I had just received a call that I had been accepted to medical school, and I had immediately pulled up a Google search: “best time to have children in medical training?” I was certain that this was not how most people celebrated news of their acceptance to medical school, but this was a priority for me. A quick scan of the results of my Google search was clear, “Don’t do it.”
So I called the admissions office back and accepted the offer, defining the course of my next decade. I remember thinking, “I’ll show the naysayers. I’ll change the system. I belong in medicine, in motherhood. And I can’t wait to write about it.”
The years have brought an onslaught of messages that I don’t belong, that I am not “dedicated” enough to medicine — from the moment I expressed interest in having kids to when I was noticeably pregnant to when I excused myself to pump. I look back and wish the story were different, the messages different.
I am a married, non-white, young female doctor with three wonderful kids — a medical school baby, an internship baby, a residency baby — and I don’t belong.
I had my baby, a healthy boy, despite working grueling 80-hour weeks on my feet throughout pregnancy. I never knew I could love someone so much that all my previous areas of interest, my previous ambitions, could instantaneously pale — vanish — in comparison. A baby pushed me beyond any physical and mental limits I had endured thus far in medical training. Six weeks later, bawling, packing my pump parts with three hours of sleep under my belt, filled with regret for the first time about choosing medicine as a career, I was going back to work.
The messages came again: “Pumping distracts from your learning and patient care.” “You’re missing 15 minutes of rounds.” And from classmates, “Lucky you, cutting out on work.” I learned to pump while driving while writing patient notes and putting in orders while tucked in the back corner of a lecture so that I couldn’t be criticized about my “lack of learning.”
Residency applications opened. And wanting to be close to family, I applied to the only two programs that would land me near our parents while fielding questions from my classmates and medical school deans alike, “You’re willing to not match?!” “This is career suicide.” “So, are you committed to medicine — or your baby?”
Did it have to be either or? Was there room for both?
I matched. I wasn’t sure if I was happy about it, since part of me wanted an excuse to stay home, but the external praise and validation was enough to keep going.
I don’t belong. Internship started, a new beginning, near family. I was pregnant with my second baby while also nursing my toddler. When taking board exams, the proctor forced me to pump publicly in the lobby, saying, “I need to make sure you’re not cheating.” She had never had someone need to pump during this test before.
When I tried to get to my prenatal appointments while on inpatient medicine, I was told there wasn’t a policy for coverage. I didn’t establish prenatal care until late in pregnancy, all the while counseling my patients on self-care and making their prenatal appointments, and hating the irony and hypocrisy of it all.
Resilience. This word came up a lot. I internalized that I was something I lacked. Maybe this journey was just a long lesson in becoming more resilient. When a highly respected male attending asked me if I had considered quitting, I took a leave of absence. I applied to other jobs. I had time to think, to reflect, to convince myself that I didn’t belong in medicine … and then time to convince myself out of that. I returned.
My second baby came, and again the familiar feeling of regret of having chosen medicine. After my leave ended ten weeks later, I was scheduled for night float. As the only one responsible in those night hours for over 90 high acuity inpatient psych patients in a level-1 trauma hospital, it was hard to pump for longer than five minutes without being interrupted. I had mastitis. I had no sick time left, having used it all on maternity leave. If only I were more resilient.
My third baby came in the middle of third year. When we all started to work from home due to the pandemic, attention was paid to whether the mothers in the program were distracted or a whisper of a child’s cry in the background, while other sources of distraction were not questioned. I took to doing Zoom visits locked in the closet behind three sets of closed doors to minimize any possibility of colleagues hearing my children and questioning my “professionalism.”
As I approach this last stretch of residency, still entrenched in the rigors of training and the intensity of raising three young children under five years old, I am in a unique position of being able to reflect on the years and look ahead at what I want to build at the same time. It has been a lonely, emotional, seemingly endless journey at times.
We mothers and doctors are barraged with messages that we do not belong here, straddling both roles. The work of dismantling these messages will be impossible for any single person, but cumulatively we can. And for future young women who are budding doctors and hopeful mothers, I hope their search for answers and advice results in them finding a large community of support and belongingness.
And I will continue my part to advocate, to mentor, to fight this cycle of self-blame that our training system perpetuates, to continually question these messages of what priorities “belong” in medicine, until finally, we expand this radius of belonging. Despite all that I have encountered, my spirit is not broken. I have work to do.
Eunice Stallman is a psychiatry resident.
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