Before Burnout: The Price Women Pay To Have It All

In my desire to take care of everyone else first, I become last on my list—but I didn’t realize how it would impact my health. The harsh reality we must face is we cannot have it all. And that is just fine.

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Forty-two percent of women said they felt burned out at work often or almost always, and one in three women have considered leaving the workforce or moving to less demanding careers. (Michael Clesle / Flickr)

I am a wife, mother, caregiver and an ICU physician. I have spent years chasing an illusion while jeopardizing my own health and well-being. The illusion I chased was my own pot of gold, the idea that I could do everything and have it all. It took my own health scare to remind me—I am only human.

Last year, I had to sit as a patient while my doctor informed me my blood counts were dangerously low. A deep-seated belief that I am strong and invincible had convinced me this was a testing error. After all, I was a physician—I would know if I was sick.

Repeat testing confirmed that for at least two years I had been living with severe anemia. While I was playing superwoman to my elderly mom, children, husband and patients, my iron levels had been so low the laboratory couldn’t even detect a level. How could I, a highly-trained physician, not recognize the symptoms I taught trainees everyday?

In retrospect, all the symptoms had been there plain as day, but I kept making excuses. Like most superwomen, I was determined to push through. Being tired was a weakness I could not afford to admit to. Caffeine was never enough. The shortness of breath was the missed exercise last week. I lived with the dogma: Women before me have done this, women after me will do this, so can I. 

And I did. What I failed to realize is that I was chasing an illusion. According to the most recent Women in the Workplace study, 42 percent of women said they felt burned out at work often or almost always, and one in three women have considered leaving the workforce or moving to less demanding careers.

Women are doing it, but at what cost?

I lived with the dogma: Women before me have done this, women after me will do this, so can I. And I did. What I failed to realize is that I was chasing an illusion.

Women have been fighting the battle for emancipation for so long, having come such a long way from where we stood a century ago: freedom to educate, freedom to work, freedom to vote. Women are entering professions and taking positions historically reserved for men alone.

But while roles may change, refocusing perception lags behind. In the quest to change the stereotypic perception of women being ‘weak’ and ‘less capable,’ we overcompensate. Despite the ‘freedom’ we may have achieved in an outwardly sense, we remain shackled in our minds.

Working outside the home as a physician was supposed to make me feel powerful and liberated. I was not prepared for guilt.

The perception ingrained in many of us is that working outside the house means we are shirking our primary responsibility. This translates into guilt which is then amplified by hearing and internalizing the views of people around us. Is your house clean? Children fed? Clothes washed? Husband happy? Career thriving? Do you have it all? Do you have the pot of gold?

Ironically, the hardest blows are often dealt by those closest to you, the women in our lives, no matter how well meaning they may be. “Hurry home, the children must be missing you.” “What will Kamran eat when you work overnight?” “You have such good kids, my kids could never handle it if I worked your hours.” Women tend to be the harshest critics of other women and in turn we are hard on ourselves.

In the quest of having it all, who is paying the actual price? 

In spite of having supportive families, we grapple with allowing others to share the burden. As a South Asian immigrant American woman with a conservative upbringing, excellent education and a concurrent strong push to have a successful career, I have wrestled with this confusing paradox. In an ideal world, I would be able to promptly reply, “My children are stronger for seeing a strong, positive role model,” and “Kamran is excited to experiment in the kitchen without me meddling!” But I struggle in the execution of this ideal narrative.

The bigger question I ask myself: In the quest of having it all, who is paying the actual price? 

If you stretch a metal too thin, it either loses its strength or snaps. In my desire to take care of everyone else first, I become last on my list. I was willing to be last, but I didn’t realize how it would impact my health.

The harsh reality we must face is we cannot have it all. And that is just fine.

We need to teach future generations not to chase the illusion. As a role model for my girls, I need to show them a mother who can take turns to prioritize her own well-being and balance the needs of family, work and herself. Life will require priorities to rotate and there will always be times when each item on that list will come in last. The key is acceptance, forgiveness and doing the best you can with a clear conscience. The alternative is the pyramid will likely crumble from strained relationships or suffering health.

The news I received on that December day, learning of my low blood count, was a pivotal moment for me. I see many other women walking a similar path of inevitable self-destruction in their quest for having it all. They are looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My advice for fellow women: You are the pot of gold.

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About

Dr. Sara Mirza is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Rush University Medical Center. She is also a wife, mother and caregiver. This year she is serving as a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.