Those folks motivated to pursue careers requiring long training periods are understandably deeply invested in making those careers satisfying and achieving professional success through increasingly prestigious appointments. But what happens when career advancement requires separation from a significant other or children? Let's examine a few case studies without right answers.
I spent time in the horn of Africa during an international emergency medicine fellowship, where I met members of the small expatriate community who worked there year-round. One was an extremely accomplished 30-something woman working at USAID in food security for a famine-prone region. One of the things you are able to do quickly with folks in these extreme work environments is cut to the chase and ask important questions without spending inordinate time on small talk. It's a way of trying on their life to see if it might suit you.
Younger me was entertaining a career in international health, but had a serious girlfriend back home with a long-term plan to have kids. One afternoon, in her office, I asked my new friend about her hopes for the future and whether a relationship or children fit into those plans. She took a moment to reflect, and mentioned a guy she'd met on her last assignment - equally accomplished and ambitious, a humanitarian dreamer like herself, also rising through the government ranks...and currently on assignment on another subcontinent for another organization.
It might be nice, she said, to make that work out...but who was going to sacrifice their career as a foreign service officer for the other? Who was going to give up their chance at the dream posts? She seemed to accept the trade-off, and felt resigned that she could be a superstar at her job or subsume those aspirations to make the relationship work, but she could not expect to do both.
I googled this person, whom I'd lost touch with, and read about subsequent assignments in Afghanistan, Nepal (during the catastrophic 2015 earthquake), and a series of increasingly prestigious jobs in USAID. She is a rock star professionally with a highly-sought position in a globally recognized organization. As far as I know, she continues to live her professional dream.
Professionals In Love
Another couple we adore is a dual-academic couple, one medical, one non-medical. The former received tenure at or shortly after the time they got together. The latter began a meteoric rise as an academic administrator a few years into the relationship.
The salient point is that for the past several years, in order for the meteoric rise to happen, this couple kept two households that were a flight or a half-day's drive apart. It was slightly easier not having kids, but still quite a challenge.
Now they are once more under the same roof most of the time, but until the academic physician retires (likely in the next 5 years), their arrangement will continually require a commute to city#2 for 1-2 weeks at a time.
Getting What You Wish For
My wife's dear friend from medical school is an accomplished physician with workaholic tendencies. She has reached the golden handcuffs level of administrative seniority in her organization where another half-decade qualifies her for a significant jump in pension (who knew, they still exist!). She loves the work and has made her home where she lives, but she cannot relocate geographically to score the pension benefit.
Her spouse is in a non-medical profession under consideration for a promotion. It's a demanding but highly prestigious dream job he's aspired to for decades, it requires many circumstances to perfectly align, and if he passes it is unlikely the offer will be extended again at a later date.
It will also require his relocation to a 3-4 hour commute from their current location. Their youngest is entering adolescence, with a middle child in high school. Should the job come through, it will require his absence during the week. Neither spouse wants to take the kids out of their current schools and social situations.
So they have five years before the empty nest stage, at least that time until the medical spouse reaches the desired golden parachute pension, at which point they will be more flexible geographically in order to accommodate the non-medical spouse's job opportunity (although the medical spouse likes where she lives currently, and flexibility may not reflect her preference).
My wife mentioned this devil's bargain under consideration to another friend at a recent family retreat, and the friend pointed out that her husband routinely travels during the week returning only on weekends. They've made it work, and (to the best of our knowledge) they have a strong relationship.
How Do I Synthesize This?
This is not a hit job to discount the value these folks place on professional advancement - far from it. I respect the sacrifices people make to realize dream careers, and admire the tenacious pursuit of academic passions in the name of discovery.
(I also acknowledge that these are rarefied instances where people with high-powered, high-income careers choose to separate, as opposed to the many low-income families in financial straits who are forced to separate.)
I'm directing the harsh light from noir detective film interrogation scenes inward - why is prolonged separation from loved ones is something that would be a deal-breaker for me when it's not for so many peers? What personal defect (or, depending on your perspective, virtue?) allows me to operate in a world of highly motivated professionals without feeling similarly professional ambition?
I was not always this way - something happened. Impulses that once drove me relentlessly have changed over time (institutions like Stanford, the University of California and Harvard tend to select for such impulses). My wife feels similarly about her medical career. What allows us to feel less invested (hopefully not less effective) in being physicians?
Diversification Of Identity
Part of the answer rests in diversification of identity. I'm a little "d" doctor, and that identity comprises one thread in my greater sense of self.
Other strands of identity include include husband, father, son, brother, friend, kite flier, fiction lover, beachcomber, student of finance, birdwatcher, amateur writer, day-hiker, DIY investor, novice cyclist, traveler, and outsider comfortable in his skin. Cutting back has enabled me to integrate more strands.
I'm a deeply interested jack of all trades and master of none - probably explaining why I was attracted to emergency medicine. I'll never be a revered tertiary specialist, but on the bright side, you won't find a more sought-after parent volunteer for the class field trip!
Some of these strands evolved at appropriate stages in life; others as a response to burnout; still others required deliberate cultivation. Like any solid asset allocation, they collectively reduce the risk that if a single strand of identity tanks my entire self-esteem goes under with it.
The case of neurobiologist Amy Bishop, a Harvard Ph.D who shot the faculty at the University of Alabama after they voted to deny her tenure, is an extreme but illustrative example. The disproportionately high rate of physician suicides might be another. A single thread is less resistant to fraying.
By incorporating many strands, perhaps my identity is more able to withstand the fraying of any single element. When peers spend all their time and invest the whole of their identity into career alone, it's akin to investing your entire portfolio in a single stock or being suspended from a single thread instead of a rope.
What strands have you incorporated to strengthen your identity?