What It's Like to be a Parent in Medical School
Undergraduate: Wake Forest University, 2005
Medical school: Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, 2016
Specialty: Undecided, but most likely pediatrics
How do you balance your time between school and family?
It’s tough, but I always try to keep a pretty strict schedule. My husband travels roughly 15 days each month for work, which makes things a bit more difficult. When he is home, he drops off my son, Ryder, at daycare. If he’s not, I typically leave home around 7:15 a.m. to get to school on time. Our lectures/problem-based learning/other classes start at 8 a.m. daily and end anywhere between noon and 4 p.m. I usually stay at school studying until 5 p.m. each day. Then I pick up Ryder from daycare and have family time until he goes to bed at 8 p.m. I then study from 8 to 11 p.m. before heading to bed myself.
My husband is usually around on weekends, so he watches Ryder for a few hours each day so I can get some more studying done. On the weekends before exams, I pretty much camp out in the library while my husband watches Ryder all day. I really try to focus my attention on my son and husband during family time and not be distracted thinking of all the studying I need to do. I’m certainly not perfect at it, but it is always my goal.
What childcare options do you have while you’re in class or studying?
I’ve been using a local daycare that had great hours (6:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m.). We’ve established a routine that I think has worked well for my family. Occasionally I feel guilty about the time I spend away from Ryder, but I know that’s something many parents go through. Ryder loves daycare and I cherish the time I spend with him at home.
Does being a parent affect your relationship with your classmates?
I think it affects the time that I get to spend with my classmates more than the actual relationships. I feel I have great relationships with many of my classmates, but I had to build those by socializing throughout the day or over lunch. If there are family-friendly events (BBQs, sporting events, etc.), I bring my husband and son. Many classmates adore my son and have no problem playing “mini babysitter” so I can socialize with other students. Sometimes it’s easier to have people over to our house because we can put Ryder to bed and still have fun with the other students.
I have missed out on a lot of late night and/or weekend events, though. A lot of younger students didn’t immediately understand why I couldn’t bring a toddler over to their place at 9 p.m. I have wished I could go out with them at times, but I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. Occasionally, other students have watched Ryder so I could have a night out, which is really wonderful of them. I can even think of a few times fellow students elected to miss class social events and babysit Ryder so I could attend the event. I’m really grateful they’ve cared enough to help me out like that.
Does your school offer any support systems for parents?
No, nothing specific that I can think of. I am the only parent in my class right now, and there are only two or three other parents (all fathers) in the other years. I’m actually the first mom at Virginia Tech Carilion. But it is a relatively new medical school. The faculty and deans are extremely supportive and make accommodations if I need to miss class if my son is sick and/or my husband is out of town. The other students are always great about that as well. I always have more notes and offers to help than I could possibly take.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered while being a parent in medical school?
Learning all of the information I’m expected to know as a medical student and feeling as though I had much less time to learn it. I find myself playing the “what if” game more than I’d like, wondering how well I would perform if I didn’t have all of the extra responsibilities. I’ve done well in all my classes, but I always wonder if I would be closer to the top of my class if I wasn’t a parent. When I find myself sliding into that train of thought, I try to remind myself how I’ll be able to set myself apart from the other students in residency applications and interviews. Our school is pass/fail and many students struggle with how to differentiate themselves from other students in their class. My only struggle (in that respect) is figuring out how to include all of my experiences, not only as a parent but also from my past career, in my applications and interviews.
What advice would you give to aspiring doctors who are parents or plan to start a family while in medical school or residency?
Medical school shouldn’t interrupt life; there will be no “perfect” time to start a family. I’ve always been very open with students, faculty, and deans as to what my priorities are, and 99 percent of people are accepting and understanding of my situation. If you feel that you’re at a point in your life where you would like to have children, then go for it. There have been many parents who have successfully completed medical school before you and it’s becoming much more common now.
There are even some advantages to having a child when it comes to my patients. I wear my son’s picture on the back of my ID badge and I can’t tell you how many patients have commented on it, which then easily opens the lines of communication. Patients sometimes open up to me more and give me a little more respect knowing I’m a parent. Most patients have kids (or grandkids) and finding something in common with them allows me to connect in a way that most other medical students cannot. I think in the future that knowing how to balance a family and medical school, as well as just being a parent, will make me a better physician.
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