Integrating Surgery and Family Life

17 Feb 2016

By Lillian Erdahl

As part of the discussion on work and life, I want to introduce a term I heard recently. A speaker at a conference I attended mentioned the concept of work-life integration rather than balance. Life, meaning the roles I have outside of my work. Many roles i I play sometimes conflict with each other, including: breast and general surgeon, teacher of residents and medical students, mother to two children, wife, daughter, granddaughter, aunt, sister, and friend. For now, I will focus on how I manage being a mother and being a surgeon.

The struggle of working mothers and working parents is not unique to surgeons. However, the nature of my profession poses certain unique challenges. I cannot interrupt what I am doing in the operating room to talk to my child’s teacher or pick her up immediately from daycare if she has a fever. Some days the operating room gets delayed or a case is more complicated than predicted. What do I do when I get stuck at work late? What if my son has a special day at school on my operating day?

There are a number of ways I have managed to handle these potential conflicts. The keys are preparation, planning, setting realistic expectations, defining priorities, flexibility, and staying in the present moment. How does that work for me? Preparation means we have two forms of childcare. Over the years these have changed, but we have always had a nanny or au pair for the off hours plus daycare or preschool during the regular work day. Planning means that my husband and I review the family schedule several weeks in advance.

When it comes to setting realistic expectations, I start with myself. No, I will not be able to take my children to and from school most days, but I can attend parent-teacher conferences and the occasional Halloween Parade. It is also important to find out from my son which events matter most to him. Would he rather have me at his soccer game or his book fair? what is the order of priority for him? This is something I also have to ask myself. Is it a priority to participate in Journal Club or be home for dinner?

All of this planning and preparation sounds great, but sometimes flexibility is needed to deal with the unplanned situations. Who am I going to call when I am unexpectedly in the operating room late and my husband is out of town? Knowing that I have a backup plan helps me to stay in the present moment. I take a minute to ensure that my children are cared for and then I can shift the focus back to my patient. Similarly, I work with partners I can rely on to cover for me if I have a family emergency. This allows me to focus on my family, knowing my patients are receiving excellent care. To me, that is work-life integration.

iPhone31 (2)Lillian Erdahl practices Breast and General Surgery at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where she is Assistant Professor of Surgery. She is also married to a surgeon and mother to two children. She enjoys cross-country skiing, yoga, cooking, and spending time with her extended family. After enjoying her training at Penn State Hershey and Mayo Clinic, she is happy to be back in her hometown cheering on the Hawkeyes.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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