By Diane Palombi, OD
Oct. 23, 2019
Motherhood is always a challenge, and with the additional responsibilities of doctoring and practice ownership, it can be daunting.
Now retired, I experienced the trials and joys of motherhood myself during my career, and spoke recently to two doctors who are currently doing it.
The Quest to Do It All & Necessary Compromises
I graduated from optometry school in 1985. This was during the heart of the superwoman era. We were expected to be a wife, mother and career woman, and do all three with flair. I bought into the dogma.
My husband stayed home with our first daughter for her first six months. We then had a trusted babysitter, whom I knew from optometry school, and from when we worked together at a LensCrafters. This former colleague watched children out of her home. That arrangement stopped working when she took on too many children, and my husband picked up my daughter one too many times with a soaked diaper. We ended up taking our daughter to a child-development center at a local community college, and that worked best for us.
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Accommodating Disruptions to Routine & the Freedom of Practice Ownership
I had no family in town, so a sick child was stressful. Usually the owner of the practice could fill in, but I sometimes would take a not-terribly-sick child to work, and set up the second exam room as a playroom. The staff was good at entertaining my child as much as they could without interfering with patient care.
Being available for activities and events was important to me. I managed to attend everything. Part of the motivation for opening my own practice was so I could set my own hours. I closed my office for the homecoming parade, took a few hours off in the afternoon to attend the lacrosse game or watch my daughter cheerleading at a basketball game.
I took vacation, so I could take my girls to dance competitions or participate in beauty pageants. I also got extra bonding time with my eldest because she worked for me starting in middle school. She stayed until graduating from college.
My children are now grown and have children of their own. I wondered if things have changed from the days that I practiced optometry and raised my family. Two optometrists agreed to be interviewed for this article: Lauren E. Grillot, OD, and Jennifer Palombi, OD.
Dr. Grillot has young children and Dr. Palombi has high-school children. Jennifer is not a direct relative, but we may be distant cousins by marriage since Palombi is not exactly a common name.
Do you feel that optometrists have unique challenges from other working mothers?
Dr. Grillot: “Those in the medical field have challenges in regard to having an entire patient schedule to consider. It is rarely an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. I have been home late more times than I can count because I had to write letters for an emergency retinal patient being seen first thing in the morning or the last 10-minute recheck patient ending up being a sudden-onset-of-floaters patient who needed dilation.
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As a currently nursing mother, I am well aware of trying to stay on schedule with patients, yet make time to pump. It never fails, I will be running behind, so I skip pumping and then that patient feels the need to tell me their life story as I feel like my eyes are going to pop out of my head in pain while trying to be an “in-tune” doctor.
There are times I have up to a two-month wait list to see me. If one of my children gets sick, and I need to call in and cancel my patients for the day, I feel terrible for those patients who have been waiting. Optometrists who are practice owners also face the financial challenges of not seeing an entire day of patients. Then not only are they worried about their sick child, but they have the additional worry of how missing a day will affect cash flow.”
Dr. Jennifer Palombi: “I’ve taken a sick child to work with me more than once and quarantined them in a spare office or exam room. When I was in practice, I did neuro-ophthalmic disease and those patients couldn’t just be postponed because I had a child sick with the flu-or for any reason in most cases. I just found a way to make it work.
A couple years ago, I changed career paths and took a position on the North America Professional Affairs team at CooperVision. In this role, I’ve had the luxury of working from home a lot of the time, so I’m already here if they need to stay home for any reason. It’s a fantastic thing.”
Are you able to attend as many of your children’s activities as you like?
Dr. Grillot: “I have only ever worked as an employee or independent contractor, but I have probably done the opposite of what some women do. The more kids I have, the more hours I work per week. Initially, I was part-time at a few different locations because of difficulty finding full-time work right out of school.
Due to a desire to practice closer to my home I decreased my hours to what a closer practice could accommodate at the time, and was part-time for about a year and a half. After my third child, I had the opportunity to increase my hours to full-time status, which allowed for additional benefits. After my maternity leave, I hit the ground running. At this time, even with four children, I am content working between 30-34 hours per week. The eventual plan is to buy into a private practice.”
Dr. Jennifer Palombi: “In my current role, I can schedule time to make it to important events – or even just spend extra time with my family much more easily. I have a better work-life balance now than I ever had before. While in practice, my schedule was booked a year in advance. Needless to say, I missed a lot of activities and events. My husband can tell more than one story about being the only dad at Mother’s Day Tea at our kids’ preschool. But at least between the two of us, we could make sure they had a parent there when it mattered.”
How do your children feel about your job?
Dr. Grillot: “My 8-month-old could care less as long as her belly is full, and her pants are clean. My 2-year-old loves the office because he knows where the suckers are. My 6-year-old asks me regularly how many patients I saw that particular day and if they were boys or girls.
My 8-year-old for a few years always said she wanted to be an eye doctor, but that has now been trumped by a Barbie designer. However, the day my daughter’s lunch lady came in to see me and told me my daughter tells her on a regular basis that I am an eye doctor, was the moment I realized she was proud of me. It showed me even though I am working and have had the same “mom guilt” everyone else has had from time to time, she doesn’t see that. She sees me as a woman who goes to work and saves eyeballs, and that’s an example I am glad that I am setting for my daughter.”
Dr. Jennifer Palombi: “I’m happy to say that they are both proud of it. My daughter did an art project a few years ago naming me as her hero. In a recent interview, my son cited me as one of the people he most looks up to – and that’s a big deal from a 17-year-old boy, as I’m sure other moms of teens can attest! My son actually voiced concern when I made the move to CooperVision that this meant I wouldn’t be a doctor anymore—Ha! I assured him that I’ll always be a doctor, and that I’m just using those skills in a new way. He was relieved because he’s proud of what I do.”
What has helped you most as a working mother?
Dr. Grillot: “I work on re-framing my mindset if I find myself getting overwhelmed. I have convinced myself when I’ve gone awhile without vacuuming my rugs that my crawling children are getting vision therapy by tracking mashed-up Cheerios on the carpet. As I had more children, it became easier to not get so wound up about the little things.
I remember that children will not remember the dirty windows. I’ve realized that my 2-year-old will probably still be a successful member of society even if he isn’t broken of the pacifier by age 2 because some nights this mama just needs to get to sleep. And when changing my mindset doesn’t work…there is crochet and wine.”
Dr. Jennifer Palombi: “People who know that I work from home look at me strangely when I say I have a housekeeper, but the need is unchanged. The fact that I’m putting in my workdays from a home office instead of an exam lane doesn’t mean that I’m any more free to deep-clean the house than I was before. I’m working just as hard as ever, and I love what I do! Hiring that extra help frees me up to spend more time with family whenever the opportunities arrive.”
Diane Palombi, OD, retired now, is the former owner of Palombi Vision Center in Wentzville, Mo. To contact her: email@example.com