Dear Mama or Daddy or Husband or Wife whose spouse is about to enter the medical training period called “Residency”,
I’m writing you, my unknown cohort, (a letter which I realize has a slim chance of you stumbling upon) because there are some things that I wish someone had told me and prepared me for that I’m hoping to pass on. Admittedly, part of this is just for me and my personal processing. We are almost done, the end feels so SO near, and I need to process through my own feelings to try and close this chapter in my life. However, I do feel I have some words of wisdom and encouragement (hopefully) that will help you. Maybe. …if not… terribly sorry for the next 5 minutes that you could be using doing something a bit more productive.
As Daniel finished medical school, I was half-way into my pregnancy with our first son. I can remember Daniel and I ignorantly talking about how residency was going to be SO MUCH BETTER then medical school because it would just be work and then he could come home and BE home instead of working AND studying like 3rd and 4th year medical school are. For those of you reading who are unfamiliar with the medical school process, during year 3 and 4 you are still going to class, studying like crazy and taking lots of tests but you also begin clinical rotations so you are also working on top of that. What we were unprepared for (and again, I will point out IGNORANT of) was that residency is like 3rd and 4th year medical school on crack. (and if you are an EM resident, the crack reference has even more relevance). I’m realizing that I’m going to have to explain a lot if you are out of the medical field…this could get really long….
EM – Emergency Medicine
Crack Reference – The Patients, not the Doctors…
My husband is an Emergency Medicine Physician, but I feel that my “advice” can translate to any residency program. My next disclaimer is that I have two children 2 and under, so my words mostly have to do with being a parent with a spouse who is in residency. I’m not saying some of these things will not apply to those without children, but, those with children will probably relate more. Let’s break this into paragraphs defined by Do’s and Don’ts. Maybe that would be a more effective way of communicating.
DON’T COUNT THE HOURS
There is a law in place (ACGME DUTY HOURS) that restricts the work hours of a resident to a certain amount. I am not going to tell you this amount because…this is on paper only, and it’s important that you understand that 1) your spouse is not being singled out and working more then everyone else and 2) this is not your place to count hours and call and report to someone because your spouse worked 96 hospital hours that week plus the 14 at home and you are definitely going to turn this into someone…. Dear friend, and old version of Katie, do not count the hours. The easiest way to deal with the fact that your spouse is not home, is to not expect your spouse to ever be home. This might seem kind of sad, but I promise it will make things much more bareable. If the shift says 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. do not expect them home before 8 p.m. and then when they come home at 7 you are PLEASANTLY surprised and excited to see them instead of grumpy and going crazy because they are an hour late. Expect the hours to be different from on paper. There is checkout and it never fails that someone codes or has some kind of life threatening emergency right when your spouse is walking out the door…
DO FIND SOMONE TO VENT TO
I just told you not to count the hours, but sometimes you need to allow yourself to. Find a friend or group of friends that will sit around with you during your breakdowns and let you cry, yell, throw pillows etc… and you can tell them how many hours…but then let it go. I am extremely blessed in that our residency program is full of some amazing spouses. We take turns having our breakdowns, because if we all broke down at the same time it would be a hot mess. I learned early on that I needed to keep my complaining to a minim or it spiraled out of control and took over my mind. However, it was important to vent. There is a difference between complaining and venting. Don’t allow your mind to get trapped in the frustration, but DO allow it to vent and clear out so you can move on.
This goes along with my previous comments about not letting your mind get away from you. If you have a friend whose spouse works a “normal” work week (40-50 hours) and they are still struggling with the kids and balancing life etc… I would encourage you to be there for that friend and do not grow bitter or think they don’t know what it’s like. Hard seasons are hard season. Raising kiddos is hard work. It’s REALLY hard. Beautiful, but hard. Have I mentioned it’s hard 🙂 Stick together. Be thankful for your parent friends.
DO REALIZE THIS IS JUST A SEASON
It’s easy to get swept up in a depressing mindset of… “this is not what I wanted life to look like” or “how did we end up here?” but…don’t let your mind stay there. Remember that this is just a season. Let me say that again, because it’s so hard to believe, THIS IS JUST A SEASON. This WILL end one day. Glory be.
