Growing up the youngest of ten children (yes, 10!) in a tight-knit Irish family, Dr. Meagher knew from a young age that she was interested in science. She grew up in a family where many of her older siblings, her father, aunts, uncles, and grandparents on both sides were physicians. “It was just all-encompassing. I grew up in an environment where it was always, ‘Ask why’.” One year for her birthday, her aunt gave her a pram (for those not up on the British lingo, this is a baby stroller), likely intended for dolls, which did not interest Dr. Meagher all that much. Instead, she dismantled it, along with her brother who was eleven months older than her. She was more interested in figuring out how all the pieces fit together than pushing a baby doll around. “My brother was a willing partner, only because he knew it would get me into trouble!”
Besides willing partners in mischief, her many older siblings were heavily influential for Dr. Meagher. Her eldest sister, Frances, was thirteen years older and the first of the group to attend medical school. While a medical student, Frances often looked after Dr. Meagher and, “There was always a text book open, so she hugely influenced me, she was a serious role model. She was a huge, huge influence.” Her eldest brother was an Olympian who swam for Ireland. “It was the combination of the two, seeing those two play out together, that was important [for me as a child].” In addition to her siblings, her uncles would often let her come see surgeries and she says that, “I lived in hospitals, it was just medicine, circumferential.”
When we ask about her parents, Dr. Meagher tells us that they both influenced her, but in very different ways. “My mom is probably where the brains [in the family] came from. She was a stay-at-home mom, not too surprisingly, but she was hugely driven. She really valued education and really wanted us to go the full mile.” Her father, an obstetrician, ran a maternity hospital and was a very busy physician. When Dr. Meagher decided she wanted to apply to medical school, her father was a bit apprehensive. He told her, “‘You’re not going to medical school’, because I was the youngest, last of the line.” So, she applied to medical school without him knowing, which did not last long, considering the deans of the medical schools knew her father. And although her father was not initially supportive, “During medical school he was great. I, as a student, rotated through the hospital that he ran, which was awesome. He kicked my tail a good bit, but his colleagues were super nice.”
In 1994, Dr. Meagher and her family moved back to the US. By this point, it was no longer just she and her husband. “We had a five, a four, a two [year old], and a nine-month old.” This was shocking to us. How did she possibly have four children in six years and finish her clinical training and do research? “Ireland is very different to America. Back then, in the 1990s, women didn’t really plan stuff. The expectation was that you got on with it. If you were going to work as a physician, you worked as a physician. If you were going to have children, you had children. You didn’t make a big to do about it. The Irish are very very critical of people who make a mountain out of a mole hill.”
“At no point did we say, are we crazy?” But, after the birth of Nicole, her youngest, Dr. Meagher’s ob-gyn told her, “You may have missed the contraception lectures in pharmacology. If you really want to rise to the top of your career, maybe four kids are about as much as you can handle.” Initially, Dr. Meagher was irritated by this comment, “I thought he was totally paternalistic. In retrospect, he was probably right…” Maybe four kids and a hugely successful and challenging career were enough to keep her busy!
And though it may not have been a question in Ireland, this certainly was not the case when Dr. Meagher moved to the US. “I was surrounded by women who were very different to me. And that was because most of the women at work didn’t have four small kids. And most of the parents of the kids that were at school, the moms didn’t work. I belonged in neither sphere, which was very hard. Those first couple of years, that adjustment, was a lonely time.” And though this made it difficult to make friends compared to her larger social circle in Ireland, she does see the US style of planning in a positive light. “The positive part of it was that I got to interact with a lot of women who made choices. Very deliberate choices [about when to start a family]. I never made a deliberate choice. There is something very healthy about making deliberate choices because you feel much more in control. Because work is tough, particularly in the biomedical sphere, it’s very competitive, and usually we are competing with ourselves. We are constantly trying to figure out how we can be the best at what we do.”
“Assertiveness is something that does not lend itself well to the female characteristic. And, I’m not sure we have always served ourselves well by emulating male stereotypes.” In her own experiences, Dr. Meagher tells us there are things that she encountered that we would just shake our heads at and say, “I cannot believe that happened.” However, she says it is dangerous to fall into the stereotype that women are constantly sidelined. She tells us that when talking with her own children she says, “Always work from the baseline of equality and don’t change your viewpoint unless something objectively happens to change your viewpoint. And if something objectively happens, act on it at the time, don’t ruminate.”
With all this wisdom, Dr. Meagher says there are still things she wants to improve upon. “Even where I sit today, the one skill I still haven’t nailed is negotiating potential. When I’m fighting hard for something, for an individual professional advancement, I have a hard time being clear and forthright…when it comes down to salary negotiation. ‘I honestly think I’m not being compensated appropriately.’ I can get that sentence out, but I can’t get the rest of it out. To say, ‘I believe I’m worth this amount of compensation.’ We do ourselves a disservice because we don’t always value our worthiness.”
When her daughters were in elementary school, “I developed a field hockey program for the school. It was fun. Fun and enlightening.” Always an athlete, Dr. Meagher tells us that she is a huge proponent of athletics and physical fitness. “It was so incredibly different from what I did at work, but it allowed for all sorts of positives.” She tells us that although she was never the homeroom mom or on the PTA, her daughters could finally say, “My mom’s the coach!” “It gave my girls and their classmates the opportunity to become engaged in a sport at a much more developmental level, at a much younger age. And it gave me insights into what it was like to be a suburban mom,” she says, laughing.
Raised as an athlete and not a girly-girl, Dr. Meagher applied these practices to her own coaching. No bows in the hair and no cancellations due to rain. “Weather shouldn’t deter you from being active. It’s the Irish way.” However, these practices prompted a letter to Dr. Meagher from ‘The Moms’. “They are tired of dirty shoes coming home, the uniforms were chronically covered in mud, that is was unhealthy for the girls to play when it was raining outside, and they couldn’t understand why the girls couldn’t wear bows in their hair.” She didn’t reply, but she did frame the letter and hung it up on the wall in her kitchen. She tells us that she loved this project and although, “It was in some respects crazy to add another thing, it was a huge amount of fun.”