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Becoming a Parent During Fellowship

This post is a part of our Life as a Fellow blog post series. This series includes "fellow life lessons" from current trainees in leadership with CHEST.

I recently returned to work after the longest stretch of time off since starting internship—almost 3 weeks for paternity leave. My partner and I are the proud parents of a baby boy and I asked her what to say in a blog post about having a baby during fellowship (disclaimer: she is also a physician in fellowship). Her response: “Your hours make it so that you’re only home when baby is either sleeping or screaming his head off.”  With only 12 weeks of this under our belts, we are not uniquely qualified to advise on family matters and this is neither evidence-based nor peer-reviewed—like parenthood, this is anecdotal and highly variable though hopefully it provides some food for thought.

On average, first-time parents in the United States are 26 years old1 , whereas with an average age of 24 for US medical school matriculants2 most fellows who become parents during fellowship will be into their 30s. At some point before signing on, each of us weighed the tradeoffs of a career with extensive training and its attendant sacrifices versus “usual care”—a sequential pathway of college, job, family, etc. As I progressed through training, I kept anticipating that subsequent stages would provide enough certainty and security to “settle down,” but each transition was like diving in murky waters: every movement stirs up more flux, clouding visibility but often revealing treasure. I didn’t want to be an “old” parent, but now that we’re here, I’ve accepted life’s unpredictability knowing that adaptation is the fundamental skill of our training. Our vocabularies expanded to include azygous lobes and hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, and now I’m steeped in the subtleties of assembling the Pack-n-Play and procedural skills required for acute diaper blowouts.

Being a Parent and Professional

We entered subspecialty training with personal and professional goals, although as we mature, so do our visions. Paraphrasing a surgeon friend (and mother), the baby clarifies your vision while representing your whole persona. As opposed to altering your trajectory toward or away from academics (or work), children crystallize your direction—you still do what matters to you, now with more focus on that which matters most. Consider those days when your epileptic pager mercilessly interrupts your to-do list; challenge often brings out the best in us.

The baby is an inseparable part of our future as we aim to fulfill our goals although we’re constantly reminded that the academic life doesn’t stop. Deadlines, meetings, and the usual processes keep rolling so some juggling is necessary to make it work. A few weeks ago (after stockpiling 40-ounces of breast milk), my partner interrupted her maternity leave to take a red-eye cross-country for a last-minute interview. We scrambled for emergent babysitting from a visiting grandparent so I didn’t have to miss work and the little man lucked out with extra Grandma time. It is too early to tell what impact parenting will have on our careers and professional development, so we do the best we can for the baby: adapting while being true to ourselves, and being thankful for the blessing.

1Mathews TJ, Hamilton BE. (January 2016). Mean age of mothers is on the rise: United States, 2000-2014. CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db232.htm. Accessed April 25, 2016.

2Association of American Medical Colleges. Table A-6: age of applicants to US medical schools at anticipated matriculation by sex and race/ethnicity, 2013-2014 through 2015-2016. AAMC. https://www.aamc.org/data/facts/applicantmatriculant/.  Accessed April 25, 2016.

Dr. James Town is a third-year Pulmonary & Critical Care Fellow at the University of Washington. He attended medical school at Brown University and completed his residency and chief residency at the University of Chicago. He is interested in optimizing resident and fellow education in the clinical learning environment.