My intent was not to make such a serious posting, but I did not succeed.
After 8 years of surgical residency and fellowship, I am happy to report that our lives are returning to some sort of “relative normalcy”. Stress the word “relative” as most would not describe it anything close to “normal”. Life as a junior staff surgeon involves frequent call, occasional emergencies, and the ability to pick up slack for my senior partners. But my life now carries with it innumerably greater amounts of flexibility than life as a resident or fellow.
I now have a small teaching group of 2 female medical students in their first year of medical school. They “shadow” me in clinic or the operating room once a week. Although both are interested in what I do as a surgeon, inevitably they are most curious about my decisions and experiences with childbearing and family life. I tell them about training. I tell them that it is hard but that family life and motherhood are great and well worth it.
It was harder than what I tell them, especially as most of my training was before 80-hours and “80-hours” is often still theoretical in surgical training. All medical training is difficult, but surgical training is perhaps the hardest. Finding the balance between family life and work duties is hard for all surgeons, particularly for women surgeons in training.
The “ethos” of surgery remains principally masculine and rigid. Surgeons are supposed to be particularly strong, not to complain, and to go along with the “status quo”. While this may sound backward and negative, paradoxically in many circumstances I find the first two of these qualities admirable, and I still believe surgery to be one of the most exciting and rewarding career paths that anyone could choose.
As most parents will testify, childbearing is one of the less challenging aspects of parenting. But decisions around childbearing and the time with your newborn are important shaping experiences.
The concept or image of a pregnant surgeon, whether or not in training, is still a foreign one to quite a number of surgeons, some of whom feel free to share their opinions. The decision and process of pregnancy for women residents (I suspect in a number of medical fields) produces anxiety and (both subtle and overt) comments. I have seen female residents leave surgical residency either for another medical specialty or leave medicine entirely as a result of issues surrounding childbearing. Two of my female resident colleagues “decided” to return to work only a few weeks after giving birth because one had been placed on bedrest before giving birth and the other was told two weeks was all the residency program could bear. Female residents that take full time for maternity leave often “owe” additional months (as it might be in other training programs) but also often suffer palpable resentment from fellow residents.
This is, in part, because typically the decision for a female surgical resident to have a child directly impacts the entire training system. And surgery, worse than most other medical sub-specialties, has not found solutions to address these issues. Most surgical training programs suffer from more limited people-power. When one person is not performing optimally or is absent for any reason, the entire team feels it. The call schedule might change from every 3rd night to every 2nd (of course, illegal under current regulations). This issue is perhaps the worst in some of the sub-specialties where the entire training program is composed of a handful of individuals. Interestingly, several of my female friends who have entered small private practices after training also experience similar pressures as childbearing would impact their partners' lives significantly.
Issues of maternity leave, parental leave, and time for other parenting duties in most residency training programs have not been traditionally prioritized. Not surprisingly, fields like surgery which have been slowest to find solutions and to transform their ethos feel much-needed pressure to start making changes -- as women now make up over half of graduating medical school students nationwide.
Personally, I “timed it” well, having my daughter during my years in research during residency. My 4-year-old daughter is beautiful, well-adjusted, and a great kid. And my husband and I have found a satisfactory parenting balance that works. I am extremely lucky, but I would like for my experience to be less of the exception.