I was in my first year of medical school when I discovered I was pregnant. This was not a planned pregnancy, as no one would intentionally plan to have a baby during medical school, as it is extremely difficult to manage both. However, there I was, and to my surprise, I was happy about it. I had previously thought that I was infertile after trying to get pregnant for five years, but the positive pregnancy test showed otherwise.
As my pregnancy progressed and it became harder to fit into the lecture hall seats, I was surprised that my fellow medical students did not comment on my increasing girth. Did they think I was just gaining weight?
The pregnancy went smoothly, and the baby was born in July during the summer break. The next question was what to do next. Could I leave the newborn with a babysitter for twelve hours a day? That seemed unrealistic.
I was offered the option of attending medical school part-time. Looking back, this was a generous offer from the school. They allowed me to take halftime classes for the next two years, which meant it took me two years to complete the second year of medical school. I returned to full-time studies for the third year, and my mental health was largely intact.
I have seen friends and colleagues face the same dilemma of balancing medical training with motherhood. Here are some strategies that they have used:
Take a year off completely. I worked with a physician who took two years off after having a baby and then finished her residency after the break.
Encourage your mother to come and live with you or nearby to help raise the baby. I met a department chief who made it through medical school with her mother’s help with the baby.
Hire a full-time nanny and deal with the heartache of seeing the baby and soon-to-be child for limited hours in the evening. Try to stay awake long enough to put the baby to bed. It’s obviously best if you have a spouse who can help.
(There is also a nuclear option: quit medical school and stay home to raise kids. This does not have to be as self-sacrificing as it sounds. I worked with a woman who had completed two years of medical school and then chose to stay home and raise two children. When she decided to return to her medical career, she went the physician assistant route. She told me that since she had already completed the necessary classes, it was easy to return to school and finish her PA degree. She pointed out that the hours as a PA are more conducive to family life. Obviously, she gave up the status of having an MD degree, but she felt the trade-off was worth it.)
The ultimate goal is to finish medical school and then survive an internship/residency. Life becomes easier after that, as there are physician jobs with regular hours and part-time positions available. Working three or four days a week still allows you to gain experience and improve your skills as a doctor. When the kid or kids are older, you can take on more hours.
In summary, it takes agility to navigate the challenges of combining pregnancy with medical school, but it is possible.
Janet Tamaren is a family physician.