I recently read an article in Newsweek by Dr. Nancy Andrews, Dean of Duke Medical School encouraging students and faculty to "go out and do whatever they want to do." And that reminded me that I wanted to echo that sentiment here by writing about having babies in medical school. A few months ago, I read a funny yet less than positive post on here outlining how really there is no perfect time to have a baby in medical school. There is a lot of legitimacy to that type of post: It is hard. True enough, there may not be a perfect time but that is not the same as saying there is no time. And for the nontraditional female student who feels trapped and conflicted about whether to do medicine or do to a family, there are fulcrums to that tension. You can have a child in medical school and you can do it with assurance that that baby will turn out just fine.
As I reflected on what might be helpful, I came to the conclusion that some of the best support I received along the way was hearing other women's stories. For me, it helps to have anecdotes of success to reassure me along the way. Nothing has been more uplifting than knowing that I am not alone in this journey of motherhood and medicine. It has been other women's random stories, hodgepodged together, that have given me strength, motivated me, and given me ideas on how to improve: do it differently, do it better.
The other day I was at my pediatrician's office with one of the boys. I encountered another pediatrician who was substituting that day in the clinic. "Dr. K, I'd like to introduce you to MSM, she is a med student with three boys and another baby on the way." Dr. K looked up from her chart and flashed me a huge smile. She pulled me aside and immediately introduced herself and gave me her story.
"Oh, I started medical school 8 weeks postpartum with our third child. In the summer after second year, I gave birth to our fourth. I wanted to take a year off to be at home with my kids. I suggested to the dean that if men were allowed to take a year off between second and third years to 'find themselves' that I was already 'found' and needed to cultivate it. I took the year off and returned to school; subsequently, I matched into a peds residency on a part-time basis for the first year and then finished full time."*
She then continued on as I stood there with my mouth open. Rarely do I encounter women with stories quite so similar to mine.
"If you ever feel like quitting, if you just have one of those weeks and everything feels overwhelming and not worth it, if you feel like your babies don't know who you are and you're stressed, call me. I can guarantee that I have been there. Many times, in fact. But I can tell you, for me, it has been worth it. And I would be more than happy to help if it ever comes to that for you, too."
She then handed me her number and went on to see the next patient. I have to say this made up for all the times that people have looked aghast when I tell them that, “Yes, we are having a baby. And no, it's not our first or even our second, but our fourth.” I feel like a rare irresponsible bird, which I loathe. I suspect they think I must have slept through the reproductive medicine lecture on IUDs, and what a wonderful contraceptive device they are. But ultimately, I've learned not to say anything. I often hear from fellow classmates, "I don't know how you do it. I can't even take care of myself." Despite the desire to retort, "I don't know how you go out drinking as often as you do and still make it to class, functioning no less." I decide not to. Since it's rhetorical anyway. Right?
But here's my long winded point: so far I've experienced a pregnancy in every year of medical school. I had an infant when I started first year. Halfway through that school year, we started trying for number two and ended up with a bonus (I got pregnant with twins). At that point, I took a year off to do research and to care for the babies. The following year, I returned full time and got pregnant at the end of second year. I passed step 1 and started my third year with my surgery rotation. There have been good and bad points along the way. But for me, it has been an extremely rewarding, incredibly busy, but amazing period of my life.
The chaos that accompanies four small children (or even the kids themselves) is not for everyone. I’m definitely not recommending this path to everyone- but to the women out there contemplating entering medicine but hesitating because they feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of family, school and medicine, I can finally return some of that reassurance I have received over the years. Follow your dreams: their individual paths diverge less than you fear, and you can always problem-solve ways to bridge the divide.
*I didn’t have the chance to ask Dr. K’s permission to share her story so I changed any identifiable details, though, I don’t think she would mind inspiring or reassuring anyone out there.
MSM is in her third year of medical school and has just had her fourth child. She enjoys running, cooking and being with children. It will come as no surprise that she's planning on going into pediatrics.