Dr. Laurel Willig is a Pediatric Nephrologist (kidney doctor) at Children’s Mercy Hospital. She earned an M.D. from the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa and also holds an M.S. in Epidemiology from the University of Washington. Dr. Willig works with children of all ages, from fetal health consults to young adults. As part of her research, she studies the genetics behind early onset of polycystic kidney disease, and she is interested in parent and patient perceptions of non-targeted genetic testing.
Tell us about your family.
I’m married to my longtime partner, Isaac, and we have one son, Silas (2). I had him during the second year of my full-time job, after completing all of my training. My training definitely affected my decisions about when to start a family – there is no perfect time, but I wanted to wait to start a family until after I finished training. I’m going to be on the older side of the parenting group as a result of that, but I think it was still the best decision for us.
How do you balance a demanding career, family life, and time for yourself?
Work-life balance is like the holy grail: everyone is trying to attain it, but none of us ever truly do, at least not on a day-to-day basis.
I think an analogy I could use is like me trying to direct a preschool choir – it’s always on the verge of complete chaos. At one point, you’re trying to focus on the main star of the show who is belting out the words, and then you notice work, that kid twirling her dress and about to fall off the stage, so you have to re-direct and change your focus. Then, you notice that your kid and time for yourself are fighting in the background, so you have to change focus back to them. There are times when you think, “I wish I was the person in the audience and not playing this game!” But then you would miss out on the moments of sheer joy, enthusiasm and accomplishment that come with being the director. We will really only be able to gauge how successful we have been at life balance at the end of the performance, not from song to song.
How can parents embrace that joy and enthusiasm you describe, even when things aren’t going as planned?
You have to adopt the motto, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” If I show up to work with snot on my shoulder, it’s not the end of the world. You have to embrace that you aren’t always going to be perfect.
I also think you have to find joy in the little things. I’m probably not going to win the Nobel Prize, but I’m okay with that if I can go home and think about one thing I succeeded at during the day. The little things are often more important than the big things, and we should reward ourselves for the small things.
How has working with children and families influenced your own parenting?
There are some obvious benefits to working with families, like learning what shows families are watching or knowing what they are signing their kids up for. It also helps me relate to my own kid when I see how others relate to their kids. I appreciate the calm manner in which families can achieve control at a doctor’s visit, which I’m always amazed at. And because I see a lot of sick kids and families, it helps me appreciate having a healthy little boy.
How does being a mother help you in your job in working with families?
I’m the kind of doctor that approaches my work as a team member, or maybe the coach of the team – I’ve always been one to seek input and advice from families. But I think as a mom I do a better job of asking the question, “How is this plan we’re talking about going to affect you and your family? How is it going to fit into your cultural beliefs and everyday life?” I’m the medical expert, but families are the experts on their day-to-day life – and both perspectives have to be considered.
I can also share anecdotes of my own parenting fails. It definitely gives me some street cred that I didn’t have before!
Any of those anecdotes you could share with us?
When we had just had our baby, we brought him to the doctor for a lab test. But we came into the lab and realized we didn’t bring a diaper bag! Our kid had a blowout and we had nothing to put him in. This is someone who has been a pediatrician, taking care of kids for years, and I didn’t even bring a diaper bag!
So that’s the way I approach things – I try to make people realize that no one’s an expert. We all make mistakes.
What is your advice for moms, especially those in the trenches of parenting young children?
Our worst enemy is ourselves when it comes to thinking about how we’re doing at any one aspect of our job; we’re our own harshest critics. So I think we need to embrace our failures, learn from them and be less harsh. Being a physician helps me realize that things could always be a lot worse. I try to think, “Oh good, he ate broccoli tonight!” instead of thinking, “Well, we had chicken nuggets yesterday because I didn’t have time to make something.” Instead of sweating the little things, I try to celebrate the little things.
Work-life balance is good to have as a long-term goal, but it’s not a day-to-day battle. Maybe in the long term we can achieve balance, but every day is going to be different. Sometimes work is going to win and sometimes family is going to win, and that’s okay. But if we can look back over ten years and find balance, that’s more important than just what happened yesterday. It’s much more rewarding to look at the long-term.
Do you have any mom hacks that make your life easier?
We are big crock-pot users – that is probably our lifesaver! And Amazon Prime is worth every penny we spend.