HealthJune 29, 2015

How to balance family and medical school

It had been a rough day. My attending was in a horrible mood. I blew up the balloon for the foley catheter before it was fully inserted in a patient we were doing surgery on. I forgot to follow-up on some labs for a patient I was seeing, and was reprimanded in front of the entire medical team. I was too busy for lunch, and my stomach had been alternating between pain and nausea. My surgery shelf exam was coming up, and I was woefully behind on my studies. On top of it all I had been getting about 4 hours of sleep a night for the past few weeks. I asked myself, “So why did I decide to go into medicine?”

But when I walked through the door of my apartment, that all seemed to vanish. You see, there are two magicians that know how to make all of my trials and hardships shrink and even disappear. It’s a power they were born with, and they keep on improving it every day. Who are these two workers of magic?

My children!

When I walk in through the door, my 18-month-old daughter grabs the closest thing to her: her blanket (which she calls a rag for whatever cute reason), a toy, a doll, a diaper, anything she can. She walks up to me with it held in front of her beaming face, as if she were showing me a gold medal she just won from the Olympics. I simply melt at the sight of her, get down on my knees and wrap her up in a hug. It takes all of my willpower to not squeeze her, so I settle for smothering her in kisses.

Then my 3-year-old son begins to tell me in his adorable little voice all about his day while he starts literally climbing on me. We have a little climbing routine. He grabs onto my head/hair, puts his feet onto my extended hands, and slowly climbs up until he’s sitting on my shoulder. At that point, he does one of two things. He stays there and says he wants me to walk around, or he stands up (yes, stands up) on my shoulders and jumps off.

I can honestly say that some of my happiest moments are simply being with my children. I love them more than words could ever describe. They are perhaps the biggest motivating factor for me to work long and hard hours so that I can get a good job that will provide for them. But it’s quite a balancing act as well. Yes, my children need me to earn money so I can provide for them. But they also need me to be present and part of their life. Children need physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional support.

It’s not easy being a husband, father, and medical student all at the same time. Each of my roles is important, and each requires a lot of my attention and energy. So how do I balance it all? To be honest, I’m still learning a lot about this. In no way am I the perfect juggler of these different roles. But I have learned some very important lessons about how to balance my schooling with my fatherly responsibilities.

You’re never caught up in school

One of the important things I’ve learned is that there is no such thing as being truly caught up in medical school. You will never be fully caught up on your studies. You will never be 100% prepared for every exam you’ll ever take. There is always more for you to study. But you won’t always have your children as children. Before you know it, they will be growing up and those precious childhood years will be gone. I love my kids more each day. But I also wish I could go back and spend a few days with them as their younger selves. I would love to travel back in time and play with my son as a 9-month-old for just a day. But I can’t! So don’t wait for life to be calmer and simpler, or for your studies to be caught up. It never truly happens, and if you wait for that day, you’ll miss all of the days in the interim while your children grow up.

Be consistent

Spend time with your children every day, even if it’s only a few minutes. It’s cliche, but they grow up fast. I have never looked back and thought to myself “You know, I wish I had spent an extra 15 minutes each day reviewing glycolysis.” But I have had the thought “You know, I wish that I had played more with my kids, even only an extra 15 minutes each day.”

Routines are good for them and for you

Children have a lot to learn. They are very vulnerable and very sensitive. If they do not have a regular routine, they will have constant background stress that can stunt physical, intellectual, and emotional growth. So helping to provide a consistent routine for them is key.

It’s also key for you. It’s a lot easier to “sacrifice” time for your children if it’s part of the normal routine for you. For example, I am the one to give my children a bath. It’s something I started out doing because I wanted to be with them more. And it has become part of my normal schedule. I always expect to give them a bath, and they expect me to as well. In the evenings, it’s not a sacrifice for me to do so. It’s just part of normal living, almost as normal as it is for me to eat or sleep. I have had many memory building moments while giving my kids a bath. It can be the same for you. Pick something that you can do on a regular basis and commit to it. It might be to read them stories before bed, or to wrestle around with them for 20 minutes when you get home. Whatever routine you decide on, I can promise that you will not regret it. You’ll build up a massive stockpile of moments with your children. And they will have a stronger, closer relationship with you which will pay massive dividends for everyone.

