Exclusive interview with Cat the Vet – the secret life of a vet mum

It’s no secret that a veterinary career can be tough at the best of times and adding children into to the mix can certainly add to the challenge. As a working mum with two small children, Catherine Henstridge – or ‘Cat the Vet’ as she is also known through her online blog – is no stranger to the ups of down of juggling professional and family commitments.

Just four months after the birth of her first child, Cat found herself back at work part-time. She is currently employed by one practice on a permanent part-time basis and does locum work for one and a half days a week.

How did you manage to get back to work so quickly?

Sheer determination I suppose and the fact that being a stay at home mum 24:7 would have driven me bonkers – plus a lot of coffee and diet coke! I‘m extremely fortunate to have a fabulous child minder who is able look after the children late into the evening, without her it would be impossible as my husband is a vet too so there’s no escaping evening surgeries. ,

Do you think that taking time out compromises professional development for vet parents?

I can see how easy it could be to really lose your confidence, especially when it comes to surgery. I think this applies to women in particular who are much more reticent and cautious about their abilities than men. I definitely found the prospect of doing a bitch spay pretty daunting when I returned, even after a relatively short time away from theatre.

Interestingly, in the medical profession, doctors who are out of practice for more than two years are automatically eligible for free CPD to prepare them for returning to work. While there is some CPD available for vets, most would have to fund it themselves. Surgical skills are often expected to be of a certain standard from the off which can also be tough.

Do you think the veterinary profession is geared up well for accommodating part-time work?

Feminisation of the profession and the increase in out of hours cover certainly makes part-time work more feasible. In fact, I think that specialist OOH companies are one of the best things to happen to the profession for working vet parents. When it comes to tracking down a part-time position, I’ve certainly never had a problem and find many employers really appreciate the flexibility of part-timers. On the other hand, there’s little standardisation or cohesion across the profession compared to human medicine -we have a mix of private and corporate practices with different structures and no central body standardising working hours or employee rights, so it’s not always clear to employers how part-time staff could be integrated into their business.  This also makes it difficult to standardise support – for example, it would be difficult for most practices to offer a crèche service like many human hospitals do.

How do you think working veterinary parents could be better supported?

I definitely think the profession is losing a lot of highly qualified, well-trained vets due to a lack of support when returning to work. There’s a lot more that could be done to lead to both employee and employer satisfaction. There also seems to be less stigma attached to doctors taking time out for kids, which is also something I think could be extended to our profession. Vets need to feel confident when also asking for part-time work and in the worth of their experience over a cheaper new graduate for example. A lot of part-time jobs are sole-charge, which I’m sure many vets returning to work would feel happier taking on if they had just a little more support initially.

What are the biggest challenges of juggling work and home life?

I think most working vet parents struggle with the fact that you can never guarantee when your day is going to end and as evening childcare usually doesn’t run past 6, evening surgeries can be a deal-breaker. My child minder has literally become part of the family! Although the holy grail of 9am to 3pm is very hard to find, it is always worth talking to your employer openly as more flexible arrangements can sometimes be made – remember that employers are human too and will likely want to help if they can.

You do have to be really good at switching between work and home life too – not worrying about your kids or your cases work at the wrong times. Most vets are ‘Type A’ personalities and are naturally driven to succeed professionally. This can make switching off from work difficult but I found this gets slightly easier over time.

Do you find that just working part time compromises your professional development?

Case continuity can be a challenge and I sometimes feel I am missing out on working-up patients or seeing more complicated cases. That said, overall I’m really satisfied by the balance I’ve struck between my kids and my career.

What’s your best piece of advice to vets faced with the prospect of being a working parent?

No one working mum or dad is the same but if you can and you want to return to work I’d definitely say ‘do it’! Sadly, a lot of my friends have been forced out of the profession as they feel they just can’t justify working when they weigh up the sacrifices with the benefits – especially when you factor in the cost of childcare. My greatest piece of advice is to get a great support network behind and don’t be afraid to ask your employer for help reacclimatising.

I sometimes think being a working vet mum is not unlike living the double life of a super-hero – at home I am a very ordinary, slightly sleep-deprived herder of two small children; at work I don a costume, lead a team of people and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, make pets’ lives better and occasionally save them. So while I’d be lying if I said that achieving the balancing act is always easy, it’s totally worth it when you do.

To read more about what Cat has to say on a range of veterinary topics, visit her blog at http://www.catthevet.com/