About the Episode

Happy Mother’s Day from the Charged team at Massachusetts General Hospital! In honor of this special day, we are celebrating the many amazing mothers at Mass General and the incredible way they manage their work and personal lives.  

In this special episode, we asked our second season guests to share stories about balancing motherhood and their careers, the challenges of building a career in medicine while raising a family and their parenting inspirations and role models.  

We hope you enjoy this bonus episode with the mothers of Charged!  

Featured Guests 

Yolonda Colson, MD, PhD 

Tina Duhaime, MD 

Cristina Ferrone, MD 

Sara Lazar 

Camille Powe, MD 

Helen Shih, MD 

Barbara Smith, MD, PhD 

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According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2017, more women than men enrolled in American medical schools for the first time in history. In that same year, they found that more than 60% of physicians under age 35 were women. And among physicians age 35-44, women slightly outnumbered men.  

While this surge of women practicing medicine is a boon for the profession and creates a workforce that more accurately reflects the face of the population generally, it also changes the face of health care as women embark on medical careers and build families at the same time.

At Charged, we’ve heard from many guests on the challenges of building a career in medicine while raising a family. For many women, this means determining how to integrate motherhood first with the demands of training, and later with professional obligations.

With Mothers’ Day right around the corner, we want to honor the work of the many amazing moms at Mass General. Here’s what they had to say about the challenges they’ve faced, seeking balance and finding inspiration.

Like many of us, our guests looked to their own parents as models for how to be a parent. Surgical oncologist Dr. Barbara Smith actually drew inspiration to become a working mother from watching her own mother give up her career.

Barbara Smith: My mom was of the era before women had careers, when it was expected that you would be home with your family, as that was the standard. She was a nurse. My father was a doctor. And she stopped working when I was born. And I think from her, I saw both the joys of being a parent as a primary focus and also the hardships of not having your own career and not having some of those other parts of your life.

And so I think that was one of the things that helped me see that it was worth it for me to try to have a career and make things work, even if it was a little less traditional.

For radiation oncologist Dr. Helen Shih, even though her version of motherhood looks very different from what she saw in her own mother, her mother has still been an important source of inspiration. 

Helen Shih: My mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she was a really hard worker, and always there for us, pretty much 24/7. She was physically able to always be there. When we were sick as a kid and the school nurse called home, my mom came to pick us up. My kids don’t have that luxury, so I do keep that essence of my mother’s presence in mind and try to translate it in different ways today.

Endocrinologist Dr. Camille Powe was similarly inspired by her own mother to be a working mom.

Camille Powe:  She worked full time my whole life growing up. And so I never even considered that that is not what I would also do. And she was really passionate and excited about her work and she was also really passionate and excited about her kids and her family life. 

Thoracic surgery chief Dr. Yolonda Colson, who grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, found unique inspiration from her father, who believed unwaveringly in the abilities of his children. When Dr. Colson began medical school, he followed her lead and completed his own degree. She drew on this as a model for both how to succeed in a demanding medical specialty and how to succeed as a parent.

Yolona Colson:   I think we all model a little bit of what we’ve known and what we've taught and what we learned from our parents, and hopefully take the good parts, and improve on the parts that didn’t work so well for us. I tend to use the model of my dad’s belief in his kids, that they could do things that he couldn’t do and be respectful of that you want them to be better than you.

And my mom, really learned about discipline and hard work, and how you can have the dream, but you have to put in the time and do the hours to do that. And so I think I've modeled both sides of that.

And like everyone else, physician parents are no strangers to the challenges of parenting. For liver surgeon Dr. Cristina Ferrone, the biggest challenge is easy to state.  

Cristina Ferrone:  The biggest challenge of being a mom and a surgeon is getting over the desire to try to do everything perfectly and realizing that sometimes good enough is going to have to be good enough. And I would say I would love for my house to be much more organized, but it is not.

I have multiple things that I think I could do a better job at if I had a few more hours a day. But I have said, “Okay, well that’s not going to be the priority right now.”

For many women, like Dr. Shih, the challenge is not doing it all, but figuring out what to do in the face of that challenge.

Helen Shih: The biggest challenge of being a mom these days, I think, is doing it all or still trying to do it all, and realizing actually you don’t need to do it all. And figuring out which parts you don’t need to do.

I've gone through teasing that out, what's less necessary for me to do, over time. I cook a lot less, unfortunately, and I employ help for that with a nanny who also assists with childcare. My husband helps out in more home-related chores that I traditionally used to do.

For Dr. Colson, one of the most important realizations was how much her daughter understood, even at a young age.

Yolonda Colson:   I think the biggest challenge is probably largely in our heads. I think part of it is us understanding what the expectations are, and not being harder on ourselves, than the reality dictates, because we think we have to be everywhere. And that’s why we joke about the 80 percent rule, that if I take her 80 percent of the time, that’s great, right.

I remember taking my daughter to a birthday party one time, and telling her that I was taking her to this birthday party, wasn’t that great. And her response was, “Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. There's important things to do, and that’s fine.” 

And she was like five. And I was like, “You're way beyond me, because I'm feeling bad about it, and you're okay.”

And then they want you to talk to their school class about pulmonary function tests. And they’ll stand up and tell them that you're this thoracic surgeon. And you can tell, they're quite pleased about it. And so you realize that they get it. They listen a lot more and incorporate a lot more than we give them credit for.

And like many of us, the women of Charged are working to find balance in their own lives. For women like Dr. Smith, who were pursuing demanding careers like surgery at a time when not many women were doing so, there were particular challenges of choosing to become a mother and find balance.  

