Finding my middle ground


A mother of three struggles to find a balance between family and work.

This place is a wreck. The phone is ringing and the dogs are barking. My toddler is screaming because I won't let him hold a knife. My 4-year-old son is in time-out for pinching, and his victim, my 6-year-old daughter, is wailing as if her arm were broken. My head is starting to throb, and it's only 7 a.m. In other words, it's a perfectly normal day at the Heath house. Except today is different because I've finally decided that if I hear one more scream, I'm going to accept that dream job that's been knocking at my door.

The Heath family (photo courtesy of Dr. Melody Heath)

My life hasn't always been this way—answering to "Mommy" a million times a day, battling ever-growing loads of dirty dishes and laundry, and never enjoying a moment of peace or privacy. In fact, this was never in my plans. I've always had a passion for helping animals, and I knew early on that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I never considered any other profession. I landed my first job as a kennel technician when I was 17; I worked in veterinary clinics through high school, college, and postgraduate school. After graduating from veterinary school 15 years ago, I accepted my first full-time position as an associate veterinarian in a private practice. The position turned out to be full-time, overtime, all the time. I worked days, nights, weekends, and holidays—and I loved it. Work was exciting, interesting, and challenging, not to mention just plain fun. I enjoyed my job, along with the satisfaction and rewards that came with it.

After seven years as an associate, I was confident enough in my medical, surgical, and business skills to begin contemplating practice ownership. So I read and filed every piece of information I could get my hands on regarding management. I started flipping through the "practice for sale" advertisements in my veterinary journals. I was excited about the future, about becoming an owner.

The following year, I was blessed with a child. At the time I figured maternity might delay my entrance into practice ownership by a year or so. With a helpful husband and reliable daycare, I eagerly returned to work when my maternity leave expired. I quickly grew accustomed to balancing my career and family life. Life was good. So I was surprised one day to find myself feeling envious of a client who was a stay-at-home mother. It would be nice to sleep late, have time to cook a hot breakfast, keep a tidy house, or relax and read a good book. Or so I thought.

Then, nine years into my career, the unexpected happened. As a result of poor practice management, a sagging economy, and me being the newest associate at the practice, I was laid off. At first I panicked. What would I do? How would we pay our bills? I was determined to find another associate job immediately. After several weeks of frantic searching, I resigned myself to the fact there were no comparable job openings within driving distance. My husband and I considered whether this was the right time to move and purchase a practice, but in the end we decided it was too risky for him to leave his job.

I reluctantly withdrew my daughter from daycare. I pondered. I cried. I prayed. Then I did the unthinkable. I went from being a successful, respected, white-collar worker straight to the back of the unemployment line. This was a humiliating and humbling act, but it was necessary for my family's well being. My husband and I reviewed and tightened our budget. We refinanced our mortgage and hoped to squeak by until I could find another position as an associate veterinarian.

I'd read many parenting articles that focused on the "mommy wars"—the ongoing, formidable debate between working mothers and stay-at-home moms. Nothing I'd read, however, prepared me for this transition. I couldn't sleep late, I couldn't talk on the phone or read a book, and I certainly couldn't keep my house clean. In fact, my life suddenly became busier and more disorganized than when I'd been working 50 or 60 hours a week in the practice.

The guilt of not being able to spend time with my daughter subsided, but it was replaced by the guilt of not going to work. More than one family member insinuated that I was wasting my talent and years of education and training, not to mention the fortune my parents had spent providing it. For nine years I'd been the family breadwinner, a die-hard career woman. I sorely missed my veterinary job and the mental stimulation and adult interaction that went along with it. Being a stay-at-home mother wasn't what I'd anticipated.

A few months passed and I was pregnant with my second child. I contemplated taking on a long commute to return to work full-time. We could certainly have used the income, and, more importantly, I wasn't sure I could handle being home with two children. My husband and I decided that if we could find someone reliable to take over my home duties, I should return to work. He suggested I sit down and draft an advertisement for the position.

"What should I write?" I asked.

"Just write down what you do. You know, your job as a stay-at-home mother," he answered.

