The question caught Allison Foster, MD, off guard.

Earlier this year, as Foster’s 6-year-old son was being tucked into bed, he asked if she was going to get sick at work.

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“He was hearing a lot about COVID,” said Dr. Foster, a pediatrician at Child and Adolescent Health Associates and Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. “I was a little taken aback because I didn’t realize how he was probably internalizing a lot of what he was hearing, and his own fears were coming out.”

Dr. Foster sat down and explained that the likelihood of her getting sick was low, particularly because of her work in pediatrics, and that appeared to reassure him, she said. Nevertheless, the conversation was a reminder of the added challenges facing parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly physician mothers striving to balance life at home and work.

Dr. Foster was one of three women physicians to discuss the ongoing obstacles before them during a recent episode of the “AMA COVID-19 Update” show.

The episode, “Physician moms on challenges they face during the pandemic,” also featured Vineet Arora, MD, assistant dean for scholarship and discovery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and associate chief medical officer for clinical learning environment at the University of Chicago Medicine; and Allison Bartlett, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital.

Balancing medicine, family—and a pandemic

The question of how to balance the day-to-day necessities of work as a physician with the added challenges of family needs during the COVID-19 pandemic was addressed by all three physicians. Dr. Foster responded with a cautious perspective.

“I don’t know if balance is achievable,” she said. “I don’t know if we want to strive for that because it might be a bit of an unattainable goal.”

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The first priority is taking care of yourself, she and Dr. Bartlett said. That self-care could be dedicating a few minutes in the morning for yoga, doing exercise after work, or perhaps even some late-night reading before going to sleep at night. From there, the focus should be on family and ensuring they have what they need to succeed. With that taken care of, their goal then becomes doing the absolute best to give patients the highest level of care possible.

That plan is far easier said than done.

“I really wish it didn’t feel like I was still living in survival mode, but we are,” Dr. Bartlett said. “It’s not as bad as in the pandemic when I was [working] seven days a week, but I’m struggling to find ways to care for myself.”

One challenge many working parents face—not just physicians—is child care, particularly those with kids at schools that have not returned to fully in-person learning. Dr. Foster previously relied on her parents to help watch her children, but that brings about its own obstacles during the pandemic as grandparents and older caretakers are at greater risk of complications from COVID-19.

“My husband and I have really had to get creative with our schedules,” Dr. Foster said. “We’re just doing the best we can to make it work.”

Attaining the proper perspective

While so much attention is given to COVID-19-related care, as all physicians know, routine care does not stop during a pandemic. Dr. Arora knows that firsthand. Her second baby was born earlier this year, and that experience allowed her to see the hard work and dedication put in by her colleagues at University of Chicago Medicine to make sure patients are safe and get the care they need.

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Dr. Arora felt a kinship “to my colleagues who I knew were doing the best to care for me and my baby and everybody,” she said. “I’ve advised a lot of other moms, including physicians and nonphysicians, that you can get the care you need, and it’s a joyous occasion—and try to take the joy along with the anxiety that you’re going to have during the pandemic.”

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