DON’T TAKE YOUR FRUSTRATIONS OUT ON YOUR SPOUSE
There is a difference in sharing your hurt, your pain, your desire for change and placing blame for your hurt, your pain and your desire for change. You have such limited time together, don’t spend it in anger. If you are hurting, DO share that, but don’t share in anger. I would also advise you to use caution when sharing your struggles because there is little they can do to change the situation. There is some utility in discussing your feelings, but there is also some destruction. Some people might disagree with this, but during my most difficult times of residency Dan actually asked me if I could stop texting him during the day. I’m about to get a little vulnerable here, but I really think this is important. For those of you who know me and my husband, you know we are tight. Like….we just get each other tight. We are besties. We just get each other and we love being around each other. Besides that, we are committed and invested in each other. My husband is awesome, supportive and loving. He wants only the best for me and our family. So, when I say he asked me to stop texting him, it wasn’t out of annoyance, it was out of desperation. I was having horribly rough days (this was mostly during my second pregnancy when I was extremely sick and chasing around a toddler who was learning the meaning of the word “no”) and I would text him in my despair and he could do. nothing. He couldn’t call or really even text back and he definitely couldn’t leave for usually another 5 or 8 or 12 hours…so for the rest of the day, he just felt horrible. By the time he got home, my little monster child was tucked into bed, I had calmed down and life was seemingly peaceful. (For those of you who know River, he is not a monster, he is just FULL of energy). I share all of this with you because we found that there was value in me restraining from sharing some things with him if they were out of his control. Instead, I learned to start texting my friends or neighbors (who by the way, started coming to my rescue because they COULD actually answer my call, text back or come over). This isn’t ideal, I know. We want to share everything with each other, but sometimes you just can’t. During Dan’s second year of residency there was a lot that happened in my work and personal life that I never shared with him, simply because we did not have the time. It is sad that I didn’t have him in parts of my life…but….that was just a season. Second year for us was extremely, extremely hard. But it’s over now. I’m getting side tracked….
DO HAVE A LIFE!
Our first year of residency I did not plug into many social groups or a church (other then my residency spouse friends) because I was so use to doing things WITH my husband, it was weird to do them without. It was odd to go to church by myself, every-single-sunday. It was odd to get involved with a group if Daniel wasn’t with me. By my second year, this was old news. I am so thankful that I got over that and found a group of friends, a church and a “social scene” for myself. Admittedly, to this day my husband really knows nothing about that side of my life other then what I randomly tell him. He is becoming increasingly involved as we draw near to the end of residency and he has even been able to come to church recently! (people either think that poor single-mama has found a boyfriend, or that my baby-daddy has finally come to know Jesus! Praise the Heavens!) I work (I’m a serial entrepreneur so my work looks a little different then most people’s jobs) and that has provided me a lot of solace, but if you don’t work, plug into something that is YOURS. Join a volleyball club, mamas play group, bible study, work-out group, stroller-strides, activism group etc… Just-Do-Something. AND, if you have young kids, it’s ok to put them in parent’s day out or pre-school! River started parent’s day out this past year and it has been amazing for both of us. You need a break and so do they.
DON’T SPEND A LOT OF TIME IN THE NEGATIVE
You have such little time with your spouse and it’s unfortunate how easy it is to spend the time that you do have talking about frustrating things. They will have a lot of frustrating things to talk about and so will you. As has been my theme through out this post, don’t spend too much time in those negative thoughts. Voice them, validate them (if they need validating) and move on.
DO MAKE YOUR SPOUSE TAKE BREAKS
I’ve had to learn that sometimes I have to be the bad influence in order for my husband to stay sane. He will work, work, work, work, study, study, study, unless I make him stop. If your spouse is like this, MAKE THEM STOP. They need breaks and you need time together. Make it happen. This would be one of the times that I would allow you to use your hour-counting skills.
DON’T BECOME DISCOURAGED
There is an increasing frustration within the medical profession rooted in a lack of respect from patients. It’s very difficult for professionals like my husband who have dedicated YEARS (specifically for us, the past 11 years) almost entirely, to obtaining knowledge, learning and practice the science of medicine to help others. They have sacrificed time with family and friends and given up their lives (truly) for this cause. Not to mention the financial debt the have taken on (because I have worked, we do not have as much as some, however, I know plenty of families that are 400 and 500 thousand dollars in debt by the end of residency). In return, they are often treated with disrespect, distrust and misplaced frustrations. This might be more specific to emergency medicine….?….however, this is one of the most exhausting and frustrating things to deal with and it’s easy as a spouse to also get sucked into the hurt and frustration as well. This is actually an entirely different issue that I do believe needs to be looked at and addressed, but, the point I want to make right now is that this is a bigger problem then you can solve in the moment. Do not let this wrap you up and add to the stress you are already under. Focus on the positive things. Share the little funny things that happened in your day with each other. Share your love with each other. Again, you can express frustrations, but then eat some ice cream and tell funny stories about the kids.
DO REALIZE THE INTENSE AMOUNT OF PRESSURE YOUR SPOUSE IS UNDER
Your spouse is a physician now. A physician in training, but a physician none-the-less. In undergrad there was pressure to make the grades to get into medical school.In medical school there was pressure to make the grades to get into a top residency program. In residency there is pressure to know what you are doing so that nobody dies. That’s a new kind of intense pressure, that even you are not going to fully be able to relate to and understand. Your spouse knows that you won’t and can’t fully grasp what they are going through, but they would love it if you would try. If they are sick, they still have to go to work. If they have a really terrible day, they still have to come home and be “on” and ready to relieve and support you. If their best friend is getting married and they are suppose to be in the wedding, they can’t go (this happened to Dan unfortunately…). There is hardship associated with being a resident. Realize that, embrace that, support that. Support them. They know it’s hard, but it’s so nice for them to hear that YOU know it’s hard too. Everyone likes to feel validated.
DO SHARE THIS BLOG WITH A FRIEND
….or write your own blog. Own your feelings and feel free to share them with others. Ask for help when you need it and admit when you are struggling. Amazing things happen when you are vulnerable.