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October 15, 2020

It takes a village for veterinarian parents to make it work

Moms, dads encourage other moms, dads to build a community of support for their families
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Parenting and veterinary medicine may not seem like they always go hand in hand. The demands of the job conflict with kids’ activities or, during the current pandemic, virtual schooling. But some practitioners have found they can make things work as long as they throw out the notion that there can be balance. Instead, they see the situation more as work-life integration with ebbs and flows.

Dr. Lichlyter and family
Dr. Kayla Lichlyter and her husband, Josh, have two children: Asher, 2, and Adrienne, a newborn. Dr. Lichlyter said becoming a mother helped her learn to say no and set boundaries for herself. (Courtesy of Dr. Lichlyter)

During the session “Having It All: Parenthood and Veterinary Medicine” on Aug. 20 at the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020, parents—from stepparents to adoptive parents and everything in between—along with those without children talked about their needs, wants, and suggestions for making the professional and the personal come together in a workable manner.

Dr. Caitlin Davis Ashlock, a small animal practitioner in Frankfort, Indiana, is stepmom to a 7-year-old, Spencer. She also is expecting a son. Her philosophy about being a stepparent is that love is love, and there is never too much of it.

“One other thing that helped me in my stepparent journey was talking to my husband about what his expectations of me in this role are,” Dr. Ashlock said. “Talking about expectations helped me to manage my own expectations and not feel like I wasn’t doing enough.”

Dr. Jon Hornback is an equine practitioner in Simpsonville, Kentucky, with two children. He and his wife found out they were having their first child when he was entering his internship.

Someone once told him, “No one works 24 hours a day, so when you’re home, make the most of it.”

More celebration needs to be shared with those who have chosen not to be parents. Those of us who were parents were so overwhelmed and couldn’t put it together. They were there to help us. It takes a village of parents and nonparents, and being a vet unites all of us.

Dr. Maggie Canning, session moderator, “Having It All: Parenthood and Veterinary Medicine”

Instead of being on his phone or watching TV by himself, he makes a point to spend time with his kids when he’s home. Dr. Hornback even incorporates the kids into his work sometimes.

“If there’s an emergency, we’ll all jump in the car and get dessert afterward,” he said. “It’s something we like to do as a family.”

Dr. Kayla Lichlyter, a small animal veterinarian in southern Indiana, was found to have endocrine issues a few weeks before her wedding. She and her husband, Josh, have two children: Asher, 2, and Adrienne, a newborn, who were both adopted. Becoming a mother helped her learn to say no and set boundaries for herself.

“Even though vet med and being a vet is a huge passion of mine, and I love the work I do, at the end of the day, it’s a job, and there’s more to life than that,” Dr. Lichlyter said. “That’s important to realize: I can want more to my life than just being a vet. Wanting more for your life beyond veterinary medicine doesn’t make you a bad veterinarian. And if I’m going the extra mile and have a few late nights at work, that doesn’t make me a bad mom, either.”

Dr. Carissa Norquest, an oncology specialist in Ohio, is married with no kids. She said a number of residents see starting a family as an inconvenience or threat to their career. “I’ve seen friends who have wanted a kid and waited to finish their PhD who are now struggling to conceive or are considering in vitro protocols because they put their career first, and they do not feel it was appropriately discussed in our career path,” she said.

Had her colleagues known more at the beginning, they might have harvested their eggs or engaged in proactive family planning.

Dr. Ashlock and family
Dr. Caitlin Davis Ashlock met her husband, Ryan, at work when he brought his new K-9 partner in for vaccines. She is a stepmom to 7-year-old Spencer and is pregnant with a boy. (Courtesy of Dr. Ashlock)

“Planning early for our future is a topic that needs to be discussed more in veterinary medicine,” she said. “We need to be more open about this because the consequences are not reversible.”

Dr. Brandon Thornberry, who practices in St. Louis, has a 10-month-old son, and his wife, Michelle, is a veterinarian, too. His father is also a veterinarian, so he uniquely understood the demands of the profession from a young age.

“My dad was there for me growing up, but there were also times when his patients needed him more. Maybe the net result over my childhood was a balance, but from my perspective, a perfect 50-50 balance is not realistically achievable. That is OK,” he said. “Sometimes your family or your patients will demand more from you. Family is always my priority, but this profession and lifestyle I have chosen cannot always achieve a 50-50 balance.

“Rather than being frustrated that I do not have a balance, I try to seek and advocate for good work-life integration, which means adopting a mindset that recognizes it is OK for work and home life to overlap at times, and work or home life may demand more from me, respectively, in different seasons of life.”

Dr. Maggie Canning, one of the session’s moderators, said after having a cesarean section, which she hadn’t planned for, she harbored guilt partly because she didn’t have trust in her doctor. Now, she says, she has more empathy for first-time puppy owners asking how many times they can bathe their dog.

She encourages other veterinarian parents to join social media groups, such as the AVMA’s Early Career Online Community on Facebook. She added, “More celebration needs to be shared with those who have chosen not to be parents. Those of us who were parents were so overwhelmed and couldn’t put it together. They were there to help us. It takes a village of parents and nonparents, and being a vet unites all of us.”