I just read an article by a fellow female physician. A well-written and brave piece about putting her life on hold to become a surgeon. After the many rigorous years of training, she finds herself at age 38, without a partner, going through the difficult and expensive process of trying to freeze her eggs with the hopes of one day having a family.
This had me reflecting on my own training years which were quite different. I got married after my second year of medical school. My husband was also a medical student but while I was in Chicago, he was in Milwaukee. We thought we’d spend the last 2 years of med school living apart and seeing each other when we had breaks, but after a few weeks realized that wasn’t going to happen due to our crazy schedules. So we decided to find a midway point and live together. This meant a 1-1.5 hour daily commute for each of us; sometimes waking up at 3 am to be in the hospital for general surgery rounds by 5 am.
By the day of my med school graduation I was 5 months pregnant. I had my first child a few months into internship year, scraped together vacation and sick days to get 4 weeks off at home with her. It was rough. I’ll never forget my first week back in the hospital – people would congratulate me on the baby, and it took everything in me not to cry – every time.
I was dedicated to full-time breastfeeding. So with working long days and taking every third night call, that meant stealing away to pump every 4 hours, which was often hard to manage. My husband or nanny would bring the baby to me on call nights so I could nurse her and hand over the pumped milk. That year was a blur.
When we moved to Cleveland for our residencies, we were focused on having a short commute and found a place near the hospitals. But a month later, we found a great nanny on the other side of town. After emptying our last box, we packed up again and moved 30 minutes away.
I can’t begin to talk about how hard residency is with a baby. Everything gets short-changed. Time with your kid. Time studying for boards. Time training. And most of all, your physical and mental health. It was like slowly dying.
I worked very hard, was selected as chief resident, and aced my boards. I felt compelled to apply for a fellowship even though I was newly pregnant with my second. I applied and matched into a competitive spot. But when the time came, I knew with every fiber of my being that I had to stop running. I just could not imagine doing it all over again – starting fellowship only to have a baby a few months in and then struggle to juggle it all, including research. So I committed a professional faux pas; I withdrew from my spot post-match leaving the program without a fellow. I felt very bad about that part of it, but to this day 15 years later, I don’t regret that decision. I worked in a clinic part-time that year, and it gave me a chance to find a little balance and spend time with the new baby and my then 4 year-old.
Looking back on those years now, with my eldest being a freshman in college, second in high school, and youngest 12 years old, my main memory is sleep deprivation and emotional exhaustion. It was so hard being away from my kids and trying to prioritize my training. But in many regards I was lucky to have been able to do it that way. It was extremely difficult for me, yet I think my kids fared well. They had other loving care givers, and by the time they were old enough to need my daily wisdoms and guidance, I was able to work part-time and give them more of me.
Residency training is physically and emotionally draining. Add to that the challenges of new motherhood, and you have a perfect storm. Approximately 5 years after residency I was gifted a massage, my first ever. I distinctly remember that half-way in, the masseuse, a former Egyptian olympic athlete, said that I didn’t have a single muscle in my body. I was devastated, a former athlete myself. It took a long time to get here, but I’ve spent the last 5 years recovering, prioritizing fitness and my emotional well being, things that are often neglected during medical training.
Women in medicine face myriad challenges. Delaying starting a family until after training or trying to do both simultaneously both involve a lot of sacrifice. In reality, we don’t often have the privilege to voluntarily choose one over the other. Life happens and we struggle to keep up with it. In retrospect, I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen, both as a physician and as a mother. Each has come with its own set of joys and challenges.