By Heather Burkhart
For some women, it may be risky business to decide between a fulfilling career and the raising of a family. If you’re like Dr. Caroline Defilippo, you have probably asked the universe, “Why do I have to choose just one?” As a practicing internist with two little girls at home, Dr. Defilippo is one of the many inspiring women who have overcome one of the most difficult challenges facing those who want to defy the typical stereotypes opposing them, all while enjoying the benefits of having both a family life and a career.
After receiving her graduate certificate in Environmental Studies and Public Health and serving as an ambassadorial scholar in Australia, Defilippo began working as a public health educator for Rockland County Department of Health, but not too long after was approached by her boss and was told that her talents would be well spent as a doctor. Defilippo responded that she “…was so not going to be a doctor; I was disenchanted by organic chemistry in particular.” However, a month into this position, which she thought was going to be her job, she took a step in another direction and enrolled in med school classes at night, something she refers to as “a leap of faith.” Several leaps of faith have guided her decisions since then, both educationally, professionally, and personally, and have helped her through a number of perhaps unexpected twists in life.
One of these twists was the fact that she didn’t know exactly what she was going to do with her life while she was attending Harvard as an undergraduate. “I came in as an environmental scientist: hugging trees and loving dolphins and whales. I didn't feel like I fit; I didn't feel like I was someone who knew what I wanted to be from the day I was born. I felt pressured to know that, and I didn’t.” She sometimes felt like giving up, because she wouldn’t be doing well or couldn’t stay focused, but says, “I understand why I felt that way; there was a very prescribed path I was supposed to be on. In retrospect it was a gift because it made me stop; it made me think of all the other things I wanted to do, and I got to try a lot of other things, which ultimately led me back to the same place, but led me back as a better person.”
Other twists manifested themselves in her personal life, such as her decision to get married three weeks before med school and becoming pregnant as an intern. Getting married right before med school “was actually fun, if anything; having a partner during medical school especially.” And her desire to have children during this time often warranted some unsolicited advice. “It very much was a personal decision for us as a family, and I really struggled trying to hear what some of the good advice was, but not hear people telling me how to do it.” Looking back on it, she says, “It's fine - peoples’ lives go on. They need to be okay with that; you need to be okay with that and accept that. It was hard to shove everybody else aside and say ‘this is right for me,’ ” but “It made me so much a better doctor.”
When asked how being a mother has helped her in her career, she replied, “As a mom, this whole new world of parenting...I have insight to, and it becomes part of who I am in that I am understanding my patients better, and they understand me. Would I be a great doctor without being a mom? Yes, absolutely. I still do my job well, but it just brings a different element to who I am as a person.”
Dr. Defilippo’s roundabout route to practicing medicine didn’t stop her from finding her perfect fit in life, something many of us struggle to do. In the midst of navigating her course, she struggled with the thought, “Am I doing this for me, or am I doing this for you?” She says that finding your path is “hard when you're trying to understand your own identity,” and that the challenges that arise from taking control of your life sometimes just take time to work themselves out. She thinks it’s important to remember that “This is a part of going down a different path and going against the grain and being scared to do things you're not sure of.” Her personal experiences have given her some well-earned insights, possibly the most important being “to not feel obligated and to not worry about the big steps - worry about the next step. You never know what circumstances are going to arrive.” And who knows, the next step might lead you to a remarkable place.
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