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Ann Marie Sullivan, MD

Women in Psychiatry


Sullivan, A.  The Challenges of Leadership: A Women’s Perspective. In D. Norris et. al. (Ed.) Women in Psychiatry: Personal Perspectives. American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington DC, 2012.


How do you balance career and family?   For women, the question often revolves around having and raising children.  Can I do both?  Can I have the perfect balance?  Can I be both the excellent mother and the successful career woman? 

My personal answer has been: yes, I can do both. But no, I can’t do it perfectly. Hopefully I can do it good enough.  And I definitely can’t do it alone.  While that may sound simple, it was something I had to learn in order to help myself feel less guilty about my shortcomings as a Mom and my limitations in pursuing my career. Balance isn’t perfection, but a series of choices. 

When I walked into NYU medical school I was one of ten women in a class of 110.  It was 1970 and the “women’s movement” was in full swing.  10% women in a non woman’s medical college was considered revolutionary.  Yes, there were still all women’s medical schools!    

When I think of why I choose to go to medical school, at a time when most of the kids on my block in Queens NY never went to college and married and had children at a young age, I would say it was my parents.  In my high school, which was an all girls college prep school, most of us did go to college for nursing, or teaching but rarely went to law school or medical school.  So why me?  Again I think my parents.  I was one of two girls, my sister 3 years older, in an Irish-German neighborhood in Queens NY.  Both of my parents were from Queens, my Dad never finished High school because he had to work at 15 to take care of his mother.  My Mom graduated high school and wanted to go to college, but again had to work to take care of herself.  My Dad taught me to think well of myself, always do the best I could, that education was a most valuable gift and I should pursue my dreams.  My Mom taught me strength, and caring about others, a love of reading, and had faith in me.  I never recall either of them thinking less of me or that I could be or do less because I was a woman.  It just wasn’t an issue.

When I got to medical school, my experience with professors and peers was more one of curiosity more than discrimination.   Many professors were surprised at women in medicine, but generally accepting, at least in the cognitive specialties of pediatrics, medicine and psychiatry.   Surgery was a different matter, and there women had to prove themselves more directly, and my classmates that chose surgery had to be exceptional and tough.  In essence, they had to be “man enough” to get through.

I met my husband in medical school and we married in the second year.  Through school and into my residency we focused on learning and career.  I knew fellow women students who had children during those years, but I knew I couldn’t handle both and we decided to wait until I was finishing my training.  Now, many women choose to have children while in training and that choice is becoming easier.

My first daughter was born at the end of my residency and my husband who was in a research program at that time took time off to care for her.  For me that sharing of the responsibilities over the years has been critical.  I had lots of help from spouse and family.  I worked close to home when my children were young to be able to get home fast in an emergency and to spend time at their school events, be available for homework and class projects.   I had a fulltime child caretaker when I worked full time., plus the help of my Mom and Dad.   It was hectic, I was often tired, and  I tried to keep work 9 to 5.

I stopped cooking, didn’t spend much time decorating our house, and spent precious weekends with the kids.  I read books on how to be a working Mom and got tips like- don’t make the beds its OK;  its OK if meals aren’t always on time etc. Its Ok if bedtime isn’t always on time.  It helped.

I learned early that I had to make choices.  I wasn’t a good housekeeping mom and I couldn’t work 80 hours a week.  I know that my parents dedication to family taught me how to value family in my choices, and how their respect for education and doing what you loved got me through years of hard work to become a physician.  I know that my husband got me through many a difficult day.  As my daughters grew up and became more independent I was able to devote more time to work.  My husband made choices about career that supported our family too.  We both missed opportunities, but felt us as a family came first.  Again lots of choices.

There is no blueprint you can follow.  I would recommend considering a few tips I have learned over the years:
  • Know you have limits and get lots of help
  • Even though you are a psychiatrist you don’t have all the answers.  It’s OK to ask for advice.
  • You don’t have to be a Good Housekeeping Mom.  Be good enough.
  • You can make temporary adjustments in your career while your children are young.  It may cause some loss of time and advantage, but again that’s a choice to consider.  For example, bargain for family consideration at your job, you are quite valuable to your employer.
  • Be flexible about your time and activities and your expectations.  Much of life is unexpected and can’t be planned for.
  • Lean on family and friends for support. 
  • Mistakes are OK.  That’s why we have erasers on pencils.
  • Enjoy!
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