Physician moms talk work-life balance and accepting help, imperfection

physician moms, Kopal Seth, MD, pediatric emergency room, Phoenix Children's Hospital
Kopal Seth, MD, is a pediatric emergency-room physician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Photos by Tac Coluccio.

Long nights. Split-second decisions. Caring for our most vulnerable. These are just some of the pressures faced by physician moms. And the caretaking isn’t over when they go home—that’s when they focus on their kids.

How do these women do it? How do they balance the demands of work and family? Do their roles as physicians make them better mothers? Or vice versa? We asked two Valley specialists for their insights.

physician moms, Stephanie Castrillo, MD, Cardon Children's Medical Center, neonatology, NICU
Stephanie Castrillo, MD, works in the neonatology intensive-care unit at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa.

Neonatologist Stephanie Castrillo, MD, works in the neonatology intensive care unit (NICU) at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa and is a single mom to her son Drake, who turns 3 this month. Kopal Seth, MD is a pediatric emergency-room physician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the mother of two daughters, Anisa, 4, and Naya, who turns 5 this month.

Letting go of perfection

“Most doctors are ‘type A/OCD’ and want to be perfect at everything,” Castrillo says, but “you basically have two extremely important and demanding full-time jobs, and there are only 24 hours in a day.”

Spending time away from her son is tough, especially when “I’m trying to explain to him I have to leave him in order to take care of sick babies,” she says. But “every day is about decision-making and prioritizing” and “you first have to admit that you can’t be ‘perfect’ in either role. You have to be OK with imperfection and be able to let things that don’t really matter go.”

Seth agrees. “You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to be a good mom,” she says. “My kids are happier [when] I’m just there. It’s OK if I can’t do the perfect arts and crafts with them, make them the perfect Halloween costume, bake the best cookies from scratch or be the room mom. It is OK! There’s not one right way to do everything, and while I am type A, working helps me enforce this concept.”

Although she feels guilty about “not being there for everything” she knows it allows her daughters to learn to adapt—and teaches them that even when she can’t physically make it to swim class or gymnastics, she is “always there in spirit.”

Maintaining boundaries

Understanding what is non-negotiable in their lives helps these two physician moms maintain boundaries between their roles.

As much as Castrillo values her work, she makes sure her son knows that her career is not more important than he is. “I love my job and have worked very hard to be in my current position, but my son will always be the most important person in my life,” she says. “Raising him is my most important  (as well as my most challenging) job.”

Seth strives to leave her work at the hospital and not internalize things she sees in the emergency department. “Sometimes my work might cause me to ‘helicopter’ parent, because there are things beyond my control, or I worry about my children injuring themselves,” she says, adding she also has learned to respect the value of “me time.”

“I need to make sure I have my time to exercise or to go to the grocery store in peace or get my hair cut,” she says. “These small things make my parenting better. If I take care of myself, I can better take care of my family.”

Accepting help from others

Castrillo and Seth aren’t afraid to lean on others. Help comes in different forms, and each woman utilizes whatever resources she needs to keep things running smoothly.

As a single mom, Castrillo says, “Asking for assistance is a must! I honestly couldn’t do it without help. My nanny and my dad are my lifesavers. My nanny has been with us since my son was 2 months old and is like a member of our family. My dad happily watches my handsome [son] on my call nights and on the weekends I work.”

Co-workers provide another level of support, she says. “I have great colleagues, and we constantly rearrange our schedules with one another so that we can all attend important family events.”

Seth often works late-night hours and has to coordinate her schedule with her husband, who’s a cardiologist.

“While I have a wonderful husband who is involved when he can be and is hands-on, he works long hours as well,” she says. “Given my role in the emergency department, there are mornings or evenings or weekends that I am not present [at home], and he does a wonderful job of taking over those responsibilities within the constraints of his schedule.”

She and her husband also have an “amazing nanny who is essentially part of our family and takes over these responsibilities when we can’t—and treats our children as if they are hers.”

Better mom? Better doc?

Seth thinks being a physician helps her be a better mother—that having a work life makes her more patient and understanding at home. “It gives me an outlet,” she says. “Because I work, I’m more present at home, and because I’m a mother, I’m more present at work.”

She firmly believes that time she spends with her daughters is of higher quality because “I have ‘gotten away’ and used different parts of my brain.” And when she sees what occurs in the emergency room, “it forces me to focus on the bigger picture and count my blessings. It helps me become more thankful every day for the good health of everyone in my family.”

It’s also important to Seth to be a role model. “I want my kids to see that I can both work and be a mother, that I can stand on my own two feet and take care of myself—and them—if ever needed,” she says. “I want my kids to see me excel at my work and teach them they can do whatever it is they want.”

Seth is thankful she grew up with a working mom. “My mom is a great inspiration for me when it comes to achieving this balance,” she says. “She is a single mother—my dad passed away when I was 8—and worked full time as a dean at a university [while being] present for everything I needed.

“We would have had a much harder road when my dad passed away if she had not been working. Despite the emotional hurdles of a parent passing away when you are young, I still was able to be a kid and have a happy childhood. She helped me through college and medical school and paved the way for my successes in life.”

Castrillo is convinced that being a mother makes her a better neonatologist. Drake had to spend some time in the NICU when he was born, she says, “so I realize the emotions moms [and dads] have about being separated from their infant immediately after birth.”

She also agrees that it’s “motivating and inspiring for children to see their mothers succeed professionally.” She hopes her son “will grow up being proud of what his mommy has accomplished.”

Balancing work and family isn’t easy, Castrillo says. “At the end of the day, embrace the fact that you have accomplished a lot.”

Besides, she adds, “Balance is more of a myth than reality. It’s more of a seesaw that’s in constant motion.”