Like many of you, the new year inspires us to self-reflect and set new intentions. This is what it would be like…I would start a new habit, like working out for 30 minutes a day, and will stick to it a few weeks or months even…but life happens and sometimes those behaviors just don’t stick. However, this one WILL stick because I am making a pledge to myself and embracing this time as a way to make a new path that will make my goal achievable.
My new year commitment to myself includes carving out more time with my children and family free of distractions and being fully present.
As a behavioral pediatrician, I KNOW how important this mindful parenting approach is with children because it is always the first skill taught in parenting classes and emphasized no matter if the class is for prevention or treatment of behavioral issues. It is the cornerstone of our interactions with each other. You can always tell when someone is distracted or not really listening, right? Undivided attention is what we all want and crave even for short periods of time to let the other person know we are truly here listening and engaged. Mindful parenting is also taking time to monitor your own feelings and emotions and monitoring how you respond to your children.
I recently left academia after 12 years because I was feeling burned out. The negative outcome was my inability to make and protect distraction-free time with my family. I felt a constant, unrelenting pressure to continually be at my laptop, tackling my mountain of a to-do list which never had an end in sight. Pressures at work kept eclipsing everything else, especially during grant submission times, which was four times a year.
While this was what I thrived in early on, over the years it became unsustainable. When I was promoted to Associate Professor a few years ago, I could not keep up with the increased service demands and the push to fund my time. I found that over the past 5 years, grants were harder to get. My last NIH grant hit 3 year ago. I would submit grants that ultimately went unfunded. While I was writing the grants, I would fall in love with the idea–but, only to find out, it was not going to happen. As this cycle continued, it became more about covering my time so much so that when they didn’t hit, I would be forced to take on different administrative roles to make up for the lack of funding or to increase my clinical time. Soon, I found myself wearing 3-4 different administrative hats, in too many meetings that would take up a bulk of my work day, leaving little time to actually do any work. Each of those different administrative hats in of themselves took more time than the half a day every other week or half day a week it was supposed to be covering my salary. Work no longer was about the things I enjoyed doing for intellectual purposes–it became a merry go round that was going faster and faster and I was barely hanging on.
I would come home from work, get dinner ready, get the children to bed and then open my laptop and work until 2am. I would pull out my laptop on the weekends. At one point, when packing for vacation, my children asked with exasperation, “Are you taking your computer??”
I would find myself tired, cranky and unable to really pay attention to what was happening around me. When your child comes up to you and asks you a question and you try desperately to rewind the last minute but find you had tuned her out? Yep. That was me.
Or when I was not fully participating in family conversations. Yep. I realized the very act of making time with my family was quickly becoming just one more thing on my to-do list so that I could check it off and then hop back on my laptop. Yep, sounds terrible but true.
Looking back, even though I was physically at home on the weekends with my family, I was not mentally or emotionally present.
Then in the latter half of 2018 several immediate family members faced health challenges requiring surgery, doctors’ visits and therapy appointments. I had to take FMLA for a period of time to manage the household and drive everyone to their activities, appointments and even the puppy to puppy daycare! After 6 weeks, I had my own health scare too. The timing was so uncanny that I finally realized that the Universe was perhaps trying to send me a sign. It was then that I realized something had to give.
Even though I loved (and still love) thinking big when it comes to children’s health and wellness, the only way I knew how to stop from drowning was to jump. For this, I am truly grateful because I realize that not everyone can do what I did and walk away. Because my spouse had a full time job with benefits, I could do something drastic.
Now, as I settle into a new year and a new path, I find myself needing to pause when feelings of doubt or uncertainty creep in. I find myself needing to consciously take a breath when I have that feeling I have to hurry up to do something, anything. I want to remind myself and others that we should always take time to self-reflect, begin again and pause to look at the world around us. Don’t let things get to the point where you feel hopeless or helpless. Ask for help. Reach out to your support system. Talk to a friend. You likely will realize over the course of the conversations with those you trust, you are not alone in these feelings. It is then that we may discover something new or make a realization that can change the course of your life.
For more for physicians burning out, check out SEAK and The Biggest Mistakes Physicians Make in Transitioning to a Non-Clinical Career and How to Avoid Them
In the meantime, this post will serve as my reminder to make time to stop and only say yes to things that bring me joy and still allow me to live in the moment with my family. I look forward to sharing what new adventures unfold in 2019 and I wish you all luck in staying true to yourself and YOUR personal and professional intentions.