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Lives of Doctor Wives: Survivor Saturdays - Advice to a Premed Student

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Survivor Saturdays - Advice to a Premed Student

I received an email a few weeks ago (some of you may have gotten the same one) from a young premed college student asking for advice on balancing a medical career with a healthy family life. He is seriously dating a girl who has expressed some reservations about becoming a doctor’s wife, and he’s wondering if pursuing a career in medicine is worth the sacrifice of time with his future wife and family.

It took me two days to compose my reply as I considered all of his questions. Do you feel like you get enough time with your husband? If so, how has your relationship been strained and do you think you would be significantly happier if he was able to spend more time with you? Also, I would like to know if your husband is able to be there for your kids and how they have been affected by his career choice. Most importantly, if you could go back in time and choose a different career for him, would you?

Wow. Would I go back and do anything differently? If I could have, would I have chosen a different career for him? That question has never really occurred to me before. Sure, we joke about it in the middle of a slam-your-head-against-the-wall call weekend, but I have no doubt that what he does for a living is precisely what he was gifted and called to do, and he would have been miserable doing anything else.

So here’s my reply to Mr. Future Doctor. I hope you, too, can glean some nuggets of wisdom from one who has been where you are, struggled through it, and come out on the other end with a stronger marriage.

Dear Future Doctor,

First of all, I hardly consider myself an “expert”! I’m still learning, even after 13+ years. But your girlfriend is correct: it does take an extraordinary woman to be a doctor’s wife. It is a crazy life at times, and it will demand a lot from both of you. She will need a good support system of friends and other doctor’s wives, as well as her own career and/or interests to fulfill her. But I never, ever wish that my husband had chosen a different career. Being a doctor is what he was gifted for and called to do, and I can’t imagine him doing anything else. For as stressful as it is sometimes, I think his life as a doctor has forced us to have a stronger marriage than we would have had otherwise.

My husband (Michael) and I started dating during our sophomore year of college, and I transferred the next year, so we spent most of our dating years long-distance. After we graduated, he started med school in July and we were married the following Christmas on his break. Both of us will tell you that those first years of marriage were some of our hardest, but we wouldn’t go back and do it differently – other than maybe being a little more loving and understanding of each other. I remember both of us saying that it is probably easier to be married during med school than dating because you have more built-in time together (on study breaks, mostly)…but it is still really, really hard. The good thing about being married at the beginning of training is that you get used to it – we didn’t know any differently, and we still don’t. This is just what we do, and the crazy lifestyle has always been normal for us, so it doesn’t seem so crazy. Michael’s brother, who is an orthopedist, and his wife married towards the end of residency, and I think her adjustment was much harder than my own because she was thrown into the middle, whereas I had all those years to grow into it.

As far as spending time together, that will depend on what phase of your training you are in and what specialty you choose. Some months are going to be much harder than others. I think one of the hardest times we had was when he did two weeks of nights at the ER during med school. But, again, we adjusted. We learned to take the small amounts of time that we have together and maximize them. During residency, for example, when Michael was on-call, the kids and I would meet him up at the hospital cafeteria for dinner then go play at the playground next to the children’s wing…and they LOVED it! Spending time together will also require sacrifice on your part. During med school, Michael would go to class, then study until I got home from work, and when I got home, he would put the books down, eat dinner with me and spend time with me, then he would stay up after I went to bed to study some more. Throughout training, he sometimes had to forego that extra hour of reading or studying, or he would choose to sleep less, in order to make our marriage and our family a priority. (On my part, I had to understand that before his exams or before he took his boards, I wasn’t going to see much of him for a while – but that we would celebrate when the exam was over.) Even now that he is in practice, he will go into his office at 6:30 a.m. to dictate his charts or catch up on paperwork so that he can leave the office in time to eat dinner with us that evening – or make it to a soccer game, or pick up our daughter from her dance class.

Would I be significantly happier if I had more time with him? Hmm. I suppose I would. Who wouldn’t? Even if he were an accountant with an 8-5 job, I would still want more time with him. But I am very happy and fulfilled and satisfied in our life together. I think we have built a great marriage – thanks in large part to all the lessons we’ve learned during the years when we struggled and the sacrifices that both of us choose to make because we love each other and are committed to making our marriage work.

