Doctor's perspective: Juggling parenthood and fellowship

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Growing your family during fellowship is not easy, but many people still feel it’s the right decision.

  • Experienced physicians will tell you to live in the moment and accept that difficult moments are part of the process.

  • Communication, planning, budgeting, and flexibility are essential for a successful home and work life during fellowship.

The desire to have a family and excel in your medical career can seem like opposing targets. But they don’t have to be. Many residents and fellows are ready to have children but may feel like there’s no room for more responsibility. Hearing from others who struggle with the same questions can help you feel less alone and provide helpful tips to navigate the challenges ahead.

Insights from Dr. Kara Wada

We spoke to MDLinx medical advisor Kara Wada, MD, for an insider's perspective. In addition to being board-certified in pediatric and adult allergy and immunology, Dr. Wada is a trauma-informed certified life coach, TEDx speaker, and mom to three young children.

How did your medical training influence your family planning decisions?

I met my future husband on the first day of medical school, and we did our residency and fellowship training over 1,000 miles away from any family. For us, we opted to wait to start our family until the end of our fellowship training. My fellowship was 2 years long and I had my daughter Charlotte in my final year of postgraduate training. We felt fortunate to have made friends who were as close as family by that point in our careers, and we felt supported by our programs as well. 

What are some of the biggest challenges clinicians face when choosing to start a family?

When an estimated 1 in 4 female physicians struggles with infertility, delaying isn’t the answer. The unfortunate reality is that our medical training takes place during the time in our lives when we are most biologically able to have children. I was 31 years old when I became a mom for the first time, during my second year of my allergy/immunology fellowship.

The next struggle is getting safe and affordable childcare that works with our demanding schedules. Medical trainees are many times working 80 hours per week, including overnight call or night shifts.

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would do differently or advice you would offer to your younger self?

If given the chance to speak to a younger me, I would tell her to be in the moment more often. The road to a medical career is very often focused on achieving that next gold star, MCAT, applications, admissions, boards, etc. But the joy experienced when we reach each milestone is fleeting. This is the arrival fallacy. I would also tell her that bumps and bruises are a vitally important and necessary part of our human experience. 

Self-care is not selfish. It is an act of self-preservation. In order to take the best care of our patients, we must be healthy in body, mind, and spirit. Hurt people hurt people.

To do no harm and be truly guided by the Hippocratic oath, we must make time for self-care. Rest doesn’t need to be earned and shouldn’t be viewed as a reward. It is essential.

Related: Expert perspective: Maintaining mental health during the rigors of fellowship

What could improve the work-life balance for fellows and other medical professionals?

There’s a need for better access to affordable, safe, and flexible childcare. Support from our graduate medical education and professional societies for improved parental leave, and flexibility with training timelines and testing are also essential.

Strategies to help you 'have it all'

Related: Financial bootcamp for fellows: Build your wealth from the ground up

Young physicians who want to start a family shouldn’t be discouraged. But that’s not to say it won’t be tough. These tips can help you make it work:[][]

  • Communicate and work as a team: Discuss plans with your partner every morning or evening to ensure everyone is on the same page.

  • Figure out your budget: Finances can be a stressor, but it helps to have common goals and boundaries.

  • Make plans but stay flexible: Having a Plan A, B, and sometimes C is necessary with a growing family and busy career.

  • Schedule date nights with your significant other: The demands of fellowship and childcare can take a toll on your relationship, so remember to find time for each other.

  • Step back and relax: You and your partner may not have exactly the same parenting styles, but pick your battles to keep things light and in perspective.

  • Take the initiative to get things done: Jump in to handle dirty dishes (or dirty diapers) rather than wait for your partner to do it, which can build resentment.

  • Try to get ahead of the game: Work on lining up your health insurance, emergency fund, and family medical leave paperwork as early in the process.

What this means for you

Only you can decide whether to start a family during fellowship. It’s crucial to weigh the biological and social aspects of delaying partnership and parenthood while finding the right support for success. There are no easy answers, but be sure to take care of yourself during the process.

Read Next: The old boys' club: Female physicians are often excluded from networking opportunities
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