Call whenever you have a spare moment

In person contact is ideal, but it’s not always possible. So you can at least phone your children. Call them up so you can hear their voice, and they can hear yours. My kids are still pretty young, so when I call them I don’t understand a lot of what they say. But I have the opportunity to tell them how much I love them, which is good for them and for me.

Depending on the specific circumstances, you can even do FaceTime or Google Hangout with them. Residency interviews were insanely busy for me, and I was gone from home a lot. But I wanted that face to face time with my kids, so I would call them with Google Hangout as much as possible, almost every day I was gone. One nice thing about hangout is that they have a doodle feature that lets you draw on your face or you kids’ face. And my kids loved it! They always wanted me to draw a beard in various colors. At one point they were having me draw a rainbow beard on myself. It sounds simple, but those hangouts with colored beards provided me with some of my happiest memories. It was something they looked forward to, and reminded them on a daily basis that I love them, even if they couldn’t see me in person.

Try to involve your children in what you do

This one might take some creativity at times, but anything you can do that will combine your studies and responsibilities as a med student with your role as a parent is a win-win. My kids would come and see me at the hospital when I had a break for lunch. It was kind of funny. Most people don’t go to the hospital when they want to have fun. Quite the opposite, in fact. But for my kids, going to the hospital was like going to the park. They got to see water fountains, go up and down the escalator, walk around with me, and sometimes get a treat.

Depending on their age, your children could even help you study. They could be the one to quiz you with flashcards. Or can practice your physical exam on them. If you involve them with your work, not only are you spending more time with them, but you engender in them feelings of confidence because you give the message that they are actively helping you. If your kids are super little, you can hold them while reviewing flashcards (or this really cool app called Firecracker.

Regular “Daddy’s Night Out”

My father-in-law is one of my all-time heroes. I’ve never met a more compassionate, honest, overall good person. I asked him how he balanced school and his medical career with his family. He said that once a month he took his children on a “Daddy’s Night Out.” This did two things. It gave my mother-in-law some extra time to herself. And of course it gave him time to bond with his children. It would have been easy to just go and do something. But by giving it an official name, it made the activity more special. And by doing it monthly, it was something that the kids were able to look forward to.

I recently started going on daddy-daughter dates and father-son outings. Since my children are young, this often involves going to the mall to get a treat from a candy store and/or going to play at a park. I turn off my phone and try to give 100% of my attention to my child during that short time. I think I enjoy these activities more than my kids do!

Look at other daily activities: It’s not always a choice between studies and family time

I remember feeling like I just didn’t have enough time to do what I needed to do. I wanted and needed to spend time with my kids. But I also needed to spend time with my studies. It wasn’t a matter of studying so much that I would get the top score in my class, I really needed to do a baseline amount of bookwork. What was I supposed to give up? I examined myself and what I did in a given day, and made a profound discovery. I didn’t have to give up either. I had to give up other things I was overlooking.

In a given day, I would spend 10 minutes here and there on social media. Or after studying for a while I’d want to watch some highlights on ESPN. Now I’m very supportive of a balanced life, and those things aren’t necessarily bad. But what would frequently happen is I’d look up a highlight from a game I missed, but then I’d get sucked in to watching all the other highlights, then looking up the top 100 soccer goals of all time. Before I knew it, an hour was gone. Or I’d start playing a game of chess on my phone, get sucked in, and waste an extra 30 minutes. And during those episodes, I hadn’t done any studying or spent any time with my family.

I decided that whenever I was worn out or tired from my studies, rather than surf the web, I would try to use my break time with my kids. I was able to get a bit of mental rest and extra kid time. Then when I sat back down to study, I was rested and able to focus again.

I can honestly say that being a parent is one of the greatest honors in my life. It is a source of constant joy and satisfaction. It’s also very demanding. But no matter how much work is required, it is always worth it. So if necessary, you might want to evaluate your involvement in your children’s lives and maybe make some adjustments. Hopefully the above suggestions can help you live a more balanced life.


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