You are years away from choosing a specialty, but the priority of your marriage and family will – and should – play into your decision. My husband chose pediatric ophthalmology for several reasons – he truly enjoys what he does, he’s able to diagnose a problem and fix it – but ophtho is also one of the more family-friendly specialties. Many other specialties are the same; you’ll discover which ones during your med school clinical rotations. The demands on his time aren’t as great as some of the other specialties (even though it’s still pretty demanding), and that was important to him. So know that if you do decide to pursue a medical career, there are options out there that will allow you to have a fulfilling career and a healthy family life.

Our kids, too, have never known differently. They know that when Daddy is on-call, we might not see him, and that’s OK. But when he is here, he is 100% here, and he is an amazing dad – and they are great, well-adjusted, happy kids. They adore him. He is not able to make every swim meet, soccer game, and school performance, but at this point in his career, he is able to shape his schedule around the really important things and take time off/make sure he’s not on-call for dance recitals, birthdays, etc.

I could spend a lot of time telling you about the challenges of each stage of training, but truthfully, having a happy medical marriage largely depends on the commitment and love you have for each other. There will definitely be seasons of your marriage and your career when you will not have a lot of time to spend together, but time itself really isn’t the big issue – it’s what you choose to do with the time you do have together. The circumstances will undoubtedly be really hard, but if you go into the marriage with the conviction that divorce is not an option, if you learn to communicate with each other and lovingly share your frustrations, if you can laugh together even when your life is stressful – only then can you have a successful marriage, no matter what career you choose. The fact that you are already considering how your career will affect your future family speaks volumes to me. Based on that fact alone, I think that you would likely be the kind of doctor (like my husband) who will choose to make time for your family and do everything within your power to build a strong marriage. In my experience, the doctors who ignore the needs of their wives and families are the ones whose marriages are crumbling. If you both go into marriage with an understanding that it will be hard and there will be times when your training/career is going to have to take priority, but make a commitment to work together and respect and value each other, then I believe having a fulfilling, successful medical marriage is absolutely possible.

So, ladies, hang on to hope. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger...much stronger. You can do this. You will survive this and come out with a royal crown upon your weary head! It takes a whole lotta work and even more sacrifice, but you and your marriage will be stronger and more resilient on the other side.

Much love,

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Blogger Alexandra said...

Great post. A marriage and a family is what you make it, what you put into it, and you will see the payoff. I wish that husbands didn't have to work period because we always will want more time together, but you have to make your situation work. A happy husband makes a marriage wonderful, and my hubby is happy delivering babies and helping women, so I wouldn't trade that for the world!

August 15, 2009 at 5:25 PM  
Blogger Desiree said...

Thanks for the advice. I am at the point in my medical marriage where I think we both needed to hear that.

August 15, 2009 at 7:03 PM  
Blogger Behrmans said...

Very well said!

August 16, 2009 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Melisa said...

Beautiful! I'm glad he had someone to give him a decent answer because mine was no where near this eloquent. :o)

August 16, 2009 at 4:39 PM  
Blogger Kathi Browne said...

So true: "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger..."

I'm so glad we all share our "near death" experiences with each other.

August 16, 2009 at 9:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Great post, Jennifer. I'm going to link to it in my blog because it really does say everything I think I would have said myself.

August 17, 2009 at 8:48 AM  
Blogger Married to a med student - Marissa Nicole said...

Very well said! It is these thoughts/ideas/philosophies that we are trying to take through this journey. I totally agree that family can be a priority if you make it one!

Also for the premed student I want to point out that I think it is great that he and his girlfriend are seriously considering the hard parts of being a doctor and a doctor's wife - most people have no idea the struggle/challenge it can be, and marriage is a serious decision that shouldn't be taken lightly! If you really love eachother and can be committed to working through the good and bad it can be done!
I love my husband and although I know this journey is going to be as hard as heck, I know that I couldn't live without him (and I want to support him in what I believe he is called to do).

August 17, 2009 at 10:05 AM  

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