By Grace K DeHoff, MS III
I had my first child in November of my 2nd year of medical school. My husband and I tried to plan for a winter break baby but were surprised a little earlier. With plenty of open communication with my school, an unbelievable support system in my husband and my classmates, and more multitasking than I ever knew was possible, I had my child and was able to return to school full time after two weeks off. I was able to make up the missed work over Christmas break. The experience taught me a lot about why so few women decide to have children during medical school. Unfortunately, the alternative to waiting until after residency leaves many women delaying pregnancy to their their late 30s to 40s. Complication rates, infertility and genetic disorders all increase with increasing maternal age. This leaves female physicians with a difficult decision in terms of attempting to balance a career as a physician and the desire to have a family. This piece is meant to highlight this struggle and my own journey with my decision to have a baby in the thick of medical school.
Challenges women in medicine face with family life
My mentor, a male neurosurgeon, once told me I needed to have my children while in medical school. When I asked him why I needed to have kids in medical school he explained that as a woman I would face a challenge that none of my male colleagues would face, especially in the field of neurosurgery. I would most likely be in the minority as a female in the program. In addition, if I had a child during residency, when I left for the labor and recovery, my colleagues would be faced with picking up my workload and shifts, resulting in probable resentment from them. They would be working while I was home with my baby. They would be getting more hours in the OR, seeing more cases, honing their skills as surgeons, and adding to their resumes by further expanding their experiences. Meanwhile, I would be at home, knowing that I was falling behind in my program, which would drive me to return to work to get back on track sooner than when most new mothers usually return to work. He posited I’d then face continuous guilt over leaving my child and missing out on the joys of being a mother. The thought of motherhood in medical school still terrified me, how would I have the time?!
Though he drew a very simplified scenario with many assumptions, I took it to heart and did constantly wonder about how I would manage to have both a family and a career I loved. Even if I do not end up in neurosurgery, I knew any residency, particularly a surgical one would pose a significant challenge on creating a family. Regardless of the residency, there is only a finite amount of time any resident can take off in a calendar year before they are considered to have missed too much to graduate on time and are required to repeat a year or complete a research year. In the best scenario, it is quite possible for a woman to have a baby and get back to work in only a matter of days or weeks. From our experiences in medicine, unfortunately we know that best case scenarios don’t always happen. For those women who do not have the optimal pregnancies, deliveries and recoveries, they face the very real possibility of sacrificing their medical education and accepting that they have fallen behind and must take time off to graduate later than expected. This can have longer term consequences affecting finances, future job offers and marital stress.
Medical school policies for time off
Most medical schools have no official maternity leave policy in place, owing to the changing curriculum throughout medical schools. In the vast majority of US osteopathic and allopathic schools, the first two years are didactic years requiring lecture attendance and regular exams. It is challenging to have a child during this time because of the rigorous schedule and lack of time available to make up missed work. Some schools will allow a certain amount of time off–usually no more than 2 weeks before requiring an official Leave of Absence. Others require students to either take a full year off or to complete a research project during their postpartum period without an option for attempting to keep up with the required schoolwork. My school, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, was more lenient in their policy. The time off that I took for my postpartum period was excused as an “illness” would be and the coursework was understood to be made up at the end of the academic year before I would be eligible to take my board exams.
The clinical years in the last half of medical school are out of the classroom and occur on the wards with variable schedules and hours. Again, each school is different in how they handle requests for time off during this period. Some schools have established electives appropriate for time needed both pre and post partum. Certain medical schools schools permit a breastfeeding elective to support a pregnancy. My school allows up to 6 weeks of a newborn elective (available to both mothers and fathers) as long as the student’s child is less than 1-year-old. In the absence of any of these options, many students will save vacation time, taken as a maternity leave; others will pack their schedules with light rotations, like research rotations to allow flexibility and less clinical responsibilities and to create more time during the newborn period. In general, there seems to be more flexibility for having a child in the last two years of school when compared to the first two.
Breast feeding time commitments
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all infants be breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life. For new mothers attempting to breastfeed, this introduces a major time challenge, especially upon returning to work in any field. On average, an infant eats every 2-3 hours around the clock or roughly eight times in a 24-hour period. The amount of time the baby spends actually at the breast varies greatly, but averages to about 20-30 minutes. In addition to the physical time it takes to nurse or pump, a mother in medical training must also factor in her study schedule around her nursing schedule.
I found myself pushing past natural study breaks in my study schedule to wait until I nursed, using the time to nurse as a study break. On long days on the medical school campus, I would take a headset intended for those hard of hearing to use during lecture so that I could continue to listen to the lecture while I pumped in a separate room. This allowed me to still hear the information, but it was impossible to take notes or do any active learning while I pumped since it’s actually a pretty hands-on task. I would often have to be very careful about my exam schedule and change my pumping times to ensure I would not have to leave an exam to pump because that would result in time lost from the exam. Additional factors such as the baggage needed to pump, logistics of storing cold milk and the stress of making sure I produced enough milk every day to send with my son to daycare the next day, were some of the biggest challenges of being a mom in medicine. I know plenty of women who chose not to nurse for long or even at all due to these difficulties. Even so, their time commitment was no less than mine, but without the obstacles to pumping during the day. I think any time saved from the decision to formula feed comes specifically from the pumping time commitment.
Male colleague responses
I was on my first rotation as a third year medical student when I found myself with a male resident who had four children, his last child was born within only a few months of beginning his first year of medical school. He went on to tell me that he “completely” understood how difficult it was to have a baby in medical school. When I hesitantly pointed out the difference between becoming a father in medical school versus a mother in medical school, he scoffed and said that he had taken his fair share of the midnight feedings, enough to understand the difficulties of being a new mother. His response hurt me more than I cared to admit and though I know his attitude is not representative of all fathers, the comment left me feeling resentful and intolerant of my male colleagues. In reflecting on this topic, it is difficult to tell any father that he doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a parent, and to a point, it’s impossible. Fathers are invaluable pieces of the family dynamic and I would never have been successful without my son’s father in our lives. Men often want to be valued for their contribution in parenting, which they justly deserve. Women want the same thing. We want support and recognition for the role that we play in carrying, birthing, and nursing a child. Mothers in medicine keep the same schedules as fathers in medicine, the same workload and the same standards, but the gestational and postpartum part of our parenting journey cannot be ignored or brushed off.
“Statistics” When women have a baby in medicine
In an unofficial Facebook survey taken in a private group of physician moms totaling over 61,000 members, over 2000* women responded to the question “when did you have your first child?”. Of those respondents, only 15% of them had their first child in medical school. 25% of women waited until residency and 25% waited until they were in an attending position. The remaining 35% had their child outside of these time frames. These statistics reflect that women chose to have children all throughout their medical education and career and no one time seems to be better than another. The challenge can significantly affect family planning and many female physicians and students feel that waiting sometimes up to 10+ years after beginning medical school to actually start a family is their best option.
As a whole, medical schools in the US do tend to support women who decide to start a family while in school. There are a variety of options available to help students complete their studies on time and most schools are willing to be flexible so long as there is open communication along the way. The women who choose to take on motherhood and medical school are often some of the most driven and hardest working students, but even so, a little help can go a long way. Schools can encourage and support mothers by providing lactation rooms, providing child support resources and being a child friendly campus. Many schools allow children to be on campus but do not allow them within the lecture halls during class time. Some schools allow the option of following along with lectures remotely, which can be invaluable with a newborn. There are even schools that provide childcare on campus for parents!
As a new mother who is not able to be a stay at home mom, childcare is probably the most important planning point in terms of successfully returning to school after having a baby. Planning early for daycares and inquiring about waitlists as well as the minimum age that the baby must be before they can start is an essential part of your family planning. In medical school the financial burdens often make hiring a nanny or in home child care too expensive but enroll family and friends to help out in the early stages. If you plan on nursing, make inquires early about nursing accommodations at your school. Be sure to see how far away nursing rooms are from classrooms to be factored into your pumping schedule. The combination of a newborn and medical school will definitely cut into dedicated study time so the most honest reflection you must make before embarking on this joint path is whether you are in good academic standing and not struggling to be in good standing. If you are a borderline student, having a baby can easily tip you below the passing line. At the end of the day, every second as both a student and a mother is worth it in my humble opinion.
Total number of respondents: 2037
** This survey specifically asked only about when women had their first child to attempt to determine when women felt prepared enough to start a family.
Grace DeHoff is a third year osteopathic medical student at Pacific Northwest University and is interested in pursuing a career in Neurosurgery. She is a Denver, CO native but currently lives in Boise, ID with her husband and one-year-old son. She is the Diversity Chair with the National Medical Student Committee for the Association of Women Surgeons. In her free time, she enjoys running and has completed several half marathons and relay races.
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