Motherhood and medicine

3 things I wish I knew about being a mother in medical training

As a third-year medical student and mother of two children under five years old, I am eager to share what I’ve learned with the osteopathic medical community.

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I’m a current third-year medical student at the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine and mother to a two-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. I, like my peers, have experienced the trying circumstances of the didactic years – difficult curriculum, hours of testing, research, volunteering, extracurricular activities and more.

However, unlike most of my peers, I have also experienced a high-risk pregnancy, labor and delivery (five days before a midterm), breastfeeding, rocking sick children to sleep, daycare closures due to COVID and the multitude of daily challenges that come with being a mother.

U.S. medical schools lack formal research on parents in medical school, but the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2021 Medical School Graduation Questionnaire shows that 7.3% of graduates have dependents other than their spouse.

This statistic doesn’t differentiate parents from students with other dependents, nor does it tell us how many identify as mothers. It’s curious that the average age of childbearing and medical school matriculation are about the same, yet so few medical students are parents.

This path is not an easy one. In fact, this path is the hardest one I could imagine for myself. However, it is also a fulfilling and stimulating adventure that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned and how I’ve made it so far.

If you have children or are thinking of having a baby during medical school, below are three things I wish I knew at the beginning of my journey of motherhood and medicine.

1. My life will not look like my classmates’ lives, and that’s fine

One of my biggest challenges in medical school thus far has been accepting that my life does not and cannot look like the lives of my classmates. Having children at home has meant not having the availability of others to participate in extracurricular activities, volunteer positions, leadership positions and research. For a lot of these endeavors, I have had to get creative.

I chose a research option where I could take my newborn daughter with me to the lab. I only opted for leadership and volunteer positions I could do on the weekends or virtually. I only attended conferences and club events I was extremely interested in. I would frequently ask myself “Is this something that piques my interest, would look stellar on my resume or will make me a better physician?”

While I do grieve some of the things I’ve had to miss over the past two years, I’ve also gained a lot of insight into the best ways to use my time. I’ve discovered passions and refined my skills. For example, I found a love for advocacy, which is something I’ve been able to get heavily involved in from my own sofa.

2. I have no reason to feel guilty about being a medical student

I frequently experience feelings of guilt with my children. I’ve noticed that this guilt doesn’t dissipate on my breaks and vacations, which tells me it has less to do with how busy I am as a student and more to do with the expectations I hold for myself as a mother in general. My best anecdote to these feelings is to determine the underlying expectation I have for myself and release it.

For example, during my dedicated time to study for boards, I had my kids in daycare from 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Deciding on working with these long days was difficult, but I thought I would need to spend my weekends worry-free to help avoid burnout. During these long days, I would sometimes fail to eat and take breaks until I was too exhausted to study because I wanted to make the most of every second my kids were in someone else’s care.

My insane expectation for myself was causing so much burnout that I couldn’t even enjoy my time with family when the day was done. I started to take more breaks and noticed the guilt dissipate.

Sometimes when the guilt lingers, I have to remind myself that becoming a doctor absolutely benefits my children. As a daughter of a busy OB-GYN mom, I can assure you that you are not failing as a mother by choosing a medical career. Yes, my childhood looked different – my mom was not baking cookies or helping with the PTA. However, seeing my mom in a fulfilling career provided me with the courage to pursue anything I wanted.

Never once did I doubt that I could be a doctor and a mother. One of my favorite quotes is from Jamie J. Coleman, MD, a trauma surgeon and blogger. She says, “My best advice is to stop thinking of work and life as a ‘balance’ – that implies they are opposing forces, and will only set you up to fail. Surgery doesn’t stop my life, and my life doesn’t stop surgery. I am a better surgeon because I am a wife and a mother. And I am a better wife and mother because I am a surgeon.”

Student Doctor Scholes poses happily with her 2 children.

3. I will need help, and I will have to learn to ask for it and accept it

If you glean anything from this article, let it be this: You will need help. This is true for any medical student and any mother, but especially for those of us that happen to be both at the same time. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to make a doctor. Thus, by simple calculation, you will need two villages.

I’ve always had a hard time accepting help, and an even worse time asking for it. Med school inevitably changed that for me and likely will for you as well; days will come where you’ll be on your way to an Objective Structured Clinical Exam (OSCE) or halfway through a dissection lab when you get a call that your kid puked and you need to pick them up immediately. ASK FOR HELP. Ask for support from your spouse, your school, a therapist, a community group or church, neighbors and relatives.

I want to specifically talk about asking for help from your school, as this is the hardest support to get but also the most valuable. I learned that the more specific and fleshed out my requests were, the more likely my professors and other staff were to grant them. For example, I requested permission to stream mandatory lectures from the nursing room so I could stay with my newborn. I gave a specific timeframe, reason for my request and asked several weeks before the block began.

I had no nearby family for my first two years, so I had to rely heavily on my partner to meet needs I just couldn’t make time for, like basic housekeeping, lawn care, handling taxes, etc. For those without a partner, or whose partner works 60-hour weeks like mine, there are organizations such as local support groups, faith organizations or community groups that can help.

I am forever grateful to a woman from my church who not only offered to help me with the house, but continued to offer help until I could no longer decline. She once organized my whole garage in three hours and did a load of dishes before she left. It still brings tears to my eyes.

This path is hard. I have sobbed in the car many times, and snapped at my toddler in states of pure exhaustion and burnout. We have eaten freezer meals and cereal for dinner more often than not. My marriage got rocky at times. But I’ll tell you this: You can do it. If I can do it, you can freaking do it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! People will say things. People will doubt you. People might even bet against you. Make them eat their words, mama. Love the way your life looks, even if it seems like a hot mess at times (or all the time). Shrug off that mom guilt. Ask your villages for help. Your life, your partner’s life and your children’s lives will be better for it.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

10 moms give 10 pieces of advice about parenting in med school and beyond

7 tips for staying sane as a physician parent

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