In her shortlisted essay for the 2019 John Henahan Prize, Dr Pallavi Singh looks to her colleagues who seem to balance family and medicine with perfect ease
It is tough to write about balancing ophthalmology and family life, when you have barely started a career in ophthalmology and are nowhere near having a family of your own. So, how did I end up writing this essay? Probably because I have always been intimidated by the daunting task of maintaining a perfect equilibrium between career and personal life, and it is fascinating to watch people accomplish this incredible feat so effortlessly, day in and day out.
Ophthalmology was always traditionally considered to be less demanding as compared to other medical branches like general surgery. However, nowadays it has become a technologically advanced, all-encompassing field with diversification into aesthetics, trauma, neurology, etc. This has changed the conventional idea of our job. Today, ophthalmologists are busier than ever. The shift towards a busier work environment has made the work-personal life balance question even more pertinent.
With this background, I am going to share the lives of two women in ophthalmology with completely different approaches to life, both of whom I have come to greatly idolise. Also, I choose to talk about women, and not men in this context, because even today, the act of juggling a successful career with a family is more of a conscious (read difficult) choice for women, rather than a default option, as for most men.
The protagonist of my first story is my attending consultant with two children, an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Chaos reigns her life. There are projects to be executed, classes to be scheduled, conflicts to be resolved and of course, diapers to be changed. On multiple occasions, I have seen her consoling her kids about broken crayons and such over the phone, before entering the operation theatre for some major surgery. At other times, she has had to rush home for some unexpected sibling skirmish or common cold crisis.
What I also observe is that her colleagues often jibe about how she should think of becoming a stay-at-home mother, considering she is always so occupied with her children.
However, amidst the mad mayhem that I have always thought her life is, I notice that she is probably the calmest doctor I had ever come across in my life. In situations, where most others would be furious, she is cool as a cucumber and invariably comes up with ingenious solutions. Flummoxed by the opposing nature of her situation and her personality, I once asked her the secret to her tranquillity, and she answered, “I am at peace because I am happy. Sure, family can be a challenge sometimes, but you learn a lot when you have to fit in the wishes and demands of other people with your own. When at the end of an exhausting day, I get to go back to people who love me regardless of anything, it is worth the effort.”
The heroine of my second story is my clinical research guide, a single mother of one, and one of the most successful professionals in her field. Ambition guides her life. There are research proposals to be written, conferences to be attended and surgeries to be performed. On multiple occasions, she is the first to reach and the last to leave the clinical laboratory. And even though, most of her colleagues fear and revere her, there are invariable jibes about how she is too ambitious for a woman and may not be doing enough for her family.
But despite the harrowing hustle that her life is, I see her plough on and achieve milestones that most others could only dream of, undeterred by any taunts or obstacles.
Perplexed by her brazen determination despite domestic responsibilities, I turned to her for advice and she said, “Your work is not only your legacy, but also a part of who you are as a person. I am most content, whenever I see a patient who has benefited from anything I may have contributed, and that is what drives me to do this. My daughter understands that sometimes my patients need me more than she does, and has come to become the single most inspirational force in my life. I attempt to inculcate in her the compassion and dedication that my work has taught me.”
As I watch these two women tirelessly labour their way through children, relatives, surgeries, research and life in general, I realise that it is never going to be an effortless journey. We will always be placed at the altar of societal judgement, despite the sacrifices we make, the occasions we miss and the disappointments we face. But every once in a while, there are moments of achievement, emotion, and most importantly joy, that make the struggle worth it.
There is no right way to walk the line. Our choices as individuals may differ, but as long as we aim to master the challenge, and not let the challenge master us, I think we will all do just fine.
Dr Singh is a Senior Resident at the Dr RP Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences, AIIMS, New Delhi, India