By Nalini Velayudhan, DO; member, ACOFP Women’s Leadership Committee
As I entered motherhood in my first year of anesthesia residency—unbeknownst to me—I was also exiting medicine as I saw myself in it. It took me about nine months after my son was born to realize that balancing a residency in anesthesia and motherhood was not going to be a goal I would fulfill.
It was at this time as a young mother that I first read books by the beloved Zen Buddhist monk and master Thich Nhat Hanh. He distilled the Dharma teachings into very succinct and simple chants that could be applied to everyday tasks. For instance, the everyday chore of washing dishes could become a meditative act, as he writes, “Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes; we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them and to be truly in touch with life.” This perspective gave all the mundane tasks of early mothering—like feeding my newborn son every two hours, washing loads and loads of laundry, changing diapers, cleaning the house, preparing meals, cleaning the toilet, and doing the dishes—all of it a prayerful aspect, a true labor of love that continued beyond the birthing process.
When put into practice, his teachings made the million acts of motherhood sacred, elevated me when I needed to be uplifted and reminded me that mothering is as glamorous and meaningful an undertaking as being a physician. This reminder was especially crucial to me as I decided to step out of the anesthesia residency to care for my first-born “full-time.” That decision swiftly stripped me of my tightly held identity as a resident and a doctor.
As I exhaled and let go of the identity as a physician, I also breathed in the acceptance of being just a mother. So, at a time when all else was forsaken, what I gave myself to fully was mothering my son. It became all the more valuable to value myself as a mother—an identity that will be forever mine in this lifetime and one that no one can strip me of.
In the midst of mothering my son, I envisioned a specialty that would allow me to be the mother I hoped to be while also being the physician I dreamed of becoming. During the 15 months I was “just” a mom, I surveyed the possible residencies I could enter that would allow me to be both a mother and a physician. A kind friend recommended a family medicine residency at a local community hospital and I applied.
Nineteen years later, I am caring for both patients and my two beloved sons. Family medicine has allowed me to create a practice where I can give of myself in meaningful ways to my patients while also holding my sons as my top priority. Motherhood has served as a means of focusing me and clarifying for me my highest held values: love and service. In both caring for my patients and sons, I hope to embody these values.
It came to me as a surprise that I would give up a residency spot and choose motherhood. That heart-wrenching decision to choose between a career and motherhood wouldn’t have been required of me if more programs supported women as physicians and mothers. Not all specialties or programs are created equally to not only accommodate but also champion women who have dreams of being both mothers and physicians. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, but I am grateful for being able to use the disappointments to grow myself into the mother and physician I hoped to become.
One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s favorite mantras I often recite to myself is “No mud, no lotus.” The “mud” we each experience is different, but we all can choose to use the suffering, the challenges, the failures, the disappointments and the wounds to fertilize our growth, to nourish us, to strengthen us and to embolden us. To see as Thich Nhat Hanh said—deeply into the mud—and to envision the lotus already rising from the mud.
“Be Lotus, Rise,” I often tell myself.