It takes a village

Balancing act: Navigating motherhood in medical school

As a second-year medical student and mother of a 2-year-old, I am hoping to share my experience with others who are in my position or thinking about starting a family in medical school.


Nearly every medical student is overwhelmed by the demanding nature of medical school didactics when they begin their studies. For me, this realization came at the same time that I was also navigating a massive change in my personal life: I was accepted into medical school at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine (UIWSOM) when I was six months pregnant.

As a Mexican-American and first-generation student, I was raised with a stay-at-home mom who emphasized getting an education but also being the primary caregiver for your children. Although my parents supported my dreams, my only maternal role models were women who had sacrificed their own dreams for the betterment of their children. So, I had to navigate this path on my own to change the narrative and show my new son and any future children that as a mother, you can pursue your career dreams and also have a family.

When I found out I was pregnant with my rainbow baby, I was overjoyed—but I also felt some guilt toward my goal of becoming a surgeon. I was navigating medical school applications and interviews while handling a difficult pregnancy that included diagnoses of gestational diabetes and hypertension. Because I was going to be a first-time mom and a first-generation medical student, I decided to start one big life change at a time and deferred my acceptance for the following year. This was a hard decision to make, but I wanted to give myself some time to focus on parenting before starting med school.

Adjusting to my new life

During the start of medical school, I struggled with guilt. I felt very selfish for having the dream of becoming a surgeon. I constantly heard I would have no time for my family and that surgery is not a family-friendly field. Hearing this exacerbated what I was already feeling. I kept thinking I was a bad mother for leaving my son with my mother or mother-in-law while I went to class. I also felt like a bad wife as I was no longer cooking breakfast and lunch for my husband before work, and I was spending a lot less quality time with him in general.

At this time, I immersed myself in schoolwork—forgoing my own mental health along the way.

When my son and husband got sick during exam week of my hardest block (immunology and microbiology), I tried to handle it all on my own. I slept less than two hours a night, took care of my boys, attempted to avoid getting sick and still pushed through with exams. I suffered silently, with only my two best friends knowing what was going on. It wasn’t until I got my scores back and saw that I failed one exam that I realized that my mental health was suffering and something had to give.

I sought the help of faculty members whom I knew had been mothers during their training. They helped me realize that it is not possible to give 100% of yourself in every area of your life, especially when you are in medical school. It is not only OK to ask for help, it is necessary.

What I’ve learned

Being a mom in medical school is challenging, but it is definitely doable. Here are some tips that have helped me navigate school with a little one.

  1. Be intentional. As a mother, your time is limited. When you are a mother and a medical student, your time is doubly limited. To make the most of the time you do have, it can help to be intentional with your study schedule (i.e. prepare for class in advance, so you can make the most of your time there) and with your extracurriculars (i.e., weigh whether extracurriculars will help you grow professionally or personally).
  2. Advocate for yourself early on. This can include talking to your COM’s administration and faculty about your situation or sitting down with family to find areas of support. Some things you might be able to prepare for, but when unexpected things come up, be kind to yourself and reach out for help as soon as possible. Be specific with your requests, especially when talking to administration.
  3. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions. Are you setting your expectations too high? Are you finding time for yourself? Is your schedule feasible? It is okay to have high expectations, but make sure you aren’t comparing yourself to your classmates, many of whom have more free time and less responsibilities.   
  4. Rely on your village. It really does take a village to raise a family. If you have friends and relatives nearby , seek their help. If you are alone, find people you trust to make your village. I remember one time when my family and my husband’s family were unavailable. I was very stressed about possibly having to miss class for a week, but my friend’s mother stepped up and offered to watch my son. Her kindness toward my family is something I’ll never forget.
  5. Give yourself grace. You are navigating two very challenging roles. Many people will not understand the stress of passing when you have people depending on you. Even if you find yourself failing an exam as I did, focus on understanding what went wrong. More importantly, don’t let imposter syndrome trick you into thinking you don’t belong.

Motherhood and medicine are worth it

Being a mother comes with a lot of unexpected challenges, but at the same time, it is a highly meaningful and rewarding experience. While some people may doubt your capabilities or judge your career choice, know that with a lot of work and a little faith it is possible to excel as a medical student and a mother.

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:

Childcare during residency: Balancing two full-time jobs

Being a mom in med school: How I make it work

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