The unsinkable Dr. Mom


It's 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and our house is in its usual state of controlled chaos. Breakfast bowls are clinking, backpacks are zipping, and comments are flying around the kitchen faster than a budgie on a beak-trim breakaway. Unfortunately, every sentence seems to start with my name.

It's 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and our house is in its usual state of controlled chaos. Breakfast bowls are clinking, backpacks are zipping, and comments are flying around the kitchen faster than a budgie on a beak-trim breakaway. Unfortunately, every sentence seems to start with my name.

Dr. Karen Wheeler

"Mom, I can't find my jersey, and we have a game right after school." "Mom, the computer keeps shutting down, and my report is due first hour." "Mom, you promised you would fix the tear in my shirt before school."

I run around like a madwoman-sewing and searching, rebuking and rebooting-while the dogs pace nervously back and forth through the kitchen, winding between everyone's legs, hoping someone will remember to feed them before we all bolt out the door.

If the dogs at your house can empathize with the dogs at mine, there's a good chance you're a "Dr. Mom," too. Life is hectic. Life is crazy. We take deep breaths in the car and try to relax as we shift gears from one job to another. When we arrive at the clinic, we're wondering whether the kids caught the bus; when we pull up into the driveway at home, we're still puzzling over the poodle's abnormal profile. We mumble things like, "Rats, I forgot to send lunch money," while we're in surgery, and "Hmm, maybe I should check that boxer for Lyme disease," as we're pulling ticks off the Cub Scouts at camp. Our two worlds bump and grind in a constant struggle to either repel or coalesce.

Now take this crazy duo-life of mom and veterinarian, and bump it up against unmarried veterinarians, 20-something technicians, and childless receptionists in a clinic. What do Dr. Moms say to these folks as they watch us come barreling into the office, wild-eyed and sleep-deprived, slapping on our lab coats and lipstick with plucky resolve? It can be unnerving to see co-workers sidle away-eyebrows arching, shoulders shrugging-mumbling, "And this frazzled creature helps our veterinary practice how, again?"

Don't despair, Dr. Moms! Despite the busyness of our lives, we do help the practice. In fact, you may have more skills and experience than you realize-and you've likely gleaned many lessons from day-to-day life as a mom.

It isn't all about me

I once worked with a groomer who, as my mother would say, was very musical. All day long she sang the same old song, "Me. Me. Me. Me." Striking a queenly pose in her doorway, she would impatiently wait for assistance by tap, tap, tapping her foot while the rest of us ran around like terriers on caffeine. The technicians often joked that if the clinic ever caught fire, that groomer would surely be tapping her foot and waiting for help as the building burned down around her.

Dr. Moms, on the other hand, are usually not very musical. Oh, sometimes we would like to be, that's for sure, but a lot of the "Me" dribbled out of us somewhere between midnight feedings and early morning diaper changes. We've figured out the world doesn't revolve around us; in fact, most days we feel fortunate just to have it swing close by once in a while. This lack of selfishness makes it easy for us to be a team player in the office, and thus we can coach and cheer on our colleagues with enthusiasm.

A realistic look at family life

Years ago I knew an unmarried veterinarian who got terribly upset if clients didn't follow his recommendations. Once I saw him actually shake his finger at a young mother because she hadn't cleaned her dog's ears as often as he had advised.

Well, that doctor might have been shaking a whole lot more than his finger at me if I were his client. Ten years ago, I was a busy mom with three children younger than three, and, on many of those days, I couldn't have told you whether my dogs had ears, much less found time to clean them.

Dr. Moms know what Client Moms are up against. We've not only seen their to-do list, we've tackled the same list. Rush home. Make supper. Help with homework. Unclog the toilet. Drop one kid off at practice. Help at the Cub Scouts meeting. Pick another kid up from swimming. Fold the clothes. Sew on a button. Pay the bills. Dr. Moms know there are days when the family dog will land at the bottom of a long list.

