For many women, medical school coincides with their childbearing years. Having a baby in medical school taught Chioma Allen, DO, the importance of balance.
“There will be moments where medicine is going to have to come first, and sometimes my family is going to have to come first,” Dr. Allen says.
Timing your baby
For those who plan to conceive during medical school, The Rhode Island Medical Journal recommends timing birth and parental leave, if possible, for either the summer after first year or sometime during fourth year, though residency interview travel would have to be considered during fourth year.
A mentor told Grace DeHoff, DO, that if she wanted to pursue neurosurgery, medical school would be a better time to have children than residency, because residency would be too busy. Dr. DeHoff had her son during her second year of medical school and her daughter after graduation.
“I would recommend waiting until the second year, but third and fourth year are a little easier because your schedule is more flexible,” Dr. DeHoff says. “I would try really hard not to plan too much. Nothing with kids goes as planned.”
Near the end of her pregnancy, Dr. Allen unexpectedly failed her board exams and felt defeated. The stress affected her pregnancy and led to her having an emergency C-section.
Afterward, Dr. Allen felt pressure to recover as quickly as possible from her surgery, complete audition rotations and be ready to match into residency on time.
“I worked so hard to not be that pregnant girl on my rotations and make sure I graduated on time and in a sense, I was putting my schooling and career before my family, when family really is the most important thing in my life,” Dr. Allen says.
Another challenge of pregnancy during medical school is the need to avoid potentially dangerous exposures while completing rotations.
Paige Langhals-Totino, DO, requested an audition rotation through her school, which forgot to tell the attending physician she was pregnant. When she started the rotation, they weren’t prepared for her to be pregnant.
“He was scrambling last minute because I couldn’t be in certain situations because I was pregnant,” Dr. Langhals-Totino says. “I should have given him the heads up myself.”
There are also benefits to giving birth during medical school. For Anna Weinsten, OMS III, being a mother of two children in medical school made her stronger academically and she’s developed better time management.
“My strongest performance as a student has been in medical school because I have family, support and my children to brighten up my day,” says Weinstein, who had her daughter shortly before medical school and her son during her third year. “It’s been the greatest challenge but also the greatest blessing.”
Matching into residency
During her residency interviews, Dr. DeHoff was pregnant with her second child, but not noticeably so. She didn’t want a program’s bias affecting her chance to match into a competitive specialty.
Nearly 36 percent of mothers reported maternal discrimination in the workplace, according to a survey of mothers who are part of the online community Physicians Moms Group, founded by Hala Sabry, DO.
“They get flooded with applicants and they can pick and choose the best and very easily factor in someone’s disability or pregnancy into that decision,” Dr. DeHoff says.
In one medical school class, 90% of students surveyed were asked a potentially discriminatory question during their residency interview, according to the Journal of Graduate Medical Education. About 30% of medical students were asked about children and 10% of medical students were asked about pregnancy.
Federal laws states it is illegal to make an employment decision on the basis of sex, which includes pregnancy and child-rearing plans. Resident applicants are not required to answer these questions during residency interviews.
Dr. Langhals-Totino was also pregnant during her residency interviews. She often found programs would have a roundabout way of asking her how having a child would affect her residency with questions such as, ‘What is your support system like?’ and if she saw anything preventing her from starting residency.
She used this opportunity to let them know she had family in the area who would be able to help her.
“I often found a way to bring it up myself and tell them about my family in the area and the support I have for my situation so they didn’t need to worry about it,” Dr. Langhals-Totino says.
Gauging the family-friendliness of a residency program
Finding a family-centered residency in the Couples Match was a priority for Gretchen Sonnenberg, DO, and her husband.
As they read about different programs, they looked for language that referenced families, well-roundedness and a life outside of medicine.
They found their match at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“When we showed up for our interview, they asked why we didn’t bring our 4-month-old son along too,” Dr. Sonnenberg says. “They said they would have had a resident watch him as we were interviewing. They set the bar really high.”