Helpful ideas for parenting when you’re married to a medical student/busy doctor
By Monica Swanson
Recently our family of six went to the movies for the first time in a long time (like, at a real theater!) It was a movie we were all excited to see, and we even managed to get to the theater in time to score good seats, buy some snacks and watch the previews. Then, just as the featured film began to play, my husband’s cell phone rang and he had to step outside to talk to the hospital. Our young boys hardly noticed, but our oldest son, now mature enough to appreciate what was going on, empathized. “Poor Dad,” he quietly whispered to me. I just smiled and said he’d be right back. And before long he was. He enjoyed the rest of the movie with only a few minor text-interruptions.
But I do have a whole lot of memories from years past — of interrupted events, poorly timed phone calls, and lonely holidays — thanks to my husband’s job as a hospital physician.
We started having kids during my husband’s third year of medical school and by the end of his residency training we had three boys. (The fourth one came just a couple years later.) Those early years of having kids with a husband gone so much of the time were challenging for me. Living on an island far from family and close friends meant that many holidays found me home alone with all of the kids. I tried to keep perspective, knowing that plenty of people have it harder than me (thinking of widows, single parents, and those married to deployed military), but the lonely times or disappointment when my husband would get called away were nevertheless difficult.
Admittedly, I threw myself more than one pity party in those days, but I eventually began to adjust to this “new normal,” and even found some creative ways to make the best of the times that my husband was away. I realized over time that I could not only survive, but the kids and I could have some really great times in spite of the fact that we missed having their father around. Here is a little list of tips I have come up with:
EXPECT THE WORST, HOPE FOR THE BEST. Our expectations can get us in a lot of trouble. When it comes to my husband’s job, especially on holidays and special occasions, I have learned to adjust my expectations. If there is a possibility my husband might have to work, I have learned to plan as though he would be gone. Better to be pleasantly surprised than to risk disappointment.
PLAN AHEAD. Especially during the holidays, planning ahead is key! You just don’t want to wake up on a holiday with no plans and no spouse around to share the day with. Whether you plan to get together with other people or create your own family fun, just make sure to have a plan. The boys and I have gone to nursing homes to deliver hand-made cards to the elderly, done a beach day or found a special matinee to watch on a long and lonely holiday. There are plenty of options wherever you are, and creating a plan in advance can turn even an ordinary day into a fun event for everyone.
FIND WAYS TO GET A BREAK. Babysitters can be a great help, and I encourage moms to plan breaks into their weeks if at all possible. But there are other options to get a break that might be more reasonable and affordable. I taught group fitness at a gym when my kids were little, and I’m pretty sure the Kid’s Club was as much an incentive as the workout or the pay. Having a safe place to drop my boys where they could climb or run around meant so much to me. This provided me just the break I needed a couple days a week (not to mention an uninterrupted shower–even if in the gym locker room!) I also looked forward to a Saturday night church service (with or without my husband) because the Sunday school was so good and I could enjoy a couple hours to grow spiritually and have a break from the kids. Some communities offer mommy-and-me classes or even co-ops which provide childcare while mom runs errands or has a little time for self-care. Find them and use them!
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FAMILY AND FRIENDS. When kids are young, staying home often seems like the best option; staying home means you can keep kids on schedule and control the environment. Yet there are plenty of advantages to getting out and spending time with friends or family. Just having someone else to talk to (both for you and the kids) is a blessing. A change of scenery and new experiences are good for everyone.
If you don’t have family nearby, consider adopting some locally. Getting to know families with grown children or local grandparents who love to love on little ones is a great idea. I remember one time being so exhausted with two little sick boys that I finally called a sweet older woman who had offered to help whenever I might need her. She was at my house in about fifteen minutes, helping care for my boys, and making food for all of us. I wondered why I waited so long to call her!
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. I already mentioned a babysitter and getting breaks, but taking care of yourself is much more than that. Getting enough sleep and exercise, and staying connected spiritually are all super helpful when you’re trying to be a super-parent. All of these things require intentional effort and planning – but it is worth it! One thing that I have always tried to do is wake up before my kids – to have coffee, read my Bible and write in my journal. I think this has made a big difference in helping my days to start off on a positive note.
FIND CREATIVE WAYS TO SUPPORT YOUR MEDICAL SPOUSE. The boys and I used to bake cookies or make cards for dad when he was away. We delivered so many meals to the ER where my husband spent much of his residency that one day we pulled up and my son exclaimed, “Oh yay, we’re at Daddy’s house!” (I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry.) Finding ways to be supportive and involved in your spouse’s training or work helps fight off any resentment that might try to sneak in.
Modern technology gives us many great options for staying connected to our spouses when they are away. Even if they don’t have time to talk on the phone, shooting your spouse a fun photo of the kids at play or a video of the family saying hello offers a connecting point. Seeing cheerful faces on the other end also makes the medical spouse that much more excited to get home!
Thankfully everything gets easier as kids get older. We still miss my husband when he has to be away, but we have learned to make the best of things. And even more: looking back over the years and knowing that the kids and I have supported my husband through his years of hard work is something we are all really proud of.
Monica Swanson lives with her very active family on two acres in the country on Oahu, Hawaii. You can read more about Monica and her discussions on parenting, healthy marriage and recipes at her blog: www.monicaswanson.com.