Before Dr. Katherine Thaller joined Hillcrest Pediatric Clinic, she was a stay-at-home mom for 11 years. She calls raising four children the “intensive developmental research” that molded her medical practice. When she went back to work part time, Thaller knew some things would change; she couldn’t serve as the school garden mom or manage every carpool. But with the help of her husband, Ephraim, an allergist at Allergy Asthma Center, and a handy chore chart, Thaller balances work and family. And she still throws the best Halloween party in the neighborhood.
WACOAN: Would you describe yourself as a working mom or a mom who works?
Thaller: A mom who works. I was home with my children for 11 years. We had four kids within five years. I felt that God wanted me to be home. After a few years I realized I missed medicine, but it wasn’t the right time. I firmly believe God has a time and season for everything. I prayed about it, and God said, ‘Not yet, but it’s coming soon.’
About two years ago I felt ready, so I started looking for a job. Then I got a call from my Bible study leader. She said she wanted to meet me for breakfast, which is always code for ‘let’s pray about something.’ She wanted me to serve as substitute instructor [for Bible Study Fellowship]. That means I would prepare lessons and teach the passages. It requires a lot of time. I went to my husband with both of these opportunities, and he said, ‘The only way you can do this and a job is if you find a position that doesn’t have call.’ I interviewed at Hillcrest Pediatrics, and they needed someone to start soon.
WACOAN: Was your medical background in pediatrics?
Thaller: I finished my residency in pediatrics in 2003, and then I stayed home with my kids. Two years after that I started volunteering at the Mission Waco [Health] Clinic every other week. That helped me keep up my skills.
Sometimes I call the 11 years at home with the kids ‘intensive developmental research.’ When you have four children of your own, you gain a lot of knowledge.
WACOAN: Tell me more about this Bible study.
Thaller: Bible Study Fellowship, BSF, is an international, intensive Bible study. Just to be in the group takes a time commitment. To be a leader, it takes two hours of preparation time.
WACOAN: Where does BSF meet?
Thaller: We meet at Western Heights Baptist Church on Monday nights from 6:30-9 p.m. You have to choose to make that your commitment and work out the rest of the week. Mondays are a tough night. The kids usually get to bed late.
WACOAN: What was the hardest part of being a full-time mom?
Thaller: It was hard because with motherhood you’re rarely told you’re doing a good job. I guess you’re told that when your kids graduate and do well. Also it can be lonely. You’re isolated, especially if your kids get sick. When I lived in Galveston for residency, I got together with the other residency moms. We did a thing called ‘pray and play.’
When I moved to Waco, I felt disconnected at first. I made an effort to get out and meet the neighbors. We have a wonderful neighborhood. We host parties every year — I’m famous for my Halloween party. I already have next year’s theme planned. I started a book club a few years ago to start cultivating friendships. You have to be intentional about that.
WACOAN: Why is it important to cultivate friendships and create a sense of community?
Thaller: I feel like it’s a calling. As a Christian, you’re called to hospitality. My husband isn’t a Christian — he’s Jewish. But we both agree that it’s important to build a community in our neighborhood. If our kids are home alone, we want them to know they can go next door if they need help. And we want to use what God has blessed us with.
WACOAN: After staying at home for 11 years, how was your transition back to work?
Thaller: It went smoother than I thought it would. I knew a lot of the people I work with before I started. The biggest difference was when I trained on the computer, I had to relearn how to take notes. Medicine doesn’t change that much, and I kept up with it. A lot of good medicine is good note-taking and getting a patient’s history.
WACOAN: Do you think your time at home prepared you to work as a pediatrician?
Thaller: Definitely. And I always do additional reading and study. When a new parenting book comes out, I get it. Parenting is one of those things people think they’re prepared for and they’re not. I’m a big believer in study and improving yourself as a parent. I had the idea to start a book club at the pediatrics clinic. That way if a parent is having issues, like attachment theory or whatever it may be, we’ve read about it.
WACOAN: How would you describe yourself as a doctor?
Thaller: I try to be respectful and compassionate. I treat each child like they’re my own and each parent as if it were myself. At the end of the appointment I ask if the parents have more questions. I always look at what the question behind the question is. You have to figure out why they’re there and what the [parent’s] fear is.
Medicine is an art. You can’t plug in symptoms and spit out a diagnosis. It’s a science applied as an art.
WACOAN: How did your kids adjust to your new schedule?
Thaller: The first year the kids weren’t used to it. Mommy wasn’t volunteering at the school anymore. I had to scale back. I couldn’t be garden mom anymore. After school the kids have to take care of themselves for a while.
WACOAN: What does your work schedule look like?
