Being a working parent is demanding regardless of the nature of the work. There are always lunches to pack, dinners to plan, laundry to do, and extracurricular activities to attend. The profession presents some unique challenges and advantages related to the nature of the work for those in administrative, clinical, academic, corporate, and entrepreneurial roles.
As O&P professionals we put our patients first and feel it is our duty to care for them. We are accessible in ways that other healthcare providers are not. When was the last time your physician’s office squeezed you in at the last minute or went the extra mile to verify your insurance benefits? This altruistic trait is what endears us to those that depend on us, but at what cost to us? Many professionals feel guilty and unfairly obligated if they are not always accessible.
Could it be that our status in the medical profession, often being seen as “vendors,” and dependence on revenue is contributing to stress and feelings of being overworked? If we do not see a patient quickly, they may go to a competitor, and our relationship could be at risk.
Staffing can be problematic if employees are not provided adequate coverage while away. Taking a vacation or missing a day of work due to a childcare problem can put parents in an unfair situation where they must choose between which guilt outweighs the other. Do I stay home with my sick child or leave one practitioner to answer phones, obtain correct insurance documentation, and care for their patient load? Business hours in O&P often extend beyond the normal workday and may include weekend on-call work. These characteristics can all necessitate difficult decisions and a taxing mental load on working parents.
Many members of the discussion group expressed how, even in partnerships where both parents work, the parenting responsibilities fall more often to the mother. American society in general is certainly partly responsible for the unspoken expectation that mothers perform tasks such as managing children’s medical appointments, taking the day off to care for a sick child, and communicating with daycare or school. Is a mother’s workplace more sympathetic to these demands, or is her career path more accommodating to interruptions and setbacks?
In some families, the pandemic changed these stereotypical roles if one partner could work from home. Post-pandemic there seems to be more discussion or negotiation between partners as to which tasks can be accomplished by each parent within the boundaries of their professional role. This is not unique to O&P but is a day-to-day challenge made more complex by the nature of our varied schedules and unpredictable patient and student needs. Mothers expressed feelings of being unable to compete with employees who can devote more time to their professional goals.
A limit is often reached where we cannot have anything more expected of us, so certain things have to be let go. This can be very difficult, especially if one is accustomed to performing at a high level. Lowering the bar is not something that gets discussed, and it creates very conflicted emotions, especially when part of one’s confidence is entwined with professional achievements.
Many concepts were discussed regarding what would make being a working parent in O&P easier. Firstly, for women, the lack of a comprehensive profession-specific guide for health considerations during pregnancy is a concern. Varied resources for chemicals, noise, vibration, etc. are available, but to have a consolidated, O&P-specific source that is easily accessible and explains the risks would be beneficial to expecting mothers and likely the entire industry.
Secondly, flexibility from one’s employer is critical to support working parents. Allowing variations in work hours to accommodate scheduling and childcare demands will lead to a better, more loyal employee. Understanding that not every family has the same options available is vitally important. Not everyone can ask family members for assistance or leave their child at daycare longer.
Because all members of our profession give so much of themselves regardless of roles, employers must appreciate the need for self-care. Self-care can come in many forms but includes taking care of oneself mentally, physically, and emotionally. Many view this as a luxury when it should be a priority. It must occur on a regular basis as opposed to occasionally. Reducing stress and anxiety among employees will ultimately lead to better care for our patients and students.
Thirdly, the notion of part-time work in O&P is not often discussed, especially in academia. It can be challenging to leave the profession and re-enter after having a child, but part-time work can help offset childcare costs and provide crucial healthcare benefits. A model of how part-time involvement is achievable should exist, but it is something that the profession has overlooked.
Being a parent is undoubtedly a thankless job at times, but also one with immeasurable rewards. Whether your children are young or teenagers, the scope of their needs is ever changing. The O&P profession has many rewards along with its challenges, yet at the end of the day it was unanimous among the group that making choices that put one’s children first is always the right choice, regardless of the professional implications. Support from other parents (and employers) is helpful to not feel isolated or disconnected and can offer creative solutions or strategies when issues arise.
The illusion that children will not affect your professional life is not realistic, but while at work it’s important to be fully present for those around us. Having an accommodating workplace will hopefully reduce the feeling that parents are continually having to apologize to coworkers who do not have children.
One incredible benefit that children of O&P professionals receive is a level of understanding and empathy for the patients we serve. That thought alone might be enough to help get through the trials and tribulations of being a working parent in O&P.
Lindi Mitsou, MSPO, CPO, is an assistant professor at the University of Hartford and chair of the Fabrication Sciences Society for the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists. She can be contacted at [email protected].