Being on a medical school faculty, I have just listened to a slew of speeches welcoming the new students. Everyone from older students to the dean exhorted the students to be diligent, caring, dedicated and so on, and tried to capture the transformation that occurs between layman and doctor. The students all seemed overwhelmed, being told medicine would be a rewarding but all consuming life. While the speakers honored the families from whom the students came, none said anything to reassure them that their future lives might include families of their own. I listened with the ears of the lonely single woman I was on my first day of medical school, and I felt the mixture of aspiration and despair the dean’s vision evoked.
As my family has observed, I always want to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every wake. Sitting there, I tried to think what I would want to tell the students, especially the incoming women, about what lies ahead. I suspect a more feminine image of devotion and change might have been of comfort to them. After all, they are joining a profession, not a convent or a monastery.
Becoming a doctor, I would have said, is a lot like becoming a mother. When you imagine it, based on the images of motherhood that surround you, the vicarious experience of friends or family, and your own experience as a child, you imagine the change occurs suddenly and thoroughly. The baby is placed in your arms, you expect to be flooded with tenderness, to know what to do in every circumstance, and to have the respect of those around you. In fact, the process is gradual. The day you find out you are carrying a child is like the day you get your medical school acceptance letter. The child grows in your mind and occupies many different roles before it ever becomes a flesh and blood reality. How many different specialties did we practice in our heads, before we put on our first white jacket and tried to find a comfortable place to stash the stethoscope? Delivering the baby, like the first day in anatomy lab, doesn’t suddenly make you a mom, or a doctor, not the way you imagined it would. It takes time, sleepless nights, anxious days, moments of profound resentment and moments of even greater tenderness before you fall in love with this child, a love that evolves and changes as the child becomes more and more complex and separate from you. As with medicine, the more fully you embrace this new focal point in your life, the more your inner sense of self changes. Various milestones—the child’s smile, the end of your first period of exams—mark progress toward your new self, but the real transformation occurs privately. It can be sudden—the day someone calls you mommy, or doctor, and you don’t jump. More often, it is retrospective. You look back and realize that somewhere in the past few weeks, months or years, you have become what you and others have expected for so long—still yourself, yet profoundly and irrevocably other than what you were the day you first began to dream.
Do not be afraid, I would have said to them. The sacrifices you will be making will not be more than you can bear, and the rewards will be more than you can imagine.