Thaller: At first I was on an as-needed schedule. So the first six months were hectic because I never knew when I would need to go in. I’d be planning my day and get a call at 10 a.m. saying, ‘We’re getting slammed. Can you come in?’ Now I’m on more of a set schedule. I work on Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I can do carpool those days. On Thursdays I work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. So I can do carpool in the morning but not in the afternoon.
My husband gets off two Fridays of the month. When he is off, I try to be off work. But Fridays from 1-5 p.m. are a busy time [at the clinic.] We get those calls: ‘It’s almost the weekend, and my kid is sick.’
WACOAN: How do you stay energized throughout the day?
Thaller: My mom asks me that a lot. I can’t sit still for long. Right now I’m painting the bathroom at our ranch [in Crawford]. I painted a rocking chair on the front porch on Tuesday. Having projects gives me energy. I’m not someone who stays up late or wakes up early, except on Fridays when I have BSF leader meeting at 5 a.m. I can pack in a lot in my days. Mondays and Wednesdays are usually highly productive days unless there’s a field trip or one of the kids is sick.
WACOAN: Do you ever get overwhelmed?
Thaller: When I feel too tired or burned out, I know I’m doing too much. Or if my kid is having behavior problems or I’m not feeling close to my husband. I ask each of my kids how they’re doing, especially now that I’m going to work.
WACOAN: What’s your day like when you get home from work?
Thaller: Every evening I do homework checking, folder signing, make dinner and eat with the family.
WACOAN: You said you don’t wake up early. When do you wake up in the morning?
Thaller: I get up at 6 a.m., unless it’s a Friday. I do believe we need a certain amount of sleep, and I’m a better mom when I sleep. In the mornings I get ready really quick. I’m a speed dresser. I come into the kitchen around 6:30 a.m. If the kids have finished getting ready, they’re allowed to watch TV. That’s the only time they watch TV. Then we eat breakfast and do the BSF Bible study. The kids pray for each other. We’ll say, ‘Sam has a test today. Who wants to pray for Sam?’ Then the kids take care of our chickens in our backyard. We got the chickens about a year ago, and everyone helps take care of them.
WACOAN: How old are your kids?
Thaller: Maggie is 13; Sam is 11; Wyatt is 9; and Sadie is 8.
WACOAN: Where do your kids go to school?
Thaller: The younger two are at South Bosque Elementary. Sam is at River Valley Intermediate School. Maggie is at Midway Middle School.
WACOAN: How would you describe each of your children?
Thaller: Maggie is thoughtful and steady. She will babysit now, and she’s great. She’ll make games for them and make them dinner.
Sam is independent. He’s an explorer. He makes me want to be better. He’s always asking questions, and he’s a huge reader.
Wyatt is passionate and so caring. It really hurts him if someone is hurting. He has an overdeveloped sense of justice. He’s a daydreamer.
Sadie is just happy all the time. She’s all energy. She’s like me without the fear. My girls are a lot like me, but Maggie has my fear. She pushes herself really hard. She’s a classic first child.
WACOAN: How would you describe yourself as a mom?
Thaller: I try to have a goal in mind for my kids. I’m a long-term planner. I envision where I want my kids to be a few years from now. I ask what character qualities I want them to have and how I want them to seek God on their own.
I remind myself that there’s a clock counting down. Parenting is a short portion of my life. One of my kids is already 13, so I only have five more years until she graduates. I think that’s why I plan the big parties and trips.
WACOAN: It sounds like you place a high value on experiences over things.
Thaller: We’re more about doing things together. On a Sunday afternoon we’ll go to church and then go kayaking together. We’ll go to Cameron Park and hike. Before I went back to work, I delivered with Meals on Wheels in Lorena, and I’d take the kids with me. We would spend the afternoon [delivering meals]. I want my kids to see it’s not just about having fun. It’s about making relationships and serving other people.
WACOAN: Is there someone who inspires you as a mother?
Thaller: My own mom. She always emphasized people over things. She would let her house go dirty if we wanted to play a game. I try to do that, but it’s hard for me.
WACOAN: What’s the best parenting advice you’ve ever received?
Thaller: I had a friend say parenting is just a season. Even though the days feel like they’re dragging on, especially when they’re toddlers, it goes by fast. I didn’t believe it at the time. Everything changes. I thought I’d never go back to work, but now I’m working. I thought my kids would never be independent and able to put themselves to bed, but now they can.
WACOAN: What has motherhood taught you?
Thaller: I can’t do it on my own. Parenting is about humility. I can do the best I can, but then I have to let go. At work, I tell that to parents all the time. Every kid is different, and they can’t expect the same thing out of them.
WACOAN: With four kids, how do spend quality time with each one?
Thaller: We have developed a sticker chart. If I see someone doing something really kind for someone, or I see a part of their character I want to encourage, I’ll give them a sticker. When they get stickers, they get a date with mom or dad. They can do whatever they want. Sam always wants to go to the park. Wyatt always wants to cuddle on the couch. As a family of six, everyone can’t do what they want to do all the time. So that’s our special alone time with them.
