What I wish I knew: Advice for spouses of doctors and residents

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Residency life.

I don’t talk about it much, and that’s on purpose. Here’s why: My life is wonderful. I really love it. Is it perfect? No. Is anyone’s life perfect? Definitely not. I would never wish to portray my life in a negative fashion and certainly not to wish for sympathy. I would talk about it in an informative way, but even doing that, to be comprehensive, you must hit the low points because all careers have them, and again, just doing that can come off as complaining.

But this time, I’m going to make an exception. My husband is now a chief resident in orthopedic surgery. We are almost nine years into our eleven-year journey, and it is crazy when I really process that. A friend of mine once said, regarding parenting, “The days are long, but the years are short,” and not only did that change my life with my day to day parenting outlook, but it hits pretty close to home with residency too.

So I have been thinking this year about what I wish I could tell new medical student and residents’ wives — the ones that are just beginning this journey, perhaps even, what I wish I could go back in time and tell myself. And partially, I think, because time has a way of making you forget, so I want to write this while I have a fresh perspective. So without further ado, here’s my list. These are the things I have learned from being married to a resident and what I wish I could tell myself all those years ago.

1. Make your own plans. 

This is numero uno for a reason. It’s absolutely critical.

When my husband was in medical school, we took for granted how easy the hours were. Sure, he had to study … some. But like most schools, the weekends were relatively free and so were evenings. Then he graduated medical school and hello abduction, I mean, residency.

I joke about residency, but I really have enjoyed this journey. When he finishes, I won’t feel like he did it; I will feel like we did it. (I joke that I have an honorary doctoral degree, but so far, no one is buying it. Bummer.) Honestly, though, learning to be totally independent really sped things along for me in my contentment with this life.

For example, two weeks ago on a Friday, my husband, Christopher, was supposed to be done in time for dinner and some good quality family time. I paged him at 4:30 p.m. to see what time he was thinking he could leave. It’s typical for him to not call me back immediately, but after thirty minutes, that’s a bad sign. So at that time, 5 p.m., I thought, “I’m just going to run to Target with the kids [and pick up a birthday gift for a party we had the next day].” And so we did. At 5:30 he still had not called back, so I knew that this probably meant I wouldn’t be seeing him for dinner at the very least.

(Because if he doesn’t even have access to a phone yet, he’s probably scrubbed into the OR. A nurse would call me back if I paged my actual number, but so as to not bother the nurse with something so trivial as, “Oh hey, any idea when my husband can come home for dinner?” we use a code instead. We’re so big time like that. Anyways, if he’s scrubbed in still it could be who knows how long, plus then he has to finish notes, sometimes round on patients again, and so on. I knew I was probably looking at another hour minimum.)

So the kids and I were done with Target, and we went to Chipotle alone. By the time we finished Chipotle and were on our way to the movie store, he called me in between cases. There were some cases unexpectedly added on, and so he wouldn’t be back home until 9 p.m. or so. And you know what? It was totally fine. Because the kids and I were having a really great Friday night anyways! At that moment, I was thanking myself for going and not waiting. Oh, how I wish I had learned this sooner!

2. You are on the same team as your spouse, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

My husband taught me this, and he deserves the credit. Sometimes it’s so easy to step in the trap of pointing fingers. The non-medical spouse thinks, “I’m exhausted mentally and emotionally. They are gone all the time. I’m always here alone. I do all the housework; I do everything for the children. I can’t ever count on them to be done when they say they will, thus I can’t ever rely on their help for sure. It’s not fair. No one understands this life. I really need a break.”

The medical spouse is thinking, “I’m exhausted physically. All I have had to eat is a protein bar on my one bathroom break in the middle of a 12-hour case. I haven’t had quality sleep in days, and I feel like no matter what time I leave the hospital, I have left work undone. I miss my spouse, I miss my kids, and I miss feeling normal. No matter what I do, I’m behind at home, and I’m behind at work.”

