The journey of being a parent in medical school


One big life event for me was having my son Matthew during medical school. It has been a fulfilling and interesting journey.

I met my husband Andrew during college, and we were lucky to matriculate together at the University of Minnesota Medical School. I decided to do a dermatology research year between the third and fourth years of medical school, and Andrew did a neurology research year at the same time. We decided that a research year would be a good time as any to have a kid, and so I gave birth to Matthew about five months into the research year. We have been very happy with having Matthew relatively early on in our careers. Our research year and fourth year of medical school have been fairly flexible, giving us some great quality time with Matthew. We also like the idea of not putting our lives on hold for the sake of medical training, and leaving ourselves space to have a big family later on.

The thing that has surprised me the most about being a parent is simply how difficult it is. I never gave my parents, or any parent, enough credit for all that they do. The learning curve of taking care of our son was so steep, with many books, audiobooks, and Google searches involved. There was often no correct or clear-cut answer to questions such as why is Matthew crying? And what should we do? Parenting takes an abundance of energy, time, and grit. It is essentially being on call 24/7 and is hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, harder than medical school.

And when the responsibilities of being a parent are compounded with the realities of being a medical student, it starts to be too much. I typically start my “work” day between 5 to 6 a.m. when Matthew wakes up. I spend about 8 to 10 hours at my rotation site, and the workday ends around 8 to 9 p.m. when Matthew goes to bed. Then, after 8 to 9 p.m., I try to cram in studying, emails, cleaning, connecting with my husband, showering, decompressing on social media, planning for the next day, sleeping, etc., and it never feels like enough time. The weekends are busy as well with playing, cooking, cleaning, and everything that goes into caring for a little human who requires near-constant attention.

While 15-hour workdays are doable, when stacked day after day (weekends included so there is never a true break), for 18 months, with night awakenings at times, compounded by sickness every month from daycare, it really becomes utterly exhausting. The last time that I felt completely well rested and healthy was before Matthew’s birth, and I suspect it’s not going to let up anytime soon. I struggle constantly with the balance of spending quality time with my husband and son, trying to study and perform well as a medical student, and doing things for myself to maintain my sanity (for example, I love reading books for fun).

It probably comes as no surprise then, that being a parent has hurt my performance as a medical student. Factors have included decreased and fractured sleep, decreased time to study, needing to pump during the day, and getting sidetracked with mental to-do lists and pangs of mommy guilt. There is a definite tension between being a good medical student and a good parent. At times they are mutually exclusive, and sacrifice is needed. For example, if Matthew is still breastfeeding when I need to leave for work, do I wait for him to get his fill or leave so that I am on time to see patients? (I would typically leave for work.) If we are very busy in clinic, do I take my pumping break or do I power through and hurt my milk supply? (I would typically take a pumping break.) When my work is done, do I leave to pick Matthew up or stick around to see if anyone needs extra help? (I would typically leave for daycare.) My reasoning is based mostly on gut feeling, and I take each day and scenario as it arises.

Yet, being a parent has enhanced my medical student career in other ways. Although I am exhausted, I wouldn’t say I feel burned out. There are so many sweet, hilarious, pure, and fun moments sprinkled into each day that keep me refreshed. I love that Matthew is starting to form his own opinions, ideas, and jokes. Being a parent has taught me a lot of soft skills, including love, patience, and resiliency. I find that I connect better with others, including with patients. I have also learned to be more efficient with my time, and to prioritize the things that truly matter. And as a life philosophy, I have learned to go with the flow so much more. We just attempt to try our best every day, learning and having fun as we go.

There are many uncertainties about the future. I am most worried about how we will handle the challenges of residency. I worry that we will be subpar residents and that our bond with Matthew will weaken. But, I think we will be OK. I am proud of how we have handled things so far (so much credit is due to my super husband), and I know we will keep picking ourselves up during residency. At the end of the day, I try to keep the big picture in mind — as long as everyone is alive and loved, I call that a win.

Amy Zhang is an incoming dermatology resident.

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