Enjoying the gray in life

by Michelle Tung Kwok '98

One might argue that I owe Phi Beta Kappa money. In the spring of my senior year, I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and given an opportunity to apply for one of their scholarships. All I had to do was write about how I planned to be a teacher. I had paid my registration fees for medical school, and there were many loan papers waiting for me to sign — I sure could use the money!

My goals in life were: Go to med school. Do really well. Become an obstetrician/gynecologist at a major academic center. Get tenure. One day, be the Dean of Something at a medical school. Somewhere along the way, probably while publishing monthly with Lancet and JAMA, I would marry, and once I became Dean of Something, I would have babies.

It did not turn out that way. I did go to medical school, on scholarship, and then deviated from the plan: I married my college sweetheart during my second year. While I did my clerkships, I realized that I am not cut out to use a scalpel and, thus, probably should not be an ob/gyn. Instead, I chose psychiatry. As a resident, I did teach some medical students and interns (maybe I can still keep the scholarship money?). I had baby #1 during my second year, nearly quit residency, but soon realized that I was not meant to be a stay-at-home mother. With the encouragement of my husband, and the reality of my student loans, I returned and finished. However, when I graduated from residency, my teaching career died. The academic center never called me for a job interview, and I kissed the dream of Dean of Something good-bye.

As I looked for my first real job, it was clear my career would not be my primary concern for the next two decades; motherhood would. I turned down a great job with fantastic benefits because it would require me to work full time. I took a hospital position, which had the very fancy title of associate medical director. With the arrival of baby #2, the hospital job no longer fit my life: I couldn’t and didn’t want to leave my family for hours on weekends to do hospital rounds.

So, I left my fancy job title to take a part-time position, and became “one of those women” to other full-time working women, many of them mothers. Eventually, it grew awkward for me to leave the clinic mid-afternoon, as all the other providers slaved away. I left the world of colleagues and went solo in my private practice.

In some ways, my job is really as good as it gets. I set my own hours, and if I say that I need to go help in the kindergarten classroom, my boss is totally ok with it! My work at the office is fulfilling — and being a mother makes me a better physician. Mothering is also satisfying — I pick up the children before rush hour, we do homework, we play, and most afternoons, I lose my mind just enough to know that I am not cut out to stay at home full time.

Sure, sometimes I look wistfully as stay-at-home mothers stroll with their babies while I rush like a maniac to work after taking my children to school. I think about the lost moments: how my kids essentially got potty trained at school, without me; how they crawled for the first time, without me; and how they probably spoke their first words, without me. Then I remember that we were fortunate to have had choices. The decision to work was a choice that my husband and I made, and it was right for us. I would like to think that our kids have learned to be more independent: e.g., you forget your “lovey,” you go without it for the day. Our kids have built up their immune systems as infants through daycare, and thus, my two “immuno-bots” did not miss a day of school during the awful H1N1 season. They have had their own social lives and friends since they were six months old, and these friends remain some of their favorite people.

My education at Scripps taught me to enjoy the gray in life. There are no absolute answers in motherhood. One has to make one’s own choices, and at different times, one will choose accordingly.

There is no such thing as a mold for this balancing act.


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