One of the hardest things for me in my work as a Professor, a Specialist Infectious Disease Physician at The Alfred hospital, Associate Director of Burnet Institute, Head of the international Clinical Research Laboratory and a Director of the national board of St Vincent’s Health Australia is to juggle these responsibilities with family life. Failure to achieve a balance between my career and my personal life, and at the same time coming to terms with the choices I have made, has certainly led to times of significant emotional stress.
I never had children of my own – it was just too hard back in the late 70s and 80s. Women found it difficult enough to be taken seriously in academic medicine without being pregnant. Only about 10% of doctors undertaking the fellowship of the Royal Australian College of Physicians were woman at the time. I was one of these and so grateful for the opportunity that I would not have jeopardized it for a minute. I didn’t really care much that much; I just loved being a doctor, felt it was such a privilege to work at The Alfred and knew that I would get where I wanted with or without help… but at a cost. There was no flexibility with rosters, 90 hour weeks went with some rotations; pregnancy during my training was unthinkable.
There was also no mentoring. And I never had an older female physician as a boss. I wouldn’t have known who to turn to for advice about combining my training with starting a family as there were virtually no senior women working as consultant physicians at The Alfred who also had babies or young children. I can’t think of any! I kept thinking the time wasn’t right and although my “clock was ticking” there would be plenty of time later on to start a family. For various reasons that didn’t happen. At the time it didn’t matter so much as most of my female friends were also childless and my work was so time consuming. But I can remember when another close friend of mine, a bit younger than me and also an academic physician, became pregnant when she was about 40 and it just hit me: I had missed my chance. It is probably the biggest regret in my life.
It’s now significantly easier to have a family and pursue a medical career; attitudes have changed so much. So I now tell my younger female students and colleagues not to wait for the perfect time to start a family, there is never a perfect time, just don’t miss out. And for me, as a consolation prize I get a lot of satisfaction from mentoring junior scientists and physicians, and seeing my young students and residents develop successful careers. I also have three step children and two grand children and lots of nieces and nephews so I haven’t really missed out.