Leaning Out, Grey’s Anatomy Style
Grey’s Anatomy is a long-running ABC drama about surgeons. The main character is Meredith Grey, hence the title, which is also a twist on the medical school anatomy “Bible”, Gray’s Anatomy. We have followed Meredith since she was an intern in season 1, all through residency and the past few years as an attending physician at a Seattle hospital that has changed names several times since the show’s inception (originally Seattle Grace). Meredith’s deceased mother, Ellis Grey, was a brilliant general surgeon, but also an absentee mother who, Meredith believes, always resented having had a child.
Along with Meredith, we have followed her intern cohort, of whom only two characters are still there. One of them is Christina Yang, Meredith’s best friend and a prodigy cardiothoracic surgeon. Christina has always wanted to be a surgeon and has been fiercely dedicated to her craft. There were two important romantic relationships she has had on the show, one of them leading to marriage. However, surgery has always been the most important thing in Christina’s life and she never wanted children; in fact, Christina even had an abortion after she had accidentally gotten pregnant with her husband a few seasons ago.
Meredith is depicted as an excellent general surgeon and we have no reason to doubt her skills. At least we haven’t until the episode “I Bet It Stung” (season 10). Meredith and her husband had adopted a girl a few seasons ago, and Meredith just had a baby boy. In last week’s episode, Meredith has just come back from maternity leave. She is lactating and sleep deprived, but eager to get back into an OR. For some strange reason she also does something that no sane working mother would do, and that is promise her daughter a princess tea party at 3 pm on a work day (?!), apparently not wanting to be the uninvoled, disinterested mother that her own mother had been. During the episode, we see Meredith and Christina about to do a heart-liver transplant together, but Meredith is unprepared, her daughter falls and cuts her head open, and also there is obsessing over the princess party thing. Predictably, Christina calls another physician on board and does the transplant, Meredith is pissed and…
Meredith: “I am every bit as competent a surgeon as you are.”
Christina: “No, you are not.”
Christina then proceeds to tell Meredith how she (Meredith) had basically leaned out, slowed down a few years ago and they are in different places now. How Christina respects Meredith’s choices and her focus on family (can we say BS?), but that they are in different leagues. I am paraphrasing now, but you get the picture. Complete devotion to work or a sentence to a life of mediocrity.
Now, I have no idea about surgery, but, especially in the US, it seems that work will easily expand to fill every second of your life if you let it. European scientists I know have, at least on the outside, a much better work-life balance: they go out, have personal lives, bike, hike, ski cross-country, bar-hop, and whatever else goes as a culturally pervasive passtime. I know European colleagues who have said that if you work non-stop, people think you are stupid because otherwise you would be able to finish the work during normal hours. Here, in the US academia, you have to literally hide any time you don’t spend crushed under a mountain of work.
I have no idea if you really have to be 100% in to be a surgeon. If that’s true, I don’t see how that’s sustainable over the whole career. I mean, doesn’t it start getting boring? I bet most surgeries are more or less routine no matter what the specialty.
All I do know is that, in academia, most of us are really hardly irreplaceable: if we leave science, science will go on just fine without us. Several people have retired since I was hired. Six months or perhaps a year after their departure, and none of the department colleagues think about them any more, as if they never existed. You could have put your heart and soul into this place, and rest assured you would have been forgotten in a heartbeat anyway.
I am sure this is midlife crisis talking, but as great as my job is — challenging, working with young people, flexible, secure, well paid — from where I am standing it is not worth sacrificing everything else in the life for. There is a female professor whom I know from my grad school days. In her youth she worked non-stop, married, no kids. Then she divorced, got ill, and her professional standing dropped considerably (it’s a bit sickening seeing how people have subtly but surely started discounting her). While she has had an OK career, I would not say that her career appears to have justified the enormous personal sacrifices. I don’t know if it’s worth it to the people who are stratospherically successful, but I cannot think that it would be: most of us scientists are useful in an indirect way, through industry, and very few achieve wide prominence in their lifetime. In contrast, as I remember hearing in a BBC documentary, “Happiness is the experiences we share with the people we love.”
I am not leaning out, far from it. But I am looking for an inner balance and trying to focus on professional aspects that matter to me — doing interesting, difficult work, which challenges me and my students and could not be done without us — as opposed to ubiquitous fad-chasing. I want to make the most of the little time each student spends in my group, as they are smart and kind and it is a joy to talk science with them. As my PhD advisor said, students are my product, my professional legacy.
More importantly, I want to enjoy the precious short years that my kids will be with me. To everyone else I am more or less replaceable, but not to them; to them I am the one and only Mom.
Anyway, I am glad leaning out got on prime-time TV in some shape or form. I don’t know if it’s true that real-life Christinas are miles ahead of real-life Merediths; I am guessing each one of us would choose a Christina when it’s time to cut us open, but maybe it’s just surgery. I wish it were really possible to have it all — a family and a demanding career — without slowing down or leaning out even a little bit. I hope Meredith can get back to the full swing of things after the baby is a bit older. But mostly I hope she realizes she already has everything she needs to be happy.