Neonatologists, Moms, and Podcasters

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There’s a lot of information⁠—and misinformation⁠—out there about pregnancy, postpartum, and taking care of a newborn. Enter a podcast by the ultimate specialists⁠—the Baby Doctor Mamas, Dr. Joanna Parga-Belinkie and Dr. Diana Montoya-Williams. They’re two neonatologists and soul sisters, who are also mothers. They  have a knack for distilling the evidence and their own experience into accessible and informative banter on their podcast. When not podcasting on the side, they both work as neonatologists (doctors for newborn babies) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Dr. Parga-Belinkie (Left) and Dr. Montoya-Williams (Right) working on the Baby Doctor Mamas podcast.

I sat down with Dr. Parga-Belinkie and Dr. Montoya-Williams (remotely, of course) to learn how they launched this podcast, how they blend creative pursuits into their professional interests, and what motivates them to continue this work. 

To listen to the Baby Doctor Mamas, tune in every Thursday for new episodes, and subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And feel free to follow them on instagram, twitter, and facebook!

VV: What is the origin story of Baby Doctor Mamas?

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: That’s a great question. As a person who really enjoys X-Men, I think origin stories and asking it that way is really fun. Our origin story starts at Harvard University. Diana and I were both undergraduates there and we met through our mutual friend. We lived together since freshman year essentially, we got so close.

Dr. Montoya-Williams: And we really have been inseparable ever since! We lived together all through college and then we both went to medical school in New York City. So, even though we weren’t at the same medical school, we were frequently together. Our personal and professional lives were very entwined for these eight formative years of our life. And then we went our separate ways geographically. I did my residency and my fellowship for neonatology at the University of Florida down in Gainesville, whereas Joanna traveled to the other part of the country and went out West to LA. But I feel like our lives have been mirrored in so many ways, so it was such a happy surprise when Joanna got a job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and then one year later I got a job at CHOP as well. It was like fate!  I have this vivid memory of calling you, Joanna, at 5:00 AM to tell you that my husband had matched at CHOP for his fellowship, so we were moving to Philly. Do you remember that phone call?

Dr. Montoya-Williams (Left) and Dr. Parga-Belinkie (Right) met in college at Harvard as freshmen and have been friends ever since.

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I was newly pregnant and I was very emotional and Diana tells me that she’s going to move to Philadelphia and I start crying. It’s five in the morning, I’m in the bathroom. I’m sobbing. And my husband’s like, are you okay? What’s going on? He gets up out of bed. And I’m like, “Diana’s moving to Philadelphia” and crying, it’s like everything’s falling into place.

Dr. Montoya-Williams: Then fast forward to the summer of 2018, we’re moving in. And Joanna comes over to see us. Because you know at that point we are living two blocks away from each other. And she says, “Listen, I have this idea.” I had a one year old, she had an infant, and we’d been talking about all the mom issues that had come up in our lives, and the struggles and the joys and the triumphs and the things that made us cry, both good and bad, and how we go through these things. And she says, “What if we talk about those things but with a microphone and record it and turn it into a podcast?” I also have a vivid memory of being in my apartment that is not yet fully furnished. And she’s like, “Let’s create a podcast.” And when Joanna asks you to create something you say: “Yes.”

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: The podcast, for me, is not only to share information on what I love to do and to educate and teach, but it’s also a time for me to be with Diana and carve time out of our busy schedules to be together and be talking. And so it’s just such a precious thing. And I wouldn’t do it without Diana because I didn’t want to do something where I was just talking into a microphone alone. I think we both enjoy it because it’s a way for us to share and to come together and to feel like we’re creating but also connecting.

Dr. Montoya-Williams: Yes, and part of what we hope to accomplish with the podcast was helping other women feel this way, helping them feel that if they can listen to friendly sounding voices who can empathize with what they’re going through, they might feel less alone. Because motherhood can be so isolating, and parenthood in general can be so isolating, and there’s so much that makes you question everything about your life. So we wanted to create the safe space that Joanna and I feel for each other to discuss our lives and support each other. We wanted to create that same space for new parents.

VV: Were there other podcasts you were listening to that had inspired you? And how did you go about educating yourselves on how to start a podcast?

