Practicing medicine as a single parent requires finding balance

A couple of months before my son was born 2 1/2 years ago, we were notified that my husband, an active duty member of the Navy, was getting deployed to Iraq.

His date of departure was exactly one week after my due date. To any wife or family member of a service member, this would be difficult news — a loved one going into a war zone. But, to me, 8-months pregnant, insanely emotional, and mother to a then-2 1/2 year old already, it was devastating.

I was terrified, almost paralyzed, with fear for his safety. But also, how could I handle being a single parent for 14 months? How would I cover the many weekends I have to work on the wards? How would I keep my sanity and not go into a serious postpartum depressive funk? I didn’t have postpartum depression with our first, thankfully, but the utter despair I experienced in the weeks and days leading up to his planned departure — I had never experienced anything quite like that before. That darkness was almost unbearable.

Then, a miracle happened. He didn’t end up going. We found out 4 days after our son was born, 3 days before he was scheduled to leave. It had nothing to do with us just having a child, of course, but we were thankful nonetheless. Our family would stay together.

And it’s been wonderful. A gift to be together. Yet, I had almost forgotten how easy it is to take things for granted.

In less than a month, my husband is moving to North Carolina for the next two years for his next military assignment. And we’ve decided that the kids and I will stay in DC. Which means, I will essentially become a single parent for the next two years.

The common response: Why don’t you just all move down?

Well, it’s complicated. The main factors:

- We have little to no support in the form of family or friends there. There’s a good chance he could get deployed and be away for up to a year, and then me and the kids would still be alone but now with no help. Here, we have family, friends, great child care, a great school. At least here, the kids will have some stability.

-I love my job. I don’t want to give it up, have to find a (most likely) less-satisfying one, and then have to find a job back here in 2 years. My career is exactly where I want it right now. I’m also the larger breadwinner, and we’re more dependent on my salary to pay the mortgage, the bills, etc.

It is not an easy decision. It’s going to be hard for everyone. I worry especially about our 5-year old daughter who is Daddy’s girl, and I hope this turns out to be just a small blip in our overall happy family trajectory. And, of course, I worry about missing my husband — my best friend and love of my life.  I also worry about going insane from the stresses of single parenting but hopefully blogging will be therapeutic.

So, we’ll make the best out of it. We’ll do weekends here or there. We’ll Skype. I know we’ll get through it together.

I have also learned, that I’ll need to lean on people to help. Which involves getting over the silly hang-up of having to ask for help.

I’m working on that.

But, something also dawned on me: I’m thankful to even have a choice to stay behind. As an independent woman, as a mother in medicine, I have a choice. A career I’m passionate about. A family I adore. It means certain sacrifices for sure, but it also means the chance to be fulfilled in multiple aspects of life. Yes, I’ll always be dealing with finding balance, negotiating.

But, I’m still glad for the choice.

Katherine Chretien is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Mothers in Medicine.

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  • Vox Rusticus

    I am not moved at all to sympathize with this writer. Her husband has a commission in the Navy, and as a medical officer probably is a recipient of a medical school scholarship for which his service is expected in repayment, and both he and she knew that deployment to war zones was a probability. This country has been at war continuously for nearly nine years now, and the facts have been published widely for anyone taking those scholarships for many years. All of the ugly and good truths have been available for anyone with an interest to read, and I would hope someone thinking of taking one of those service scholarships would be interested enough to inquire.

    I am not just a casual commentator here. I did also take those scholarships, served in the military as a doctor, was deployed overseas multiple times, sometimes with no more than four days notice to go. Those might seem to be unreasonable to an outside observer, but to anyone in the service, this is common and not unexpected.

    The writer is a physician. Good for her. She says she has a good job, and happens to be the principal breadwinner in her family, which places her family’s income north of $200,000 per year. While that income is not exceptional in the Washington area–I know that area very well and for over thirty years now–it is still enough to look after her family very comfortably. She can afford paid help if she needs any, and the benefit of having family nearby only adds to her security and convenience. And convenience is the word, here. All I see this person suffering is inconvenience. She is no kind of single parent. She has a husband, he will be in contact with her and she will have the benefits of his income and his employment all the way through the deployment, as any family associated with the military has.
    She lives in one of the best-served military communities in the world.