By Tamara Reese
Do you ever feel like when we push too hard to control our own destiny, life laughs at us?
I typed this to my husband. He was in between cases and we were having a brief text-discussion about fellowship for the five-millionth time. Should he rank this program? Will that city be okay for our kids? Can we survive another year on credit card cash advances and the occasional moonlighting shift? Should he scrap fellowship all together?
We have enjoyed five years in our current city. Five years that, despite moving three times within a one-mile radius as our family expanded, and expanded again, we have felt settled. But with one more year of residency and a fellowship match in the coming weeks we have started to feel that familiar tug of disruption.
The same disruptive pull we felt when he was accepted to medical school off of the wait list and decided to defer for a year to honor his contract teaching high school biology. The stress we felt fourth year of medical school as we lived 12 hours apart through audition rotations with me very, very pregnant. The stressful coordination of over twenty residency interviews that cost us more than the car we’ve been driving for the past ten years.
Each of these times of unrest came with the added bonus of having to explain in well-crafted written narrative why he was good enough to be considered for [blank] program. If he was lucky, he had the opportunity to sit across the desk from someone as they mulled over his scores and accolades; asking grandiose questions like “why do you want to be a doctor?” And then numbers and locations are put into a system and the destiny of our entire family, not just my husband, is spit out and emailed by an automated system.
“Congratulations you’ve matched at _______.”
I wish this life was more like beating an advanced level in a video game. “Congratulations! Welcome to the next level, here’s an extra life!”
But that’s the kicker – no matter how many postgraduate years around the sun we spin, there’s only one life.
And it’s true – when we push too hard, life laughs at us, reminding us we aren’t in control. But we continue to try because we don’t know any different, that’s who we are. We’re pushers, scientists, achievers, always aiming for the next level. We aren’t good at letting things like luck, faith and destiny have a say in our lives.
My husband looked up at me as he finally submitted his fellowship rank list and he said, “I spend so much time caught up in planning the next stage of this journey that somehow I’ve completely lost track of the ‘holy crap’ moments. Moments I used to dream about came and went, without appreciation.”
Holy crap! I got into medical school!
Holy crap! I just cut someone open!
Holy crap! Someone at the top training programs in the country just sat down with me and gave me a compliment!
Holy crap! I’m a surgeon!
Rounding out the end of a six-year residency, I’ve been doing this for a while now. And looking back I believe there are stages that lead to acceptance of what it means to be a physician’s family. Excitement, loneliness, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, perseverance, unity, pride and anticipation. Supporting someone through medical education and training is not for the faint of heart and can’t be done without love, commitment and constant communication.
Early on in our medical journey I remember venting to another doctor’s wife about a missed birthday or anniversary spent alone (there have been so many, I can’t remember which) and what she said to me changed my way of thinking. She said, “I know it’s hard, but just remember that he is just as disappointed to be missing things as you are. And while you have these memories to take with you forever – seeing your children walk for the first time, birthday candles, grandparent funerals – he has holes where those memories should be. Can you imagine how hard it is for him to pick up the phone and tell you he won’t be there?”
And she was right. Where I have friends and hobbies and memories of my children’s milestones – he has none of it.
My husband lost track of his “holy crap moments.” He has holes where important memories should be and he lives with the constant pressure to one day dig us out of debt and provide a stable life and still, he wakes up every day wanting to be a better doctor.
He is the one in training but we’re all learning. Learning how strong we can really be. Learning to be resilient and resourceful. Learning how to deal with disappointment. How to be proud of someone even though you can’t understand exactly what he does all day. Learning to keep in touch with old friends and how to make new ones. Learning that we need to appreciate the moments of this phase even as we plan for the next.
Learning to live life to the fullest in the moments we have together.
I was recently in the car on the way to my oldest son’s preschool graduation. I asked him if he knew Daddy might not make it to hear him sing that night. He said to me, “I know, Mama. I didn’t even ask him if he would be here tonight. I know the answer is the same answer he always gives me. He will try his best. I know Daddy wants to be there and he always tries his best, and even if he doesn’t make it, he is still proud of me.”
I had to blink away the tears because at first I felt like this life had numbed him to the expectation of his father’s presence. And then when I thought about it I realized that instead of being sad, I should be proud: proud of him for understanding well beyond his years and of us for preparing his heart with love instead of disappointment, proud of myself for keeping it all together these past five years, and proud of my husband for always being our hero even when he’s off being someone else’s.
I should be proud that I can truly appreciate when my husband rushes in just in time to see my little boy graduate, that this day was a win.
Happy Medical New Year! On this path, settled or unsettled, life might laugh at you but if you can find a way to cherish your wins; they will get you through the rest.
Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and wife to a PGY6 Urology resident. She is a consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health and a contributing editor to Kveller.com. Her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and The Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter @oiler02.