Are you a medical resident with a family, or are you planning to start a family while pursuing your degree?
As an academic consultant, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of supportive and reliable information for medical school students and residents with families, or applicants planning to start a family during their academic pursuits. In addition, I noticed through interviews that quite a few of my students had children or were on the path to getting married; therefore, starting a family within the next 4-6 years is likely not far from the realm of possibilities. In my own medical school class of 110 students, there were a total of 3 students with children in first year, and 10 by the end of fourth year. In addition, there were likely 5-10 other classmates who had intentionally put their personal family plans on hold to complete medical school.
Planning a family is difficult. There is no perfect sequence of events and there is certainly no instruction manual. Planning a family as a student or professional learner is a balancing act, perhaps even more so than for those with well-established careers. However, with a supportive network and an open mind, it is not impossible to meet both your personal and professional goals. Speaking from my own experience, medical school and the path to it is difficult. That being said, there are many parents who have traversed the road ahead and with it they have left behind some of their wisdom that I would like to share.
1. Time Management
Although this is an important consideration for all medical school students and residents, this becomes paramount for parents and future parents. You will have classmates with ample time to participate in activities, procrastinate, socialize, and travel, all while still doing well academically. However, in order to reach your full potential academically, you will need to appropriately allocate time to maintain a strong and sustainable work/life balance. I strongly recommend creating a Google calendar where you allocate time for family, academics, and wellness activities each month in advance. In addition, you can share your calendar with friends and family in order for them to check your availability while planning events. Your life may seem like it is being run at military precision – and sometimes, you may not meet every goal you establish for a given day, week, or month. However, in order to stay well physically, mentally, and emotionally, while still excelling academically in a sustainable way, allocating your time, attention, and priorities appropriately is a necessity.
Communication is key in every relationship. However, as a partner and parent, this becomes integral. It is easy to get wrapped up in the depths of fatigue and sacrifice communication, as both a parent and student (for example, if you’re coming off of a 24-hour shift at the hospital, communication with your partner or family may be the last thing on your mind!). Therefore, I recommend that you give your partner and yourself time set aside specifically to communicate. This could something like putting aside 30 minutes every day after you wake or before bed to simply discuss your day together or touch base to ensure everyone feels supported and heard in any frustrations they may have. This is not the time to discuss a particular case, nor to bicker about parenting styles, but a time to devote to your partner and their well-being. After all, it is this support network, if nurtured, that will get you through the darkest times in your journey.
3. Optimize Your Learning
Take a moment to think about your learning style. Are you someone who retains details by writing notes while sitting in a lecture theatre? Are you someone who learns best from discussing cases with classmates? Do you retain information more effectively if you hand-write it or type it? In order to succeed early, you need to identify this and move forward with it in mind. It may take your classmates 6-8 months to really learn their own style; however, with a family, you need to be strategic because that is time you simply do not have. In addition, professional and residency programs are different than many undergraduate programs in that you cannot simply memorize all the details due to the sheer volume and complexity. If you can identify your learning style early on, you will be able to optimize your study time to reflect this.
Dr. Ashley White alludes to this in her post about choosing the “right” medical school for you. This is important for all applicants, but even more so for current and future parents, because you want to select a program that has students like yourself and that will support you in your journey.
4. Support Network
This is of the utmost importance. Medical school and residency are a grind and without the help and support of partners, family, and friends, it becomes even more difficult to find a balance -- and to do so in a guilt-free way. I cannot stress how important it is to have a supportive partner on whom you can rely while you are in class, on call, or at the hospital, for example. Therefore, ask yourself how much help your partner will be – and be realistic. For example, does your partner cringe or shy away from changing a dirty diaper? If so, you will need to fill that void with help. This is where living close to active grandparents, aunts/uncles, and friends becomes incredibly useful.
