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Balancing practice ownership, motherhood

With women now a majority among veterinarians, stakes are high for entire profession


May 7, 2010
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service



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Frustrated by a series of jobs in clinics that seemed to be poorly managed or doing mediocre medicine, the young veterinarian was only six years into her career when she began to wonder, “Is this as good as it gets?”

So, although she had not aspired as a student to own a practice, the veterinarian and mother of a toddler began to wonder about the possibilities. She answered an ad looking for someone to buy into a clinic, taking complete ownership in three years. That sounded perfect because by then, her 1-year-old daughter would be about school age.

But the man who posted the ad, a practice management consultant, flatly said she was unfit for the job. “He said ... that females were not good practice owners because either they become the bitch or the staff walks all over them,” said the veterinarian, who asked not to be identified.

She didn’t buy that, but male veterinarians with whom she discussed ownership were equally discouraging. Their take was: “You’re a mom and you’re not going to be able to handle the extra hours involved with being a practice owner.”

Dejected but not defeated, the veterinarian decided to ask the larger veterinary community. She composed a query for an online discussion of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and asked a friend, Dr. Angie (Moore) Paben, to post it so that her unsympathetic boss wouldn’t find out. The title of the discussion is poignantly direct: “Can a mother be a practice owner?”

The quandary of how to manage professional and personal lives is not unique to veterinary medicine by any stretch. Nor is it a new issue. Generations of women have struggled to juggle careers and family. Men do as well. But shifting demographics make the question of work-home balance for women particularly relevant and resonant in veterinary medicine.

Last year, the number of female veterinarians exceeded the number of male veterinarians in the United States for the first time. The switch is a potential game-changer for the profession.

Although not all female practitioners opt to become mothers, a large portion do or will. So to the extent that the profession is becoming predominantly women, the needs of mothers to successfully manage competing obligations in their lives are needs for the profession as a whole.

Ongoing struggles with the question are evident on VIN, where the subject has recurred on the online community's discussion boards for years. The conversations show up under different headings — “Unrealistic expectations?”; “Baby formula”; “What do I do?”; “Working fewer hours!” — but the themes are the same.

To the question posted by the veterinarian who’d been told that women, especially mothers, aren’t suited for practice ownership, female and male colleagues alike had a similar response: Nonsense!

One of most unequivocally supportive replies came from Dr. Greg Nutt of Canton, Ga.

“Of course you can be a mother and a practice owner,” wrote Nutt, who is a father of two and co-owns a practice with his wife, who also is a veterinarian. “Do not let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. It is up to you. There are trade-offs, of course, but anyone that says it can’t be done really isn’t giving useful information.”

At the same time, no one said it was easy. Posts to that discussion and others, and interviews with practice owners, show female veterinarians in a variety of situations successfully balancing their time and attention as parents and business owners, though often making sacrifices along the way.

***

Dr. Kara Amstutz of Springfield, Mo., has owned her solo practice for eight years. She has three children, ages 12, 9 and 5. “My husband, also my office manager, is wonderful and he is also known as ‘Soccer Mom’ by his buddies,” Amstutz wrote on a VIN discussion board in September. “He gets to do many of the things with the kids because he is home more while I am here at work.”

Yet Amstutz was still stressed. Even working normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, she felt she wasn’t giving enough time to family. Would it be reasonable, she wanted to know, to shorten her work schedule to four days a week?

“Of course, I worry about not being there for a true emergency for my patients,” she wrote. “But those are few and far between. Whereas, missing out on my kids’ lives is happening every day...”

Colleagues were encouraging. “Your children will grow up with or without your being there, but they will only grow up once, and if you miss it, you can never get it back,” said Dr. Rick Smalley, a practitioner in British Columbia, Canada, and father of a grown daughter. “Your practice will be there as long as you want it to be. Your children won’t.”

Amstutz took the words to heart. Seven months later, she said in an interview that she hired a relief doctor to fill in for her one day a week. “It’s been great,” she said. “I’ve been able to go on school field trips and participate with all kinds of school activities. I’ve got one (child) who’s not in school yet, so he and I can have mommy-son days. It’s reduced my stress level hugely.”

Her week amounts to this: Two days on, one day off, two days on, two days off. “I have a pretty cush schedule,” she admitted. “We’ve never been open on weekends. That’s one biggie I would tell people, especially moms: If you can get by with being closed Saturdays, that would be great. Soccer games are Saturday mornings. All the kids’ (activities) are Saturday mornings.”

At one time, Amstutz kept longer weekday hours. Then she realized that other health professionals, such as pediatricians, don’t. Their patients don’t expect otherwise.

Now she defends her schedule without embarrassment. She tells people that when she's on duty, she's the best vet she can be. The rest of the time, she's a mom. "If a client can’t respect that," she said, "that’s probably not the right client for me.”

Amstutz credits her husband with making the career-mom juggling act possible. “He does all the cooking, laundry, all that stuff. That’s the only way I’d be able to do it,” she said. “At one point, my husband was in the Navy and he got deployed overseas and was gone for nine months. ... That was when I had just two, and they were 2 and 4 years old. It was almost mental-breakdown time for me. ... When he came back, I said he either got out of the Navy or I’d close the practice. Now he’s the practice manager.”

Slicing her schedule to four days a week and hiring a relief vet took a bite out of their income. Amstutz felt guilty about it, but not for long. “I’ve gotten over that!” she said with a laugh.

She said it wasn’t hard to adjust because the family already lives frugally, clipping coupons, forgoing fancy vacations and buying consignment-shop clothing for the kids. Over four years of focused effort, she and her husband have eliminated $250,000 in debt from student loans, credit cards and purchasing the practice.

“People think I’m crazy because here I am a doctor driving an older used car,” she said. “I’d love to have a digital X-ray (machine) but I won’t buy it until I can pay for it in cash.”

Doing without doesn’t bother her because she knows the reward will be great. “I’m going to double my income once everything’s paid off,” Amstutz said.

They’re on track to be debt-free by the end of this year. Meanwhile, now that Amstutz is richer in time, she is pregnant with baby number four.

***

While a helpful husband can smooth the way for a practice-owning mom, a spouse is not an indispensable figure in the equation. Dr. Arlene Gardsbane of Rockville, Md., proves that. Never married, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter took advantage of modern reproductive medicine to realize her desire to have a child.

Counterintuitively, Gardsbane opened her own clinic precisely because she wanted to be a mom. She did not see owning a practice as conflicting with parenthood, but rather, a way to manage family responsibilities by being her own boss.

This realization came about through a conversation she had with her employer at an emergency clinic where she worked before. “What would you do if I got pregnant?” she asked him one day. He replied, “I don’t know if you’d have a job."

That might have been said in jest, Gardsbane said, though it didn't sound that way. Perhaps he thought she was joking. Gardsbane surmised: “He didn’t think I’d really go out and have a kid on my own.”

Her thought, meantime, was, “Hmm, I’d better open my own practice.”

So she did. For the first few years, the work was so demanding that she put aside motherhood — until her biological clock rang. At that point, she visited a fertility specialist and ultimately conceived a child.

“Then,” recounted Gardsbane, “I had the pregnancy from hell.”

With no associates back then to fill in when she felt ill, she canceled appointments “right and left.” She rescheduled cases that could wait, and referred to nearby veterinarians those that couldn’t wait. As for clients who became disgruntled and switched veterinarians, Gardsbane figured it was just as well.

Since becoming a mom, Gardsbane has made some adjustments to the operation, mainly in hours. The clinic originally was open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Now she works 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She also takes off Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“It hasn’t hurt my business at all,” she said. “My clinic — touch wood — has grown tremendously. Clients are accepting. I’m honest with everyone. People know that I have a young child, and they all ask about her.” They even bring the girl presents for Hanukkah and her birthday.

“That’s something people recognize: You’re allowed to have a life!” Gardsbane said. “When I got out of vet school (in 1987), you worked 70, 80 hours a week. Those days are just dead.”

Of course, patients’ medical conditions don’t follow normal business hours. But as Gardsbane sees it, she doesn’t have to tend to them all. “That’s why you have emergency clinics,” she said.

Gardsbane hired a nanny full-time for her daughter when she returned to work 12 weeks after the baby’s birth. After her daughter started school, Gardsbane dropped the nanny and picked up day care. On occasion, she has to bring her child to work. As any parent who’s had to do the same knows, that’s tough.

“It’s when two worlds collide and neither world gets the best,” Gardsbane said.

She credits her staff with pitching in. They’ll play games with the kid, give her a job tearing up paper for the clinic’s resident guinea pig, even let her watch surgeries.

“I think that everybody recognizes it’s to everyone’s benefit for me to be there working,” Gardsbane said. “Obviously, if I’m working, there’s more money rolling in, and they’ll get raises. They know how much I appreciate them....

“It’s all challenging, no matter how you do it,” she said. “But it would be sad to give up having children just because you have a career, and it would be sad to give up your career just to have children.”

***

Gardsbane’s life as a single mom and practice owner may be unusual, but she is not unique.

Across the country in Morgan Hill, Calif., Dr. Michelle Griffin is another veterinarian, clinic owner and “single mother by choice.”

Griffin had her daughter, now 5, while she was an associate. It was never a problem. Her boss at the time — now her business partner — is strongly family-oriented. “Our whole practice is,” Griffin said. “He and one other (person) have older kids. The rest of us have kids within months of each other. For three years, someone was pregnant at the clinic.”

Griffin bought into the practice in January 2009. She works 45 to 50 hours a week, including every other Saturday. Her day-care provider stays on duty weekdays until 6:30 or 6:45 p.m. — not the norm, as providers typically close promptly at 6 p.m. and assess late fees by the minute. “I’ve been fortunate in finding somebody who goes longer and is a little more flexible,” Griffin said.

“There are times that I do dash, and have to send a client to the emergency clinic, because I have to go,” she admitted.

Saturdays can be hard. Griffin’s mother lives with them so is able to help, but sometimes her daughter just wants her mom. “She’ll tell me especially on Saturday mornings that she misses me. It’s tough that way: She’s crying when I’m going to work,” Griffin said. “She’ll even tell me, ‘You call Rick now and tell him he has to work!’ ” referring to the clinic co-owner Dr. Rick Leininger.

