Calling Dr. Mom

Work and home coexist for this busy Bayfront obstetrician and mother of eight.

Published May 13, 2007

"Loud" is the first word Dr. Karen Raimer's children use to describe their house; "busy" is another.

But the most common word -- whispered, shouted, screamed and cried -- is "mom."

Raimer has given birth to seven children, adopted an eighth, and delivered thousands more in her career as an obstetrician. Her oldest son is 28; the youngest, a daughter, is just 2 years old. On top of it, she's played mom to a new generation of doctors, leading the residents of Bayfront Medical Center's obstetrics and gynecology program in St. Petersburg since 1998.

Raimer readily admits she doesn't fit neatly into the pigeonholes "traditional mother" or "feminist." After all, she confesses with a laugh, it's her maternal instinct that keeps her at work. Sometimes she just needs a baby fix.

Her simple formula: Working hard at a job she loves makes her a better mom; motherhood makes her a better doctor.

She pre-empts the impolite question: "I'm not crazy."

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When the family gathers around the large dining room table, they have to drag in two extra chairs. The lineup, from the oldest on down, goes like this: Sean, 28; twins Reece and Ryan, 19; Lauren, 17; Keith, 14; Austin, 11; Gabriel, 6, and Anna, 2.

Raimer quickly says she's lucky. She has a fantastic full-time nanny, and a husband who loves spending time with the children as much as she does.

Raimer, 48, is trim, lightly tanned, with shoulder-length red hair. Her husband, Dr. Mark Alkire, 52, is a surgeon. They have five children still at home, a gorgeously renovated Queen Anne Victorian overlooking the Manatee River in Palmetto.

Alkire's alarm goes off at 5:30 most mornings. Raimer gets to snooze for another 45 minutes before helping get the children ready for school. She then faces a 30-minute commute north over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. A specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, she helps mothers-to-be through high-risk pregnancies and expertly eases hiccupy newborns to sleep. She often works more than a 40-hour week, and is on call every third night.

When she clambers into her car to head home, she's exhausted, she admits. But when she gets home, she says she's "ready to be a mom."

One recent afternoon, Anna, chubby-cheeked and inquisitive, fixes her hopeful gaze on the back door.

"Mommy home?" she quizzes her nanny. Then, with delight as the door opens, she repeats "Mommy home!"

Raimer's four oldest children say their mother almost always makes dinner, attends school performances, and helps with homework.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Lauren, wants a large family and a career in medicine, like her mom. Her oldest son calls her "my inspiration."

Every Mother's Day, each child makes a card. It can't be store bought, though. The one that makes her cry the most wins.

With eight children, the competition is fierce.

"You can't just fold some construction paper and cut it into a heart," said Sean, the oldest. "That doesn't cut the mustard anymore."

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Balancing work and family is easier now, Raimer said, but her early career had none of the flexibility many mothers need.

She gave birth to her first child, Sean Dalesandro, when she was 21. She divorced her first husband and finished medical school in 1984 as a single mom.

Almost immediately, Raimer entered a demanding four-year residency. The first interview question she faced: "Are you planning to get pregnant?"

She wanted the job. "Then, you were scared. You just said no."

She married Alkire in 1985, and a year later became pregnant with twins. "They were not terribly understanding," she recalled. "They made it harder than usual."

When Reece and Ryan were 5 weeks old, the director of her program refused to allow her to trade an out-of-town assignment with another resident. She worked 12-hour shifts starting at 6 a.m. Every other night, she was on call. After 36 hours in the hospital, she'd make the bleary-eyed, two-hour drive home to see the twins.

"I had obligations as a doctor," she said. "But I also had obligations as a mom."

More than two decades later, professional mothers still get hyper-scrutinized or "mommy tracked, "said Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings.

Williams said the past decade has seen a 400 percent increase in the number of lawsuits alleging "family responsibilities" discrimination. Some plaintiffs are men, or caregivers for elderly parents or disabled relatives. But many are mothers of young children.

Pop wisdom holds that professional women "opt out." But Williams disagrees. Many, she said, are pushed.

Working motherhood peaked in 1995, when 70 percent of married mothers worked, but has dropped steadily since, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The phenomenon has given rise to books like The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars and, more recently, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.

The authors cite three main factors: the resurgence of the "bad mommy" myth, the inflexible workplaces and discrimination.

Miriam Peskowitz, author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, said if moms go to work, they're bad mothers. Stay home, and they're bad feminists.

"With all the hype, mothers' wishes are being ignored," Peskowitz wrote in an e-mail.

Raimer said her field, at least, has changed for the better. Women today make up more than half of the doctors entering obstetrics and gynecology, she said.

They've revolutionized the field. Women-only practices arrange schedules so moms are on call just once every two weeks. They can work four-day weeks, limit the number of patients they take on, and space out the due dates of expectant mothers.

Today, Raimer tells the female residents on her staff that they can have both a family and a career. Their reaction, Raimer said, is often relief.

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So is eight enough?

Raimer thinks so. But she thought six was enough after Austin, when she had her tubes tied.

Then Austin went to pre-school, and the workplace baby-fix wasn't enough. At 41, she made a deal with God. She'd try three courses of in vitro. The third try took, and she had Gabriel.

But then he went to preschool. They discussed adoption. Again, they prayed for a sign. Then Raimer ran into an old colleague whose wife coordinates Russian adoptions. Almost exactly a year ago, they brought Anna home.

"I really think this is it," Raimer said.

Her husband hopes so. He'd like to bypass the diaper aisle at the grocery store. "I'm getting too old for this."

But her children say that with their mom, you never know.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at 352754-6127 or aloder@sptimes.com.