My wife and I discovered she was pregnant in May 2020. Her pregnancy coincided with the rise of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the midpoint of her master’s degree program. I was three months away from starting medical school. To say we were panicked is an understatement. Although we asked many questions typical for soon-to-be parents, we also wondered how this new wrinkle would affect my first year of medical school. Our daughter was due February 2021, which would be early in my second semester.
On the morning of Jan. 5, 2021, I added the title of “father” to “medical student.” Our daughter, whom we named Norah, decided to arrive a month early and only one week before the start of my second semester.
I had already begun reading assignments for the first block of courses to get a jump start and not fall behind. About 12 hours after the delivery, I was watching my professor’s prerecorded lectures on EKG interpretation and heart murmurs in the hospital bed while holding my precious 5-pound newborn girl. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. Little did I realize how much my world would change once Norah was discharged and we no longer had the help and support of the hospital staff.
When classes resumed, my wife and I were running on only a few hours of sleep per night. Attending lectures (virtually and in person) and rendering needed care for our daughter became an onerous balancing act. The late nights studying became even later, as my wife and I decided to take shifts to keep up with Norah’s feeding needs. I had worked night shifts previously in my career, so we decided that I would be the one to stay up until around 2 a.m. to administer the feedings, and my wife would take over from then until the morning.
This schedule lasted for months, but it seemed like an eternity. And the time demands were not strictly at night. Norah also had to be fed during the day. Fortunately, since most of my lectures were virtual, I was able to stay home and help my wife while accessing class content concomitantly.
It wasn’t the late nights, the massive amount of material that needed to be mastered, the lack of personal time, or even the severe fatigue that proved most difficult. The most difficult part playing the role of father and student was making sure I was present for our daughter, lest I miss her first laugh, social smile, and many other developmental milestones.
Modern fatherhood entails more demands than it did decades ago, and rightfully so. In many cases, today’s dads are a more integral part of child rearing. Their duties can rival those of mothers — though never truly matching up — and being a modern father requires one thing that virtually all medical students do not have: time.
What does it look like, then, when a student becomes a first-time father in their first year of medical school? From the outside, it looks great. You put on a smile and go about your business as usual. Peers and colleagues ask how your baby is doing. “She’s doing great,” you respond. You still make time for extracurricular activities, shadowing physicians, and perhaps doing some research. You seek out additional experiences to sharpen your clinical acumen and strengthen your CV, even though your residency application is several years away.
Meanwhile, you suffer from stress, fatigue, and cognitive dissonance. While studying, you feel uneasy and uncomfortable because you feel you should be spending that time with your newborn and partner. There is a yearning to want to be a part of every moment of their lives even though you know it is not possible.
Yet as life unfolds — even though you miss some important moments — you continue to grow.
Overcoming the rigorous pressures of medical school while raising a child is a feat to celebrate. Your accomplishments demonstrate you are capable of handling more responsibility than you previously believed possible. Your tripartite mission as father, husband, and student forces you to manage your time more efficiently, organize your thoughts more clearly, schedule your time more concisely, and learn more proficiently. It’s a confidence booster to succeed under pressure, and hopefully, a pretense of things to come as a physician.
Most of all, successfully navigating the role of father, husband, and medical student squarely puts you in the moment. You come to recognize and appreciate “embraceable moments,” much like your professors pride themselves on seizing opportunities they call “teachable moments.”
Modern fatherhood subverts medical education. But together, working in tandem, the challenges of parenthood and medical school will make you a better doctor.
What family challenges required you to adjust your plans in medical school? Share your experiences in the comment section.
Austin Miller is a second-year medical student at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dublin, Ohio. He is currently interested in pursuing a career in otolaryngology.