WACOAN: What activities does your whole family do together?
Thaller: We’ll have movie nights with the neighborhood. We invited 20 kids over and watched a movie. We also like to be outside. I like to hike, and my kids love the Thor, Babbler and Bat Cave trails at Cameron Park. So it’s more of a climb than a hike.
WACOAN: Tell me more about your husband. How did you meet?
Thaller: We met in med school [at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Temple]. We were just friends at first. Toward the end of the three years there we started hanging out by ourselves. We dated and got married at the end of the fourth year. We were only together for two months when we had to decide if we would do residency together. We ‘couple matched’ for residency. We got engaged in November and started doing interviews. We found out where we were going in March and got married in May.
I think that background of being friends is important. We’ve been married for 16 years, and that’s stayed with us. It’s tough when you have toddlers. Ephraim would get to go to work, and I felt almost jealous. You fall back on, ‘He’s my friend.’
We send the kids to our parents for a week in the summer and do activities as a couple. We kayaked from Crawford to Lake Waco last summer.
WACOAN: What does Ephraim do?
Thaller: He’s an allergist at Allergy & Asthma Center.
WACOAN: With two doctors as parents, how do you manage your family’s schedule?
Thaller: That’s the one thing I feel like we do fairly well. He takes call two weeks out of every month. We get his call schedule a year in advance. So one day in August I look at his work schedule and the kids’ school schedule, and then I make my work schedule. Things always come up, but that helps us plan.
WACOAN: How has motherhood changed your relationship with Ephraim?
Thaller: With or without kids, when you live with someone for 16 years you become more like each other. He goes to church with the family. Even when we started dating, he would go to church with me. I didn’t want to answer the question, ‘Why doesn’t Daddy go to church?’ I wanted my kids to see a united front.
Over the years seeing him be a dad, especially with the girls, I see how sweet he is to them. The girls have dates with their dad.
WACOAN: How do you and your husband differ as parents?
Thaller: On a daily basis I keep structure and schedule in the kids’ lives. I tend to be more focused on their learning, spiritual growth and discipline issues. Ephraim is more concerned that they understand why they believe what they believe. He also focuses more on playing games and bringing fun.
We both agree that we want them to be responsible, hardworking, compassionate and able to launch from our household successfully.
WACOAN: How do you instill structure in your children’s lives?
Thaller: We have chores we do every day. I have a chart with each kids’ name on it. That helped when I went back to work. If they didn’t help with the cooking and cleaning, it wouldn’t work as well.
WACOAN: How do you stay healthy with your busy schedule?
Thaller: I try to eat healthy and exercise. I work out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday mornings. Sometimes I’ll just walk, but it’s a long 4-mile walk. I’ll do Jillian Michaels’ workouts. It’s a good way to get rid of stress.
WACOAN: How do you keep your kids healthy and active?
Thaller: We stock lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I go to the grocery store once or twice a week and always stock up. We plant a garden each year, and this encourages the kids to eat healthier and try new things. Also we minimize eating out during the week.
On the weekends we go walking with the kids and hiking and biking. We’re active. Our family doesn’t do organized sports. We do piano, but the instructor comes to our house. And it’s the kids’ choice. I keep asking the kids if they want to do basketball or baseball, but they don’t. They’d rather spend their weekends climbing trees.
WACOAN: When you go to the store, do you bring the kids?
Thaller: I’m usually by myself. I pull in right after carpool in the morning. I’ve found that’s the best time to go.
WACOAN: Do your kids help you cook?
Thaller: We’re learning how to cook. Every summer I have one meal I want the kids to learn how to make. Sometimes I’ll put out four ingredients and ask if they can make an entree or dessert. They love watching Food Network. They don’t watch a ton of TV, but they do watch that.
WACOAN: With four kids, how do you squeeze in alone time?
Thaller: I don’t very often. I don’t want to waste a single moment with my kids. To me, I get more energy if I’m with them. But walking and exercising is my alone time.
WACOAN: How do you make time for everything on your schedule?
Thaller: I try to play double duty sometimes. This evening we’ll probably take a walk together. It’s time together, but it’s also exercise. I used to scrub my floor and go into a plank. My friends would laugh about that. If I miss seeing a friend, I’ll ask if we can go for a walk.
WACOAN: How would you describe a balanced day?
Thaller: For me, it’s a day that includes the major relationships in my life: God, my husband, my children, my work and a connection with the community.
WACOAN: What advice would you give other moms?
Thaller: Not to compare yourself. If you’re going to compare yourself at all, it’s going to be God. Underneath the surface, everyone is a mess.