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Married to Medical School: The Concessions Women Make

  • Written by Marissa Loch - Aspiring Physician
  • Published in Medical Careers

I do not doubt that I have the intelligence, care, compassion, and capability to become a doctor. I do doubt that I can navigate through medical school and graduate feeling fulfilled.


As traditional systems of fire and pain, medical schools scald and pulverize their students. They rake in hopes and dish back ashes. You give them everything. They ask for more. You try to work within the system. It burns you. Hordes of medical students endure strenuous conditions every year, and a throng drop out. Straining the mind, spraining the body, demanding total devotion, and draining the pocket book only scratch the surface of what medical schools entail. Medical schools make life more complicated, more stressful; they restrict social life, compromise wellness, and limit personal options. But most appalling, they hinder women’s ability to endure and flourish when growing families come into play.

I am currently a pre-med student, dreaming of becoming a doctor. I am also a woman, dreaming of becoming a mother. I would like to have my children before my age could compromise conception or health of my children. I fear that current medical school systems do not support or realistically allow my desires, especially if I hope to specialize. Even with taking a year between undergraduate and graduate school, I can still graduate basic medical school by the time I am 27. Depending on the field I am most interested in, I may need to tack on another four years of residency. That puts me at age 31.

It is becoming increasingly common for women to begin having children in their 30s and even 40s. Most think it is harmless. However, between the age of 25 and 35, probability of conception decreases 50% and women who give birth after the ages of 25-30 have a greater risk of having children with birth defects.[1] The risk of Down syndrome between the ages of 25-29 is 1 out of every 1100 births. By the age of 35, the risk of Down syndrome increases to 1 out of every 350 births.[2] My chances, as a healthy adult, of conceiving healthy children after age 35 are reasonably good, but I personally don’t want to take the chances. I have always wanted to have four children. Unless I plan to be pregnant for four consecutive years between ages 31-35 (a decision that also carries severe health risks for my own body and sanity), I either have to reduce the number of children I hope to have, or I have to risk the increasing chances of infertility for myself and birth defects for my children.

Medical school is not give and take. If I want to become a doctor, I will need to devote time and energy to strenuous classes, labs, and two years of 60-80 hour-a-week rotations. If I do have children before I finish school, I can imagine myself juggling babies, spending a great deal of time in a hospital, paying for this time, and not being compensated by another job. I see myself walking around like a crazed, sleepless, depressed zombie, unable to navigate the divide between the spheres of private and professional life. Why does it have to be this way?

Maybe it doesn’t. One member of MomMD, a networking site for mothers in medicine, says, “There seems to be no 'perfect' time to have a baby during medical school, yet there are many women having planned or surprise babies during medical school, and it is something that can be done.”

Another member of MomMD says that “it is definitely doable (being a med student and mom) but it is so much harder than just being a student. I am particularly worried about studying for the boards and finishing 2nd year when the twins are 1 yr old. It's a lot to do. I have heard many people say that early in 4th yr is the best time to have a baby. But then your baby is pretty young when you start internship. It's probably tough no matter how you do it."

I’m so glad to know that women can have their cake and eat it too in the proverbial hospital cafeteria. It shows that, although the medical field was dominated by patriarchs for a long time, now that women are joining the ranks of medical doctors, medical systems are not resisting the change.

Women in medical school can take a leave of absence to have a baby, or for any number of personal reasons.[3] Unfortunately, one thing that remains in the system is prejudice. There is a stigma for those who take time off of school to have a family, or mothers who pump breast milk during their lunch break[4]. And there are other MomMD members “who experience pressure from other students to have an abortion or leave medical school altogether. Many pregnant medical students may feel isolated and unable to discuss the situation with others.” It seems not all medical schools are supportive and conducive to mothers.

I think this resistance to accepting a new kind of medical student (the parent who is as devoted family as medical school) is the reason that women who enter the medical profession find less satisfaction with their jobs than men and are less likely to report that their climate supports a balance between work and home.[5]

It may also account for the non-satisfaction of male parents, but fathers in medical school don’t face the same stigmas of weakness or inferiority as those mothers who breast feed while on lunch break, or have evident fatigue and spells of nausea while pregnant. I think many of the aforementioned prejudices are actually against women bringing “home” into the professional sphere. A father can say goodbye to his family and enter the office without a trace of “home” radiating off him. A woman cannot leave at home her baby bump, sore bosoms, or nausea.

Some of the best doctors could be slipping through the cracks because only the hard-driven, robotic types are given the appropriate form of education and support. Some may argue that achieving the benefits of professionalism in the medical field takes sacrifices, and if parents choose to have a family instead, well, that is their choice. Leave of absence in medical school is a helpful option, but what about part-time classes or residency? Some institutions offer this more flexible schedule, but not the majority[6]. Not only would part-time residency help parents in medical school but it could also diminish the “burn-out” effect and encourage many more deserving, but less wealthy, intellectuals to attend medical school while working another job.

I do not doubt that I have the intelligence, care, compassion, and capability to become a doctor. I do doubt that I can navigate through medical school and graduate feeling fulfilled. I am not superwoman. I try to be. But the truth is that I know myself. I know that I cannot study without solitude and silence. I know that I cannot function well intellectually if I am sleep-deprived. I fear that I may not be the right candidate for having a baby in medical school unless I can find, and get into, the perfect program for my situation. I struggle with this as I try to figure out my future and whether attending medical school will be worth the sacrifices I might need to make, and whether another profession, one I am not as passionate about, might be a better route.

Works Cited:

"About the Rapid Decline of Fertility with Age." Your Health News. N.p., 23 Nov. 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. 

"Having a Baby during Medical School." MomMD Women in Medicine. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. 

"Pregnancy & Childbearing in Women Surgeons | Physician's Weekly." Physicians Weekly for Medical News Journals Articles. N.p., Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

"Pregnancy Over Age 30." Childen's Hospital of Pittsburgh. N.p., 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

Kassebaum DG, Szenas PL. "The Longer Road to Medical School Graduation." Pubmed.gov. NBCI, 1994. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. 

Novielle, Karen, Dr., Renee Navarro, Dr., Cynthia Boyd, Dr., and Maria Soto-Greene, Dr. "Improving the Diversity of Medical School Faculties: Challenges and Opportunities." Association of American Medical Colleges. N.p., 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Turner, PR, K. Lumpkins, J. Gabre, MJ Lin, X. Liu, and M. Terrin. "Pregnancy among Women Surgeons: Trends over Time." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

[1]See About the rapid decline of fertility with age, 2009.

[2] See Pregnancy Over Age 30, 2012

[3] See The Longer Road to Medical School Graduation, 1994.

[4] See Pregnancy among Women Surgeons: Trends over Time, 2012 and Examining Attitudes Toward Pregnancy & Childbearing in Women Surgeons, 2012.

[5] See Improving the Diversity of Medical School Faculties: Challenges and Opportunities, 2009.

[6] See Current Rotations and Call - Program - BCRP - Children's Hospital Boston, 2012.

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