By Dr. Rachel Carson
Over the last thirty years, since being an undergraduate in the 1990s at a “top Canadian university”, I have carefully collected a bouquet of overachieving, type A “tall poppy” female friends.
These Amazonian Wonder-Women worked hard and trained hard. We supported each other. We
surfed bell curves and achieved 3.7, 3.8, 3.9, and even 4.0 GPAs. We applied to and were accepted into prestigious, historically male-dominated medical schools, law schools and graduate schools at Stanford, Queens, McGill, UBC and their ilk. We climbed academic and social ladders. We graduated, at or close to the tops of our classes and went on to clerk at the Supreme Court, intern in our first choice of surgical residencies. We made the partner tracks at law firms and published our research. We held our own with the men young and old, competing and embodying how different our world was from that of our mothers. Sometimes, perhaps around late night campfires, usually after a long day of hard outdoor exercise and several drinks, we quietly shared stories about micro-aggressions and sexual assaults. We fell in and out and in love, often with similarly accomplished, driven partners.
But gaps were appearing. Likely they had always been there but they began to widen, just a little. Our tall stems began to sway, buffeted by winds of infertility, anxiety, depression, misogyny. We negotiated whose career determined where we lived and that changed our opportunities, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Most of the time, opportunity was abundant. We kept right on swimming and running and working and singing and striving and competing and working. I met more Amazons along the way. We celebrated pregnancies and births and adoptions. We mourned abortions and stillbirths.
The cracks widened. We negotiated some more. We ”Leaned In” and we leaned on our husbands and partners, parents and daycares and friends and siblings and nannies. And yes, the latter were other women, often women of colour, who were always at a lower pay grade, who supported us in addition to themselves and their own families. We were grateful for all that support and our tall poppy selves reached up up up towards the bright lights of boardrooms
and emergency rooms. We sat in recruitment meetings where male colleagues would ask “but do you think she can handle the volume and acuity” or “why would she work full time when her husband is a surgeon”? We heard colleagues attribute some of their own overwhelming workload to the fact that others “only work part-time”. Even if those comments were made without (apparent) rancor, we picked them up and carried them around on our shoulders on call and in clinic. An ever growing body of research shows that even working full+ time, many of us make 60-80% per hour worked of what our professional husbands or identically-trained male colleagues make. We are “66 cents-on-the-dollar” doctors, professors, lawyers and engineers.
Then, one by one, even before the pandemic that so brazenly exploited the gender gap in childcare and domestic labour, for a remarkable variety of reasons many in my bouquet of friends bent themselves in a different direction and began to leave or reduce their work in some way. Shade closes over us amazingly quickly as we rejoin the earth, kneel down to notice and embrace the humming of life at the roots.
Now many women in my group of Amazons are “retiring” mid-career. I say “retiring” but it’s not the kind of retirement one makes in one’s 60s or 70s at the logical end of a long satisfying full-time career.
In these “retirements” (quotation marks intended), we go part time. We raise children and create loving homes. We get off the partner track and take leaves of absence. We learn to meditate. We still run and swim and sing and strive. We cultivate our resilience, ticking off the prescribed boxes to be the best we can be. Sometimes, we sit in our cars and cry halfway through the day. A ridiculous percentage of us take antidepressant medication, as though the power gaps and structures that systemically undermine us and helped take us out at the knees can and should be addressed by fine tuning some chemical imbalance in our own brains. As though the toxic effects of those systems are ours to deal with, internally rather than to forces outside our bodies and bloodstreams. Now, from our privileged economic positions and lives of relative comfort, we are starting to navigate teenagers, cancer, chronic illness, loss of parents and chronic injuries.
I notice that at gatherings, the men whose professional wives have “retired” or work “part time” smile and talk both about how wonderful it is to take their kids to practices/games/races/shows and also how they are also looking forward to this or that thing at work. I notice that, in contrast, the women who are still working “full-time” mostly talk to each other about how they feel like they are coming apart at the seams.
Make no mistake, we love our partners, our children, our lives, and most of us are beyond lucky in life by almost any measure imaginable. But more and more, it turns out our lives are much more like our mothers than some of us thought they would be. The happiest among us seem to have found a wonderful peace in that.
I, however, am not at peace. I struggle with the “why”, in particular for the women who are physicians. We are more likely than our male colleagues to burn out, get depressed, cut back hours or leave the profession altogether in the “prime” of our careers. The idea that our biology, our hormones or nature herself is responsible makes me sad. The idea that it is created by our cultures in medicine, academia, law in addition to our children, our marriages and wider societal structures makes me angry, and that undoes some of my own “wellness box-ticking”.
With each generation comes hope for improvement, hope for another iteration towards better. I guess I am disappointed that my generation’s iteration has been smaller than I thought it would be. And I hope for bigger changes to come.
Dr. Rachel Carson is a nephrologist and internist, practicing in Nanaimo, BC. This piece came pouring out of her at a meditation retreat.