Every working mother knows how difficult it can be to juggle responsibilities and find work-life balance. Indiana University School of Medicine has many outstanding MD and PhD moms who achieve excellence in both career and family life. It isn’t always easy, but they manage with grace—and plenty of support. In honor of Mother’s Day, here are some lessons learned from moms in medicine.
“Family is not a competing interest.”
Those wise words from a trusted mentor was something Emily Walvoord, MD, associate dean for student affairs, needed to hear early in her career.
“It’s OK to be a woman in medicine and say, ‘I have to leave a meeting early to go pick up my kids,’” said Walvoord, a mother of two children (now in college) married to an emergency room physician who is very supportive but works long hours. “Family is important, and it’s OK to talk about that.”
When her children were younger, Walvoord, a pediatric endocrinologist, worked four days a week and declined 7 am meetings so she could get her kids off to school with a good breakfast.
“I tell women you have to try not to let yourself feel bad about that,” said Walvoord. “There is this culture of overwork. You have to be realistic about priorities.”
Lana Dbeibo, MD, is a newer mom who is starting to more fully realize the importance of work-life balance. She birthed two children during the pandemic—in May 2020 and January 2022—all while leading IU’s COVID-19 vaccination initiative.
Charting a plan to vaccinate the entire IU community—about 110,000 students and 21,000 faculty and staff members—was no easy task. Her husband, Nabil Adra, MD, sometimes had to remind her not to neglect her life outside of work.
The fact that Dbeibo had two children during the pandemic while serving as a key member of IU’s Medical Response Team amazes her colleagues, who see her as a strong leader always striving for excellence.
“My passion for infection prevention kept me going despite being tired as a new mom,” she said, adding, “I have a lot of support at home, so I am very fortunate.”
Get a daily planner
Tatiana Foroud, PhD, executive associate dean for research affairs and chair of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics, stays organized with what she calls her “really trusty book,” a planner with lined columns for each of her various roles and their respective to-do lists. She even schedules in time for volunteering at her child’s school and at church.
When her three children were younger, Foroud said all her colleagues knew what time she put them to bed because that’s when the emails would come.
“That doesn’t work for everybody, but it’s worked really well for me,” Foroud said. “I think I have good work-life balance.”
When she’s done with her day of back-to-back meetings, she always heads outside to enjoy the remaining daylight and go for an hour-long evening walk around the neighborhood. Then she’ll have dinner with her family and relate about what’s important in their lives. And later in the evening, it’s back to her computer where she uses statistical methods to discover the genes that are significant to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Maureen Harrington, PhD, also has been able to incorporate flexibility into her schedule to prioritize taking care of her child.
“I didn’t miss my daughter’s soccer games, didn’t miss parent-teacher conferences; I volunteered at her school,” said Harrington, associate dean for medical student education in foundational sciences and a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of anatomy, cell biology and physiology.
Throughout her career as a basic scientist, she has sometimes found herself the only woman in the room. Not one to be easily intimidated, Harrington saw it more as a curiosity than a problem, modeling confidence for her daughter.
Learn to say ‘no’
Similar to Harrington’s experience, Michelle Howenstine, MD, found herself the only woman at the table with a dozen or more men when she took on her first leadership position as chief of the pediatric pulmonary section at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. At first, the men could not comprehend the competing demands she felt as a married mother of two young children.
“First, you have to let them understand they do need you at the table. And no, I can’t be there at 6 at night, nor at 7 in the morning, because I have children and responsibilities,” Howenstine said. She stood her ground, and within six months, meetings were changed to noon.
Now senior associate dean for graduate medical education and continuing education at IU School of Medicine, and a proud grandmother, Howenstine has learned to “stay in the moment” rather than trying to multitask.
“Allotting time for family, friends and self is so important to deal with the stresses of medical practice and work,” she said.
Although a self-described workaholic, Liana Apostolova, MD, has learned some valuable lessons about work-life balance, too. With one child in college—studying neuroscience—and a 13-year-old at home, she has been mindful not to let her career ambitions override the importance of being present as a mom.
While she admired her own mother’s work as a scientist, Apostolova strived to be home more with her own children and made a conscious effort to do so.
“I protect time with my kids,” said Apostolova, a Distinguished Professor and the Baekgaard Professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research at IU School of Medicine. At the same time, she greatly enjoys the work she does as a physician-scientist leading the NIH-funded Longitudinal Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Study (LEADS).
Laurie Gutmann, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology, also purposed herself to find greater work-life balance than her biggest hero and mentor, her father, Ludwig Gutmann, MD, a former neurology chair and her eventual colleague in neurology for 27 years.
“I actually said I never wanted to be a neurologist because my dad worked so hard. He took journals with him on vacation, and evenings were filled with work,” Gutmann recalled.
As a mom, Gutmann wanted to be fully present with her son during family trips. The first time she visited Indianapolis wasn’t career related at all—it was to bring her son to the Star Wars Celebration at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis. With all of her career accomplishments, Gutmann is proud to say that she is still a “total Star Wars geek.”
Let family and work life mingle
Although Christine Huang, MD, has a toddler at home, that didn’t stop her from volunteering as a physician mentor to four first-year IU School of Medicine medical students. For their initial meeting, she invited them to her home for a meal of smoked ribs and chicken, prepared by her husband while her curious son excitedly greeted the students gathering at his home.
Medical student Nicole Frey found the invitation to a barbecue at her physician mentor’s home exciting. Not only did it give her a glimpse into Huang’s specialty of emergency medicine, but it also allowed the group of four mentees—all women—to see the everyday life of an early career physician.
“She had a lot of great career advice that I think is especially relevant to a group of female medical students,” Frey said. “It was admirable to see her balancing the work of being a mom with medical practice.”
Flora Hammond, MD, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, has similarly impressed her mentees over the years as a trailblazer in brain injury research who also prioritizes family time.
“She encouraged me to believe that I could manage a busy and successful career and also be a wonderful wife and mother,” said Andrea Toomer, MD, one of Hammond’s mentees who is now a nationally recognized physician educator in spasticity treatments with Culicchia Neurological Clinic. “She was clearly a role model to me, not just as a physician but as a whole person.”
Another of Hammond’s mentees, Sheryl Katta-Charles, MD, said Hammond has taught her to be an active listener and relationship builder, both at work and at home. Although Hammond wears many hats and has many responsibilities, “she is 100 percent with you in the moment,” Katta-Charles said.
These accomplished MD and PhD moms are inspiring their colleagues every day and demonstrating the importance of work-life balance as they adeptly navigate careers in medicine and motherhood.