Knowing that my wife would be expecting around Match Day, my number one question on the residency interview trail was, “Do you consider this to be a family friendly program?” The answer was always a resounding “Yes!” One of my biggest concerns was if I would be able to be a great resident while also being a good father and husband.
My son, Xander, was born one week prior to Match Day. It was great having time to spend at home with him and my wife before the dreaded but also exciting first day of July. My wife was a teacher at the time, and we realized that being a stay-at-home mom was a better option for her than working as a teacher and giving up most of her salary to pay for daycare.
Financially, we were very fortunate in that we were able to pay our bills with my resident salary and the extra income my wife earned. I was also able to earn extra income through moonlighting during my second year of residency. As hard as we were working, my wife would frequently tell me about a family member who commented that we have plenty of money because I was a doctor. My wife also found out that some of her family even resented her for marrying a “rich doctor.” She never told them that I would typically work 50- or 60-hour weeks, plus multiple moonlighting shifts, just to see the entire paycheck go toward our bills.
From a financial standpoint, things were by no means easy, but we were doing all right. What about the other aspects of supporting a family? We had just moved to a new city with a relatively new baby, and this was proving to be rather difficult for my family. My wife told me one day that she felt like after having a kid she wasn’t the same bubbly and outgoing person that she was before. I encouraged her to take Xander to a playdate with some of the other resident spouses and their children, figuring that she would instantly fit in and start loving our new community. Instead, she found herself crying in her car afterward. Unfortunately, she learned that it was tough to really connect with new people when she had to constantly chase her child around a busy playground.
Where was I during all of this? Of course, I was at the hospital. I was discovering that residency was not exactly how I had imagined it. Within my first week, I had taken care of two children that passed away, including performing compressions on one of them. My attending had simply told me that everyone processes “these things” differently, and that I would quickly realize how I would process it. I found out it was always when I was driving home that all of the emotions would sink in and I would break down. How was I supposed to help my wife through the tough transition of being a new mom when I was already struggling? Only later did we realize that both of us were struggling but were always afraid to share our struggles with each other because we thought it would burden the other.
In my mind, other residents were able to go home, take a bath, walk their dog, or go to the gym without much hassle. But when I got home, I would be greeted with a child that needed to be fed, bathed, and put to bed, and a wife that desperately needed emotional support. By the end of intern year, I began to resent my residency and medicine in general because I felt like medicine was sucking the life out of me, which meant I had nothing left for my family. I would be lying if I said I never thought about quitting but I am very glad that I stuck with it because things have indeed gotten better, or at least we’ve learned to communicate our needs during the more stressful rotations.
I am by no means the first person with a family to go through residency, and I have a respect for all parents that I never had before I became a dad. The sacrifices that parents make for their families is often the greatest sacrifice that they will make. I can’t fathom the challenges of balancing family and residency prior to resident hour limits, and I know that others have it much harder than I do. I am a strong advocate for mental health services to residents and believe that those services should extend to their families as well.
Reflecting on the past two years since starting residency, I realize that I was not asking the right question during my interviews. A better question would have been, “Do you think I will be able to balance residency and provide for the financial and emotional needs of a family while working at your program?”
How do you balance your career and family life? Share your experiences in the comment section.
Dr. Alex Fender is currently a pediatric resident living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He is applying for fellowship in allergy/immunology. He enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife, two kids, and miniature dachshund.
Image: Halfpoint / shutterstock