Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet on building a career you love—and modeling that for your kids

In August 1997, I flew across the country to start veterinary school. After years of trying, I finally got that acceptance letter. I had just given birth to my first child, Sierra, six weeks earlier, and I was determined to do it all: be a good mom, nurse my baby until she was at least 18 months old (which was hippie-talk back then), be a good student, become a great vet. I remember thinking, ‘Well, is there really ever going to be a good time to have babies and start a vet career?’ I was a little worried the school might renege on my acceptance when I showed up with a baby on my hip, but the dean took one look at me and got to work reorganizing a storage room on the top floor into a cozy nursing room. I will never forget her kindness. 

When Maya arrived 2 years later, between boards and clinical rotations, I was again lucky to have family and school support—and we were getting our money’s worth out of that nursing room. I finished school with honors and flew back to the Yukon Territory to start working at my first clinic job. 

Focusing on the health and conservation of wild species was always my passion, and after a few contracts, I was hired to be the first wildlife veterinarian for the Yukon Fish & Wildlife Department. I loved my work—it was a dream job, working with moose and bears and musk ox and caribou and wolves. But as fulfilling as the work was, it was often extremely remote, and it was rare that I could bring the girls with me in the field. I had my third child, Willow, during this time, and that one year of paid maternity leave (standard in Canada) was one of the happiest years of my life. I realized then how much I had been missing with my girls, and that, as much as I loved my work, I loved being with them more. It was time for a change.  

Dr Oakley with young daughters
Courtesy of the author

The next year was a blur as I embarked on starting a mobile vet practice. My patients were spread out in the wild country of the north and the financial impact of bootstrapping my own business was real. When we were weeks away from “living on love” (a very rosy euphemism), my best friend Karla forwarded me an email request from National Geographic: would I let them film some of the vet work I do for a few days? My instant response: “Sure, why not?”

I had no idea that, for the next 10 years, a NatGeo crew would be joining us, documenting the vet work I did on the rowdy roller coaster of #vetmedlife, complete with long, exhausting days, laughs in the face of tears and very few home-cooked meals, but all the while, finding ways to follow my passion of helping animals and being with my girls.

Most of my favorite family memories are the tough cases, where the girls and I helped save an animal together, and along the way I could see them developing skills and passions of their own. The girls—the women I was raising—worked by my side, and saw me laugh, cry, swear, hug and struggle. 

They watched me make mistakes—and then I hope they saw me forgive myself and try harder the next day.

As a mom, I was supposed to be inspiring or leading them, but it has always been the other way around. They were inspiring me through their patience, kindness, hopeful energy, and a silliness I desperately needed to keep laughing and carrying on. 

The Oakley women and I have since started the Better Wild Foundation, through which we are finding ways to offer animal rescue and vet care wherever in the world it is needed most, providing remote bush medicine in the trenches. Just as importantly, we are working to address bigger issues like causes and prevention of animal injuries, orphaning or diseases, especially in key biodiversity hotspots, from a “One Health” perspective (the concept of how the health of people, pets, farm animals and wild animals is intricately interwoven). 

My girls are grownups now, and as it should be, they are going their own ways and finding their own passions. Sierra is now in vet school, with less than two years to go, and hopefully we will be back running bush clinics together. Maya is working part time as a vet tech in a small animal clinic, and Willow is in college studying international business and accounting.

If I’m lucky, our passions will continue to overlap and intertwine, and we will keep finding ways to work together to make a difference and do the things we love, with the people we love. 

Dr Oakley with adult daughters
Courtesy of the author

I look back and wonder if it was right to drag them along and spend so much of their time helping me do what I think is important. I don’t know if I did it right. There were times I expected Child Protective  Services to show up when the girls shared stories with friends of us being nearly attacked by a mountain goat or chased by a bear, or I pulled them out of school for yet another week to help run a remote clinic. 

Like we all do as parents, most of the time I was doing what had to be done, primarily reacting, but all the while hoping for a balance—one that surely didn’t exist. 

If nothing else, we worked together to do a lot of good, help a lot of vulnerable animals, and maybe even inspire each other and others to keep looking for our own way to make a difference. I know it may not be what you usually hear, but I am so glad that I made my work my life, and my life my work, following my passion to help animals, and especially following my heart to be with my girls. 

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.

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