Honest advice for “surthriving” residency
by Nashira Pearl
Residency is hard, but it doesn’t have to be impossible! Finding happiness and success while your partner is in residency comes down to a handful of simple lessons, at least in theory if not in practice.
Many thanks to the ladies from the Surgery Wives Facebook group for offering their own insight to help make this list!
- It’s your residency, too
If we start with this simple truth, everything else makes sense. Even if you’re not in the medical field, your partner’s residency will affect you, and they should understand that. This is especially true if you’ve moved to an unfamiliar city for the sake of the residency, because while your partner is basically living in the hospital, you are actually living in the city. It might be easy to say you have it easier and therefore don’t have a right to complain, but I call bull on that one. You both have it hard, just in different ways. It’s how you manage it together that will make all the difference.
- Manage your expectations
…which sounds a lot better than what I really say to myself, which is “If you lower your expectations you’ll never be disappointed.” This may be the single most important thing I’ve learned so far, but has also been the most challenging to learn. Whether it’s your partner coming home at a particular time, having the energy to help you clean up from dinner or being available for an event three months away, assume that work will intrude and you may have to go it alone. Which leads me to number 3…
- Don’t wait
The greatest thing you can do for your own self care is to use this time to explore your independence. Find the things that bring you joy outside of spending time with your partner, and pursue them. Plan day trips with friends, go to concerts and gallery shows, take a class, check out new or favorite restaurants. Don’t wait for your partner to be available, or to be in an easier rotation, or to be done with residency, in order for you to live – and enjoy! – your life. You may be partners, but don’t be afraid to cultivate your own individuality.
This advice goes for parents, too. If your partner is busy at the hospital and you’re taking care of the kids, don’t be afraid to go out and have adventures with them, even without the other parent. I’m told by numerous people who have children in residency that really, it’s okay!
Your time with your partner will, in all likelihood, be less than you’d prefer. What’s more, the time you do have together might be filled with other more pressing things for your partner, like fulfilling the first of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But your needs – to be heard, loved, understood, supported – are no less important and are crucial to a healthy relationship in the toughest times. Work together to keep open lines of honest communication and find the modes of communication that work best for both of you. For example, in our home we know that important conversations can’t happen in bed because one of us will inadvertently fall asleep. And don’t forget, GIFS and emojis throughout the day count 😉
- See a therapist
This really deserves a spot at the top of the list, but it’s also not an option for everybody. If your insurance is kind enough to cover mental health, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT! It is not because you are sick or damaged or need to “get better,” but because the closest person in your life will not always be available to support you and listen to you, and a lot of the emotional work may fall on your shoulders. A good therapist can go a long way in making the residency experience easier to bear.
- Find a Tribe*
Whether this comes in the form of family, a good yoga studio, coworkers, or a religious community, having people who care about you and know you as something other than “The Doctor’s Wife/Husband/Fiance/Partner” can help make residency a meaningful period in your life. Even if the people in your circle of love can’t personally empathize with your experience, they can love you and support you all the same. Additionally, having people in your life beyond your partner whom you love and support can help you focus your energies beyond yourself or your home, where your efforts may not always be recognized or reciprocated as much as you’d like.
Similarly, it can be supremely beneficial to join online groups which focus on physician families (there are hundreds!) and established organizations such as AMA Alliance (which has local affiliates for real life interaction). These communities will “get you” on a level your other friends might not and can vastly improve your perception of your experience!
- Resentment happens
For the first few years of residency, “resent” was a word I avoided even in my thoughts. The implications of feeling resentment terrified me. If ever the feeling crept up I worried I was an unsupportive wife and I was poisoning the relationship. But since finding online communities of other surgical spouses and first-hand accounts like the Married to Doctors podcast, I learned that it’s not uncommon for spouses to feel resentment. Here’s the catch: You can resent aspects of the program and still love your partner and his or her choices in life. You can support your partner’s passion, dedication and hard work even while you complain about yet another missed dinner or late night. Your partner probably hates those parts of the job, too, so be clear about what inspires the negativity and focus your energy instead on the person you love.
- Listen to your limits
Being a partner of a resident will mean the occasionally unbalanced division of labor in the home (both physical and emotional). You might end up taking care of yourself and your partner more often than you’d like. You might end up shouldering responsibility for chores around the home, managing your finances and even raising your children. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to dedicate more time than you have to work and volunteer organizations. But recognizing your limits can help you find the sweet spot between thumb-twiddling boredom and head-spinning over-commitment. How do you do it? You say “no” every now and again.
- It’s not a competition
When you have a bad day, your feelings are valid. Whether your partner is on a particularly grueling rotation or just had a really rough case doesn’t negate your experience or emotions. This is a lesson that both partners will need to learn so that you can support one another in the face of your own personal challenges.
It is also not a competition with friends, family members or residents in different specialties. When someone approaches you to vent about their own personal challenges, you can remember that even if it seems trivial based on your own experiences, it is not trivial to them. You don’t somehow “win” by having a harder life. You “win” by being supportive and empathetic.
- Above all, it’s temporary
My husband often says “Nobody becomes a doctor to be a resident.” This is great advice for both you and your partner because depending on the length of the residency (and fellowship, and research, and…) it can be extremely hard to maintain perspective. This really crappy time for both of you will come to an end. As for what comes after? I’ll let you know in a few years.
Nashira Pearl is a general, instrumental and choral music teacher at an elementary school in New York City. Originally from the Midwest, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn in 2013 for his general surgery residency. It has been a big adjustment made easier by their Jewish community, performing with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra and adopting their cat, Clara. You can learn more about the space between surviving and success on her blog, “Surthriving: Making, Breaking, & Rebuilding in Brooklyn” (www.surthriving.weebly.com).
*Tip courtesy of Donna Rovito from Physician Family