As moms, we know this poor lady's barely hanging on-but we also know she loves her dog. She really does want to help his ears get better. So we ask our Client Mom, "Do you get a chance to watch any TV? Can you clean Buffy's ears during a show on Monday and Thursday, or maybe during the evening news?" We understand that this busy lady felt overwhelmed when we asked her to clean Buffy's ears every day, but she can handle twice a week-and some is better than none. And more importantly, this Client Mom knows we're on her side.

Helping children through pet loss

When my daughter was 10 years old, her Netherland dwarf slipped out of its exercise pen and disappeared into the big, coyote-filled woods directly behind our house. My daughter, a top-notch drama queen, wailed hysterically as we searched for the lost lagomorph, and I became a bit frantic myself as I wondered how I'd ever console her.

Ten minutes later, however, she walked up and said, "Mom, the boys and I think my next bunny should be a lop-eared one. Can we go get one today?"

As we all know, children react to death a dozen different ways at a dozen different times. My daughter, after seeming so nonchalant about her pet, cried herself to sleep for two weeks over her lost rabbit. Some children may mourn intensely, while others may act indifferent but burst into tears when the subject comes up four months later.

As Dr. Moms, we can share our families' experiences with clients, explain how we coped during difficult times, and talk about what helped-or didn't-with our own kids. We can recommend the books we read or the little ceremonies we performed and share the stages our own children went through with loss.


Women tend to be naturally adept at multitasking and, as moms, we rock at it. We fix and bake, mop and remind, clean and quiz-all simultaneously and all on a regular basis. And if you enter in multiple children, you suddenly have multiple equations with multiple factorials. "You need to carry the six, honey, and it would help a lot if you wrote the numbers neatly." "Careful, the floor's wet." "I think you can do a better job on that map." "OK, you've finished the first paragraph so now you'll need another topic sentence." "Just a sec, I need to put the chicken in the oven." "I can't tell if that's a seven or a two." "Has anyone fed the cat?" "Well, you need three more paragraphs, so you'll need to think of something, won't you?"

When you arrive at the clinic, away you go again. Fill a prescription, explain something to the student technician, check an anesthetic level, help restrain a dog, answer a client's question, prep for surgery. We're good at multitasking because we work on this skill 24/7. We've been practicing ever since our toddler said, "Pick me up," while we were feeding our newborn. In fact, Dr. Moms may start to feel nervous if they're only doing one thing at a time.

Wearer of many hats

"The tire's flat." "The gravy's lumpy." "The taxes are due next week." "This hem needs fixing." "You're in charge of the Cub Scouts meeting tonight." "Mrs. Jones is on the phone, and she's crying." Years ago, any of those statements would have had me shaking in my shoes, but now it's only the hem thing that makes me edgy.

That's because I'm an experienced mom. I know there's not always going to be a dad around to fix something, or a grandma to stir the gravy, or a sensitive friend to soothe troubles. Even when I feel like ducking and dodging, things land on me. I'm used to that. I juggle the load at home, and I can do it at work, just like all the other Dr. Moms.

Some days a Dr. Mom will wear the hat of Comforter, Encourager, or Chastiser. We switch and become Surgeon, Diagnostician, and Instructor. Then an hour goes by and we are Internist, Pharmacist, and Radiologist. Interspersed among all of that we may need to throw on the hat of Kennel Cleaner, Phone Answerer, or Faucet Fixer. As moms, we've learned that the hat we thought we'd wear today-the one we wanted to wear today-might not even touch our heads at all. And we've learned to smile beneath the brim of whatever currently sits atop our heads.

People skills

Mr. Smith was angry. Really angry, it seems, despite the best attempts by the front staff members to defuse him. Now he was waiting in Exam Room 3, and he'd only speak to a doctor.

"What are you gonna do?" The entire staff was in a tizzy as they gathered around me in the treatment area. "He's being obnoxious, contentious, and totally unreasonable!"