So I did, and it went something along these lines:

Employment opportunity: Trustworthy, compassionate person needed to work excruciating hours with no breaks or holidays. Candidates should display a sunny attitude, boundless energy, endless patience, and a ferocious love of children. Preference will be given to those who appear totally selfless. Basic skills to include cooking, cleaning, entertaining, and administering first aid. Applicants should be physically able to leap over moving objects, negotiate obstacle courses, tolerate foul odors and excrements, and readily identify potential eye-poking and choking hazards. He or she should appreciate constant noise, be able to answer 100 questions per hour, and be amenable to taking orders from a growling 2-year-old. Those who crave adult interaction, prefer privacy while in the bathroom, or desire to engage in frivolous activities involving telephones, computers, or televisions need not apply. Benefits include use of the prestigious title "Mommy." You may receive something akin to a verbal thank-you after two or more decades of employment, but this is not guaranteed. No monetary compensation provided.

After reading the advertisement, my husband and I had a good laugh and agreed that the prospect of finding someone who could perform up to my standards and would voluntarily take over my Mommy career was dismal. I opted to go back to work part-time. This would allow me to stay abreast of the rapid changes in veterinary medicine, retain my medical and surgery skills, and earn some money while getting a brief reprieve from my more demanding job.

About this time, my 10-year class reunion rolled around. Now, there's an unspoken notion in veterinary medicine that women who devote the time and energy necessary to enter the veterinary arena and subsequently take time off to tend to families are a blemish on the profession. I thought about my classmates. They'd become head clinicians at major universities, board-certified specialists in busy referral clinics, and innovative researchers in remote parts of the world. One had even treated the pets of the President of the United States.

What would I tell my classmates when they boasted about the state-of-the-art hospitals they were building, the places they were going, and the money they were making? Could I proudly announce that I spent most of my days changing dirty diapers, enforcing time-outs, and wiping snotty little noses while my classmates spent their time analyzing digital radiographs, performing laser surgeries, and sending pets for MRIs? My heart sank. I decided to forgo the reunion.

Fast-forward five years. I'm still passionate about veterinary medicine. I'm still an associate at the same part-time job. My husband and I continue to reside in our "starter" house. I'm every bit as dedicated and committed to my employer, co-workers, clients, and patients as I was my first year out of school. However, I choose to spend more time being a mother than I do being a veterinarian. We now have three young children and my home remains in a state of mild chaos. I'm forever behind in my chores; I wear permanent dark circles under my eyes. Lately I've felt on the verge of maternal burnout, perhaps due to my affliction with what the experts call "overparenting."

But a few weeks ago I got a call. A new animal hospital has been built in my town. It's convenient, upscale, and in a prime location. The owner is looking for a chief veterinarian to run the hospital. He's offered me the job. The salary and benefits are outstanding, the hours good, and the support staff fully trained. I could be my own boss without having the responsibility of managing the practice. In fact, if I were to conjure up my ideal job, this would be it.

Returning to work full-time means my days would be scheduled and organized. My house would stay cleaner with kids in school and daycare. We would have more than pennies in our savings account, and I could go proudly to my upcoming 15-year class reunion. For weeks I've struggled with the decision. I've talked about it, written about it, and dreamt about it. I've polled mothers, colleagues, and family members. My husband and I have made countless lists of the pros and cons, risks and benefits.

The owner of the clinic has called again; he needs an answer. I've researched childcare options and after-school programs. I've inventoried and updated my work wardrobe. I've located my favorite stethoscope, my name-tags, and my scrubs. I can see myself strolling into the new clinic through the gleaming glass doors. I can feel the crisp, white doctor's jacket against my body. I can hear the familiar tones of clients' voices as they present their pets to me in confidence that I will be able to help them. I can sense my bank account growing heartily.

Then, out of nowhere, my son screams. It's a high-pitched, unnerving sound that echoes through the house. Spontaneously, with that one abrupt shriek, my decision is made. The tremendous pride I'll take in running a veterinary clinic, the satisfaction of giving back more to my community, the respect I'll earn from my employees and clients, the financial security I'll provide for my family—it will all have to wait.

My 4-year-old son, Nolan, shouts at the top of his lungs, "Mommy, the sun's out! Let's go outside and swing!"

Dream job? What dream job? For now, I have more important things to attend to.

Dr. Melody Heath is a veterinarian, freelance writer, and mother of three in Hickory, N.C.

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