HealthMay 25, 2020

Surviving medical school with children

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

I matriculated in a combined MD-PhD program, and my son was born in the last year of getting my PhD. Holding him for the first time was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but part of me was also terrified about how I could possibly be a parent while still fulfilling the rigorous requirements of my program.

However, as I look back on that moment five years later, I know now that parenting as a medical student really is doable—and can actually help you as a doctor.

Medscape notes that residents who have started families report lower rates of depression and higher rates of empathy and life satisfaction. “Contrary to what might be expected, becoming a parent appears to protect medical residents from burnout.”

That said, going to med school with a family comes with unique challenges. Here’s a look at some of those challenges and how to overcome them so you can enjoy your dual role as medical student and parent.

The challenges of medical school with children

Understanding the particular challenges of attending medical school with children from the outset can help you prepare for them and identify them when they do come along.

Isolation

Practically any medical student who is also a parent will tell you that feeling set apart from fellow students is one of the biggest challenges of the endeavor.

“One of the hardest things to manage is feeling isolated from a lot of the class,” nontraditional University of Michigan medical student Kendrick William writes for the Lab Blog at U of M Health. “Because I do have a family, I must accept that my schedule will probably not be the same as most of my classmates.”

Students who just have school to worry about don’t always understand what it’s like to have the added responsibilities of parenthood.

Lack of balance

Like the isolation, feeling out of balance—pulled toward both your family and your studies—is also an extremely difficult part of being a student-parent. It’s easy to feel guilty about spending time with your family when you think you should be studying and vice versa.

Part of the problem is that your priorities can be a moving target. Dylan Simpkins of The Lantern blog notes that “every day is a little bit different between what gets priority. Some days, it’s gonna be med school. Some days it’s my family.”

In short, the balancing act that works for you one day may not work the next.

Fatigue

This probably goes without saying, but fatigue is one of the biggest challenges you will face when you’re parenting as a medical student.

When I come home from a grueling shift, my five-year-old son runs to the door to greet me, not understanding that I’m already exhausted. Sometimes it feels like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for you to sleep, work and parent.

How to manage parenting as a med student

I can honestly say that there are days when the tasks of parenting and being a resident seem impossible. Luckily, over the years, I’ve found concrete ways to help manage these particular challenges and keep my work and my life in balance.

Seek out other student-parents

One of the best ways to cope with problems like isolation is to seek out other students who are in the same boat as you. As Kendrick Williams writes, “I have found it helpful to study with some of my classmates who also have children and are trying to juggle parenting and medical school.”

The fact is, if you haven’t had the experience of going through medical school while still trying to parent, it can be tough to relate to people who are. Finding other student-parents can help you feel less lonely, and those students can become an informal network of support and advice.

Put down the devices

If you’re feeling off-balance and pulled in too many different directions, it can help to put down the devices. Prospective Doctor notes that the challenge of being both doctor and parent is “striking a balance and discovering how to be emotionally, mentally and physically present in one role and then switching to another without being distracted.” One way to help reduce those distractions is to get rid of your device for a while so you can really make the time you spend with your family count.

Get your rest

Everything seems harder when you’re tired. It sounds obvious, but I’ve found that one of the most important things I can do for myself in order to be there for my patients and my family in a meaningful way is to get enough sleep. This could mean power-napping, making sure I have a cool, dark and quiet place to sleep and making up for missed sleep on the weekends or whenever else I get the chance. I’ve found that my dual roles as parent and doctor are much easier to handle when I’m rested.

The truth is that learning how to balance medical school with children is a journey, not a destination. I’m still learning how to be both a parent and a student doctor. The most important lesson for me in all of this has been to truly enjoy the time I have with my family so that I can get the most out of my professional life as well.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD