Just over a year ago I unclenched and allowed myself to fall. I’d been peering over the ledge of a complete break from veterinary work for a couple of years, eyes scrunched shut against the change. The reality of not being able to do everything at once and do it well, a splinter in my thumb – impossible to ignore.
Veterinary work in private practice is all or nothing. When I walk into that workplace the rest of my life falls away, because it must if I want to do my job well. It is part of what I have always loved about it. It’s a form of active meditation. The nature of it doesn’t allow room for anything or anyone but the patient and client in front of you.
Niggling, unhelpful thoughts that would encroach on time outside of work are obliterated. It can be immensely rewarding work. And I can’t remember ever being bored doing it.
But it also drains emotional energy. And especially in the later years of my veterinary career, resentment towards that drain has crept in. And the causes are not always the things that might seem obvious. For me, it’s not necessarily performing a euthanasia or a challenging surgery that are draining. It is the sum of many little things that always have been and always will be a part of the job, regardless of the practice or corner of the world I’m working in…
Like when it’s 7pm. Your last appointment has been booked in as an emergency. When you take the history you ask how long the problem has been going for, and the answer is: ‘About three weeks now.’ And with this animal’s pale gums and heaving breaths, you can see it is an emergency…now. Three weeks ago, two weeks ago, even a week ago it wouldn’t have been. And as you dispense options and brisk compassion to those owners, you know you will not leave before at least 10pm tonight.
Or you spend twenty minutes running through blood test results and management options with one owner, only to have their spouse call and demand the same information from you later that day.
So many little mundane things that add up like pebbles in a shoe.
Before I had children, I absorbed these emotional drains without too much difficulty. The rest of my life was pretty stress free. My husband accepted my demanding and unpredictable work life.
But in the last few years I’ve noticed that when I do this work, my clients never suffer the effects of my lack of emotional energy. I never snap at them or tell them I am too tired to deal with whatever they have going on – even if they are being unreasonable.
So, who pays that emotional energy bill?
This hasn’t always been the case though.
When my children were babies and toddlers my part time veterinary work helped provide sanity. For me, mothering at these stages was like Groundhog Day. Cleaning, feeding, and consoling. Repeat. I absolutely don’t regret outsourcing some of my childcare when I worked during this stage of my and their lives.
But now, at nearly ten and thirteen, my children need me to be more emotionally present than they did when they were younger. And I sense, in the future I’d regret giving my emotional energy to strangers over my children now.
Then there is my writing, and mental health advocacy – they have always been secondary to the veterinary work. They pay almost nothing. When people ask me what I do they don’t draw the interested questions I get when I answer: ‘I’m a vet’. And yet, for now, I feel as though the writing and advocacy work is more meaningful to me, and I have achieved more in these areas in the last year of giving them my energy than I had in the previous decade.
I am thankful for this other work. I have never been fulfilled by parenting and housework alone. But the writing and advocacy work have softer borders than the veterinary work. They are more flexible and forgiving. They don’t spit me back out into my family with nothing left.
I have been tempted to return to the comfort of the well-known, the regular pay, with each offer of veterinary work I’ve had over this year. But a year ago I chose to discontinue my Vet Surgeons Board Registration so that I couldn’t accept offers of veterinary work at short notice. And it has helped me resist the temptation of my comfort zone.
Will I return to it?
I don’t know yet. For now, I fully acknowledge my privilege of choice. I am happy in the knowledge that I can go back to it any time. For now, I am living according to this quote by Quentin Bryce:
Yes, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.
And I have no regrets.
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