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A Degree Among Diapers: Being a Parent in Medical School

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When I think of pneumonia, I think of my youngest son. Not because he has had pneumonia, but because the night we brought him home from the hospital, I stayed up late reviewing material for my second-year pulmonary course with him by my side. I have a prized photograph where you can see a beautiful little baby, swaddled tight against the chilly autumn evening, next to my iPad displaying a checklist of not-yet-watched lectures I was still behind on. 

What it means to be a good father in medical school (and by extension in a medical career) is something that worms at my anxiety; I am not confident that I am a good father. Often overwhelming are the feelings of inadequacy as I attempt to live up to the grandeur my children see in me. Yet, I genuinely believe that fatherhood has elevated my life and enriched my medical school experience in bizarre and unique ways. And while I have plenty left of my medical education, here I present three takeaways I have come to accept about fatherhood in medical school. It is my hope that my own experiences, though small, can provide inspiration for others regardless of where they are on the path of a medical career.  

1) Purpose. Admittedly, my children giving me purpose and drive is not exclusive to medical school. However, my identity as a father has provided a gold-plated source of extrinsic motivation that is unyielding when my own intrinsic motivation falters. My children allow me to not only study for myself and study for my future patients, but to study for the welfare and success of my family. It seems counterintuitive to me that one of the most difficult and disruptive aspects of my own life is also the foundation to which I attribute much of my success.  

2) Community. I am not the only parent in my class, and I have been lucky enough to interact with many students that are also pursuing parenthood and medical school simultaneously. These relationships have not only shown me unique tactics to elevate my own approach to life as a parent/medical student, but also given me heroes and examples of what I can aspire to be. One student, for example, started her medical school journey with older children and would not only excel at school but make time for the various activities that naturally come with kids — sports, school, and extracurriculars. Whenever I feel like bemoaning my own struggles being a father, I find peace in the example of all those awesome medical student parents that I have had the honor of knowing. 

3) Perspective. In the spring of my first year, I was halfway through the infamous neuroscience course that had been the cause of remediation for many students. It was a Sunday, the day before the second exam, and my wife and kids were packing up to go to a local park for the afternoon while I was sitting down to review spinal pathways for what seemed to be the 80th time. At the last minute, as I watched our family car turned the corner, I called my wife and told her I wanted to come as well. I felt in that moment a vivid realization of the price I was paying for what would have likely only been one or two more points on the exam — and that price was too steep. My oldest son had begged me to go with them and was heartbroken when I told him I couldn’t, but was then elated when I chose to come. 

Since that point I have held in my mind the perspective that my time is not infinite, and life will always force upon me a choice. Often, that choice is not between good and bad; frustratingly, the choice is more commonly between good and good. I would never say that I have found balance in my parenting and medical school, but I would say that I have discovered a great consolation prize — perspective. 

Diversity of experience is a beautiful thing. It is through the stories and experiences of our peers and mentors that we refine what our own values are. It is my desire that in some small way my stories and perspectives can provide light in what can often be a gloomy professional path. Medicine can feel isolating, parenting can feel isolating, and I felt the effects of both. I certainly do not have everything figured out, and I do not believe anyone really does. But I can reflect on my experiences and the experiences of others, and I have hope that a fulfilling life as both a doctor and a parent is attainable. And maybe others can find a spark of hope through perspectives like these as well. 

How have you balanced parenthood and your medical career? Share in the comments.

Current OMS-III and future DO psychiatrist, Student Doctor Hansen is passionate about mental health and advocating for patients. With interests in nutritional wellness, mental health awareness, and understanding the patient experience, SD Hansen strives for a whole-person approach to medicine.

Illustration by April Brust

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