Dr. Mom: How do female doctors balance family during holidays?

It's buying next year's Christmas cards in the post-holiday sale. It's having a dedicated hiding place for presents to fill with bargains throughout the year. It's ordering the holiday food online at 2 a.m. when the house is quiet. On top of that, it's juggling a busy shift schedule. Being a mom means having exceptional project management skills. Being a doctor and a mom during the holidays, however, means being extraordinary.

The lead-up to Christmas can be a stressful time for anyone. Physicians are used to working busy shift patterns all year, but getting the holiday cheer on while working shifts and being on-call during the holidays can add extra pressure.

The yuletide season, however, can also have a very positive effect on people.

Last year, scientists from Denmark reported in the The BMJ that they had located the "Christmas spirit network" in the brain by using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The authors found that looking at Christmas-themed images caused significant activation of areas of the brain associated with spirituality and the sharing of emotions with others, in individuals who celebrate Christmas.

This year, scientists reported in The Journal of the Danish Medical Association that laughter and good moods were increased at regular doctor's morning meetings in the lead-up to Christmas. They also found that little gifts left by Santa's elves had an additional beneficial effect.

The holiday period: Challenging and rewarding

To help get into the festive spirit, Medical News Today have spoken with two female physicians about the challenges and rewards of working during the holidays.

Suzanne Falck is an attending physician at a teaching hospital in Chicago, IL. Dr. Falck has a 13-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter, and a 4-year-old son. Her specialty is Internal Medicine.

"Generally, I do 14 days straight overseeing residents in the hospital, I work about 20 weeks a year, I also do work in a clinic and am considered two-thirds time."

Dr. Suzanne Falck

Katia Sindali is a specialty registrar at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead in the United Kingdom. Ms. Sindali has a 2-year-old son and is expecting her second child in April. Her specialty is Plastic Surgery, and she works full-time.

Do you find it more challenging to work over the Christmas period?

Suzanne Falck: Absolutely. I work multiple holidays during the year but try not to work Christmas because it is a special time for my family. I am fortunate to work with people of different backgrounds, many of whom don't celebrate Christmas, so they are willing to work that holiday, particularly in order to get other important times off during the year. We make requests for the entire year in the spring so have to guess when we want off and prioritize what's important. This year, we were planning on celebrating my mother's birthday around New Year's, but plans changed and having already asked for that time off, I then had to work Christmas.

Katia Sindali: Definitely. Christmas is a time when the family gets together and I feel a little sad to leave them behind to go to work.

How do you manage the logistics of Christmas when you are not there?

Suzanne Falck: I have tried to get in the spirit of the holiday by doing holiday events starting early in December. We went to a special Swedish dinner to celebrate St. Lucia day.

Managing the logistics of Christmas day can be tricky when on-call or working a shift.

I am hosting a holiday tea for my daughter, and I have been reading Christmas stories to my 4-year-old to see if I can remember what the holiday season is about as well as remind him.

I also make cookies for my children's teachers, friends, family, and work that helps make the house smell wonderful and helps spread some cheer.

As for the actual logistics of the day, I am lucky to be an attending physician with residents. So, I will only have to go into work for a few hours, most likely on Christmas day, and we will be able to maneuver things like gift-giving and meals around that time without too much difficulty.

But the broader issue, particularly for my older two children, is that we usually travel to extended family - which is one of the highlights of their year - and this year, we will be staying home, perhaps making new traditions.

Katia Sindali: This year, I'm lucky to have Christmas off, but my husband [a doctor in Cardiology] is working both days over the Christmas weekend. We try to make it work by preparing as much in advance and opening presents either the night before or when we're both back home. At the moment it works, because our son is only 2, but it will be much more challenging when he and his sibling are older! Same with the main Christmas meal, we will either have it before or after.

What do you enjoy most about being at work during the holidays?

Suzanne Falck: It tends to be a quiet time of year with only the sickest patients in the hospital, typically those who need the care the most - a reminder of why we go into medicine.

Katia Sindali: Everyone at the hospital is in the Christmas spirit, and we try to make it special for our patients, too.

Do you have a message you would like to share with your colleagues?

Suzanne Falck: I think this is a time that has so many expectations of how things should be and always have been. When a given year has to be different, it can be incredibly disappointing and sometimes depressing, particularly when it is so dark and cold outside. I am sometimes successful in getting myself into the spirit - though not always - and try to remember that there is no one perfect way for it to happen.

Katia Sindali: First of all, if you are due to work over the Christmas period and you have a young family, try to swap with a colleague. Some doctors don't celebrate Christmas and don't mind working over that period. If you still have to work part or all of Christmas, try and prepare as much in advance as possible for the festivities. If your children are old enough, explain that you have to work and arrange for relatives to look after your children. Make sure you make it a special event either before or after with the whole family.

Balancing act: Family, holidays, and patient life

For many people, Christmas is about being in the moment, enjoying the festive season, and switching off from work to spend time with the family.

It is clear that being organized and planning ahead are key ingredients in the recipe for a successful, stress-free Christmas with the family. As we have heard from our two physicians, spending time with patients over the holidays is also rewarding in its own special way.

Balancing family and work life over the holidays can be challenging, but it is achievable.

The balancing act of work and family is part of everyday life for doctors who have children, especially if they work on-call or shifts. But during the holidays, everything is just that little bit more special.

If you're finding the juggle between work and family life challenging over the festive season, the American Psychological Association provide some tips that might help to ease the strain:

  • Utilize social connections: accept help and support from friends and family over the holidays, whether it be the offer of childcare or help picking up gifts. This can really help alleviate stress
  • Set realistic expectations: pinpoint the most important holiday tasks, prioritize them, and take small steps to achieve them; less important tasks can wait. Being realistic about what you can achieve is important
  • Keep healthy: ensuring that you eat right, exercise, and sleep well means that you will be better prepared - physically and mentally - should a stressful situation arise. Don't let your own health take a back seat over the holidays
  • Talk to your loved ones about holiday plans and traditions: being a working mom over the holidays can make it hard to follow conventional traditions, but why not set new ones? Communicating with family and friends about your plans can help to ensure that you have the best possible Christmas.

Thank you to Suzanne Falck and Katia Sindali for sharing their experiences.

Happy Holidays from Medical News Today!