A woman talks on the phone while facing away from her children's artwork

Can You Have It All?

I recently listened to the West Wing Podcast, founded in 2016 by the oncologist Dr. Jack West, a lung cancer specialist. This podcast interviewed various oncologists, radiologist, and sergeants about their research and practice in treating lung cancer. Dr. West also asked interviewers’ opinions like gender equity, balancing life and career, and paths of being health care professions. Dr. West asked all the interviewers, men and women, about the balance between life and career.

A women's perspective on life and career balance

I especially paid attention to the women doctors’ answers. Dr. Lecia Sequist gave the most useful answer: hire a person to clean your house if you can afford it. Dr. Choo gave a typical Asian woman’s answer: work harder and smarter. Others mumbled but didn’t answer the question straightforwardly. Either they don’t want to be politically incorrect, or they don’t have any opinions or advice.

I was like those women doctors interviewed. Although under a ton of pressure, we have no complaints because this is the life we chose. But is this a good choice? I have had lung cancer for 4 years. During this time, I often went through those years to reflect my handling between work and life.

Speaking from my experience

After I obtained my Ph.D. degree, I got my dream job -- a university professor. I’m a career-focused woman, a good teacher, an excellent researcher, and an efficient administrator. My husband is also a professor and in the past several years, he has been spent half of his time working on administration and half still on research. We have 3 kids spanning over 8 years. Both my husband and I were constantly in the “war zone” -- our careers versus our kids.

Now the main “war” is over (my youngest son is 20) I constantly look back and ask "was I a good mother?" This is something that bothers me.

Am I a good mother?

I am a good mother, at least I used to think so. My children are very goal-oriented, extremely intelligent, and they know hardworking is essential for success. Children learn from adults’ actions. We showed them good ones. But after I got lung cancer, I’m not so sure anymore.

What I regret the most is I didn’t spend much “playtime” with my kids. When my elder son was a teenager, once he said to me: isn’t mom’s job to teach the kids good habits, like brush their teeth? Or why are you so busy? That struck me for a long time.

Did I not do enough for my children?

Was I a good mother? My kids don’t have special food that they can proudly say that it was just like my mom made. I couldn’t understand why my kids would want to sleepover at a friend's house and therefore didn’t allow them. When my kids were younger, I took them to Chuckie Cheese (a play place for children), but they were always upset because mommy had to go or mommy had work to do. I realized that I never spent enough time with them.

More importantly, each of my children played 2 kinds of musical instruments at a very competitive level, and they got into sports at the provincial and national levels. These activities required a lot of time from my husband and me. But at the same time, we were super busy pursuing the career. Can I do more than I have done?

Can I have both a career and family life?

I’m not sure. Sometimes we have to sacrifice in life.

Would I do it differently today? The answer was not that straightforward. Twenty-year career plus 10 more years of study to prepare for is not easy to give up. My career and being a career woman was my identity. But after my diagnosis, I was forced to look at my life again.

Do I regret being that career woman? Is it worth it to compromise my children, not mention the other sacrifices I have made? I don’t have an answer.

What does give me great pleasure is that my 3 children are happy and know who they are.

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