Parenthood vs Professional Opportunities: Let Your Priorities Be Your Guide
For a cardiologist, it’s an honor to be invited to ACC 2024. For a parent with spring break plans, it can spur soul-searching.
Last week, I received an invitation from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) to speak at their annual Scientific Session, taking place April 6-8, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. My first reaction was delight, because I love attending ACC and I love giving talks. My second reaction was even more delight: the talk topics were perfect for me, one focused on fellow education and the other a debate—and I love a good debate.
My third reaction, however, was dread. Those days fall at the tail end of my kids’ spring break, we had a Palm Springs, California, rental booked through April 7, Atlanta was a 5-hour plane ride from our home in Los Angeles, and my two invited talks were scheduled on the first and last days of the meeting. This would be no quick in-and-out jaunt where the kids would barely miss me. This would entail missing at least three wakeups and two bedtimes. This, I know, is how parents of kids of a certain age measure time away from home.
At first, I rallied. I cross-checked talk times against flight times: how few hours could I allow between landing at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the start of the first scheduled talk? I grew excited, imagining the opportunities for community and connection. Then, reality encroached. I envisioned the harried exit from the vacation rental followed by a mad dash to the airport to board the red-eye to arrive on time at the first talk. Worse still, I would miss my kids’ favorite spring break pastime: the tradition of keeping the last few days at the end as “dawdle days,” with no schedules, tasks, or to-do lists, everyone in pajamas and the kids watching as much television as they wanted. Was this ACC meeting worth the harried logistics and missed family traditions?
When presented with a quandary, clinical or otherwise, I often check the pulse of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. I posted a poll:
You are invited to give talks during the large annual meeting of your specialty society, but the invitations conflict with part of your kids' spring break.— Michelle Kittleson MD PhD (@MKIttlesonMD) September 20, 2023
Do you accept, because talks are fun and networking is important, or decline, because family time takes precedence?
In 24 hours, there were 1,463 responses, indicating that I wasn’t the only one suffering PVCs from this dilemma. At the time of publication, my poll had been viewed more than 66,000 times. Of the respondents, 53% said they’d decline the invitation, 11.8% would accept, 18.7% said “it depends,” and the remainder just wanted to know the results. Many of the 41 comments offered suggestions, including asking for a change in talk times (highly unlikely with a large meeting like ACC), investigating the possibility of remote or prerecorded talks (alas, no longer an option postpandemic), or bringing the kids along. This last, given the spring break plans we already had booked, would be a logistic challenge.
For physician-parents, the juggling act of professional and personal responsibilities is ever present and can be all-consuming. But has it always been that way? I grew up in a two-physician household. My parents and I enjoyed vacations and holidays, but as a young child, my grandparents filled the gap in my parents’ inflexible work schedules. I grew into the typical Gen X latchkey kid: learning independence at a young age, accommodating my needs to the adult world and not the other way around. As an adult, I’m far from a helicopter parent, but I want my kids to know that while my work is important to me, it is not a blanket excuse that always trumps family commitments.
Towards the end of my book, Mastering the Art of Patient Care, I broach the challenges of navigating parenthood and career. Through my own mistakes and the wisdom of my mentors, I’ve concluded that it’s essential to focus on one guiding principle when the personal conflicts with the professional: your priorities are right because they’re yours.
My dual priorities have always been taking care of my family and providing the best care to my patients. So how would attending ACC.24 fit with those? After almost a week in Palm Springs, putting the kids on a plane to Atlanta for 3 days was a recipe for disaster that even a visit to the World of Coca-Cola museum wouldn’t salvage. As for patient care, meetings are one way to learn, but there are many others, especially in the wonderful era of web-based educational initiatives.
That leaves my academic reputation. By not attending ACC, I would be missing an opportunity to create connections that might further my career. Next April, when I scrolled through the #ACC24 social media feed, I would have powerful FOMO, observing my colleagues and friends forging community and connection without me. And there is always that lingering fear that if I say no now, might I be forfeiting future opportunities to say yes?
For me, my fear of missing out on this speaking gig is no match for my fear of missing out on this fleeting season of parenting, when my kids are old enough to be interesting to me yet young enough to still be interested in me. There will always be colleagues who are more successful than I am, whether measured by podium time, publications, citations, grants, honors, awards, or social media presence. But my guiding priorities—do my best by my family, and by my patients—will not suffer for missing a meeting.
I sided with the polling majority and declined my invitations to speak at ACC.24 and am grateful for the career flexibility that allows me to make the choice that is right for my family at this time. That said, if a colleague approached with a similar dilemma, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest they decline, too. Rather, I would advise them to order their priorities and consider the worst-case scenario for each decision. For them, for their family, for their career—what’s best?
I am disappointed to miss ACC.24. I would have been sadder, though, wandering the halls of the Georgia World Congress Center, while my 6-, 8-, and 11-year-old boys lounged in their jammies, munching on popcorn, and I wasn’t there to laugh with them as we watched Back to the Future for the 37th time. I am grateful I could align my decision with my priorities, and I encourage others to do the same. After all, your priorities are right—because they’re yours.
Off Script is a first-person blog written by leading voices in the field of cardiology. It does not reflect the editorial position of TCTMD.