As the medical director of the walk-in program at Hamilton Physicians Group in Mercerville, N.J., my job is demanding and draining, but it’s far from the biggest hurdle I’ve faced in my career. I had the first of my four children—all of whom are still under age 15—while I was a senior in college, and established my career while raising them with my husband, who is a surgeon. The journey has made me a better doctor, a more patient mom, and a more grounded person. This is what I’ve learned along the way.

Back when my mother was a kid in Puerto Rico the ’40s and ’50s, they didn’t see a point to girls being in school. When she came to the States at 15, she taught herself English and got her GED. She got married, had kids, and led a traditional life, but she always loved to learn. Today she has a master’s degree in teaching from Columbia. As a grown woman with children, I can appreciate how hard it was for her to work full time, go to school, and raise four children. But at the time, I just thought that was what you did as a woman.

I was 21 and still in college when my husband and I had our first child. People would ask me, “So what are you going to do now?” And I thought, What do you mean? I’m going to go to medical school! I always wanted a large family, and I didn’t want to have my children far apart in age, so when my son was 3, we had another one. People really thought I was crazy.

As a society, we probably lose out on a lot of high-caliber women because we make them choose between work and family, and they choose their family. If the workplace were more flexible, we’d all benefit. I’ve been fortunate to have many bosses who understand that if you allow for some flexibility, then you’re able to retain good employees. And they will work just as hard for you.

What having children while I was still in medical school did for me was allow me to better prioritize my life. I had to decide at different points in time when my children were more important and when my career was more important. It forced me to learn how to balance my career and my family. I almost think I’ve been blessed by having a crazy life.

Being a mom has helped me understand that sometimes the textbook way to do something isn’t always applicable to patients’ real lives. And that it’s okay to feel that everything is falling apart sometimes. What I try to get my patients to see is that it’s okay to ask for help.

I think the old paternalistic relationship between physicians and patients is changing. You used to walk in a room, and the doctor would say do this and that was it. Now it’s more consumer-driven and there’s more of a relationship between the provider and patient. They have to work together to come up with a common plan. Doctors need to get buy-in from their patients and explain why they need to do something. And that can be a good thing.

I’ve learned that to be successful you have to choose your battles wisely. Physicians are a rough bunch to lead. Play nice in the sandbox. Compromise. A marker of my success is how happy my employees are. Women who work, if you make the choice to work, you may be spending more time with your colleagues than your children. So it should be fun to be there.

I hope my children benefit from seeing me work at a profession I love. It’s important for my daughters see that you can have what makes you happy and still do what you need to do. It doesn’t matter how you get there as long as you get there. I hope my children will feel about me the way I feel about my mother.

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