It’s no secret parenthood changes you. In fact, many would say there’s not a more transformative life experience. So it makes sense that many women returning to work after maternity leave might question their career track. Moms with stressful jobs, demanding work hours and inflexible bosses may choose never to return to their original job or industry.
Many working women can probably relate to Sonja Hughes, who went back to school for a total career overhaul after more than two decades of building a successful career as an OB-GYN. The catalyst? Her daughter, Leah.
Leah’s now 12 years old and Hughes recalled the stress of juggling her family and career when she and her husband Willie first welcomed her into the family. At the height of her 20-plus year career as an OB-GYN, Hughes was delivering 30 babies a month. She and her husband had to take separate cars everywhere they went in case she needed to leave suddenly for a delivery. She was missing out on a lot of time with her daughter because of her demanding job.
“It got to a point where I’d wish my patients would deliver at night so it wouldn’t cut into my family time and I could be back before they woke up,” she said. “I knew I just couldn’t live like that forever.”
She recalled how her own mother didn’t work outside the home. Some of her best memories are tied up in having her mom around on afternoons and school holidays.
“I always wanted to be the non-traditional traditional mother,” Hughes said. “I wanted to work but I also wanted to be home when she (my daughter) got home from school. I wanted to be there for dinner every night. That wasn’t going to include obstetrics.”
So when her daughter was 2, Hughes went back to school to get a master’s in health care administration. Her desire to become a doctor started as a child when her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Her initial thought was that she was going to find a cure for cancer, she said, but by high school she’d decided oncology was too sad and that family medicine was a better fit. She did a surgery rotation in medical school that sealed the deal for her becoming an obstetrician. So when she began to consider a career change, she saw health care administration as a good way to continue to help people while also making her family a priority.
Many mothers understand sleepless nights and crazy schedules, but few have faced the challenges Hughes has had while working, going to school and being a mom. Every night for two years, she came home from work to cook dinner, tuck Leah into bed and inevitably fall asleep in her bed for a few hours before waking up to tackle some of her coursework before she had to face the next day and do it all over again. Although it was admittedly a struggle to finish school, she now works as the medical director of quality improvement for a national health care company.
“Now, I take her to school and pick her up,” Hughes said of how different her schedule is now. “At any given moment she can call me and I have more flexibility to be able to help. We don’t have to take two cars everywhere anymore, that’s for sure.”
Although her first career is becoming a distant memory, Hughes said it certainly served a significant purpose in her life. Among other things, it made motherhood easier in a lot of ways. Being a physician taught her to relax and think under pressure, never getting too excited or stressed. That’s a lesson that’s served her well as a mom. She recalled medical school and her residency and said the same discipline and hard work she relied on then she has had to rely on as a parent of a pre-teen daughter.
Still, she admits she felt torn over the years and explained the internal struggle in leaving behind a career she loved to try something less demanding on her family.
“I tried to change, I really did,” she said of trying to make her OB-GYN job work with a family. “I could have given some of the deliveries over to the on-call doctor and not felt the pressure to be there for everybody.”
But after becoming a mother herself, Hughes said it was impossible to put out of her mind what a big responsibility it was to play the role of walking a patient through her own journey into motherhood. She wanted to be there for her patients.
Becoming a mom changed everything about the way Hughes worked, even her perspective on working in general. Her advice for other moms torn between career and children?
“Look at the pros and cons of both situations and decide what will make you the most fulfilled,” she said. “Some women are totally fulfilled through career advancement. Some are fulfilled through being a wife and a mom. Don’t let someone else influence that. Just find what you enjoy and go after it.”
With years of experience as a physician, a mom and a wife, Sonja Hughes has racked up a lot of life experience. Here are four things we can learn from her:
Continue to do some of the things you enjoy, even when you’re busy. I complained to my husband the other day that Leah doesn’t like to read anymore. He asked me, “When’s the last time she saw you read?” He was right. I love to read and I used to read all the time and it’s important for your kids to see you do the things you enjoy.
On mothering later in life:
Women shouldn’t feel the pressure to become a mom before they’re ready. My last year in practice I delivered seven or eight babies to moms who were 40-plus and having their first child. Not all of them had infertility issues or weren’t married yet. Some just decided to parent later. Some women decide not to parent at all. It’s a major sacrifice. If you don’t whole-heartedly want to do it, you shouldn’t.
On raising a tween daughter:
Adolescence is a struggle between dependence and independence. It’s a constant struggle. Continue to insert yourself in your child’s life. Find common interests and conversations to have besides homework and logistics.
On finding time with your spouse:
My husband in an engineer and he’s also into real estate and has rental properties that are really a second job. We made a no computer rule from 6 to 9 p.m. every night. It doesn’t matter how busy we are, everything shuts down from 6 to 9 and that is our family time.