by Callie Thompson, MD
I have read a lot of discussions about “the right time” to have a baby during a career in medicine and most of them come to the conclusion that there is no right time. I don’t think that is really accurate. The more correct answer would be that the right time is entirely dependent on you and your situation. I feel well prepared to write this blog and give this advice because I have been pregnant during both medical school and residency (twice).
In chronological order, I will start with pregnancy during medical school. The first two years of medical school are typically spent listening to a lot of lectures and studying almost all of the time. The third year is usually heavy with clinical work and spending a lot of time in the hospital. And the fourth year is usually a few sub-internships and a lot of light rotations at your home institution. So, where would a pregnancy, birth, and caring for an infant fit in there? Again, it really depends on your situation. You have to weigh the physically demanding state of gravidity with what you will need to be doing at that time. If you are concerned about being on your feet all day, then maybe being pregnant in the first two years would work best for you. You also have to take into account the demands of a newborn/infant. If you need a lot of time to study or are not great at multitasking, then having a newborn prior to taking your USMLE Step 1 might not be the best idea for you. No matter what you decide, you must have a viable option for childcare in mind. I suggest that you do this prior to even becoming pregnant because you will need help.
Regarding taking time away from school, there are no universal rules as to how much time can be taken. This will be school dependent. You just need to make sure that you can fulfill the requirements to earn your degree. Some people choose to take an extra year and make medical school a total of five years to allow them to have their child. I do not think this is necessary for everyone and you are going to know your capabilities best. Don’t let someone push you into a 5th year just because others before you have chosen to do that.
Pregnancy in residency is a bit trickier because of the American Board of Surgery requirements for General Surgery Certification. I had a baby during clinical R3 year and another while I was out in the lab. From a time-off perspective, having a baby during your lab years is much easier. If you are NIH funded through a training grant you can have 6-8 weeks, though some lab work can be done from home so the actual time you get to spend with your newborn can actually be longer than that depending on your research. Having a baby during your clinical years requires a good understanding of “the rules.” The ABS states that:
“To be eligible for ABS certification in general surgery, the following must be completed: At least 48 weeks of full-time clinical activity in each residency year, regardless of the amount of operative experience obtained. The 48 weeks may be averaged over the first three years of residency, for a total of 144 weeks required, and over the last two years, for a total of 96 weeks required.”
“For documented medical problems or maternity leave, residents may take an additional two weeks off during the first three years of residency, for a total of 142 weeks required in the first three years of training, and an additional two weeks off during the last two years of residency, for a total of 94 weeks required in the last two years of training.”
Translation: You can average your time over the first three years so, in theory, if you didn’t take any other time off for three years, you could have a 14 week maternity leave. Similarly, if you didn’t take any time off for vacation during your last two years, you could have a 10 week maternity leave.
In actuality, that isn’t possible. For instance, you would have to know that you were going to get pregnant and have a baby during third year so that you could forgo a vacation in your first 2 years. And if you did that, you would surely go insane. So if you did take the regular 3 weeks of vacation a year, you could have an 8 week maternity leave during the year you did have the baby—as long as you don’t take any other vacation that year. A baby during the last two years is even more difficult because of the time constraints. Also, keep in mind that none of this accounts for the possibility of medical problems during the pregnancy and any time off that may need to be taken. None of this is meant to dissuade you from pregnancy during residency (see above where I state I did it twice) but knowledge is power and you have to be prepared to extend your training if you are unable to meet the ABS requirements. This is most important during the last 2 years because they have to be done in succession so if you were to get pregnant, become ill, and need extra time off during your 4th or 5th year, you may be required to start over at year 4.
This blog could end up being very long so the last topic that I will include for today is when/how to tell people when you become pregnant. I advocate telling people when you feel comfortable. For some people that is the minute you find out, for others it is after the first trimester. However, I would not wait much beyond the first trimester because arrangements will need to be made, either to your schedule if you are a student or for coverage from your co-residents if you are a resident. I also would also advise you not to tell anyone else before you tell your Dean or medical school adviser (for students) or your program director (for residents). It is best to give big, personal news yourself, and in person.
Callie is a resident in general surgery at the University of Washington. She completed a two-year research fellowship and is now in her fourth clinical year. Callie aspires to be a burn and trauma surgeon and a translational scientist. Her research interests include genetic variations and their associations with the development and outcomes of disease and illness. Callie is married to an internist and has three children under the age of 7.