A few years ago, I was talking with a friend about being a woman in medicine, and she gave me some good advice: to guard my free time. It came up in the context of her colleague needing coverage because his child was sick, and she relayed how every time that happened, her boss would approach her first – because in her section, she was the only one without young kids. Her point was that we assume that non-parents’ free time is inherently more flexible, and maybe less important, than parents’ free time.
Years later (and still childless), I think about that conversation a lot. These days, it isn’t so much a man/woman divide, it’s a have-kids/don’t-have-kids one. And it is a tough topic to discuss, but we’re never going to make progress if we don’t try. To a very large degree, I get it: a weekend afternoon I have set aside to go to a museum or work on an IRB protocol is not the same thing as a five-year-old with a fever. It’s just not, and everyone knows that. Even those of us without kids have people in our lives with children whom we love.
Still, I can’t deny the truth in what she said. Some adjustments are easy: it’s not a hardship for me to take my time off in September instead of August, or in February instead of March, to accommodate summer vacations and spring breaks. We all have doctor’s appointments that require coverage, and I don’t mind coming in a little early if wires got crossed with the nanny this week.
So what does bother me? One thing I struggle with is the isolation of it. A good chunk of the time I spend in the women in medicine sphere is dedicated to things that are not relevant to my life right now: maternity leave, breastfeeding, guilt about working. And I say this as a woman who wants kids – I froze my eggs, remember – but I know plenty of women who don’t, and for them, this information is not at all helpful. As a society, we’ve become much better about not equating womanhood with parenthood, but we’re not all the way there.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I do see the judgment that transpires over a conversation about travel or season tickets, like that time and expense are less worthy than saving for college tuition – and that’s not okay. Plus, children aren’t our only personal obligations. What about a parent with Parkinson’s or a best friend with breast cancer, a nephew who lost his mom, a dog just diagnosed with heart failure? We should all have the space to decide how we spend our free time, and we need to be careful not to project our own value system onto our friends and colleagues.
Since I’ve delved into the personal, I’ll share one more truth: I am single, and I need my free time to find a partner, because dating in my 30s is hard! My best friend has a toddler and an infant, and we have a lot of “the grass is greener on your side of the fence” conversations. Sometimes I feel surrounded by peers with small children who envy my free time, and I don’t know how to explain that I spend much of it working towards what they already have. For those who are in the same boat, know that I see you, and check out All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister and this Atlantic article.
In medicine, we’re generally good about separating the personal from the professional, and that’s entirely appropriate. But at the end of the day we are all human, and sometimes life spills over, in both directions. In those moments, let’s remember that both choices and circumstances brought us to where we are, and that whether we have kids or not, we all clock in and clock out on the same timetable.