In addition, daycare is another consideration. Depending on your program, this may work flawlessly, as you and your partner can easily coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs between 7am and 5 or 6pm. However, in medicine - and particularly in residency - this is not that simple, as your 24-hour shift will start at 7am and will not end until 7am the next day. In addition, the hospital is not a very predictable place and, despite your best efforts, getting out “on time” is not always feasible. Therefore, I suggest looking into daycares that are flexible and prepare a back-up plan for worst-case scenarios. If you have a retired grandparent around that can step in at a moment’s notice, this is your best resource. If you are not able to rely on family, then you may have to look into hiring a part-time nanny. Another aspect to consider are sick days, as your child will inevitably get sick. You and your partner may be unable to take time off or stay at home with your child, so, again, supportive family and back-up plans are paramount.
Finances are always a factor when deciding to have a family; however, they are even more of a consideration when you pursue a medical degree with a substantial sum of student debt awaiting you. Finding financial stability as a medical student or resident can be overwhelming and adding a family member may make that seem unattainable. That being said, there are a number of factors to consider which significantly play into your financial portfolio, such as your partner’s profession, undergraduate debt, tuition, living expenses, childcare costs, financial assistance from family, and your ability to qualify for professional lines of credit. There are areas where you may be able to cut corners in terms of budgeting; however, I do not recommend doing so when it comes to childcare. You will be working and studying long hours and you do not want to have the added stress of wondering if your child is being adequately nurtured.
Women’s likelihood of infertility starts increasing past age 30 and, although you may delay family planning until you reach financial stability, you may do so at the detriment of your own fertility. As a medical student, for example, if you and your partner wait the 6-10 years (depending on your residency) to conceive, it may be more difficult than you anticipate. This was a serious consideration for myself, personally, starting medical school at age 24 and finishing at 28. I was debating whether or not to chance it and wait, or to put medicine on hold to make the right decision for my family. If adoption or surrogacy are more appropriate routes for you and your family, note that these also include a significant time and monetary commitment, and you may not want to delay this process until you’ve completed your program. When you start medicine, many aspects of your life necessarily get put on hold. Regardless of your or your partner’s gender, starting a family is a mutual decision, and your partner must be extremely understanding, patient, and supportive of your unpredictable schedule (as you must be if your partner is pursuing similar educational and career goals!). Family members must understand that you cannot always attend birthdays, weddings, and reunions. Lastly, your friends must learn that your available time is sporadic and coffee dates need to be coordinated around exams, shifts, and your other responsibilities.
I had my daughter at the end of my fourth year and completed my residency interviews with a conspicuously large (5-month gestation) midsection. Despite this, I still managed to match to my desired specialty in anesthesia while not sacrificing my own personal and family goals. Deciding to have my daughter was a difficult choice at the time. That said, having been through it, I can attest to the fact that medicine will be waiting for you and it is not all-consuming, despite how it may feel sometimes. It is important that we also nurture our own personal lives and especially those that mean the most to us, because life with medicine alone may very well be a lonely and unfulfilling road.
7. Embrace Parenthood
Although your road to and through your degree may be different from your classmates, you should embrace your differences. You bring a unique aspect to your class and a new perspective to problem solving. Your future patients and clients will be able to relate to you on a different level, as you will bring a new level of maturity, experience, and diversity which will improve your overall relationship. Lastly, this can also help you with both your MMI and panel interviews! Do not rely solely on this aspect when discussing your lessons and perspectives; however, you can allude to them to bring a unique level of relatability, empathy, and understanding.
Ultimately, the road you are on is lengthy, challenging, rewarding, and inspiring. The list is by no means exhaustive and I anticipate that many of you are already successfully achieving many of these steps. With that being said, I still refer back to them in my own personal life, in order to remind myself of the important things outside my chosen career. It is easy to lose sight of your goals and feel guilty about what you are and are not doing as a student and as a parent. Don’t lose sight of the big picture and the people that are most important in your life. You will only be able to achieve your full potential in your career once both you and your loved ones are properly prioritized.
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About the author:
Dr. Montana Johnston is a practicing medical doctor, BeMo Admissions Expert, and proud parent.
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo
BeMo Academic Consulting
Image credit: Chris Price, via the Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode