Associate life: Welcome to the circus


See how these four associates walk the work tightrope while juggling personal lives and kids.

Whether you've just graduated from veterinary school or have practiced as an associate for a decade or more, the task before you is the same: to balance life and work. It's tough to earn a living doing what you love and also make time for your loved ones and personal pursuits outside the clinic. So we asked for advice from four experienced associates. They share the struggles they've grappled with and how they've found success both professionally and personally. Here's the gist, in a nutshell: Don't panic. Life balance is possible.

Dr. Andrew Rollo

Madison Veterinary Hospital, Madison Heights, Mich.

Dr. Andrew Rollo, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, is the first to admit that in any profession it's easy to become obsessed with your work if you love it. There are always more educational opportunities, goals to achieve, and dollars to earn. But at the end of the day, who will you share these achievements with? Dr. Rollo finds that balancing work and life keeps both spheres vibrant.

And what inspires Dr. Rollo is his family, though the balance was hard to come by. Just over a year ago, Dr. Rollo was happy and motivated at a busy small-animal practice. It was the sort of setup that would thrill any associate—minus the 50-minute commute to the hospital. Between the drive to and from work and his practice schedule, Dr. Rollo was away from home 12 to 14 hours a day. At first, this suited the young doctor just fine. But then life took a turn.

"Last fall my wife and I found out we were pregnant," Dr. Rollo says. "As elated as I was with the news, there was an overbearing sense that I'd be missing out on little moments like bath time and putting my child to bed."

This doubt nagged at Dr. Rollo for months, during which time he learned about an opening at a hospital closer to home. The clinic practiced high-quality medicine and was similar in many ways to the hospital where Dr. Rollo was currently working. While he hadn't considered leaving his present post, the chance to work closer to home prompted him to discuss the move with his wife. As the months passed, the reality of pending fatherhood became even more clear as he shopped for car seats and attended baby CPR classes. Dr. Rollo interviewed for the job.

"Our child wasn't born yet, but I thought about all the things I'd miss during a 14-hour shift," Dr. Rollo says. "So when I was offered the job, I took it. I definitely felt guilty about leaving the first person who gave me a professional job and the team I'd grown close to. But I decided I wanted to read to my son before bed."

Now that his son is almost 6 months old, Dr. Rollo is thrilled with his decision. "For me, the important thing was to focus on family first and let the rest work itself out," he says. "I'm fortunate to be working for an employer who understands the importance of family. In my first month of employment, they gave me a week off when my son was born."

Dr. Rollo says new, excited associates often dive into jobs and work so hard that they never stop to smell the roses. It's an easy trap to fall into, he admits. After all, you've spent so much time furiously studying in school that other hobbies have gone by the wayside. Upon graduation the race doesn't let up, and life balance can get so out of whack that it's hard to find it again.

It's also not unusual for associates, particularly newbies, to get stuck working Saturdays, holiday weekends, and more. While you may not have much choice about that, Dr. Rollo says it's crucial to identify what's important and find time for it within your schedule. He has a favorite way to figure out if his life is off-kilter: writing the annual Christmas card. "If all I do is work, then I'm bound to write one boring card," he says.

Dr. Laura McLain

Central Valley Veterinary Hospital, Salt Lake City

Dr. Laura McLain is a full-time associate at a 24-hour hospital, a mother of two (her daughters are 2 and 4), and a wife of a night-school student. Balancing life and work has been quite an endeavor, this busy doctor acknowledges. "My biggest challenge has been childcare," Dr. McLain says.

"For a while when my husband was working, we had our older daughter in daycare, which was ridiculously expensive," she says. "Eventually, we decided it would be better for my husband to quit his job. He's in night school now, so he watches the kids during the day when I'm at work, and I watch them in the evening when he's at school. We don't see much of each other, which has been difficult."

Despite the exhausting schedule, Dr. McLain says she's lucky. She feels fortunate to work four 10-hour shifts per week instead of five eight-hour shifts, which means she has an extra day to spend with family. "I don't feel like I'm missing out on my girls' milestones, even though I'm the primary breadwinner in the family," she says. "And I'm grateful that my boss has been accommodating. On days when my husband has school, I need to leave the clinic by 5 p.m. to pick up the kids. My boss is also good about giving me days off for my daughters' speech therapy and other appointments. In return, I give my all to the practice when I'm at work."

