This past weekend, I attended my 5-year medical school reunion. My class made an impressive showing, considering the complexity of our lives and work. It was delightful to see everyone who could make it. We have gone on to a variety of successes: finishing residencies, some pursuing fellowships and some finding jobs. What made the strongest impact on me, however, was seeing how many of us have children now. Though I have not yet contributed, the rest of my class has been surprisingly productive. I don’t have hard statistics on this, just an impression of an unexpected quantity of babies at this event.
It is not easy to be a parent in medicine, especially a mother. Our prime childbearing years coincide with 80-hour work weeks and very little flexibility or control over our lives. It is hard for anyone to spend long days and nights with constant mental and physical strain, skipped meals, lack of sleep. It is even worse to attempt this while pregnant or nursing. Maternity leave is only 6 weeks, and any desire to take longer is discouraged by the guilt of colleagues covering for you.
We devote so much time and energy taking care of others that we often neglect to take good care of ourselves. We come to work even when feeling sick or exhausted because the work has to get done, and we are part of a macho culture that does not admit “weakness”.
With so many factors arguing against children, it is heartening to me that so many women (and men) are overcoming these challenges and having families anyway. Perhaps the culture of medical training is changing over time, as more women enter medicine. We bring with us the revolutionary concept that there is more to life than work.
Our work is vitally important and will always require dedication and sacrifice. However, part of humanizing medical care for patients entails treating ourselves as people too.