‘You have to work harder as a woman’ – a playdate with Kreena and Risha

Dentistry meets endondontic specialists Kreena Patel and Risha Patel on a playdate to discuss ‘mum guilt’, finding the balance between their career and motherhood, and the inequalities in their field of work.

Was establishing your career first before having children a conscious choice?

Kreena: For me, I always knew I wanted kids, but I knew I wanted to specialise as well. So I did wait until after I did my specialist training program. Then I set up two referral centres – one in south London and one in Reading. I knew it would take a lot of energy and time to build that list up. So, for me, I waited until that.

I don’t think there ever is a right time to have kids. But I think, for me, I had a few goals that I wanted to achieve before – whether that was good or bad, I don’t know. Sometimes you think the longer you wait, it could be more difficult to have kids. So, I’m not saying it’s the right thing, but, for me, I had goals.

Risha: I definitely also had very similar goals, actually. Our practising lives are very similar. I wanted to finish my specialist training and then I wanted to get set up in practice and have a couple of established jobs. This meant that when I went away from maternity leave, I could come back into environments that I was comfortable in.

That was important to me and it meant doing my specialist training a little bit earlier than possibly what other specialists would recommend. A lot of people say you should try and get a vast amount of general dentistry under your belt. And I would’ve loved to do that from a career perspective, but that conflict of career and family was always there right from the beginning.

At one point I was at crossroad and I had to make a choice. And the choice was to shift my training as far forward as possible so that I had the flexibility to have a family.

How long after having your children did you return to practice?

Kreena: This is a quite an interesting question because a lot of my mum friends said to me, ‘Kreena, you’re going to struggle going back, it’s always difficult going back into practice’. And I was like, no, I know what I’m doing. I’ve done endo forever. I teach endo, I do everything endo, I live endo. I’m a proper endo geek. There’s no way I’ll struggle going back.

And, actually, I did. I only took six months off for him for various reasons. Mainly because, I probably would’ve taken a year if I could have, but I couldn’t find someone to cover my list and I’d spent so long building it. I didn’t want to take too long off and then work my way down.

The first month I went back  and I really struggled, actually, because I think I was comparing myself to myself. It wasn’t that, ‘oh my work is terrible’, but I was like, the old Kreena could have done this much better than the new Kreena.

Who in your family takes care of domestic tasks?

Risha: This is a really difficult one. So, before we had Caylan I was very idealistic. I was very much like 50% equal share, that’s what we do. On hindsight, it’s probably not actually what happened, but in my mind that’s what we were striving for. Since Caylan, I’ve really had to accept that it just doesn’t work like that.

The chores are tripled. For someone who’s so small, I have no understanding of how there was so much laundry for him. Like his clothes are this small, yet we have like baskets full of laundry to do.

It’s awful to say, but that is actually the case. We have had to accept that it isn’t 50/50 anymore. I think that’s the most you can ask for, to try and work together to find a happy compromise, and to listen. There are some days Jonil comes home, I come home, and we’re just knackered and can’t physically do it.

Before I would’ve probably got a little bit annoyed by that because I don’t like mess. But now I’ve learned to accept it. You have to, otherwise you are both miserable and then I don’t think you’re the best parents you can be to your little one. At the end of the day, that’s the priority isn’t it?

Have you experienced burnout, stress or ‘mum guilt’?

Risha: For me, the guilt is that I sometimes don’t feel that I’m doing either role to the best of my ability. So I’m never quite 100% at work and I’m never quite 100% at home. My mind is ticking over with 10 million other things. You know, I forgot to order this, or did I take this out the freezer for his dinner? But also, that patient, I called them yesterday and they didn’t pick up and I should probably call them again today.

And so I feel like there’s no rest, and that’s where the overwhelm comes from. There isn’t enough time to just relax. I can sit in a hot bath for an hour, but my mind is still going. I feel the guilt for work less, but I feel the guilt more when it comes to Caylan because he’s growing up so quickly and I just don’t want to miss those stages. And I don’t want him to ever feel that if he wants me or needs me, I’m not there. But the reality is I can’t be there 100% of the time if I want to have a career.

Kreena: For Zac, I think I felt more guilty before he started nursery and when he was a bit younger. Now I feel like he’s a little bit more robust, so it’s slightly less. I think the main guilt came when he was struggling to settle in at nursery. Because then I felt like, oh, am I pushing him to do too much at nursery too soon? You know, should I be with him more? You go up and down and, they don’t tell you, but every stage has its own challenges. So I’m sure it will come and go in many different ways.

I think also the sleep deprivation is the main thing for me. If I could sleep solid at night and he didn’t wake up, I could probably balance that. But sometimes I’m so tired. And I went through this phase when he started nursery of just being sick all the time. It got to my fifth illness and I thought, when’s this going to stop? That overwhelms you a little bit because I just want to be well and be well for him. I think those sort of things really have been difficult.

What would be your advice for new mums, younger women starting out or women struggling to find balance?

Risha: What I wish I had known is that it’s not this pinnacle point. You don’t just suddenly achieve. You don’t one day wake up and go, right, I’ve achieved it. We’re there, I’ve got work down, I’ve got family down, I’ve got this balance down and I’m happy.

One side will always tip and there’ll always be a change. Whether that’s a growth spurt on their end, or being taken over by a corporate, or you suddenly can’t work the hours anymore, whatever it might be. That change will always tip the balance.

So actually for me, it’s not about striving to achieve this balance, it’s actually striving to become adaptable enough that whatever changes, you can get over that hurdle and you have the mindset to feel like you’re comfortable too. You have the confidence to say, ‘I can handle it no matter what it is’. So that’s what I wish I’d known before I embarked on this journey.

Kreena: Except whatever help you can. Because for everything else, as we do in dentistry, a lot of it’s on you. You achieve this, you go on this course, then you do this and whatever. And I thought, as a mum, it would be like this and it would be a lot on just me. But actually you can’t balance everything if it’s just you.

So, for me, a lot of it is just accepting help from all the grandparents, accepting that if you don’t have that support then maybe you need someone else to help you. No one can do everything by themselves, particularly when it comes to kids. So be prepared to accept help.

Have you noticed an inequality between men and women in your field of work?

Kreena: You have to work harder as a woman to be in the same position. I hate to say it. I went to an all-girls school so I didn’t really – until very late in my career – see that there was a difference between women and men in that sense. Because obviously at school the women’s sports team were the most important because we were at an all-girls school.

Even at uni I didn’t really feel there was an inequality between women and men. But I think the more I’ve progressed in my career, the more I do feel I have to work harder or I have to be better to be the same.

Risha: You have to prove your worth more than your male counterparts. And it is still like that. It’s a difficult pill to swallow and not everybody will necessarily believe that if I’m being honest myself.

Read more in our Celebrating Women in Dentistry series here:

Follow Dentistry.co.uk on Instagram to keep up with all the latest dental news and trends.

Get the most out of your membership by subscribing to Dentistry CPD
  • Access 600+ hours of verified CPD courses
  • Includes all GDC recommended topics
  • Powerful CPD tracking tools included
Register for webinar
Add to calendar