This post is in response to our MiM Mail: Residency limit for leave and having children posted in November.
The problem of maternity leave for residents goes well beyond the good will, or lack of it, of training directors and local programs. Different specialty boards establish minimum standards for residents to be board eligible, and these usually involve specified upper and lower limits of time spent in particular areas. Stipends come from multiple sources and are tied to the work that the resident does, which makes it difficult to set aside money from one year to pay for time doing make up work in another. When a resident goes on leave, other residents have to pick up her responsibilities, and they will not receive compensation for doing so. At the same time, they may not violate duty hour limits.
Program directors, of which I was once one, have to figure out how to create maternity policies that do not violate minimum requirements, do not unduly burden other residents in the program, do not violate other regulations and still acknowledge the legitimate needs of the resident who requests leave. When I became a program director, my youngest child was 4, and the issues of maternity leave were still very fresh in my mind. My first thought was to ask the department to hire a PA or master’s level nurse who could float to cover the clinical responsibilities of residents who took leave. That went nowhere, though I still think it would have been feasible and fair. I then tried to get the program directors organization to survey its membership to see what different programs were doing. The push back was immediate and negative. Programs with generous leave policies were reluctant to publish them, for fear that residents would select them to take advantage of them, multiplying the headaches of trying to make accommodations. Many programs had no policies at all.
I am sad to see that so little has changed in the last eighteen years—soon, my daughters will be the ones who have to deal with maternity leave. Change is unlikely unless more women become program directors and choose to work on modifying the policies of various specialty boards. The family practice board position (see MiM Nov 10, 2014) is one that others could adopt. It suggests that programs might create some creditable elective time that could be spent reading or doing some other scholarship from home. Women should be allowed/encouraged to schedule the more taxing rotations early in pregnancy (and I would suggest also front loading as much call as one can). It is still up to the program how much leave to allow and whether it will be paid or unpaid. The AAFP also leaves unanswered how to deal with what may be competing demands of the law in a particular state and the requirements of a specialty board.
In the end, women physicians cannot expect to be treated more fairly and generously than other women. Having a child during training will never be easy, but we should be mindful that we are generally privileged. We may have to delay some phase of education, or prolong it by working part time, or even chose a specialty or a position we would otherwise not have done, because of having a child. Compared to the pregnant UPS driver who gets fired, or the Walmart worker who has to stand on her feet all day, or the mother who can’t work at all because she can’t afford childcare, we are lucky indeed.