Even more difficult than weekend shifts are professional conferences, which require assembling a child-care jigsaw puzzle to cover the four to five days she’s away. “Those are the hardest times, when I find myself the most stressed, when I have to plan for different people (to take care of her),” Griffin said. “My mom is disabled, so I can’t ask her to go 24/7 days at a time.”

There are day-to-day sacrifices as well, personally and professionally. The last week of school, Griffin will have to miss chaperoning a class field trip because she has to work — her partner will be out of town. However, she does plan to close the hospital a few hours early to attend her daughter’s kindergarten promotion. “I’m not willing to miss that,” she said.

The scrambling will ease come August, when a third veterinarian joins the staff. That will enable both owners to cut back to four days a week.

***

In the work-home balance, Dr. Cheryl Sackler opted to give more weight to work, becoming the family’s highly successful breadwinner and using some of the money she earned to make sure her one child, a daughter, was well cared for.

Six weeks after the baby’s birth, Sackler returned to work. Eight months later, she left that job to build a practice from scratch in Naugatuck, Conn.

She and her husband hired a live-in nanny so that their daughter, Jessica, would always have someone available. Although more expensive than day care or a sitter, Sackler said the nanny freed her to earn far more money. “When I look at the cost and stress of day care, this was not more expensive, and the stress level — no comparison,” she wrote in a VIN post in 2005.

As Sackler worked upwards of 60 hours a week, her husband sometimes was between jobs, making him more available for Jessica. “Dad was always there,” Sackler said, referring to her husband. “Mom made it whenever she could.”

Starting a practice with a young child was daunting, Sackler recalled, and sometimes she thought she was a terrible mom. But in 2005 when her daughter was 19, Sackler reported on VIN: “I am very sure it was the best decision I ever made. I live exactly where I want to live, doing exactly what I want to do and I not only am earning an obscene amount of money, I have built equity that will help boost my retirement income. Was it hard? Was it scary? Was it worth it? Yes.”

Today, Sackler no longer owns her practice, though she works there still; she sold the place to the company Pet Partners. In a post two weeks ago, she expressed a whisper of regret over her hard-driven days as an owner.

“I am here in Mexico with my 23-year-old daughter, who told me how much she wished I would have spent more time with her when she was younger (but my husband did),” Sackler wrote. “On the other hand, she will have six years of education with no student debt and just spent the last six weeks bumming around Brazil. Somebody has to earn the money to support the kind of lifestyle she enjoys.

“Truth is, I was a much better bread-earner than stay-at-home mom. There is always some kind of trade-off. ... I wonder what she would be telling me if I had spent more time with her but couldn’t pay for her education, a car, great vacations, etc. We don’t get to go back and do over.”

Jessica acknowledged wishing that her mother had been home more when she was young. “I really did not see my mom growing up,” she said in an interview. “I remember her mostly being at work.” She considered her nanny her mother and appreciated her dad’s presence but she missed her mom all the same. “When you’re a little girl, there is something about having mommy there,” she said.

“I don’t feel it was traumatizing or anything,” Jessica added. “I definitely appreciate the fact that she worked incredibly hard and was successful. I definitely had a lot of opportunities and appreciate being able to do a lot of cool things. To have my bachelor’s (degree) without any debt, that’s awesome.

“But still, when I was younger, would I have probably preferred a little bit of a trade-off? We were never starving to death. Maybe a little bit less money and I would have had more time with her? Yes.”

***

Flexibility is the key to success for veterinary practices in the 21st century, predicts Dr. Shirley Johnston, a long-time student of gender issues in the profession.

The industry shift to a female majority “may force the profession to be more flexible, (to) look at people who can do temporary flex time, coming in and out of the profession with more flexibility than maybe we saw 20 to 30 years ago when practice was predominantly defined as male with an at-home spouse,” said Johnston, a former dean of Western University who worked in academia for more than 30 years before becoming scientific director at the Found Animals Foundation, an animal-welfare non-profit.

Johnston said those who lament the passing of the old days, and who perceive as a failed work ethic the desire of today’s veterinarians for shorter hours and more family and personal time, are misinterpreting the tidal changes occurring throughout society.

“It neglects an understanding of what people look for in their lives,” she said. “...It wasn’t bad then, and it’s not bad now. It’s just different.”

Moreover, raising children today isn’t a concern of women only. Because so many women are in the workforce, men, too, must juggle work and home obligations. “My son just had our first grandchild,” Johnston said. “I see my son embracing a role that is very different from, for example, the role my father embraced. My son is married to a professional woman. They pretty much share child-rearing equally.”

Those who recognize such realities and accept rather than fight them will thrive, she said. “The way that people look at practice ownership, practice management, work hours, flexibility, all those things, needs to change in order for people to continue to serve their clients and also to run profitable businesses,” Johnston said. “And the ones that adapt to that (demand for) flexibility, I think, will be very, very successful even in this economy.”

Editor’s note: This article has been changed from the original to correct a statement about when women became a majority in the veterinary profession.




VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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