I can’t get into Instagram. Like other social media platforms, I follow a handful of friends, family, and acquaintances and post very sparingly. I don’t post a lot because I’m fairly paranoid about privacy (all I can say is: thank goodness it did not exist when I was in high school – I would be mortified to have those memories immortalized) and I honestly just don’t have time for it. I’m constantly in awe of people who capture and share so much of their lives. How do they manage to do it? I have no idea.
I worry about young women following certain “influencers” (what does that even MEAN!?) who post regularly on working motherhood, work-life balance, etc. These influencers leave out so many important details of their lives when they post. They talk about being imperfect but then always post “perfect” photos. I couldn’t believe it when I learned that some people hire photographers to take their pictures! What happened to authenticity!? How can these people write about “keeping it real” when someone’s following them around with a camera? I’d love to see more influencers post while wearing yoga pants (not actually used for exercise, mind you) with their unwashed hair pulled up into a tight bun because they haven’t been able to escape for 15 minutes to take a shower in 3 days.
These influencers also rarely address the role of privilege in their lives. Did they come from money? What role do their husbands play in their financial success? Have they faced any hardships? What does “hustling” mean in the context of not really having to work?
I would be a terrible Instagram influencer because I don’t sugarcoat things. I am very upfront when I give advice to young women who ask me about work-life balance. So I’m writing this post today to share the authentic side of working motherhood, how I’ve been able to balance both aspects of my life, and how I’ve learned to be at peace with my decision.
1. How I decided to keep working full-time after my first child was born: I actually didn’t have a choice.* This is not a glamorous answer, but it’s the truth. My husband supported us through medical school (full disclosure: my parents also supported me quite a bit through medical school, before my husband and I were married) and residency. Once I graduated and had a real job that brought in actual income (sorry residents!), it was my turn to support our family while my husband started his own company. I came home from the hospital after my son was born and announced that I never wanted to go back to work (I loved my job and still love my job, but those postpartum hormones and attachment to your newborn are strong forces!). My husband, who is very loving and supportive, looked at me and said that wasn’t an option. Ultimately, he was right. We had a mortgage, lived in a high-cost of living area, and both had to hustle to set our family up for success, because we were not about to inherit millions of dollars any time soon (or ever, having both come from humble backgrounds). So 4 months later, I went back to work.
I vividly remember new moms I met during maternity leave saying things like: “I can’t imagine going back to work and leaving my baby with a stranger”, “babies need their mothers”, etc. and feeling so incredibly hurt. I never once congratulated myself in front of them for going back to work, or made any arguments as to why working motherhood was “better” (is there a better? I don’t think so – I truly believe every parent tries to do their best within their means). Although I was hurt at the time, I think they were trying to rationalize their own choices, and I don’t fault them for it. I now have almost 4 years of perspective to see how that decision has impacted their relationships and careers, and I also see that our kids don’t differ in any appreciable ways, despite mine having had >1 caregiver. So the first thing I tell young women is this: you have to do what’s best for you and your family. How much choice you have in the matter will depend on many personal circumstances, but you can never go wrong if you love your child and try your best. And don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you there’s only one right way to do things – they are trying to convince themselves, not help you.
2. How I “do it all”: Today, a weekday, I organized a play date with a close friend and her kids. I ran errands, prepared dinner for everyone, read a story to my son’s preschool class, and spent some time calling patients with results, speaking with other doctors about complex cases, and working on administrative projects. My friend sent me a text saying “Wow – super mom! You crushed it today!”. Yes, I was pretty productive, but I also have a lot of privilege and extra help, so it’s really not that impressive.
First of all, I have a very rewarding and flexible job. I love what I do and who I work with, I have great benefits, I have a lot of autonomy, and I have the opportunity to do some work from home. I’m not in the hospital taking 24 hour call and I’m not working a dull, minimum-wage job. So how did I get here? Well, I have always been driven, but I also had parents whose main goal was to set me up for success. They were present, supportive, loving, and sacrificed their own livelihood to put me first. This allowed me to focus on my education, to attend an Ivy League college, and to ultimately graduate from medical school and enter into a competitive specialty. I worked hard, but I also won the lottery by being born into an amazing family, and also encountered a lot of luck along the way. There are many bright and promising people who are not so lucky, or whose lives are transformed by tragedy. Second of all, I have an amazing husband. He is very affectionate, closely involved with the kids, does groceries 90% of the time, and cooks pretty much every night (my cooking tonight was indeed an anomaly). He has also been very successful in his career, and this has set a solid financial foundation for our family. I truly won the husband jackpot. Finally, we can afford to hire help. We have our oldest in a nurturing, full-time preschool (and his brother will join him in a few weeks) and we also have a full-time nanny. Without family in the area, I can’t imagine doing this without our nanny. She has been a true lifesaver, taking great care of our kids, tidying up our home, doing our laundry – I could go on and on. And because our jobs are flexible, we don’t utilize our childcare resources to the max, so we are still able to be their primary caregivers.
Now, there are certainly many people who are much better off than we are, and our arrangement may also not work for everyone. But the advice I usually give is this: split the household responsibilities with your spouse. If you can afford it, outsource household work you don’t enjoy or find fulfilling (e.g. washing dishes, cooking, etc.). If you can’t afford it or can but wish to reach financial independence more quickly, figure out what you can do without. Can you ignore the laundry piling up for a few days? Can you leave dishes in your sink? In sum: try not to sweat the small stuff so that you can focus on what you truly love, which for most people is spending quality time with their kids. Doing it all is really just a matter of how much you put on your list. Put less on your list and you’ll automatically do much more!
In sum: I don’t think my situation is all that impressive. I continued working because I had to (but 4 years later am so incredibly happy that I did, because I truly do believe I have the best of both worlds now) and I “do it all” because I was privileged enough to have been set up for success and I can outsource some household tasks and afford quality childcare. And this is precisely why I would have a terrible public Instagram account – the truth is not very awe-inspiring, but I do think it’s important for young women to hear it so they are not discouraged by “perfect” lives on social media.
*In truth, there were things we could have done to make my staying at home feasible. My husband could have stayed at his well-compensated job, we could have moved to a lower cost-of-living area, we could have relocated closer to family. Ultimately, however, we chose to remain on this trajectory because we liked where we lived, I had a great job, and my husband had a lot of opportunity with his new endeavor. It was not an easy decision, and I shed a lot of tears, but I don’t regret making this decision.