Balancing newborn care and a professional career can be challenging, even for doctors. For those who are experts at taking care of others, taking care of a newborn and balancing their professional careers can present new challenges and difficulties. The exhaustion and stress of parenting combined with the high-stress, high-stakes business of medicine can be especially troublesome and even dangerous.
Doctors who become parents face unique challenges that go beyond the usual frustrations of newborn care.
- Sleep deprivation. While doctors are familiar with the sleep deprivation required by interning, or even their regular practice, adding the unpredictable demands of a newborn tends to exacerbate what is often already a difficult schedule. Many doctors report never having felt as tired as when their first baby came home from the hospital. The lack of regular sleep can cause deep exhaustion, leading to unclear thinking and potentially fatal mistakes. Severe sleep deprivation can also cause mood disorders that make it difficult to perform at an optimum level at work.
- Balancing the demands of work and family. Critical work schedules and responsibilities for patient care compete heavily with a newborn’s demanding needs and lack of schedule. Whether a physician assumes the role of working parent, primary caregiver or a combination of both, there will be new demands on his/her time. Primary caregivers may feel overburdened or even abandoned by their partners whose schedules demand too much time and attention. They may also struggle with balancing their desire to take care of their children with their feelings of meeting their professional obligations. Long work hours can force parents to spend large stretches of time away from the baby. Guilt about being away from their baby can cause parents to overcompensate by wanting to see the baby on a video monitor frequently throughout the day, causing additional distractions and an internal tug-of-war between being a good parent and a good doctor.
- Stress. Medical professionals have the stress of making decisions for their patients that can have life-or-death consequences. The combined demands of a medical practice and caring for a newborn can increase a parent’s stress levels, leading to physical ailments such as headache, chest pain, fatigue, stomach upset, or mood changes such as anxiety, restlessness, distraction and lack of focus. While not typically debilitating, the rigors of a medical profession and newborn care can cause health problems that interfere with a doctor’s ability to perform at optimal levels as both a doctor and a parent.
- Anxiety. Too much medical knowledge can sometimes be a bad thing. Often, the knowledge gained by being a doctor causes new parents to question everything going on with a newborn. The challenge is “knowing too much,” and causing more worry. Doctor-parents may hear hooves and think zebras, not the more common horse. For example, if her baby seems warm, a new mother physician may jump too quickly to the conclusion that her baby has an infection and needs to go to the emergency room. While pediatricians are often calmest when parenting a newborn, newer doctors and medical students are often the most anxious when seeking answers to their baby’s discomforts and troubles.
For doctors who become parents, there are a few strategies that can help in dealing with these challenges.
- Know your priorities. Remembering what is most important to you can allow you to focus on performing at your best as both a parent and a doctor. Instead of feeling the tug-of-war between work and home, remember what’s important about your practice, and decide what is most important to you about your baby’s care. Commit to putting those things first. Find solutions to help you manage the aspects that are not as important.
- Take a step back. Doctors frequently attack problems and seek solutions. As a new parent, sometimes stepping back from the immediate crisis with your baby can help you observe and comfort your child. One parent reported that his 6-month-old was crying uncontrollably. He and his wife had tried everything and were beginning to panic. He took a step back, observed his daughter for a moment, and took off her socks. Her crying stopped almost instantly. As medical professionals, parents frequently look for medical answers, when sometimes the solution is far more simple.
- Get help. As doctors, new parents often feel they have to “do it all.” While certainly capable of handling a medical career and parenthood, no one should have to do everything alone. Developing a network of helpers to assist you in caring for your newborn will allow you to continue to be the professional and reliable doctor your patients depend on. Support can come from family, friends, or professional newborn care. With trusted help, a doctor can balance the demands of work, parenting and her own health with calmness and confidence.
While doctors as new parents may have unique challenges, relying on their parenting instincts and developing a dependable support network can help them manage the difficult months when newborns are most problematic. With time and support, like all parents, they will find that balance that allows them to relax in the knowledge that they are providing the best care for themselves, their patients and their newborn.