Dr. Patty Khuly, MBA

Sunset Animal Clinic, Miami

A fear of losing precious family time keeps Dr. Patty Khuly from owning a practice. And she doesn't think she's alone in that regard. Family and personal life can seem incompatible with the responsibilities of practice ownership.

Currently Dr. Khuly juggles the demands of her career, her role as a single mom, and the challenges of her creative activities (including the blog, intellectual pursuits, and outdoor diversions. "I need a variety of creative and challenging outlets to keep balance in my life," she says. "Ironically, the more varied the balls in the air, the greater the satisfaction I derive from them. It might sound like a recipe for stretching myself too thin, but it works well for me."

That's not to say Dr. Khuly hasn't struggled with her decisions in search of equilibrium. In fact, she never intended to practice veterinary medicine; she wanted to be a full-time management consultant. But when it became clear that motherhood as she'd envisioned it wasn't compatible with that career path, she took up practice and (almost) never looked back. "It's been a continuous struggle to achieve balance in my career—and I admit I haven't achieved it yet," she says. "But now I understand my need for professional variety, and I'm finally getting somewhere."

One important step in the process was the decision to give up full-time practice. For the past few years, Dr. Khuly has concentrated on her writing career so she can spend more time with her son. She also incorporates lunchtime workouts, late-night reading, Friday nights out, a kayaking afternoon here and there, one weekend off a month, knitting, and cooking into her life's rhythm.

With all of this going on, Dr. Khuly is satisfied. "Practice has been good for me," she says. "It's flexible and more challenging than I gave it credit for." She's not without a few regrets, though: "You can say I've kissed a lot of frogs in my career, but if I'm honest, I'll confess to having played the frog at times, too."

Dr. Khuly reminds associates that the process of personal discovery takes time. Have patience, she urges, and don't be scared to mess up. "Admit your defeats and move on quickly rather than agonize over them," she says. "You can't achieve balance without lots of trial and error and eventually learning what works for you."

Dr. Khuly also recommends writing out a five-year plan. She finds the exercise revealing and helpful for staying on track in life.

Dr. Karen Wheeler

Companion Animal Hospital in Eagan, Minn.

The first thing Dr. Karen Wheeler had to accept when learning to balance home and clinic life was this: A mother is going to feel guilty. "You'll feel guilty when you're home because you're not with the sick cat you admitted yesterday, and you'll feel guilty at the clinic because you're not at your daughter's Halloween party," she says. "It plagues working mothers everywhere, and all we can do is beat the guilt monster down and do the best we can with where we are in life."

When pressed, Dr. Wheeler offers up some true confessions. Yes, she says, she did give her borderline-ill child Tylenol before dropping him off at daycare, hoping and praying she could at least get through the morning surgeries before being called to retrieve him. Dr. Wheeler says she often felt like she was walking a tightrope while personal and professional obligations yanked her in every direction.

She coped by carving out little minutes for herself when she could. She went on a run almost every morning to reduce stress and give herself the feeling that, no matter how chaotic the day became, she'd accomplished this one little thing for herself. Her friends were also important, lending a hand when appointments ran late so Dr. Wheeler's kids had a ride home. (Paybacks came in the form of free babysitting or dog exams on her kitchen table.)

Dr. Wheeler considers herself blessed to work with three other veterinarians who are also mothers. The women trade schedules to accommodate in-school award ceremonies, sick children, or early basketball games. And they help each other keep self-reproach in check, too. "We accept that guilt is there to help keep us as balanced as possible, because sometimes we're pulled too far to the left or the right," she says. "We listen to the guilt, but it doesn't control us."

Dr. Wheeler is a firm believer that you don't have to be home all day to have quality time with your kids. When hers were young, either she or her husband read to them every night. "They would all three snuggle beside me on the couch, hair still wet from the bathtub, and we would read until bedtime," she says. "There were a lot of nights I would have rather gone through the mail, talked on the phone, or cleaned up the kitchen right when I got home, but instead we went for a walk to the park or played on the living room floor. People warned me that those precious days were numbered, and now with three teenagers, I know those days truly were magical."

Despite the dizzying juggling acts, Dr. Wheeler feels good about the decisions she's made. "I'm older and wiser now, and I realize that no one is perfect," she says. "I did the best I could with where I was at in life. You can't have it all, but you can have it pretty good. I love being a mom and I love being a veterinarian, and I've been so blessed by having both of these things in my life."

Katherine Bontrager is a freelance writer and editor in Leawood, Kan. Send questions or comments to

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