Doctors wear white coats. But what do their spouses wear?

When we first met and got married, my husband Josh wanted to be a math teacher. Since I was also pursuing a career in teaching, I thought this was a great idea. I envisioned both of us teaching together in the same school district for forty years, becoming local superstars! We would know all the kids in town and spend our summer vacations traveling to exotic locations around the globe. But one short year into our marriage, Josh became intrigued with the idea of attending medical school. Before long, he signed up to take the MCAT, and suddenly our lives were headed on a different path than I had ever expected.

As the years went by, medical school and residency had a dominating presence in our lives and determined my husband’s work hours, where we lived, my career options, which weddings and funerals we could or could not attend and the level of our financial debt. This often left me feeling upstaged by his career. While I was still my husband’s number-one fan, I simultaneously had feelings of resentment towards his career choice.

When Josh started medical school, I was 27. This last January, I turned 40; and my husband has been in school or training during almost all of our 16 years of marriage, including his current position as a surgical critical care fellow. During these years, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and have found a few answers as to why I struggled with resentment. Interestingly, it hasn’t been the career and its demands with which I’ve needed to make peace. I really needed to make peace with myself. Here is how I found my voice as a doctor’s wife.

Becoming confident with who I am

I had a difficult time telling people I was married to a doctor after Josh graduated from medical school. I had a long list of reasons why I wasn’t, in my mind, a “typical” doctor’s wife. The reasons ranged from finances to personal appearances. Mostly, I was just intimidated. Growing up, I had never associated with doctors or their families. I often felt like an imposter — that I somehow didn’t belong in the “Dr. Wife Club.” Doctors wear white coats; what do their spouses wear? I didn’t know, and if I did know, I was sure I didn’t own that outfit. Looking back, however, I have realized that all of that mind chatter was just that: mind chatter, and not reality. There is no “Dr. Wife Club.” I needed to be confident with who I was: a girl who grew up in small-town Oklahoma, worked long hours to get her college degree, values having children and always wears a ponytail.

I have found that many physicians and their spouses enjoy talking to and mentoring younger students and residents and their families. I’ve learned to speak up and engage with them, and I think I fit in more than I thought I did. I am enough, insecurities and all.

Trusting my decisions

I believe physician spouses can have careers, be moms and dads and emotionally support our partners through training. I also believe that, for some of us, we may not be able to do all three of these at one time. I set aside my career ambitions for many years during medical school and residency. That’s not a choice everyone has to make or should make. But, for many physician spouses, it may make sense, especially if there are several moves (we had six) and several children (we had five) along the way.

I didn’t make a bad decision about my career; the problem was I didn’t trust my decision. I felt I was missing out, and I was always searching for a way to simultaneously have a family, get Josh through training and have my own career. I teased myself constantly, wondering if the right job was out there, just one Google search away; and I wasted hours looking at jobs I knew I wouldn’t apply for. What I see now is that I was doing the right thing by focusing on our young children and my husband’s training. My fear of missing out on the perfect job blocked finding the joy in what I was currently doing with my time. When I changed my thought to: “I’ve made the best decision for our circumstances,” I began to feel differently. Learning to embrace my decision rather than fighting it brought me peace.

Being kind to myself

By the middle of Josh’s third year of medical school, we had three boys, ages four, two and seven months. Our oldest son was in speech therapy and still struggling to say words like “milk.” It was super challenging and frustrating trying to communicate with a strong-willed little person who was unable to say what he needed to say. Our youngest, a happy baby overall, had several ear infections and needed ear tubes. Our middle child had a large brain tumor removed that year, and he had many physical delays, which required a lot of physical and occupational therapy for the next few years. He barely had the strength to sit up when he came home after his hospital stay. He could no longer walk or run. He fell frequently and had a helmet he was wearing full time, except while sleeping.

I will never forget standing at the bottom of our stairs, Josh absent on rotations, heavy seventh-month-old on one hip, a screaming four-year-old trying to express his needs, and my two-year-old asking me to pick him up because the stairs were difficult to maneuver after his operation. I was pushed to my limit emotionally and physically. I wanted to quit.

I would, however, think back to my junior high cross country coach who would yell, “I don’t care how slow you are going, you just don’t quit! Don’t start walking! You keep going until the race is over.” That’s how I got through the next year and a half. I just didn’t quit. My run was slower than most people walk, but I was still going.

Was I amazing? Yes. Yes, I was. I see that now with time and perspective; but sadly at that moment, I couldn’t see it. I was extremely judgmental of how I handled things. I thought I needed to be the perfect wife, mom, housecleaner, money manager, costume-maker, soccer mom, healthy menu-planner, and blogger. Not to mention go to church, keep up with my extended family, and take the kids regularly to the dentist and therapy, oh! and have a great holiday card where we looked at the camera in color-coordinated outfits.

Clearly, that was ridiculous. I have learned that sometimes a seven out of 10 is not bad. To me, that means if the living room is clean, but the bathroom isn’t, that is OK. If the laundry is clean but not folded neatly in drawers, that is OK! If Josh only attends one game out of the season, or the last few minutes of a birthday party, I will take it! If we choose not to sign up for city sports, I trust that decision and value the downtime.

Now, I do my best to own and not question the decisions we have made, and I attempt to show myself a little kindness. Most importantly, I no longer feel resentment toward my husband or his career. In fact, I am proud of him and genuinely interested in his work. As for the title, “doctor’s wife,” well, I’ve embraced that too.

Lara McElderry is founder, Married to Doctors.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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