Marriage, Medicine & Motherhood: How This Physician Mom Manages

By Nicole Ehnle, Business Development Associate

I had the opportunity once again to interview Dr. Elizabeth James about her challenges as a physician mom. Although this interview centered around her role as a wife/mother/physician, this discussion can certainly apply to physician dads as well. Read on!

  1. First off, tell us a bit about your lifestyle as a physician mom. What is your specialty? How many kids do you have? What does your husband do?

I found an online quiz to help define “my lifestyle” because truthfully, I don’t know how to answer that question about myself. The quiz results say my lifestyle is a “productive lifestyle.” I suppose I live my life trying to do as much living as I can while balancing being a mom, a physician, a wife, a friend, etc.

I am a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician with four children (ages 7, 5, 4 and 7 months). I serve as the Southern Regional Medical Director for Keystone Healthcare Management. My career is a little non-traditional within the field of Emergency Medicine because my job involves a mix of administrative tasks, travel and clinical work. My job hours vary but they range between 20-60 hours per week. I typically travel at least once per month but I also enjoy the flexibility of working remotely on projects from home when I am not traveling, working clinically or participating in site visits. My husband is part owner and CEO of several clothing companies. His job hours are more traditional (8-5pm) but at times he will have to travel or work outside of those time ranges.

Time is my most valuable commodity, hands down. If I could have anything, it would be more hours in the day! In our spare time we enjoy vacations, reading and spending time together as a family.

  1. What is the biggest challenge you face each day?

Spending enough quality time with my family while managing work obligations and other necessary household tasks is my biggest challenge each day. It takes organization, planning and delegation to make sure that I cover all my bases.

  1. What is your biggest helper?

I could not be a good physician mom without help. I simply don’t have the time to do it all—I learned that a long time ago. My husband is an equal partner on most of the household responsibilities. We divvy up childcare and many of the household chores equally. But even with shared obligations, we cannot accomplish every task by ourselves. Our biggest helper is our child-care provider who is an au pair from Brazil. Our au pair lives with us. She is able to help with the children’s activities, laundry and cooking. Her work schedule can change weekly with the family’s schedule to accommodate different needs. This flexibility is exactly what our family requires at the moment. So far, we have enjoyed and benefited from the experience. My children feel like they have another family member in the house and we have learned so much living with someone from a different culture, which has been a bonus. I am deeply grateful that we are able to have full-time help in our home. Without that, the logistics of doing all we do would be extremely hard, if not impossible.

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges for you during pregnancy?

Every pregnancy has its own unique challenge, but I would say the first trimester fatigue and adding the additional prenatal appointments into the already busy schedule was the biggest challenge.

Additionally, I’ve always struggled with being able to breastfeed once I go back to work despite pumping, medication to increase supply, etc. I know it is the best thing for my child and I try to follow the American Academy of Pediatricians recommendations, but it has proven to be difficult with the traveling involved.

  1. Do you have any techniques or rituals for destressing?

Oh, I have a lot of techniques that I’ve tried over the years. I was a psychology major prior to obtaining a medical degree and have always been interested in the human brain, stress, how we cope with certain situations mentally, etc. I think exercise and eating well are the foundation to making sure you can physically deal with any type of chronic or acute stress. I also believe in setting limits to ensure you have a balanced lifestyle. Spending time with my family helps with stress. Visiting with friends, gardening, meditation, reading, cooking and planning vacations also help me manage certain stresses.

  1. How does technology help you balance your life? Do you use any specific apps?

Anyone who knows me will say that I am not the most technologically advanced person—but I do try. I am using technology for so many different daily aspects of life. The ones mentioned below help us with family communication and balance.

We use a family Google Calendar to help organize activities. I also have an Amazon Alexa and Echo in my kitchen and in my bedroom. I use this technology to add things verbally to my shopping list, set timers and reminders. The Amazon Alexa has all sorts of child-friendly apps including memory games, math quizzes and Kids News. I can even ask her to “open Kid’s Court”… I highly suggest that hilarious app to settle household arguments.

Cooking: With three adults and four children in my home, cooking healthy meals efficiently is a priority. I meal-plan once a week and usually order my groceries online. I use an app called “Any List” which connects to my husband’s and au pair’s phone. This app allows them to add food items anytime during the week and I will make sure and order their items online. I’ve also been using a pressure cooker (it even has blue-tooth capabilities!) to help decrease cooking time.

Cleaning: I gave in and purchased a Roomba. She does a fantastic job cleaning the floors at the touch of a button.

Relaxing: I found that I don’t have as much time to “read” so I’ve been using Audible and the Amazon Echo or Alexa to read books to me while I’m driving, cooking or getting ready in the morning. I also subscribe to several different story podcasts for the children and I use them sometimes for their “quiet time” or while we are driving.

I have several “blackboards” on my refrigerator to help keep us organized and communicating with each other regarding childcare needs.  I also have a chore chart for the kids. These non-technology items assist us equally as well as the technology!

  1. How do you and your husband make time for each other?

We have to try to make sure it is a priority, and that isn’t always easy to do. We try to eat lunch together occasionally during the week when we are both working. We also have recently started going to a gym class once a week together. We try to schedule dates as often as possible aiming for at least two times a month. In reality, a lot of the time we just hang out after the kids are all in bed right before we crash and get up to repeat it all over again!

  1. How has being a mother changed you as a physician?

Prior to having children one cannot know how much time, energy and love is involved with raising children. This knowledge has changed my outlook on everything in life, not just at my job. But there are some specific things that have changed my practice style in the ED since having children. For instance, I can no longer stand to hear a baby cry in the emergency room without immediately attempting to tend to that child, whereas before, I don’t think I was as acutely aware of children crying in the ED… it was just background noise. I also feel like I give parents better discharge instruction when it comes to caring for their sick children at home. I can educate using my own real experiences rather than drawing from a book or a class.

Children bring great joy into the lives of those whom they love and who love them. The joy in living such a busy, full life surrounded by a loving family is what I am most grateful for. I try to carry that sense of gratitude to my colleagues and my patients.

  1. Do you feel like your employer gave/gives you enough support and flexibility to be able to sustain your busy lifestyle?

I have worked with Keystone Healthcare Management for almost eight years. During those eight years, I was pregnant a total of 36 months! With each pregnancy, I was blown away by how incredibly supportive my bosses and physician and non-clinical colleagues have been. They are a pro-family company and they recognize how important family is in the lives of all of us who work at Keystone. They are an amazing group of people who instill a wonderful sense of teamwork, and truly exhibited that during my absence.  Unfortunately, I believe my experience as a physician mom isn’t always the case. I hope all employers understand how much more we, as Physician Moms, are indebted to them when they don’t view pregnancy through the eyes of a lack of work-hours.

If you enjoyed reading her perspective, Dr. James has also featured commentary in several other posts, like this one and this one.