I ‘have it all’ – but truly, it ain’t what I expected

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An increasing number of doctors in all specialties are working part-time.

The BEACH dataset shows a steady decline in the number of sessions worked each week by Australian GPs between 1998 and 2008, while a survey published in August this year of UK GP trainees found only one in five intended to work full-time in clinical practice.1,2

The shift to less full-time work is often attributed to more women entering the workforce and attempting, so the expression goes, to “have it all” — namely, kids and a career.

I have a love-hate relationship with that saying because one lesson I have learnt is that creating a work-life balance is far more complex and fluid than a singular, solid “having it all”.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that my “having it all” is very different to what I thought it would be. It also regularly changes and my ‘all’ doesn’t look anything like the next person’s ‘all’.

When I was expecting my first child, I imagined myself transforming into a domestic goddess, staying home to bake and be with my kids.

I was quite disappointed when this didn’t eventuate, and I went on to become a working mum.

Now, some days “having it all” includes a very dirty car and messy house, missing work deadlines, and skipping school events. Other days “having it all” looks like dropping everything for a sick child or family event.

I know I’m happiest when I’m working hard. I grew up in a household with two parents who worked harder than I ever have.

When colleagues have asked me if I’m working too hard, I check in with my partner who reassures me that he never sees me happier than when I’m doing exciting things at work.

I’m super lucky to have a family that supports me to have a busy career.

However, on tough days when work is consuming more time than I’d like it to, I remember the wise advice of NSW GP supervisor Dr Ayman Shenouda who told us registrars: “What is this work-life balance? Does it mean work is not part of life?”

He advised us not to get worried about whether we had the magical ‘balance’ right. Because worrying about the balance in life just adds pressure to already busy lives.

And, that’s why I loathe the expression: “You can’t have it all. It’s work, or home, but never both at the same time.”

It implies that if things are going well at work, by mathematical rule everything must not be going so well at home, which is simply not true.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that you can’t assume anything about another person’s work-life balance on the snippets of their lives you see.

I recently returned from a short work trip, and my partner and youngest met me at the airport. My heart sank as my little one turned as he saw me and walked away across the arrivals hall.

I thought: “This is what you get for being a working mum. This is what everyone said. You can’t have it all.”

But then he turned with the brightest of smiles as he ran and jumped into my arms in a ginormous hug. He had just been getting the right distance between us for the perfect jump-hug.

Depending on which part of that scenario you’d observed — my son walking away or running towards me — you would think very different things.

Life is everything from the moment you wake until you rest your head at night. Don’t measure the day by how many bits of each thing you did or had. Look at the big picture.

If things are feeling all right to you and those closest to you, then you probably have the balance right.

If things are feeling shaky, regardless of the ‘balance’ in your work-life, ask those nearest to you to help you get things back on track.

And, don’t be fooled by work-life balance equations. You can have it all. It just might be that “having it all” looks different from what you were expecting.

First published at Medical Observer, on 8 October 2018 (editor, Jo Hartley)