By Miriam Samstein
Medical school is a tough and trying time. Many students have trouble adapting to the long working hours and massive amounts of information they need to absorb. Having children and starting a family during your medical school years can compound these issues. Some might even advise waiting until after medical school to have children since it is hard enough to cope with the demanding pace of coursework without having any external worries or responsibilities. However with the increasing length of postgraduate training and the number of non-traditional medical students on the rise, many students are finding that there is no perfect time for them to have a child. Rather than wait, they chose to have children during their medical school training. For these students the juggling act can sometimes be a challenge, but the following tips can help.
Plan ahead. This should be your mantra through all stages of your training whether you are a pre-med, medical student, or resident. When selecting medical schools, if having children is even remotely on your radar, you should bear in mind that not all schools are family friendly. Look at the geographic area of the school you are considering. Is this a good place to raise a child? Is there childcare in the area and does the school subsidize it? Does the school have a maternity leave policy? Will they offer you housing when your family grows? Is there a place to pump breast milk on campus if you would like to? If you can, try and meet students who have children to find out how the administration treated them when they announced they were having children. Some schools even have special programs to facilitate maternity leave. Others might require you to take a year off. Still others will expect you back to work a few days after giving birth. It is best for you to do your homework on each school and know about these factors in advance so you can select a school that will best be able to fit your needs.
Once you know you are having a child, speak up. If you will need to go on maternity or paternity leave you should not wait until the middle of your surgery rotation to inform the clerkship director about this. Instead, plan ahead and schedule your rotations to accommodate your leave. Having a baby is not an unexpected event – you have nine months to prepare and your school can reasonably expect you to inform them a few months beforehand so that they are not left short handed on a clerkship.
Once your child is born, scheduling and staying focused will keep you sane. Prioritize your tasks and plan your days as best as you can. There will always be last minute emergencies but having a schedule and sticking to it helps ensure you accomplish your goals and remain on track even when work accumulates. On quiet days plan ahead by prepping meals and activities for busy days.
Consider your childcare options carefully. If you and your spouse both work you will need to arrange childcare. Medical students do not work typical hours. Therefore unless your spouse can drop off and pick up your child reliably everyday a daycare center with rigid hours may not work for you during your third year although it can be a good option for the first two years if your school is primarily lecture based. Nannies can be very expensive and not easy to locate in some areas. Both options leave you vulnerable to emergencies. If your nanny cancels or your child cannot attend daycare because he is sick you will be in a bind. Many students find having family members close by can ease this burden. It is also helpful to network with other parents in the area to get a feel for the childcare options and how they handle this challenge. They also provide a support group that understands what you are going through. Whatever route you select, you must be absolutely comfortable in the knowledge your child is getting proper care. It is not worth scrimping and selecting a cheaper option that you are uncomfortable with. If you are even slightly worried that your child is being neglected you will not be able to focus and get your work done, nor is it worth the risk.
Have all your financial ducks in a row. Start saving your money and living frugally as soon as you can, even before having a child becomes a realistic part of your future. You will thank yourself later. Once you are considering having a child start planning and figuring out how you will afford the serious costs that come with raising a child. If you will need to take out more loans you should consult with your school financial aid office about this before having a child. Make sure you understand all of your loan options and are comfortable that you will be able to survive with the increased debt you will take on.
Do not assume your parents will help you unless they have explicitly said so. It can be very difficult to depend on them as a source of income or childcare only to discover they have no intention of helping out in this way. Remember that this is not their obligation and accept whatever they offer gratefully.
Also investigate possible sources of health insurance for your child, whether through your spouses employment, the medical school, or a government sponsored program. Having all this information ahead of time will decrease the stress of pregnancy and conception. The last thing you want is to go through a difficult labor and delivery only to discover you have forgotten to set up health insurance for your child and must now scramble to find an insurance provider. Remember that you will have hospital and doctors fees to pay. Saving in advance and including this in your budget can make it easier to handle the sudden influx of expenses that comes with a new child.
Do not neglect your spouse. A supportive spouse is essential for a medical student with children. Before having children discuss how having children will affect your relationship and how much of the burden of childcare and home maintenance may fall on your spouse during busy times. Having this discussion helps alleviate resentment. Try to verbally express your appreciation for all that your spouse does and remember that your spouse is not a mind reader. If you do not express your needs they will not magically be able to meet them.
Keep a sense of humor. Sometimes it helps to be able to laugh about things that frustrate you. A crying infant that does not sleep through the night is actually great training for working while sleep deprived. This is a great skill to have when taking 24 hour call. Plus you should ace your pediatrics rotation after all this one-on-one experience you are getting.
Don’t be a doctor when it comes to your child. When you visit the pediatrician with your child you may feel silly asking questions a health care professional should be able to answer. Don’t let that stop you from asking those questions. Feel free to behave like a regular parent that is not in the health care field. When it comes to your child you should ask all the questions you want and seek all the reassurance you need. Don’t let medical school take over your parenting style. Enjoy your time with your munchkin just like a ‘normal’ person would.
Reach out for help. It is next to impossible to manage medical school and child rearing all by yourself. Do not hesitate to reach out to friends and family for assistance. Sometimes having a friend babysit for a night so that you can sleep or go out can make all the difference between being a calm, happy parent and losing your sanity. If you can afford to hire help to do your laundry and some basic household chores jump at the chance. Although these tasks seem like small errands now they can really bog you down when you have many things to accomplish. They also cut into your precious time with your cutie!
Embrace Imperfection. Your floors will not be spotless. Your child will not be all giggles all the time. You will occasionally feel like you are drowning. Recognize that this is all normal. Babies cry as a natural part of their development. Parents and medical students are busy people without a lot of time to be mopping and making beds. Cooking suddenly seems exhausting after a day of studying and chasing around a toddler. Accepting and welcoming the fact that life is not perfect will ease a lot of your stress and your workload.
In the end, it is all about setting your priorities. Think about what you value most, whether it is time to study, breastfeeding, making your own baby food, having a clean kitchen, being at every pediatrician appointment or eating dinner with your spouse every night. Be prepared to sacrifice other things for the sake of the top priorities on your list. Remember that as long as your child is happy and healthy the rest doesn’t matter.
Having a child is a wonderful thing. Every time you fell stressed, financially strapped or overworked remember how lucky you are! You probably have many classmates that are secretly jealous of you. After all, having a child during residency and fellowship is not easy and waiting until you are starting your own practice can also be stressful. If you are organized, plan ahead, and prepare yourself to take all the little bumps in stride you and your growing family can survive medical school happily.