The Same Old Questions
Another semester is beginning, and I am back in the classroom, teaching young college students about the parts and pieces of the human body. I stand before them and introduce myself as “Dr. Hunnell, a family physician”. At some point in the coming weeks, I will begin to get the questions:
“Why aren’t you seeing patients anymore?”
“Don’t you feel like you are wasting your education?”
“Couldn’t you make more money being a doctor?”
They come every semester, and I still hesitate a little bit when I answer them. How do I encourage them to push themselves to reach their professional goals when I have walked away from my own career as a doctor?
Some may think these questions are too personal, and that students should not be posing such inquiries to their professors. But I want to answer these questions.
When I was studying to be a doctor, there were so few women practicing medicine that I had no role models. Most of the women I did see were either unmarried or married and childless. Even though I was not married at the time, I knew that was not the life I wanted.
There was one young female physician, in the Internal Medicine department at my medical school, who seemed more like the woman I wanted to be. I was so excited when the she became pregnant. I peppered her with questions about how she was going to balance being a physician and being a mother. She didn’t have all the answers; but she was so gracious in sharing her thoughts, her challenges, her concerns, and her hopes, that I felt more confident that I would be able to balance work and family in my own future.
Now I am the teacher, facing a room full of mostly young women who are hoping to go into one of the medical or allied health career fields. I have a lot of opportunities for one-on-one interactions with my students; during the conversations that arise I share my thoughts, my challenges, and my responses to the demands of being a physician and a mother.
Vocations Define Lives
I begin with explaining that the two roles are not equal. When I got married thirty years ago, I accepted the vocation of marriage. This vocation defines my life, in the same way the vocation of the priesthood or the vocation of religious life defines the lives of priests and sisters. I am a wife.
Within that vocation, I was blessed with a second calling: to be a mother. Again, motherhood is a vocation that permeates my entire life.
Being a physician, on the other hand, is an occupation. Just as religious sisters work as teachers, nurses, doctors, and countless other jobs, a wife and mother can work outside the home as well. But the occupation must always fit within the vocation. Life becomes disordered when the employment gains supremacy and the vocation is squeezed to conform to the occupation.
That doesn’t mean there can never be compromises, or that outside employment is always an elective activity. Part of the vocation of parenthood is making sure your children have their physical needs met. Providing food, clothing, and shelter requires money. Working outside the home can be very much a part of living out the vocation of motherhood.
On the other hand, the essence of being a parent is doing your best to raise your children with love, and to instill the values and faith needed for them to step out into adulthood, prepared to journey towards Heaven. This takes time. It cannot be delegated to day care, or the school, or even the parish CCD program. This is your job.
Fitting the Occupation to the Vocation
When my husband and I began having children, I was still a medical resident. Then I went in to the Air Force, to fulfill my commitment for a military scholarship. My husband was an Air Force pilot. There were not a lot of options. We both worked full time; and the kids were in daycare.
However, as our family grew, and after I left the military, we had more options. The children also had different needs. Since my husband was still in the Air Force, he did not have the same flexibility that I had, so we made the decision that I would work part-time.
This was not a gender-based decision. Both my husband and I agreed that I was better suited to meet needs of our children at home; and the loss of my employment income was worth the improvement in our family life.
Over the years, my husband and I constantly assessed the pros and cons of both our work lives. The primary metric has always been how our jobs supported our vocations of married life and parenthood.
For a time, even my working part-time seemed to be too much; so I stayed home full time. As the nest emptied a little, the opportunity to teach presented itself, and it was a good fit. I thought about the possibility of going back to medical practice once all the kids were launched.
Then my husband was diagnosed with cancer. The chemotherapy was grueling; but he is in remission for now. The diagnosis shook us both to the core. It certainly made me realize that there is no certainty in tomorrow. So now I choose to limit my occupation to something that allows me plenty of time to enjoy life with my husband and children and grandchildren.
When I answer my students’ questions, I do not necessarily chronicle this entire life story. But I do tell them that I am not practicing medicine now because, as much as I loved seeing patients, it was an occupation, a job. My vocation, being a wife and mother, always comes first. I modify the occupation to fit my vocation, not the other way around.
A Vocation Lived Well
Education is never a waste. The experiences of becoming a doctor and practicing medicine shaped who I am. I am a better anatomy instructor because I can share the clinical ramifications of the organ systems we study. My medical expertise has been a blessing in dealing with the injuries and illnesses of my family. My professional potential has given our family options that would have been impossible otherwise, even if I did not maximize my career potential as a clinical physician.
And yes, I could make a lot more money practicing medicine than teaching anatomy and physiology to college students. But money cannot buy more time. The older I get, the more I realize that time spent with those I love is far more precious than any material good I can purchase.
So it is a worthy endeavor to work hard and strive for educational and professional goals. Just remember that these are merely occupations. You have a much greater calling to discern, whether it is to marriage, the single life, religious life, or the priesthood. Occupational success, no matter how great, can never replace the rewards of a vocation lived well.