Barbara Smith: I was in the beginning of the wave of when women went into surgery at all, and many of us felt that if we stopped and had children along the way, that we would lose our place and lose our way. So many of us had our families very late. And that gave me certain, I think, perspective and benefits, things that I think would’ve made me crazy if I had been a mother in my 20’s, were very different for me. So I had the ability to pay for some help at home to help me have more time with her. And I was far enough along in my career that I could pause and not feel like I was losing anything.

I was actually the first woman to use the MGH department of surgery maternity policy, which was eight weeks off. And I was able to balance the work and time for family.

Recognized that that means certain other things you just don’t pay attention to or worry about, so spending time with my daughter and family was really a high priority along with work. And the dust bunnies built up sometimes and there were some other things that didn’t get done, but that was okay.

Dr. Colson has some simple advice for bringing balance into family life.

Yolonda Colson:   Balance is a broad word, because it tends to be more like bouncing off one wall or the other. It’s a little chaotic when you do it. I think that there is an element of setting out time that is dedicated to them. It’s really sitting down and saying, “Okay, I'm going to read a book. Or I'm going to play this game. Or there's an activity we’re going to learn how to do as a family.” And unplugging to do those.

And it doesn’t have to be a lot. And, for the most part, they all understand that you're really busy. But setting up that we’re going to take this period of time for you is important. And to let them know that, if they need something, that’s important.

Similarly, pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Tina Duhaime realized early on the importance of communicating to her children just how important they were.

Tina Duhaime:   I have not balanced work and home as well as I would like. In pediatric neurosurgery, because it’s a small field, you are often responsible 24/7 at a high frequency. So I have been on call, meaning have to be available round the clock for emergencies and problems, more or less every other day, every other night, every other weekend, for over 30 years. 

The only way I've been able to balance it at all is my kids have always said to me that they knew when I was with them, I was totally with them. They knew if all heck broke loose, I would make myself available in some way. But I also married somebody who was the primary caregiver and willing to do that, which was really the only way we could have done it. 

They knew, when I was home, it was mom time. And it was pretty intense mom time.  They also always knew that I would rather be with them than be at work.

But they also tell me now, as adults, that they got pride out of the fact that I was helping other kids. And you know, to say your mom’s a neurosurgeon, I guess, in some circles, has a little bit of unusual cache to it. But I still suffer a fair amount from persistent mother guilt, nonetheless.

And for some, like Dr. Sara Lazar, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry, balance was a necessity.

Sara Lazar:  I've always been a single mom. And so that definitely had an impact on my career. And namely in that, when five o’clock came, I had to close the computer, because I had to go pick him up from daycare. My workday had to be nine to five, because that's when the daycare was.

And then, when I got home, we had to make dinner, bath, bedtime, the whole thing. So you know, because I know many of my friends who had kids, but who were married, you know, lots of times they would take turns. I never had that option. It was always me. So I think it kind of forced me to have this work-life balance, you know, because I had no—no option to work more.

But despite all the challenges of balancing a demanding career like academic medicine with the sometimes hectic, stressful demands of family life, in the end it’s all worthwhile. 

For Dr. Powe, who is the mom of a toddler, becoming a mom has taught her a lot.

Camille Powe: Becoming a working mother has given me a new respect for all the women in my life that both worked and were mothers and for mothers in general, whether they work or do not work outside their home. It’s just given me a new appreciation for women in general and how women do amazing things every day. It’s also given me a new definition of efficiency and multitasking and a new appreciation for that that I never had before.  

Having children makes an indelible mark on the life of any parent, but it was professionally meaningful for Dr. Duhaime, due to her specialization in pediatric neurosurgery.

Tina Duhaime: I think having kids was the best thing I ever did for my career, because—while you can be sympathetic, empathetic, you can be wonderful if you don’t have children, I do feel that, for myself, having children added a dimension of understanding what parents are going through, that was extraordinarily valuable and eye-opening. 

And you really have the ability to understand that when parents are difficult, when they're unpleasant, they're just scared. They would rather it were them that were having the problem than their child. And it is the worst possible thing. So I, myself, get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a good operation. 

For Dr. Smith, becoming a mother and building a family meant changes in her work.

Barbara Smith: I think my career is a good example of this, that you have to just expect you will be doing different things at different points in your life. And I tell people, when you have a child, a door opens into a world you never knew existed before, and other doors are going to close for a while.

Early in my life, I had a lab and did basic science. Then I stopped that and did more clinical science for a while. Then I had more administrative jobs and was doing a lot of organizing of programs and so on. And then I came back to more research, and now I have NIH grants doing more basic science again.

So don’t be afraid if certain things have to be put on hold or changed. I see it as part of the evolution of your career over time, and working your family responsibilities into that can be done. 

When you're younger, you think you have to do everything. And many women who come to these high powered, nontraditional perhaps careers feel like you still have to do everything all the time. And that’s not true. You could do everything, and you're just going to pick which ones you're doing at each point in time. And you can come back to things later that you’ve had to put on hold.

And for these moms, like any parent, the most gratifying part of parenting is watching your children grow up and become their own people, as Dr. Ferrone knows well. 

Cristina Ferrone: The most gratifying part of being a mother is seeing your children develop and be proud of their accomplishments and just seeing that their different personalities develop, that even though they have the same two parents and they live in the same house they’re all very, very different and they find what their passion is and how they express that. 

Dr. Powe sums up the joys of motherhood simply. 

Camille Powe: The most gratifying part of being a mom is seeing your children smile, laugh, and learn new things.

Happy Mothers’ Day from Charged and Mass General. 

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