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Work/life attitudes bear generational imprints
In the second of a three-part series, DVM Newsmagazine takes a detailed look at how veterinarians balance work with family and free time. Explore profiles from each generation, cutting data and a new model for admissions.
Dr. Margaret Rucker exudes professional success. The small animal practitioner from Lebanon, Va., owns a busy practice, boasts a 33-year marriage to her high school sweetheart and business partner and is former president of the American Animal Hospital Association.
At 54, Rucker says she has just one regret: She didn't set aside time to have children.
"My husband and I put off having children because of our dedication to veterinary medicine, and at the time, balancing work and life wasn't a big deal to me," she says. "As I've gotten older and have friends who have children and grandkids, I know what I'm missing. Sure, we've got stuff that we wouldn't have if we'd had children. But I know now, I did it the wrong way. Working too hard was part of my generation, and I didn't know what life was all about."
Rucker's revelation mirrors that of many highly-educated, professional women who have a hard time juggling work and life, with or without parenting. According to a survey released in September by the Center for Women's Business and Research, 77 percent of women business owners believe ownership has a positive impact on their self-confidence and personal lives. However, 82 percent of Americans are unhappy with their work/life balance.
Practice owner Dr. Judy Rutkowski, of Center Valley, Pa., believes that news bears the struggle of family-orientated veterinarians. At 47 years old, Rutkowski didn't take time to have children early. Now financially and emotionally strong, she's raising her first daughter, a 4-year-old adopted from China.
"I now have everything I've ever wanted; not many people can say that," she says. "For the first 10 years of my career, I didn't think about having a social life. Many of my classmates are childless. We felt we had to go beyond what the guys were doing to be considered worthy. By the time we started thinking about having kids, most of us were in our mid 30s."
As established owners, Rutkowski and Rucker have the ability to make their own schedules, take time off when needed and even turn away clients. But associates like Dr. Elena Sawickij don't see ownership on the horizon. Instead, the 30-year-old says she's planning to embark on family life.
"My aspirations are to remain an associate, start a family and go part-time," she says. "There are a lot of part-timers in the profession, and I guess that's been one of the draws for me. It will be less of a struggle for me to juggle my family and work life."
Dr. Christine Weaver, 33, didn't plan on having kids. Now with an 8-month-old, she admits life is more complex but doesn't rule out ownership within the decade.
"I was not expecting to get pregnant, but when my boss found out, he was happy for us," she says. "He thinks family needs to be a priority. I now work 35 to 40 hours a week. It's hard on a business for a doctor to be gone on maternity leave and working part time. There has to be some type of compromise."
That type of tradition rarely exists these days, says Dr. Rebecca Stinson-Dixon. The Reidsville, N.C., practitioner has managed a family since before veterinary medical school. The 33-year-old with a 13-year-old son is a full-time associate who works 60 hours a week. She says the key to balancing work and life is to have a support system in place.
"You can't do it by yourself," says Dixon, who employs a cousin in her home to help care for her son. "First is always my family. But that doesn't mean I don't lose sleep over patients at night."
Rucker says she's reclaiming her youth and takes cues from younger female colleagues who demand a life away from work.
Scheduling time outside the practice, she and her husband have become motorcycle enthusiasts; they enjoy gardening and show Jack Russell Terriers. But it's still a struggle to not fall back on old habits.
"As I think back, when I went through veterinary school, you were defined by the work you did; you basically live to work," Rucker says. "That was my generation. The folks I really admire are like my associates. They work to live."