It was July 1st of my intern year. I had just finished my first thirty-hour call. I was exhausted, and my confidence level was at an all-time low. Two ICU transfers, three bedside rounds and fifteen admissions later, I realized how much more I had to learn to be an effective physician. As I staggered back home, exhausted and in desperate need of a shower, I crawled into my empty bed relieved to have survived my first day of residency. Meanwhile, my husband had just started his first overnight call at the hospital and so would begin our first of many “ships passing through the night” escapades.
Several hours later, I jolted up from a deep sleep, suspicious that I was pregnant. Call it intuition or a premonition, but I just knew. I rushed to the local pharmacy, picked up a pregnancy test, rushed back home and stared at the positive results in utter shock. I felt disoriented and groggy with a mixture of surprise, elation and excitement. But fear immediately took over.
A baby? Now? We just started residency. I have thirty-hour shifts every fourth day for the next three years. We have no family here, no support, no acquaintances and we are barely able to make minimum payments on our monstrous student loans. How was this going to work? Also, how far along am I? And how many glasses of wine have I had?
Amid the fog that inhabited my thoughts, I called the OBGYN department at my hospital and made a same-day appointment. Two hours later, I was sitting in stirrups waiting patiently for confirmation of my pregnancy. So much for sleep. A common theme in my life as a physician.
And then, there she was. The sonogram revealed I was indeed pregnant and further along than I had thought. I walked out of the office with the first picture of our baby girl and headed home. Exhausted, I put the picture on my husband’s pillow and finally went to sleep, knowing my next shift would start in a few short hours.
Soon after, my husband came home and crawled into bed. I opened one eye and asked him if he’d seen the sonogram picture I had placed on his pillow.
His reply: “Oh yes. Did you do your first ultrasound at work yesterday? That’s a great picture.”
“No,” I told him. “Pediatricians don't do sonograms. That's a picture of our baby”.
He sat up immediately and he stared at me with the same expression of happiness and surprise I had worn myself several hours ago. Once our elation had faded, we were left with so many questions.
How would we do it? Could we even do it? Would we ever get to see our baby? Would someone else have to raise her? Would we even be effective parents?
The next few months were a whirlwind of morning sickness, exhausting hospital rounds, extensive reading and apologies to others for being pregnant in the first place. Upon hearing that I was pregnant, my husband’s program coordinator said, “Oh we hate it when that happens." On one hand, we had to ask strangers to cover our future shifts, wrap our brains around five weeks of maternity leave and figure out how we were going to “do it all”. On the other hand, we were welcomed into a community of many other physician parents who had paved the road before us. Their advice, support and input were priceless.
From their advice, we learned that there isn’t one magic formula for raising children while balancing the demands of physician-life.
It’s all about networking and sharing best practices and tips. Some people use nannies, some use daycares, some are lucky enough to use grandparents. Some people take a year off to and delay their graduation, some transition to part-time to manage the work-life balance. Some become stay-at-home parents. Some specialize and some go back to primary care. Almost everyone agrees that help is required. What that help entails, varies on a case by case basis.
Ten years and two children later, we made it. There wasn’t a single easy step along the way and we often still wonder how we even did it. The fog and chaos continue to surround us in what we label “our normal”. There were many firsts, many milestones and many tears along the way, but we wouldn’t trade our experience for the world.
Our method involved a lot of “live and learn.” I took the minimal amount of time off for maternity leave, in order not to delay graduating (especially since my husband and I were both on the same cycle). I did a chief residency year, while my husband began fellowship. This gave me more time at home and also helped me realize that the best lifestyle for me, would be in general outpatient Pediatrics. This gave me the most scheduling flexibility.
Someone had told us along the way that kids miss their parents more as they get older (which we also found to be true), so we are happy we took that advice and didn’t delay graduating during their infancy. My mother flew in from another country until the children were 4 months old, and after that, we put them both in daycare. When the kids would get sick, we had the support of our various family members (who would sometimes drive in from a few hours away or even fly in , like when our 4 month old was hospitalized with RSV) but we also had a rolodex of nursing students who we could call on short notice to come watch our children until they were well enough to go back to daycare. Our kids have always been the first to be dropped off, and the last to be picked up from child care. Our residency programs weren’t all that supportive of our family life, so we just did the best we could with what we had.
Now, we are two full time physicians with demanding jobs and school-aged children. My job as a general pediatrician is definitely more family-friendly than my husband who is a specialist. Regardless, much of our success relies on planning in advance; asking for opposing call schedules so that one of us is always present, switching with someone if a conflict exists and planning every vacation day a year in advance so we can be there for important recitals and days off school.
Looking back, I remember what the OBGYN told me the day of my daughter’s first ultrasound:
“There is never a perfect time for children. Don’t listen to what anyone says and always focus on your family.”
Those are exactly the words we continue to live by.
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