I yawned and picked up the file, "Go ahead and get the next surgery ready. I'll be out in a few minutes." Staff members gasped and shook their heads, not knowing whether to feel contempt for me because I was so clueless or sorry for me because I was going to be so dead. I opened the door to Exam Room 3 and stepped inside.

You see, what my co-workers were forgetting is that I am a mother of three teenagers and-as if that weren't enough-I've seen all of them through their terrible twos. I know obnoxious. I know contentious. And I certainly know totally unreasonable. I've had ample practice at deciding when to thrust and when to parry. I can grant without groveling, appease without arguing. I am adept at balancing Give and Take.

Dr. Moms have a lot of practice when it comes to people skills. We know better than to yank a toy out of a toddler's hands-and we won't tell a technician she stinks at reading CBCs. Finesse fends off tears and tantrums, so we demonstrate, explain, encourage, and remind. And, because we know boyfriends can be jerks and cars can break down (been there, done that, thank you), we can help smooth the way for a co-worker having a bad day.

We're all human

...and we all make mistakes. We yell at our children when we're mad at their father. We promise we'll take them to the pool and then renege. We forget to pick them up from soccer practice, because we were on the phone. The day ends with a shadow over us.

So we go to our kids as they lie in their beds. We sit down and ask them to forgive us, because we are only human. We acknowledge that relationships are based not on perfection, but on the willingness to love each other in the absence of it.

The next day, still aware of our own humanity, we are compassionate when we discover the blood samples weren't sent out or the food wasn't withheld. When we are short with a co-worker over something petty, we swallow our pride and sincerely apologize. Dr. Moms recognize that the staff comprises a family of sorts, and the veterinarian sets the thermostat for the entire clinic-much like a mother at home.

You go, girl!

So there you go, Dr. Moms-carry that diaper bag with pride. You might not be working the most hours per week or attending the most continuing education meetings among the veterinarians in your practice, but you are accumulating a set of skills so varied and practical that any clinic will benefit from your experience.

But hey-look at the time! Give those kids one last kiss, then hop in and buckle up. Take a deep breath, relax, and don't worry about the baby spit-up on your shoulder, your lab coat will cover that up. You're on your way to your job as a veterinarian-an occupation which harmonizes wonderfully with your role as the unsinkable mom.

Other side of the fence

Dr. Dad: A true team player

“Hey, guys, nice work with that HBC.” “Here comes the doctor on a breakaway! He pokes the catheter into the dachshund’s leg. He shoots! He scores!” “Now remember, with this kind of cat the best defense is a wily offense.”

If the veterinarian in your clinic makes comments like these, there’s a good chance you’re working with a Dr. Dad. Whether he’s been coaching his daughter’s basketball team or just getting fired up for his son’s first little league season, the experience makes his coaching style upbeat and positive. He knows the importance of being a team player, and he helps get the most out of every team member on the clinic’s field.

Dr. Dads have wives and daughters, so they aren’t fazed when the technicians start talking about hormones. After all, Dr. Dads have heard it all before-and then some. And an exam room full of exuberant kids doesn’t send them into a panic; they quickly settle the bunch by showing them the plastic models of the teeth and ears. They know how to connect with kids-they started developing those skills the first time they held their own little bundle of joy. And those important skills have only improved with time.

On the days when walk-ins jam the schedule or the new receptionist overbooks, Dr. Dads don’t despair. They dig in their heels and keep plugging along, just like they

did when their wife was out of town and all of the kids came down with the flu. They figure that a hectic afternoon at the clinic can’t be any worse than cleaning toddler vomit off the favorite Barney video.

So keep up the good work, Dr. Dads. You bring a sense of strength and stability to the hospital team, and your can-do attitude often turns even the most difficult situations into a win for everyone.

The bottom line

Hey, Dr. Moms: Many of your “mother” skills translate well into practice, including multitasking, negotiation and people skills, helping children deal with loss, and more.

Dr. Karen Wheeler, writer and busy mother of three, uses many of her mom-learned skills as a part-time practitioner at Companion Animal Hospital in Eagan, Minn. Please send your questions or comments to

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