A heart-healthy survival guide for the working mom

5:00 a.m.: Alarm clock goes off.

5:09 a.m.: Alarm clock goes off again and I drag myself out of bed.

5:30 a.m.: Make coffee (aka: sweet nectar of survival).

5:32 a.m.: Put fish sticks/chicken nuggets in the oven and prepare the rest of my son’s lunch for daycare.

5:45 a.m.: Cajole my 2-year-old son out of his crib by any means necessary, including watching reruns of “Sesame Street” before the sun has even come up.

6 – 6:30 a.m.: Mad dash of diaper changes, dressing, breakfast, tooth-brushing and packaging into winter ensembles before my husband and I get on the road to head to work.

7:00 a.m.: Drop off at daycare and hope that it’s drama-free (50/50 chance).

7:15 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.: Assortment of medical care — office patients, cardiac catheterizations, rounding on patients admitted to the hospital, reading electrocardiograms and hoping that an emergency doesn’t roll in at 4:45 p.m.

5:15 p.m.: Pick up son from daycare, usually covered in whatever marker, watercolor or Play-Doh that was experimented with that day.

5:30 – 6:15 p.m.: Battle traffic on I-95 and Route 202.

6:30 – 7:30 p.m.: Son’s dinner, playtime and bath, then cajoling him away from the “Sesame Street” I convinced him he wanted to see earlier in the day.

7:45 – 8:15 p.m.: Stories, songs, night-night.

8:30 p.m.: Mommy and Daddy dinnertime.

9:30 p.m.: Fall asleep on the couch watching HGTV.

5:00 a.m.: Repeat.

This is my typical day, and I’m sure it is not unique.

I love my life. I have a great partner in my husband, who tags in for so much of the day-to-day work and is a wonderful father to our son. Our son, Tucker, can’t help but make us laugh, and it is a real joy watching him grow up. I love my job as an interventional cardiologist, too. As challenging as it is, I feel like I make a difference in people’s lives.

What I never really understood before we had our son, though, was how stressful being a full-time working mom would be. I know, I know. I heard it from so many women who had done it before me, but it really is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Part of it was that my husband and I chose to do daycare with its rigid hours (a dollar a minute for every minute you’re late for pick up) and part of it is that my husband’s hours are no better than mine, but I can feel my blood pressure rise with every cath lab delay or last-minute consult.

I refuse to compromise on patient care, but I also refuse to let my kid be the last one at daycare every day, especially when he’s often the first. I look longingly at my colleagues who don’t yet have kids and are off to the gym for the third time this week. I used to be that person. I used to exercise! Often! I even swam most days of the week while I was pregnant! Now, not so much. And it’s not because I’m lazy — it’s because I’m EXHAUSTED.

I’m a cardiologist, for Pete’s sake! I know that stress, whether work-related or not, can have adverse affects on health. Stress raises blood pressure and blood sugars. It increases the potential for heart-related dysfunction and arrhythmias.

One clear way of reducing stress is by exercise. I tell my patients all the time that they need to exercise more. Exercise has so many positive health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing bad and raising good cholesterol, burning calories to help lose weight, improving sleep, and reducing future risk of heart attack and stroke. Fact is that I could fit in exercise at 4 a.m. or 10 p.m., but that’s likely not going to happen while I have a toddler at home. And this is the plight of so many working moms today.

The presence of women in the professional arena continues to grow year by year. Even in cardiology, which was predominantly a male-dominated field not that long ago, women are equalizing the playing field. My graduating fellowship class was 60 percent female! This is obviously a wonderful trend, but with it comes unique demands. I was not willing to compromise on having a family, and many, if not most women in the workplace would agree. So the relatively little but precious time we have away from work is usually consumed by the demands of family. I often think of it has having two full time jobs, each equally gratifying but equally demanding. This leaves little time to do what we should to take the best care of ourselves in the traditional ways.

But, there’s hope. Here are a few things that I’ve tried to do as a middle ground:

  • I take the stairs. Everywhere. Even if it’s six flights and I dread every step of it, I take the stairs.
  • I try to make healthy food choices as much as possible to make up for the calories I’m not burning — i.e., cafeteria sushi for lunch instead of pizza.
  • When I play with my son, we do active things as much as possible. We take walks, play tag and run around kicking the soccer ball. I may feel (and look) like a fool when I’m doing it, but dancing around playing the tambourine while Tucker whacks at his miniaturized drum set can really get the heart rate up!
  • I speed-walk everywhere I go. Added benefit: People who see me think I’m running to an emergency, so they tend to get out of the way.
  • I read for pleasure before going to bed. I hate to admit that it’s usually the latest vampire-falls-for-human novel and not the latest biography on Ulysses S. Grant, and it usually takes about three minutes for it to put me to sleep, but it’s three minutes of complete disconnection. It’s my meditation, which itself has amazing health benefits. It doesn’t need to be reading, but a few moments of quiet, mind-isolating activity can have profound beneficial effects.

It’s not perfect, but when I track my steps on my FitBit, it makes a huge difference. I also remind myself that this is temporary. My son requires undivided attention now because I’m afraid he’ll pull the coffee pot down on his head or careen off the back of the couch, which he has a tendency to jump on. But in a very short time, he will be more self-sufficient, and this will liberate some time for me to get on a treadmill. Exercise has always been a big part of my life, and it will be again. It is the most effective stress reliever in my personal armamentarium, but almost more importantly, I want to set an example for my son. What better way is there of motivating our kids to get out and run than by doing it ourselves?

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