Chicago native talks about balancing motherhood and dentistry

By Shurna Decou

Dr. Cheryl Watson-Lowry had been practicing for six years when she got pregnant with her first child. And for the first time since she was a kid, she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have any experience babysitting, much less taking care of a baby.

So Dr. Watson-Lowry called her sister, who had just had her first child, asking to come over to practice babysitting.

And she had questions: Do you change the baby right after you feed him? If you change the baby, is he expecting to be fed right away?

Dr. Watson-Lowry’s female patients told her that if she was going to be a new mom - to get ready, because she was going to have to let some stuff go.

“My patients would say, ‘One day, you're going to come home and your husband will have put the diaper on backwards,’” Dr. Watson-Lowry says. “And what you're going to say is ‘Thank you for changing the baby.’ That’s what you’re going to say.“

The path to becoming a dentist and mom

Dr. Watson-Lowry always felt like she was meant be a dentist. Her father opened his dental practice in Chicago in 1962. And when she was 11, she started working in her father’s dentist office. Sitting next to her sister, she would fill out patients’ addresses for holiday and birthday cards, and put stamps on them. When she got older, she started working chair-side, developing x-rays and working at the front desk.

She went off to college and then dental school at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She was still in dental school when her dad had his second heart attack and bypass surgery. Her father’s health problems gave her a sense of urgency to push harder.

“My father took a lot of pride in being at the top of his game, and he wanted nothing less for his patients,” Dr. Watson-Lowry says. “So that pushed me to try to get top grades and to work with the hardest instructors, because I knew that my biggest critic was going to be my father.”

For a year after graduating, Dr. Watson-Lowry worked as a solo practitioner until her father was healthy enough to come back to work. But she had an advantage: she knew her father’s dental practice backwards and forwards, and she knew his patients.

But that feeling of having everything under control changed when Dr. Watson-Lowry became a new mother. The scientific knowledge and clinical expertise that she had worked so hard to obtain didn’t translate to knowing how to care for an infant son.

Suddenly, there were not enough hours in the day to juggle a baby, babysitters, home and a dental practice.

In her head, she knew she needed to adapt, to be flexible. But in her day-to-day life, exhaustion and fatigue seemed ever-present.

It was in moments like these that her husband would step in and take the baby, so she could have some time for herself.

“One of my favorite Mother's Day presents was when I was pregnant with our second child,” Dr. Watson-Lowry says. “My husband gave me an hour to myself in the bathroom in the tub. He drew the water, there were roses, magazines, candles lit, chocolates and strawberries. And he said, ‘You have an hour to yourself in the tub.’”

And then he kept the baby and the cat away from the bathroom door.

Letting something go

Heeding her female patients’ advice on letting something go, Dr. Watson-Lowry chose laundry. When the kids were between 6 and 8 years old, Dr. Watson-Lowry started preparing them to do their own laundry. She would take them into the laundry room and show them how to separate clothes, and put in the detergent. So when the oldest one turned 11, he was ready to do his own laundry. And when the second one turned 11, he quickly followed his brother’s example, and then her daughter.

“I’ve found that if you let them know way ahead of time what is going to be expected of them – they will handle it,” Dr. Watson-Lowry said. “And when each one went away to college, they appreciated that. Because they saw their classmates struggling, because they had never done their own laundry before.”

The struggle is real

But there were still times when Dr. Watson-Lowry didn’t feel she was winning the balancing act. She recalled a moment that still tugs at her heart. Her middle son, Evan, was singing a solo at a school assembly. She wanted to go, but with her responsibilities she just couldn’t make it. Later, another mother told her that Evan stole the show. And she knew she had missed a special moment. It motivated her to adapt and ask for help. When she couldn’t make a school assembly, she asked one of the grandparents, her sister or her brother to go and video tape it, so she could watch it later.

There was another moment when Dr. Watson-Lowey felt the struggle, like she was spinning too many plates in the air.

The kids were ages 5 to 8 and they were in the kitchen when she threw out a proposal. “Let’s take a vote,” Dr. Watson-Lowry said. “Who thinks Mom should be a stay-at-home mom? I could pick you all up from school every day and we could do this, that and the other. Not one of them raised their hands. They were like, ‘No Mom, we like you working.’ It was obvious — they were proud of me.”

Today, her two sons and daughter are grown and busy with college, volunteering and working. But they still pop in to hang out or call her for advice, usually late at night.

And Dr. Watson-Lowry is still a dentist at the same office where she put stamps on patients’ holiday cards as a kid, the practice her father started all those years ago.

Editor’s note: Dr. Watson-Lowry is serving as the president of the Chicago Dental Society for the 2019 term. In 2017, Dr. Watson-Lowry testified before Congress about a health bill that would improve access to dental care for low income communities.

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