I can count on one hand how many “fights” my husband and I have ever had, and the biggest one we have ever had may or may not have involved a painfully inconsistent icicle dripping outside our window at 1 a.m., a broken fan, and an inability to sleep by yours truly, who subsequently likes to make other people miserable [enter Christopher], which resulted in my husband declaring that he was going to the store to buy a fan, sleeping in the guest room that night, and that I was crazy.

But that’s really the worst one, so our “fights” are actually more like disagreements. But in these disagreements, Christopher taught me from the very beginning of our marriage to always look at problems as us against the problem, not to ever think of us against one another. It was a lesson well taught and a lesson learned many times over. Whether I’m really frustrated about his hours or he feels I have yet again busted the grocery budget, we don’t let it wedge between us; come what may, we are a team.

3. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie of another resident’s spouse.

There just isn’t. It’s the best. For example, when I buy a fellow resident wife’s coffee she may say, “You really don’t need to do that.” And I always say back, “Don’t worry about it! I’m married to a ‘doctor.'” And we laugh.

We laugh because we know the truth. That while most of our friends have slowly climbed the financial ladder over the course of the last 10 years, we have remained a very steady straight line. We know eventually that will change, but even that’s not what it’s about. It’s just that no one quite understands the schedule, the frustrations, the sometimes seriously sweet perks like conference trips, and the insane delayed gratification like another resident’s wife. I will forever be grateful for our residency occurring in Rochester, Minnesota, too. This place has got the resident wife network going on. So if you aren’t already in Rochester, come here for training if you have any left! When you have a baby you will have meals every other day for weeks and a Bible study to attend just for medical spouses, and you will always be able to find another resident’s wife to hang out with when your husband is slammed! I love you Rochester (but I will curse your existence in January, and we just have to come to terms with the fact that this is how our relationship is going to be).

4. Remember the man you married.

I always tell Christopher (quoting a Kenny Chesney song), “I’m the number one fan of the man from Tennessee.” No matter what life throws at him or at us, to me he will always be the man I met in the cafeteria at Lee University — the 20-year-old that made insanely good eye contact and enunciated his words so clearly . (Yep, that really is what I remember about my first impression of him. And single ladies, it was game over so definitely watch for that good eye contact!)

Although I think Christopher has handled residency as well as anyone, even he had his moments of such extreme physical and/or mental exhaustion that he just seemed “different.” If it’s only every now and then, well, don’t we all, but sometimes entire rotations will cause this subtle change. Christopher always comes home and tries to give everything in him to our family, so I say this with no blame towards him, but sometimes a person just is not firing on all cylinders after working such a difficult schedule. In those times, it has been a sweet memory to think of him in college and why I fell in love with him to begin with. I have always known any “departure” would be temporary and that he would always come back to himself and to me — and he always does.

And going along with this point is my last and final point …

5. Always give 100 percent of yourself.

I recently heard someone say, “Marriage is not 50/50. Divorce is 50/50. Marriage is both people giving 100 percent.” How true.

I can’t be responsible for what Christopher brings to our marriage, to our children, or to our home. When anyone asks me or I have the opportunity to brag, I will tell them how I feel that Christopher truly does try to give our family everything that he has in him, but my point is that it’s really not up to me if he doesn’t. I am only responsible for Erica. I am only responsible for giving 100 percent of myself to our marriage and our children and our home. This journey, as with all journeys, will be over soon and a new one will begin.

I want to look back and be able to say that yes, I gave my all to this season of my life. Some may diminish its importance, but I want to be the best resident’s wife I can; I hope with all my heart that my husband looks back on his years of training and feels that I was essential, not just for our children, but for him in these sometimes tumultuous years.

All the seemingly tiny things we medical spouses do every single day, both to aid our spouses in the quality of their hours at home and in how we attempt to diminish the long hours for our children’s sake — these are not nothing. They are the building blocks for our lives, for our spouse’s career/home balance, for the way our children view their fathers and/or mothers and the positive or negative feelings that they associate with their job. The moments matter because, comprehensively, these are what we will look back and remember as “the residency years.” I hope you, as well as I, will remember them well.

Erica Camp is the wife of an orthopedic resident who blogs at Erie Quite Contrary.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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