By Jessica Shelton | Photography by Heather Crowder
Looking Good Magazine asked Dr. Kelly Sullivan, a highly successful plastic surgeon and founder of Sullivan Surgery and Spa and the non-profit Wellness House, to weigh in on a controversial topic: Can women today have it all? Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and pioneer of the Lean In movement, observes there is still much work to be done to ensure that more than a privileged few can indeed “have it all.” She encourages women to help each other become leaders to bring about continued change.
As a plastic surgeon and mom of three, do you believe that women can have it all?
Yes, but it’s not exactly easy. I think women are amazing and can really do anything they set their minds to do. If they choose to be busy, there are a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of guilt trips. If you’re choosing to go to an event and receive an award or you’re putting extra time in at work, you’re obviously taking it from somewhere. And when you’re a mom, the first place you worry about taking it from is your children. You have to find ways to give and take.
If you’re going to have to miss the spring recital, then you’re going to make sure to be there for the next one and to have a conversation with your kids—“I’m really sorry, I can’t be there because this is what I’m doing. Not that it’s more important than you, but it’s also important and it’s another part of my life.”
So what does it mean to “have it all”?
To have it all is a very personal thing. Some people don’t want to be moms, and that’s OK. They shouldn’t feel that something’s wrong with them. And likewise, if you want to be a stay-at-home mom and have several kids and not work, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself either. To have it all, to me, is to have all that you want as a person. And we’re all different. We need to empower each other as women, and encourage each other to pursue our own happiness and our own success instead of criticizing each other’s choices or accusing each other of failing.
Your husband is also a doctor. How do you balance such demanding professions side-by-side?
Having a great support structure is key. My husband truly is a team player. Growing up, his mom was a pediatrician and his dad was working, so he respects and understands women. He is also very committed to family. We schedule opposite surgical and on-call days, so if one of us has to be in early, the other one can drive the kids
When our kids were younger, we had nannies and au pairs, and also supportive grandparents. My husband had to go away for his fellowship just after our daughter Kelsey was born. I was a single mom, in residency with a baby, so we had a live-in nanny from Colombia. She was amazing. She worked with us for two years in Atlanta and then moved with us to Annapolis for six months, even though her family was in Georgia. My daughter is 15, and I have two boys—12 and 9 years old. Now they’re old enough to look out for each other and we don’t need hired babysitters.
You work in a male-dominated field. Have you ever felt at a disadvantage or discriminated against as a result of your gender?
The only time I was ever self-conscious about being a woman was when I got pregnant with my daughter while I was in my surgical residency program. I was worried [my colleagues] would perceive me as weaker because I was pregnant, so I was determined to show them this wasn’t the case. I didn’t care if I was throwing up all day long; I wasn’t going to miss a day of work and have someone else take my call.
One male surgeon whose rotation I was on said, “Oh, thank goodness you’re off my rotation in two weeks,” or something totally ignorant like that. My husband and I laughed about it.
Everyone else was so supportive. I remember being worried about telling my chairman the news and thinking I would preface it with “I’m good, I’ve got this covered, it’s not going to affect anything…” But when I told him, he was like, “How beautiful, congratulations!” It kind of showed me that people who are confident and successful in their own lives don’t have issues with women being moms and working.
Do you have any rituals or practices in place to protect your family life?
We eat together almost every night, which is hard during the year because of swimming and baseball and all the activities. But, as many nights as possible, even if we have to eat at 4:30 or 8:30, we eat together.
Also, about five years ago, I started a bedtime ritual with my daughter of lying in bed in the dark and talking about our days. Now, at night, I go in order, starting with the youngest, and I sit with each of my children, in the dark, as we talk about our days or just tell funny stories. It has been a good way to keep communication open – which can sometimes be hard, especially with teenagers. Some nights get missed, but as much as possible, I try to be there.
In juggling work and life, what gets neglected most?
Sleep. I’m always tired. I fall asleep as soon as I hit the pillow. I don’t have time to go to the gym because of my schedule, but I love to run; it cuts the stress. I’m pretty organized, but the house, in terms of taking out old clothes or having stuff put away, definitely gets neglected. The laundry ends up in a giant pile in the guest bedroom for a while and eventually someone folds it and puts it away or we just take clothes directly off the pile to get dressed … we’re not a Martha Stewart home.
Still, it’s incredible to me that you are able to eat dinner with your family nearly every night while managing your own medical practice and also founding a nonprofit, Wellness House of Annapolis, to support cancer patients. What’s your secret?
As much as possible, I cut out the stuff that is a waste of time. Even with my kids, I don’t let them do social media, video games, or watch TV during the week. We usually do family movie night on Fridays and we look forward to that, but it’s shocking how much time you can waste if you flip on the TV and get into some dumb show. You just get stuck there and there will be like 12 things you didn’t do. Although I do have to admit that sometimes the best thing to do is just turn on the TV and watch some dumb show…
If your 25-year-old self were here right now, would you advise her to do anything differently? What do you tell your daughter?
I guess it is natural to sometime wonder how things would be different if you made different decisions along the way, but I think I have to say that I wouldn’t change anything from what I did because I am very happy and grateful for how things have turned out so far. But my advice for my daughter is different. I don’t think my path is the right path for her or for many young women who don’t yet know what they want to do with their lives. I tell her this is the discovery phase, when you go out and discover what you like and what you want to be. Having more world experiences, doing projects where you travel to different cities or countries … I was so focused on what I wanted to do that I wasn’t able to do those, but I think they’re pretty cool.
And finally, at 46, you’re doing your own adventure, right?
Yes! I just applied to be a “Senior Surgeon for the Initiative for Pioneering Women in Reconstructive Surgery” where I will travel to some third-world countries and teach female surgeons how to do reconstructive surgery. I’m so excited, but also a little scared because it is something very new and different for me. I feel like I’m in a phase in my career and with my kids where I can do something like this without it being a huge disruption. But it wouldn’t have worked for me in my twenties.
Any final thoughts on our topic “Mission Impossible” and advice you would give other women?
I think life can be very intimidating and difficult, but it can also be very full and wonderful, and as the eternal optimist, I think that nothing is impossible. But, I feel very strongly that “it takes a village,” not just to take care of your family but also to get through life, and that none of us can do it alone. I am so incredibly grateful for my “village”—my husband, parents, children, friends, co-workers, coaches, and teammates—who have all played an invaluable part in my life, and without whom nothing would be possible. So, I guess my advice would be to live life to its fullest doing what you love, but most importantly appreciate the people in your life who are helping you along the way and always do what you can to help someone else. We are all in this together and we all make each other stronger—together we can “have it all.”