Serving two masters: Balancing medicine and family

Life is full of choices and each choice has the potential to open certain doors and close others. I choose medicine. It is a demanding career, but even as a 7th grader, I knew what I was signing up for.

What I didn’t know was how much this profession could influence the trajectory of my personal life and the types of relationships I’m able to maintain. I grew up genuinely thinking that you could “have it all,” because I was raised by two physicians who ate dinner with my three siblings and me every night. Somehow they made balancing all the aspects of your personal and professional life look easy.

Before I was even admitted to medical school, my choice required me to be selfish with my time. I remember missing my best friend’s senior dance recital because I needed to study for the MCAT. From the moment we choose to embark on this path, doctors-in-training are conditioned to embrace a unique and socially acceptable type of selfishness — because at the end of the day, we are training to save lives. Our careers are important, and at times, our professional goals are prioritized above all else.

While the educational opportunities presented to a young physician can seem overwhelming, our professional growth, like the cell cycle, is actually controlled and tightly regulated by a series of checkpoints.

Applications to medical school, residency and fellowship programs occur at regular intervals and punctuate the path to physicianhood. The outcomes of these checkpoints largely determine the linear trajectory of a young physician’s career. Sometimes though, love happens and it forces us to color outside the lines.

Love, like medicine, requires dedication, time and attention. It can simultaneously enrich and complicate your understanding of your place in the world. Love can make you question your personal and professional goals, and can even inspire you to deviate from the path of which you’ve always dreamed. Sometimes, however, young physicians reject or defer love because we simply can’t let the dream go.

I’ve watched several classmates struggle with the decision of whether or not to apply to residency as a couple. This stage of our careers forces us to examine our relationships and evaluate how much weight they bear in our lives. These tough decisions seem to follow physicians throughout their careers. The darkness of the struggle is perfectly articulated by Dr. Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy: “You are a gifted surgeon, an extraordinary mind. Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need. He’s very dreamy but he is not the sun. You are.”

When should you base monumental decisions on another person? What if that someone is basing their life decisions on you? How much selfishness can we justify? How much selfishness should we justify?

Balancing love and your professional life is a challenge, but perhaps this is the work Ben Affleck spoke about when he addressed his wife in his 2013 Oscar speech: “I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good; it is work; but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”

As I’ve gotten older, my parents have shared their insights about work-life balance, and, as it turns out, it’s not as easy as they made it seem. According to them, it’s hard to fully serve two masters at once: family and physicianhood. When you fully dedicate yourself to one, the other inevitably suffers. Balance, they say, requires many sacrifices; but when you discover what’s really important to you, these are choices you are ultimately happy to make.

Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam is a medical student who blogs at her self-titled site, Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam. She can be reached on Twitter @JenniferAdaeze.  This article originally appeared in The American Resident Project.

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