Like most of the alpha-female, driven, women in medicine, I strive for perfection. From straight A’s in grade school to superb MCAT and STEP scores to being elected chief resident, I was determined to settle for nothing less than excellence. Despite my achievements in my medical education, I reached my residency graduation to find myself on an unexpected path. My marriage – destined to last forever – had crumbled during my training. I was baby-less. I was partner-less. I was D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D, which to me, was the equivalent of failure.
When a new relationship and eventually second marriage came my way, it also contained two children and the job requirements of a full-time mother – my new husband had full custody. So I found myself in my early 30’s, raising two teenagers without an inkling of what having my own child was like. I had never waddled around the ED with a pregnant belly or nursed a baby to sleep. I hadn’t watched a toddler stumble through developmental milestones. I wasn’t even sure what household chores an 11 year old should be able to complete without assistance.
In my head, I heard, “I didn’t raise these children from birth, so I’m not really a mom. I shouldn’t join Physician Mom’s Group or attend my church’s programming for new mothers. I’m not a mom.” And yet I was working on 6th grade math homework, instructing about periods, shuttling to sports practices, cooking paleo family dinners and devising organization methods for a child struggling with ADHD. I suffered from imposter syndrome – over motherhood.
Despite the imposter syndrome, I still experienced the “mommy guilt.” I was constantly torn between the “I shoulds”: I should be at the office. I should be at home. I should be working on my lecture. I should be with the girls. I should be at Crossfit. I should be helping with homework. I should be fishing (my wellness). I should be cooking dinner. I was full of different “shoulds”, but always lacking time to accomplish all of them.
One night, after the girls were in bed and their father was at the fire station, I was working fiercely on a lecture that I had to give the next morning. My eldest (step)daughter tiptoed out of her room and hugged me. “Thank you for working so hard to make things easier and better for female physicians in the future, for me when I become a doctor,” she said before going back to bed. That night was my “aha” moment. I realized that I may not be perfect. I may not ever have enough time or balance the time I do have perfectly. I may not be at every open house, sporting event or recital. But when I come home and am asked about my shift, I am able to say that I made a difference in a patient’s life that day – maybe even saved a life. I am their example of a strong, relentless woman who’s determined to succeed.
My life became mine, truly my creation, after I let it get messy: when I became divorced, when I became remarried, when I became a pseudo-mom. All of these were deviations from the traditional path, blemishes or imperfections in my life (some may even call them failures). I didn’t have the happily ever after, the white picket fence and two perfect little babies that grew in my belly. But my imperfections grew me – a better, stronger, more satisfied version of me. Instead of struggling for perfect, I learned to embrace the mess.
In my pursuit of perfection, I failed. And so I impart these words to my fellow “failed” women, to my imperfect peers: Each day, don’t strive to be perfect. Know that perfection is impossible, and embrace your mess. When you’re at the hospital be fully present. Be intentional. Let go of the “shoulds” and be the best doctor you can at that time. And then go home and be the best mom that you can be. Or the best wife or researcher or marathoner or Crossfitter or female angler or however you define yourself. You can’t do everything all the time. You can’t be a stay at home mom and a full-time working woman. There is no perfectly balanced seesaw in your future. So be intentional, give your best effort, and remember that pobody’s nerfect.
This piece originally appeared in Melissa Parson’s blog MelissaParsonsMD.com