. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t thinking about children. I just wanted to be a heart surgeon, and if I happened to become a mother, then that would be fine too.
My passion for surgery grew as I did, but so did the breadth of my dreams. Not only did I want to become a cardiac surgeon, but I started thinking about becoming a mother one day, too. This new dream became even more tangible during my first year of Medical school, when I met my (now) fiancé. The way I saw it, I had two potential pathways ahead of me, each taking me in opposite directions but with equally fulfilling destinations. The only problem was that I couldn’t be in two places at once.
I began entertaining the idea of pursuing another, similar specialty that might have a better “work/life” balance, and I sought out a female mentor for advice and perspective. She was the first female that I had ever met in a procedural specialty, and she was a strong, confident, ambitious woman whom I began to admire. A few days into the experience I told her my story, revealing to her my passions and fears, hoping that she would tell me that I could make both of my dreams come true with a little elbow grease.
Instead, I got a very different message. According to her, she never would have accomplished all that she had if she had been burdened by a family, and I could never hope to be successful at both. Both my family and my career would necessarily suffer at the hand of the other. It was discouraging, but nothing I hadn’t heard before.
Then she said something that really jolted me, something that hovered over me for a very long time: She said that if I became a cardiac surgeon, my children would call the nanny “mommy.” She told me that my children would run to the nanny for kisses when they fell, that they’d cry for her when they had a nightmare. This shocking assertion, coming from my only female role model in a procedural specialty, breathed real life into the idea that I was doomed to choose between a family and my passion. I am ashamed to say that I allowed myself to be intimidated into setting my dreams aside. I started considering other specialties. I tried to love something else, but no matter how hard I tried to put cardiac surgery behind me, I kept circling back to it. My mind was open to the other possibilities, but my heart was not. I just couldn’t let it go.
I finally decided to begin my third year of medical school with a few weeks on a cardiac surgery rotation, so I could experience it for myself. On my second day, after a very long and complicated open aortic valve replacement, the fellow and I were about to wheel our patient up to the ICU when the patient suddenly went into tamponade and ventricular fibrillation. We emergently reopened his sternotomy to find a hole in his aorta where a stitch had ruptured. The fellow put him back on cardiac bypass while I performed an internal cardiac massage until more qualified help could take over. I held our patient’s heart in my hand. I kept it beating. We saved his life, but I was a goner. All my doubt and hesitation had evaporated, replaced with an absolute clarity in the truth that there is no other path for me. I am meant to spend my life holding hearts in my hands.
It was decided. I was (and am) going to be a cardiac surgeon. While this was no longer up for debate, it did leave me with another difficult decision, so I began questioning my future as a mother. Should I just not have kids? Should I expect my fiancé to give up his career as a corporate attorney to raise our children? How could I ask that of him? Would he and our kids end up resenting me? Do I just accept that the kids will call the nanny “mommy”? Which is worse: having no children, or having children who don’t know me?
But what if these are the wrong questions?
Why does this idea exist, that women can do whatever they want in their careers, just as long as they have a supportive partner and/or an army of nannies to pick up the slack? What if I don’t want to relinquish the joys of motherhood to someone else? What if I want to be both a successful surgeon and a devoted mother? Why should I have to choose? Why is this even a question? While both men and women struggle to balance careers and families, I can guarantee that my fiancé is not lying awake at night wondering how he is going to choose between his career and his ability to be a good father. The traditional standards required for earning the title of “good mother” are very different from those required to be a “good father”. Since the dawn of humanity, a good father has cared for his family by leaving the cave to bring back a mammoth for dinner, while the good mother stays home to care for the children. This system made sense when providing for the family meant wrestling a saber-tooth tiger, but not anymore. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and not one of us has the right to judge how another family makes it work. We, both as individuals and as a society, need to abandon the cavewoman’s standards and create our own, based on what is best for our individual families. I was really struggling with the choice between being a cardiac surgeon and being a good mom until I considered who I am as an individual. I realized that, for me, they are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually inclusive. I know myself. I know that I am at my best in every way when I have something that I am passionate about that challenges me and keeps me very busy. Having a fulfilling career that I love will promote the best version of myself; my future children deserve that version. I want them to have a mother who cares about people and making a real difference in their lives, is inspired by what she does, welcomes a challenge, works hard but enjoys every moment, and loves them unconditionally. I owe it to them to give them that person, and I owe it to myself to become that person. For me, the way to become the best mother I possibly can be is to also become the best surgeon I can be.
This is the real world, and it takes more than good intentions to move mountains. I needed to know if it was physically possible. I reached out to female cardiothoracic and vascular surgeons, including some WTS members, who are also mothers to hear their stories. To date, not one of the women who actually has both a family and a successful career (and yes, there are many of them) endorses the unfortunate advice I was initially given.
They were all incredibly honest, and the truth of the matter is that it is tough. You don’t get to go to every ballet recital. You may need to interrupt your training to start a family. It all depends on you and your family. At the end of the day, each of the women I spoke to have become successful surgeons, leaders in their field, pioneers in research, teaching, and mentorship, and none have indicated that their families have suffered for it.
It’s true, many of them have had help. Hiring a nanny to babysit, drive the kids around, entertain them, and keep them out of trouble is of course a huge relief, but that is not all it is. Having a nanny is having another person to love your children and make them feel safe. It’s another person to cheer for them at soccer practice and applaud their A on that math test that they worked so hard to achieve. It is another person to wipe their tears when they fall and rebuild their confidence when they feel insecure. That can’t possibly be a bad thing. I was a nanny for 3 years for a family in which both parents were busy attorneys. I should have known better; I was all of those things. I still love them, and they loved me, but when they were sick, they always wanted their mommy.
Who you are and who you want to be are not binary. It isn’t a question of being a surgeon or a mother. Any working mother, no matter the field or specialty, from attorney to CEO to teacher to surgeon, is going to face similar struggles. Cardiac surgery might be considered one of the less lifestyle-friendly specialties, but every female doctor is going to face challenges. It isn’t easy no matter which specialty you pick. The choice is not between the easy path and the difficult path, it’s between the difficult path, the very difficult path, and all of the paths in between. Some extra challenges are worth it, some are not, but that is entirely up to you. Everyone has an opinion: other women, your mentors, your peers, your nanny, even the cavemen. Despite all of their opinions, YOU are the only one who actually knows what is best for you and your family. For me, there is no being a successful surgeon or being a great mother. For me, they are one in the same.