Work, family, and self: finding the balance
Posted on 19 July 2022
From scalpels to bedtime stories, a surgeon at Mediclinic Newcastle describes the challenges of managing her work/life balance.
Doctors are used to caring for their patients – but what about caring for themselves? As a woman in the highly competitive field of surgery, this is a challenge that general surgeon Dr Christien Steenkamp has grappled with since first picking up a scalpel – and one that has become even more complicated since starting a family.
There may never be a perfect solution for professional women trying to juggle work and family, but Dr Steenkamp says she’s learnt the hard way that changing your attitude to self-care can help: “Personal experience has shown me you can’t overlook your own wellness while seeing to that of your patients. It’s not only key to preventing burnout; it makes you a better doctor too.”
With two GP parents, medicine was a natural choice. Surgery had instant appeal because it allowed her to be more hands-on – even though she knew it would be demanding. “I focused on anaesthesia after my community service, but it didn’t take long to realise I was more interested in what was happening on the other side of the operating table,” Dr Steenkamp recalls. “I was unmarried at the time, so I didn’t think I was choosing a career over a family; nor did I want to hold myself back from something that may, or may not, happen in my future.”
It soon became clear that some of her fellow students felt differently, however. Dr Steenkamp says many of her male peers were open in their belief that women students were taking up the place of a man, who wouldn’t have to leave his patients to go on maternity leave. They also resented women who left their posts temporarily to look after their children. Dr Steenkamp says dealing with such attitudes required a “very thick skin”, although it did at times lead her to fall prey to “imposter syndrome”. But she considers this a positive: Feeling as though you always have a little more to learn means you remain open to acquiring new knowledge and retaining your humility, she explains.
Despite her practical approach and determination, Dr Steenkamp faced a serious adverse event in her third year of specialisation: she experienced a major emotional breakdown following the death of a young security guard who had died on her table after being stabbed. “I have enormous empathy for my patients and their families. I understood that the patient’s death wasn’t my fault, but his mother’s devastation floored me.”
Self-help comes first
Caught in the grip of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that followed, she consulted a psychologist, who told her an instructive tale about a man who was stuck in a hole: a passerby who saw him immediately jumped in the hole to help but ended up similarly stuck. When a third man came by, he was alarmed at the situation – but it was he who was finally able to get them assistance. The message? You must help yourself before you can help others.
Despite going on antidepressants, Dr Steenkamp never considered giving up, driven by her passion for surgery. “I realised that if I stopped, my classmates would have just two more years before they became surgeons – and I would have achieved nothing,” she says. Her challenge was to find balance in an environment where stress is an intrinsic factor. The answer, she concluded, was to monitor and look after her mental health. “Every six weeks, my husband reminds me to shut down, and we’ll take a long weekend. It used to feel strange, but I’ve realised my decisions are strongly linked to my emotional state.”
Motherhood has, inevitably, added an additional dimension to her professional challenges. She fell pregnant in 2019 and didn’t stop working until one month before giving birth. “I remember running to be sick just as I’d finished a ward round,” she recalls. Dr Steenkamp’s four months of maternity leave took place during lockdown; a period she describes as “wonderful”. But, like many mothers, she experienced enormous guilt when she returned to work, especially because she had to stop breastfeeding. Her hours meant she didn’t even have time to express milk.
She once again turned to a therapist, whose insights proved invaluable: “I was reminded that I don’t have to play with my daughter all the time and do a thousand crafts to be a good mother – just being there is enough.” Since then, she’s made every effort to spend quality time with two-year-old Klara; when they’re together, she switches off and goes into full “mom” mode.
Since moving to Mediclinic Newcastle to build up her private practice, Dr Steenkamp has been working longer hours. It’s difficult, she admits, but she’s also taking a long-term view: in time, she’ll be able to set up boundaries that make it possible to spend more hours with her family. “And that’s what it’s all about. We work so we can support our families – and yet we’ve somehow created a culture where work takes over everything. Ironically, research shows we’re more productive when we’ve had downtime – and so, although it’s easier said than done, we need to get our priorities straight. No priority is greater than family and when we’re with them, we need to let go of the guilt and be fully present.”
Dr Steenkamp has particular interests in bariatric surgery for obesity, as well as breast surgery, which can save women’s lives.