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: I think we’ve learned a lot on the way. I’d been listening to some podcasts about pediatrics, and most of them were people who weren’t healthcare workers but were parents who were telling their stories. And I always found that that was kind of interesting. There’s “The Longest Shortest Time,” which actually just ended as a podcast, which is moms talking about their experiences. And I liked that podcast. But I did see that there was a hole where there weren’t healthcare professionals who were trying to do a format that was less formal. We got a lot of help from friends to get it off the ground, including Alison Byrne, Dr. Juanita Lewis, and my husband, and we have an audio producer. And it was learning on the go, and we’ve mainly used social media really to promote it, which I do myself at the moment.

VV: Yes, I follow the Baby Doctor Mama’s social media and always notice the baby pictures! In terms of sharing personal stories on the podcast and then sharing pictures on social media, how did you approach that aspect of sharing parts of your personal lives through this work?

Dr. Montoya-Williams: That’s a good question because we actually approach it differently and we have even recorded an entire episode about it.  I very much feel strongly about sharing personal stories via the podcast because that to me is a way that someone can hear it and feel less alone. But I feel very strongly about not sharing my children on social media. So it might be subtle and you might not even realize it if you don’t look for it. But if you look at our social media, you’ll see that any picture that involves my children, their faces are never shown. Whereas every picture that involves an actual baby face are either pictures we’ve gotten sent to us by other people, or Joanna’s children. 

VV: I think the other interesting thing about being a presence on the internet is that the internet now is also a source of a lot of false information for all groups, but particularly for parents. We’re all familiar with this as pediatricians. So I’m curious how you navigate interactions with your audience on the internet and whether you’ve gotten feedback that you’d be willing to share from listeners that has changed your approach to the podcast.

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: So when we were first starting this, we were so nervous about negative comments and negative feedback. And I still am nervous about that to a certain extent. But on the whole, people are pretty supportive when you’re being true to yourself and you’re trying to make something authentic. There have been times that we’ve gotten criticism or negative feedback, and when they do come, we take a minute to decide, is this constructive? I think that it’s important for physicians and probably all healthcare workers to realize that, you know, the internet is not going away. Media is not going away and not everybody’s going to agree with the things you say, even if they are rooted in science. And so how do you still talk to people who have different views than you?

VV: That’s such an important question. How have you navigated being professional neonatologists and also knowing that your colleagues or patients might be listening to your podcast as well?

Dr. Montoya-Williams: A lot of our colleagues have been really supportive and we definitely know that people are listening. One of the balances we try to strike on the podcast is to tell parents, listeners, and caregivers: listen, here are the recommendations for whatever topic we’re talking about today. This is why they exist. This is what we recommend as pediatricians. But then we always try to balance it with, “Okay, but I’m a mom and I understand why you might struggle with this.” Like when we recorded our safe sleep episode and I talk about the time that I brought my infant into the bed and realized, you know, that was really stressful for me. But I realized in saying that at the time that there’s going to be a colleague maybe who says, “That’s a public-facing podcast. She should have never said that she did that herself because that’s a bad example.”

But I remember feeling so strongly that part of what I’m trying to accomplish with this podcast is to meet parents and women where they are. I want to be realistic about how people try to incorporate guidelines into their lives, and how even we as pediatricians and neonatologists can struggle with these issues at the same time.

Dr. Montoya-Williams (Left) and Dr. Parga-Belinkie (Right) bring their experience as neonatologists AND mothers of newborns to the Baby Doctor Mamas podcast.

VV: My last question is, what advice would you have for people like me who are medical trainees, or even attending physicians who are interested in launching something creative along with their clinical or research work?

Dr. Parga-Belinkie: I sometimes worry that the podcast is not valued within academia and since I put so much time and energy into it, I don’t know where my career path is going to take me. And that gives me some moments of stress and anxiety.

I think that’s the part that’s hard: when you’re doing a nontraditional path, there is no path, right? So you’re kind of making it up as you go. My most salient piece of advice would be to recognize yourself as an individual.

Know that there’s a place for big academic institutions but your career in medicine when you leave training can take you in a lot of different directions, and you want to stay true to yourself but also make sure you’re doing things that fuel you within medicine, and use that to guide where you’re going. 

Dr. Montoya-Williams: I love that. I will add to that, that doing something creative like this is equal parts rewarding and lots of work. So going into it with open eyes is really important. I think people should follow their passion but do it with the understanding that it can take a lot of time and energy to create something from nothing, and to make sure that that venture and endeavor that they want to do is going to fulfill them and fuel their engine. If you can find something like that, then it’s worth whatever work you want to throw at it, because that’s how you keep yourself from burning out.

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