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Imagine the scenario. You're a medical resident logging between 80 and 100 hours per week. You tackle additional commitments at night, including answering emails, working on required research projects, studying, and, oh yeah, raising a child. For Lacey Vence, a resident at the University of Louisville and mother of one, her hours spent at the hospital go hand-in-hand with the challenges of being a mother. Like many residents, Lacey matched far from home, away from her support system. To fulfill her residency duties, she moved three hours away, raising her two-year-old by herself during the week, with weekend visits from her husband, who works full-time in West Virginia. Here are some valuable tips on balancing the rigors of the medical profession with raising a family - from a mother’s perspective.
As you know, medical school and residency leaves limited time for activities beyond work. If you are contemplating having children during med school or residency, determining who will care for your child is one of many to-dos. Will your child attend daycare or will a family member help out? It is important to be realistic and know that, as a doctor in training, you will most likely not be able to dedicate the numerous hours needed to stay home with a child in the early years. If you and your partner both work, know that you aren’t alone. There are plenty of dual income families out there that have children and manage just fine. The only difference is that there may need to be additional planning to accommodate busy schedules.
Lacey and her husband chose daycare, since she matched so far from home. “After I pick up my son, I have exactly 2.5 hours until his 7:30 pm bedtime. During this time, I devote 100% of my attention to him. I really love this portion of the day; it’s so much fun. Once he is asleep, I then clean up the house and sit down for 1-3 hours to send emails, read, study, or work on required research projects. Although all of this is challenging, I am proud to be a doctor in training and, at the same time, have this wonderful family life.”
A recent study suggested that 85.6% of women’s spouses work full-time versus only 44.9% of men’s spouses. Consequently, many male med students/residents with families have the extra support at home to tend to issues like caring for a sick child. Lacey’s experience varies from many of her male co-residents with families. “As residents, we are only able to take a total of 6 weeks for maternity leave. This includes the 4 weeks every resident (male and female) takes annually for vacation, and an additional 2 weeks for ‘maternity/paternity’ leave, regardless of whether the mother has a vaginal or c-section delivery. What is interesting is the fact that a male resident gets the same exact time off (4 weeks vacation plus 2 weeks ‘paternity’ leave). This, to me, is a huge difference between male and female residents/parents. As a mother, you just need more time after giving birth.”
Until maternity leave policies change in the U.S., this is what can be expected with raising a family during residency. More than six weeks off will likely involve adding time to your residency training. Some experts suggest that “residents need a certain number of months in training to become competent physicians. Program directors may find extended leave strenuous on the training program since other residents will need to carry the extra burden of the absent resident.” While these concerns are valid, there needs to be a more reasonable balance between the needs and health of a new mother and of the new baby and the concerns of the residency programs.
Be prepared for a different set of challenges as a resident/parent. Lacey has additional responsibilities compared to her co-residents who don’t have children. “When tested on my knowledge, whether by ‘pimping’ from my attending or studying for mock boards, I often don’t have as much time to dedicate towards studying.” While Lacey sometimes struggles between her role as a parent and physician, she stays resilient and suggests cutting yourself some slack and focusing on the many things you’re doing right, even if you answer a few questions incorrectly from your attending.
Zero sleep coupled with several high-intensity and stressful patient care situations can be very trying, but there are positives. Spending quality time with your child can diminish the stress from an intense day on the wards. Providing a support system for other female residents can also be rewarding. “Since my second year of residency, every single female resident I know has had a baby. I have enjoyed providing a support system for them and also raising our boys together. Play dates are a nice break away from studying and doctor life.
“Many times outsiders say to me, ‘How do you manage?’ I really can’t define how I do it all, but I am grateful that I have the ability to balance everything. I hope that my son will one day see my strong work ethic and want to emulate it.”
Are you considering starting a family during residency? While there is truly no perfect time to have a baby — each family has to make the decision that’s right for them. It can be challenging to imagine how children can fit into that picture - but once they arrive, it is impossible to imagine the world without them.
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