Veterinary medicine, motherhood, and a pandemic

February 9, 2021
Liz Bales, VMD

Liz Bales, VMD, has a special interest in the unique behavioral and wellness needs of cats. She is a writer, speaker, and featured expert in all things cat around the globe. Bales sits on the Dean’s Alumni Board at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and on the advisory boards for dvm360®, AAFP Cat Friendly Practice, Vet Candy, and Fear Free.

2020 was a masterclass in chaos, unpredictability, and exhaustion for veterinarians, with perhaps no group hit harder than veterinarians who are also mothers.

Last year was hard on everyone. By mid-March, the reality of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic began to set in around the globe, and much of the world shut down. Of course, veterinary hospitals did not have the luxury of shuttering their doors to protect themselves. In addition to your regular clientele, it seemed as though much of the world reacted to the stress of the pandemic by getting a puppy or a kitten. Once shelters were emptied and the reality of pet ownership set in, seemingly all of these new pets needed to be seen at your hospital. And you needed to be there for patients and clients.

Making adjustments, coming up short

Katie Buchanan, VMD, an associate veterinarian at Bayside Animal Medical Center in Severna Park, Maryland, and mother of a 1- and a 4-year-old, is doing everything she can to meet her clients’ needs, and it is still not enough. “We are one of few [practices] in the area taking new clients, but we are overwhelmed,” she says. “I have nearly 30 callbacks in a day but no time to do them.”

What’s more, because the practice is curbside, Buchanan spends much of her day on the phone. “I dearly miss my clients and the bond we have. I hate that this is life right now,” she says. “But we cannot stay 6 feet apart from our staff, and we cannot keep this pace and go back to letting people in right now, or we will get a positive staff member and have to close.”

Like Buchanan, you are likely busier than ever at your hospital, straining to meet the needs of a growing client roster while reworking the logistical flow of the entire practice to transform from a regular veterinary hospital to a full-service curbside machine. You are implementing new client communication technology and learning how to use it when all parties involved have a very short fuse. As you perform this magic, you may also be managing a revolving door of critical staff members testing positive for COVID-19 and needing to isolate for weeks, whether they are sick or not.

With no federally mandated safety policies, it is up to individual hospitals to create their own protocols and then try to get buy-in from staff to execute the plan. You may be at odds with your staff and clients on how to keep each other safe. You contact trace, you quarantine, and you worry about the safety of your clients, coworkers, and families. Are you really able to protect yourself and your family?

And then there are the clients, from the new owners who adopted a pet without considering the expense, training, and commitment involved to seasoned pet owners facing personal illnesses and economic uncertainty. A trip to the veterinarian is typically stressful for pets and their owners alike. Now they have the added stress of the virus, financial issues, masks, and a new paradigm for veterinary care in which they cannot accompany their pet inside, they cannot communicate in person with the veterinarian and staff, and they feel out of control. In short, clients are stressed, and many of them are taking it out on us.

Add in motherhood

Life is hard for veterinarians who are also mothers. The cost of veterinary school does not discriminate among genders or rely on one’s parental status. As of 2018, both men and women paid between $148,807 and $407,983 for 4 years of veterinary school tuition, fees, and living expenses.1 According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, our profession was 61.8% women in 2018, but only 29.3% of practice owners were women.2 This matters because the average owner earns about $200,000 more than the average associate.3

Although there are no available data on how many veterinarians are parents, a 2015 survey of boarded large animal surgeons (published in 2019) reported that men (88%) were more likely than women (68%) to be married or in a domestic partnership and to have children (77% vs 47%, respectively). Yet women were more likely than men to require external childcare services and reported that having children had negatively impacted their professional lives.4 The same study showed that women earned less than men and were less likely to own a veterinary practice or hold a prestigious academic title. Men and women felt differently about the effect of gender in the workplace.

Female veterinarians pay for the same education and learn the same skills as their male counterparts. So why do women earn less, are less likely to hold a prestigious academic title, and are much less likely to own a practice? Bias and discrimination in the workplace are certainly at play here, but we also need to consider the effect of our home lives and domestic responsibilities when we think of career advancement. Here are some more statistics about gender differences in the US workforce:

Married mothers spend almost twice as much time on housework and childcare than married fathers.5

Mothers are far more likely to be working now than in past decades, yet they still spend more time on child care today than did moms in the 1960s.5 

Success at work really means more work at home for women. The more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses.6

On top of an already untenable situation, we now find ourselves in a global pandemic, with many schools and daycares closed or operating virtually. So what now?

Meghan Knox, DVM, mother to a 16-month-old and a relief veterinarian in New Jersey, says what so many of us are feeling. “I deeply crave a level of relaxation that I am simply unable to achieve, given the state of the world,” she says. “My family needs a vacation, someplace lovely like the Caribbean. My dentist recently determined that I’ve been clenching my teeth from stress, so now I officially see physical manifestations of the stress of the past 8 months.”

Knox has missed out on the normal practices of motherhood. “I’m still grieving the many losses of this year—missed trips, missed first birthday celebration we had imagined for the baby, canceled weddings and showers, and family unable to travel to meet the baby. It is sadness and fatigue, and there’s just zero patience left for anything else in any area of my life.”

After reading this, are you surprised to hear that female veterinarians have a higher prevalence of risk factors for suicide, including depression and suicide ideation and attempts? According to 2018 data, female veterinarians are 2.4 times as likely as the general US population to commit suicide, whereas male veterinarians are 1.6 times as likely as the general US population.7

An impossible task?

If you are a veterinarian and mother, you hold 2 roles, both of which require handling anything that comes your way with skill, alacrity, and infinite patience when everyone who depends on you is at maximum neediness day and night. You are on call 24/7. If they don’t sleep, you don’t sleep. You must anticipate and meet everyone’s needs in a world that is moving every single day. And, in the face of it all, you must maintain your composure and compassion and never, ever make a mistake.

Vet moms, let me be the first to tell you that you are managing the impossible and performing at a superhuman level. I am not afraid to say that sustaining the status quo is not tenable. Individually, each of you is keeping the world spinning on its axis each and every day. Collectively, you are a massive portion of a profession that is already under enormous stress. Together, we must reimagine both roles and create an organizational structure that supports the veterinarian mothers our profession depends on. The question is, how?

Liz Bales, VMD, has a special interest in the unique behavioral and wellness needs of cats. She is a writer, speaker, and featured expert in all things cat around the globe. Bales sits on the Dean’s Alumni Board at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and on the advisory boards for dvm360®, AAFP Cat Friendly Practice, Vet Candy, and Fear Free.

References

1. How much does it cost to attend veterinary school? VIN Foundation. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://iwanttobeaveterinarian.org/how-much-does-it-cost-to-attend-veterinary-school/

2. Burns K. Census of veterinarians finds trends with shortages, practice ownership. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 26, 2019.Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2019-07-15/census-veterinarians-finds-trends-shortages-practice-ownership

3. Lee R. Is your veterinary practice ready to add an associate? Praxis. March 17, 2015. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.praxisvet.com/veterinary-practice-transition-blog/is-your-veterinary-practice-ready-to-add-an-associate#:~:text=Statistics%20show%20that%20an%20experienced,more%20than%20the%20average%20associate

4. Colopy SA, Buhr KA, Bruckner KB, Morello SL. The intersection of personal and professional lives for male and female diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons in 2015. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;255(11):1283-1290. doi:10.2460/javma.255.11.1283 https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=54757

5. Bianchi SM, Sayer LC, Milkie MA, Robinson JP. Housework: who did, does or will do it, and how much does it matter? Soc Forces. 2012;91(1):55-63. doi:10.1093/sf/sos120

6. Rao AH. Even breadwinning wives don’t get equality at home. The Atlantic. May 12, 2019. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/05/breadwinning-wives-gender-inequality/589237/

7. New study finds higher than expected number of suicide deaths among U.S. veterinarians. Press release. December 20, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p1220-veterinarians-suicide.html