Women now account for 76 per cent of new veterinary undergraduate intakes and feminisation of the profession has long been a topic for discussion and debate. Many vets want greater commitment to family life and better work-life balance. Carolyne Crowe outlines some new information and online support that's available for all veterinary professionals
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A DEBATE at the 2015 BEVA congress saw 92 per cent of voters agreeing with the motion ‘Does equine practice need to change to become more compatible with family life?’. There is clearly a shift away from the ‘James Herriot’ traditional vet role where work-life balance, let alone working while pregnant, was not even a consideration.
However, resources and information for vets trying to balance their work and family commitments are sparse. MumsVet is a new online information and support network, which can be found at www.beva.org.uk/Home/Careers/Mumsvet. It has been created by equine vets Carolyne Crowe, Vicki Nicholls, Lucy Grieve and Hannah Yeates, and aims to redress the lack of information and provide a positive resource for any vet juggling work and family life. It draws on our first-hand experiences and its online support network aims to help encourage and empower others working through similar stages in their life and career.⇓
I was an equine clinician for 11 years before becoming a personal performance coach, mentor, trainer and researcher in health, wellbeing, engagement and performance of individuals and teams within the veterinary profession.
I was the first vet in my practice to get pregnant and one of the first of my group of friends from university to do so. I was in a position where the practice didn't really know what I should or shouldn't be doing and neither did I. Together we made it up as we went along and it was okay. Since then there have been others who have become pregnant and gone through maternity in the practice and many other friends have done so too. I found I was being asked a lot about what I did, how it worked for me and what my experiences were.
Although there is an abundance of information in books and on the internet about being pregnant and about working while pregnant, I didn't feel there was much about being a pregnant vet. The work we do has its own set of risks, pressures and difficulties and some of these are enhanced when you become pregnant. I will never forget the look on my midwife's face when I lifted my top and showed her a perfect hoof print on my left abdomen. Luckily, I was only 12 weeks pregnant and my daughter was fine, but it was the first time that I took stock and had that moment of realisation that I wasn't super-human and that there was something more important than my bravado that I was responsible for.
In my practice, we muddled along and found our way through, but there are things that I wouldn't have done if I had had better knowledge beforehand. After talking to a number of friends I discovered a common theme was ‘if only we had known’.
I had incredibly supportive bosses, which is something I'm now all too aware not everyone has. My practice couldn't have done any more for me, but hearing the stories and situations friends were telling me, I realised it wasn't like this for everyone.
I now coach and mentor individuals through this stage of their career, supporting and empowering them to make the decisions that are right for them, to help them to be less anxious and overwhelmed by the changes ahead. I frequently work with practices and employers to help them get the best out of all members of their team, helping find solutions and flexibility that provide a win-win situation for all concerned.
So, while being pregnant and in practice, particularly equine practice, brings its challenges, many of the challenges don't come from people trying to be difficult or not wanting to be helpful, but through ignorance about how pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work affects both parties, employees and employers.
In developing the concept of MumsVet with the help of BEVA Council, we all brought our own experiences and those of friends and colleagues to the table to build something for others in the profession.
Among the resources on MumsVet, a blog, ‘Bump Vet’, follows the trials and tribulations of a pregnant equine vet and provides a candid insight into the challenges she faces. However, it raises some thought-provoking questions too. In one instance, an owner requested that the practice send another vet rather than put Bump Vet at risk from her ‘wild’ horse. When is it acceptable for any vet (male or female, pregnant or not) to be in a potentially dangerous situation with an unhandled horse? Where does the responsibility lie? Hopefully, MumsVet will increase awareness of veterinary surgeon safety and wellbeing from all angles, whether pregnant mums, dads, practice owners, employers or veterinary nurses.
But we need to remember that this isn't just a female thing; everyone has the right to get the most out of their family life and their career. An important part of MumsVet is the area for dads, providing stories, blogs and podcasts from dads within the profession who are trying to make it work too.
‘We need to remember this isn't just a female thing; everyone has the right to get the most out of their family life and their career’
I am incredibly proud of what we have already achieved within the MumsVet group and of our plans for the future. Working together on projects of great importance is the way forward and will help the profession adapt and positively accommodate the changes that have already happened and that will no doubt continue to evolve.
An advanced practitioner in equine medicine and dentistry, Vicki Nicholls is the current BEVA president and works in the Veterinary Postgraduate Unit at the University of Liverpool.
When I became pregnant, two of the other partners in my practice had already been through two pregnancies each, so I was fortunate enough to work for a really supportive practice with wonderfully understanding colleagues and my children became part of the practice family. This was in complete contrast to my previous experiences in practice; for example, I had one job interview in which I was told ‘We are not discriminating, but our clients just want male, preferably Irish, equine vets.’
Despite working in a supportive practice, it was still difficult to manage two young children, an on-call rota, a busy (albeit) part-time job and a husband who worked away frequently. I often found myself returning client calls while juggling a buggy, two dogs and the shopping, and I certainly shoehorned five days of work into three.
Unless you have a live-in au pair, the stress of arranging childcare for the tricky hours of 5 am to 7.30 am, coupled with the guilt of always asking colleagues to cover, made my decision to leave equine clinical practice relatively easy. I am now in the position of working in a job that I love, with an incredibly supportive and enthusiastic team, in an environment that continually challenges me intellectually, while providing just enough clinical work to satisfy my need to interact with clients and perform some dentistry. Working in the Veterinary Postgraduate Unit at Leahurst is a dream job in terms of flexibility and opportunities and is proof that being an equine vet doesn't necessarily mean that you cannot combine work and family successfully.
You may be saving lives at work and wiping tears at home, but the point is to try to get some balance between the two. I love my family and my job, I love being a vet and a mum, and I feel fulfilled doing both of these jobs however stressful that juggling act becomes. I might not be perfect at both or either, but you can only do your best, (rather than trying to be perfect all of the time), and try to enjoy life while you do it.
Veterinary practice and family life is all a juggling act, no matter who you are or what your situation is. MumsVet aims to increase awareness that there are plenty of other people in the profession facing the same challenges and that you are not alone in feeling frustrated at juggling too many balls. MumsVet provides some reassurance that you are normal, some resources for dealing with difficult situations and, finally a chance to smile when you realise the real-life story could be your own inner monologue.
▪ Other resources available include my webinar ‘The Pregnant Vet’ and workshops (www.carolynecrowe.co.uk/the-pregnant-vet) to help mums, dads and practices overcome the hurdles, headaches and challenges that pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work can create.