The Motherhood Advantage In Leadership

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt adapted from a forthcoming book to be published by the American Association of Women Emergency Physicians. The book will feature a collection of personal stories from and about women in emergency medicine, including Dr. Lawrence.

As a working mother and an Air Force hospital commander, I often relied on the fact that my kids had no concept of time. Like many young emergency physicians, I often worked shifts during the holidays, including on Christmas. So, rather than miss Christmas, I would move it. My two young kids, a daughter and a son, wouldn’t know any better after all. It’s not like they knew how to keep track of the calendar.

Eventually, when they got older, they caught on that I was moving holidays: Christmas and their birthdays in particular. But it was my early deployments in the Air Force that really put this theory to test. When they were age 2 and 3, I was asked to deploy a doctor to Operation Northern Watch in Turkey.

This operation was designed to enforce a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that was ongoing prior to the Iraq War.  I had previously asked some of my own staff in the ED to go on previous deployments so I started to think, as a leader, I should also have that experience and thereby leading by an example.  I had 24 hours to tell my commanding officer whom I chose to deploy.

I went home to speak to my husband about this opportunity. We had an au pair at the time, and my younger brother, who was in the Coast Guard and happened to be stationed locally then, could always help out. And, the kids were still little.

I went back to work the next day and told my commander that I would go. He was sort of shocked. He asked, “Do I need to make it a direct order for your husband to be OK with it?” I explained that I actually spoke with my husband and we had agreed. He said, “You have young kids at home, are you sure?”

This was a familiar refrain. Has anyone questioned men with young children at home if they were “really sure” about seizing leadership opportunities?

When I was eventually deployed to Turkey (this was before the age of Skype, Google Hangouts, and the like) I only had opportunities to call home twice a week. Inevitably, when I did call the kids would be watching a movie or in the middle of something and they wouldn’t want to stop to talk with me. I cried my eyes out!. My husband would try to help me alleviate my heartbreak and guilt, by reminding me that their lives were going on with the same routine and hadn’t changed like mine.

One hundred days later, I returned home. My husband and kids were waiting for me at the Baltimore airport with balloons and a ‘Welcome Home’ sign and all. When I saw them I got down on my knees to hug them and burst out crying. My daughter asked, “Mommy, mommy, why are you crying?” And I had to explain to her that these were tears of joy. But it was the next question that floored me. “Mommy, why?  Were you gone for a long time?”

It had been one hundred days! To me, it was the most difficult and longest stretch away from my kids that I had ever experienced. To them, it was a blip. My son had barely even noticed the absence. My kids are 19 and 20 now, but they do sometimes still joke about whether I plan to move Christmas again this year.

I’ve been a woman in male-dominated cultures (medicine, the military, leadership roles) for my entire life. The clichés are often true. For a long time, I felt like I worked twice as hard to get half as far.  There were particularly memorable moments of professional adversity—not being considered for a job because I was pregnant or being passed over for a position in favor of someone’s male friend.

In one vivid instance, shortly after I arrived at David Grant Medical Center to be Chief Medical Officer, during a morning huddle, I heard my commander actively recruiting players for his team for the base golf tournaments. He went around the room asking all the men, “Do you play golf? Do you play golf?” I never got asked. (And yes, I actually do play golf!)

Eventually, my commander’s golf team members had all left.  By that time, I had formed my own team, and he asked if He could join. I told him ‘sure’, but rather than drink beer, we drink wine, and rather than act competitive we just tried to have fun. After the first few holes he said: “You know what? You may be doing it right.”

It took time for me to realize I had adopted very ‘female’ ways of being in leadership. I always saw the ‘people side’ of a decision and negative outcomes for those who worked around me were emotionally difficult for me. I took them personally, and I spent an immense amount of time pulling others up and taking care of people.

Embracing my female style of leadership also helped me professionally, as I came to be known as someone who would always stick up for people. Later, as president of ACEP, I received recognition for my consensus-seeking approaches when navigating controversial issues, taking the time to listen and hear people out. In many case, I learned to apply the same skills I found fruitful in mothering served me well in leadership.

And when my kids got older, I found that, just as lessons of motherhood helped me as a leader, negotiating with my teenagers sharpened my skills in the boardroom. I am grateful I never slowed down professionally, whether it was in the Air Force or now in my leadership role at US Acute Care Solutions. I found having a rewarding professional career has brought me personal happiness and continues to make me a better mother.