As a child, I fondly remember running through the kids’ aisle at Video World with my younger brother. We were excited to pick out VHS tapes for our family to watch over the weekend. I don’t recall whether this was every weekend or once a month, but movie nights were frequent enough that they made up for my parents’ repeated absences in those years.
My family had recently relocated from England to America, and my mother and father, both doctors, were working hard to find footing for us in a new country. As foreign-trained physicians, they had to study for U.S. medical licensure exams and redo elements of their medical training. These obligations often took them away from home.
Our movie nights brought us back together. We would pull out the sofa bed in the living room and snuggle together under cozy blankets while watching movies like “Peter Pan,” “A Little Princess,” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” We would often fall asleep together.
My mother recently asked me if I remembered these movie nights. She told me they were my parents’ way of reclaiming the time they were unable to spend with us as physician-parents and recent immigrants trying to build a new life for our family. As I celebrate my fourth Mother’s Day, I’m reflecting on how I can reclaim time to spend with my own children, but also for myself.
As a psychiatrist with work on the East and West coasts, I frequently travel across the country. Several weeks ago, I was waiting to put my carry-on suitcase through the security scanner, when the TSA agent announced that the machine had broken down. All the travelers in my line would have to join a new line. “I’m glad I got here early,” said the man behind me, “It’s always easier to kill time than resuscitate it.”
This stranger’s words have stuck with me. As a physician and a mother, I am perpetually trying to resuscitate time. Just like CPR, attempts to resuscitate time are physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting.
While a recent study suggests that the happiest people have about two to three hours of free time a day, life at the intersection of physicianhood and motherhood often leaves me feeling like I have too much to do and too little time to do it. Across medical specialties, as I’ve written before, our health care systems depend on physicians donating an average of two hours of personal time each night to complete tasks integral to patient care.
Combine this unpaid physician labor with the invisible mental loads of motherhood — like making sure we have groceries and my rapidly growing children have shoes that fit, packing healthy school lunches, managing multiple appointments with pediatric specialists, and frantically driving to multiple pharmacies to find fever medication — and the discretionary time spent outside of actual caregiving is whittled down to zero.
This harried state of being is what sociologists describe as “time poverty.” Living below this poverty line is hazardous to our health, putting us at risk for stress-related conditions including anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Black women and shift workers like me, in my job as an emergency psychiatrist, suffer the most from “time poverty.”
I cope by trying to do as much as I can, leaning into hyper-productivity. Between the demands of patient care and parenting, I’m often shifting from one mentally demanding task to the next and multitasking at every turn. I’m learning the hard way that this is counterproductive. My desperate attempt to reanimate lost time increases my stress and robs my brain of opportunities for mental rest and breaks from constant problem-solving.
A more reasonable approach would be to do less with the time that I have. A few years ago, I read a book called, “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids,” by Daisy Dowling. It gave me the confidence to take a non-traditional job that required me to travel across the country while trying to build a life for my own family.
I recently returned to this book to learn how to optimize my work-life balance as a physician-mother. Dowling explains that each year, the typical working mother makes over 500 transitions from home-to-work and work-to-home, and these transitions have a significant impact on how we feel.
“These could be 500 chances to feel torn in two, to appear harried and gruff to your child and colleagues, to run late, to forget your phone at work, to misplace your notes from that VC, and to be left anguished wondering if this working-parent thing is inherently painful or just plain impossible,” she writes. Building in mindful transitions, such as listening to music or meditation, can mentally prepare us for meaningful engagement in these dueling domains. For me, this means gifting myself time between my last scheduled patient and play time with my daughters.
I’ve come to deeply appreciate these moments of transition as a form of mental rest. These pauses help me refill my cup while avoiding physician and motherhood burnout. By giving me back small doses of discretionary time, these mindful moments improve my overall sense of wellness. As a mother who works with mothers in another of my roles, as a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist in private practice, I’m encouraging my patients to do the same.
While working from home, I have an afternoon and evening clinic. I take a break in between to get my girls ready for bed. After bath time, my husband and I cozy up with the girls and read them their favorite bedtime stories. The four of us together, all snuggled up, calls forth memories of my own childhood and moments with my parents that felt so magical. As my girls get older, I wonder if this is a family tradition, and moments of reclaimed time, they will remember with fondness, too.
Mother’s Day provides us with an opportunity to express gratitude toward the maternal figures in our lives. The holiday encourages us to honor the sacrifices mothers make to care for their families. I hope physician-mothers, especially those most at risk for time poverty, will take small steps to invest in ourselves so that we can continue to be effective in our dedication to our patients and devotion to our children. Let’s do less, and gain much more.