I loved maternity leave. Leaving behind the responsibilities and multitasking of my transplant registrar post and being able to go days without making any important decisions was fantastic. Musical Babies, Baby Massage, Parent and Baby groups – I did them all.
The relief of no longer being an expert and the firm belief that my baby was obviously the most clever/talented of them all kept me buoyant, despite a fug of sleepless nights and breastfeeding. I quickly had a group of friends who would meet up for coffee and I lived an uneventful life, free from death and disease. The only thing that overshadowed my enjoyment of it was the dread of returning to work.
Now don’t get me wrong – I really love my job and I’ve gone back to it from maternity leave five times. As soon as my colleagues at work knew the baby had arrived, and I’d been in to visit and demonstrate his or her innate talents, everyone would ask: ‘When are you going back to work?’ It’s flattering to be missed and given the current manpower problems, not surprising, but picking up that part of my life again felt terrifying.
I’m a pretty confident and assertive person, but there is something about the loss of status that you feel as a non-working parent that disempowers you. The days of shouting ‘let endoscopy know we’re on our way’ seem far removed from ‘can anyone give me a spare breast pad?’ And that first week… oh dear. I continually expected someone to catch me out and ask what on earth Michael’s mummy was doing putting in a central line.
This phenomenon is well documented – it’s called ‘impostor syndrome’ and it is particularly common in women*. I certainly felt, in those first few days, that I didn’t belong back in the macho and invulnerable group of junior doctors and consultants I joined after my time off.
Incidentally, I found that those inspiring stories of women who return after the placenta has been delivered to 100-hour weeks without losing a false eyelash made me feel much worse. I tried this with my first child and returned to the transplant registrar job when he was nine weeks. Six months later, I was leaving ward rounds to go and cry in the toilet, and by nine months I had had a week off at the insistence of my very understanding GP and decided to go part time.
The only other female consultant in the department warned me against this, but I knew it was the only way I would be able to continue training. While male colleagues simply raised eyebrows with each subsequent pregnancy, female colleagues felt more empowered and one medical director commented, on hearing of my fourth pregnancy, ‘Oh, I had thought you were more ambitious than that.’
I desperately wanted to see role models of women who had found it hard and developed strategies to cope, but even women with children appeared to be proud of returning to work as though motherhood had had no effect on them. There is a real problem in our profession with seeing the traditional career path as the one we should all aspire to, and alternatives as second best.
I do not want any woman to have their precious baby time blighted by fears of returning to work or lack of advice about changing to a LTFT (less than full time) post. It is a sad paradox that despite increasing numbers of women in medicine, one of the last taboos is admitting that having children can temporarily affect your resilience for doctoring. Success is not behaving as childless doctors but intelligently and creatively combining our careers with our family commitments.
Now that I am in my 50s, and my youngest child is nine, I am experiencing a resurgence of joy in the career that I love. I have embraced medical politics with a passion, and my parenting experience has given me the patience and resilience needed in our NHS. It is worth persisting – although the childbearing and rearing years require flexibility, we come back with a vengeance later!
Helen Fidler is a consultant gastroenterologist
*Impostor syndrome has been measured and researched by Dr Pauline Clance, a psychologist from Atlanta (Clance, P. R.(1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers).
Have you ever experienced Impostor Syndrome? Vote in the poll.
Thanks for writing such an insightful piece - it makes me feel much better about my own "Imposter syndrome" as a first-time mother and Consultant Physician who has recently returned to work.
Thank you! Am just about to return (LTFT) to work after having my first baby. Glad I am not alone in the "imposter" feeling. I just wish we could all be as honest with each other at work.
Look for a local return to work course to find like minded people , we are out there.
Impostor syndrome also felt post 6 months Pat. leave - hope has made me more understanding re others returning to work, for whatever reason
Thank you so much. Being a new mummy i'm going through a similar conflict. Your blog makes me feel sooo much better about myself
It is a shame that there is still little guidance and support for LTFT doctors. Certainly feels that there is an expectation to keep one's children as invisible as possible in order to be successful. I can feel like a total failure for having not been on a the same career roller coaster to consultant everyone else seems to manage.
Thank you for this honest article. As a female medical student nearing the end of my student days I can't help but think about how I will manage work in the future, particularly when I factor in children. It's a privilege to understand how doctors and consultants such as yourself cope with it to give me an ounce of insight which will hopefully help me when I get to that stage. Thank you for emphasising that both a family and career is do-able and not at the expense of your own ambition!
A real gem! Thank you for writing it.
I am just getting ready to return to training following baby number 2. It takes quite long time to grow into a happy working mum role, as of my previous experience, even working LTFT. Good luck to everyone who is returning from mat leave!
Great to read such an honest, aware, and accurate I am sure, story. Best wishes for next 10 years.
From a retired Grandad.
Oh Helen, thank you so much for sharing this! I quit completely for 5 years to have my children. And going back last year was exactly like you describe :-(
To be honest, I am still adapting and so are my little boys!
I've certainly felt imposter syndrome each time I've returned from a break from clinical medicine, be that maternity leave or following a 4 year break (Msc then Phd). Whilst pregnant I applied as a job share to a hospital consultant post. I tried to 'hide' my pregnancy scared it might affect our chances of getting the job. It didn't - I found out later that the whole interview panel had worked it out, but it made no difference to their decision to appoint us. I started the post a year after my job share. It's been a brilliant decision. There's been two good lesson for me from this experience - (1) if you don't ask you don't get and (2) don't let your own paranoia (in this case about how others might judge me for being ltft) hold you back.
This sounds very familiar! I was very grateful for the wonderful colleagues who raised their eyebrows when, whilst heavily pregnant, I merrily said I'd return to training full time. They strongly advised me against it and I'm glad I took their advice... I don't think it would have been wise or healthy for me to return full time. I don't feel that being LTFT affects the way I do my job, but allows a better balance.
Thank you so much for having the confidence to share your experiences. After taking nearly my full maternity entitlement I returned as planned to a 60% LTFT ST4 position. It took very little time to work out that even with a job share it was not the life I envisaged - I was a Mum half the week and a Doctor the other half, there was no room for crossover nor a moment to get 'back up to speed'. It took me very little time to pluck up the courage to gain experience in a different speciality but significantly longer to give up my training number and become a Specialty Doctor. 18 months on I am in a job I love, working with a team full of people I am lucky enough to count as friends and, most importantly of all, I feel like a Mummy and a Doctor every day. I am now able to gain valuable clinical, teaching and leadership experience whilst determining my own learning needs; I even have time to sit on a national committees and I'm still at home with my daughter more than I'm at work. I still feel intimidated by the mothers who barely stop work to deliver number 3 but I am happy in my own skin and as a result I feel I am both a better Mother and a better Doctor. As my daughter gets older I know I will rejoin the full time ranks and hopefully become a Consultant, but in the mean time I am still developing the career I have invested so heavily in. My message to anyone having doubts is to take the time to evaluate what you really want and have the confidence to do what is right for you and your family, after all we are all unique and have the right to find our own path.
Part time? Hrrumph! A part time doctor generaly puts in more than a full time anything else! Extended training? Mega swizz organised by the old boy' network!
Thank you. That was beautifully written and actually brought a tear to my eye. I have just come back after my first maternity leave and hope to have a few more but fear the scrutiny of my 'career aspirations' which is so unfair after having given the NHS 12 uninterrupted years, I still feel like I have to prove myself.