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What I Have Learned About Being A Doctor’s Wife

I have been working on this post for the last several days, and I’ve received some great input from those who have walked this journey with me. If you are not married to a physician, I hope you can still glean a few nuggets of wisdom that will apply to your own marriage. I literally got all choked up last night (and you know that is a big deal for me) when I thought about this amazing, painful, challenging road we’ve taken over the last 13 years and God’s profoundly abundant grace that has gotten me through it. He is so good. I hope you enjoy…

I love Thursday nights. And I love Thursday nights even more since the invention of the DVR. We finish all the tucking and praying and reading and singing and last-minute drinks of water, and we field all of the ingenious stalling techniques and finally go downstairs around 8:30. Grey’s Anatomy is already a ½ hour in, which means with a DVR, we can start watching it from the beginning and fast forward through the commercials.

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a medical drama with an actual physician, but in order to do so, you must establish rules.

Rule #1: No talking.

Michael often comments, “That wouldn’t really happen…” or “Uh, notsomuch…” while I’m trying to hear Bailey’s witty comeback or George’s self-deprecating whine. But – again – thanks to the DVR, we can rewind. Then, of course, we re-establish Rule #1. Let’s just happily suspend reality and watch the stinkin’ show. Please.

I loved last week’s episode. McDreamy and Dark&Twisty finally get engaged. But here’s what I loved the most: he was able to get back on his feet and be who he is meant to be simply because she had faith in him to do it.

I’ve stumbled across several blogs this week written by wives of physicians – mostly medical students and residents. On one hand, I love reading their stories and so appreciate their sharing the struggles they have. On the other hand, my stomach turns because I have been there, and I know how excruciating it can be.

I’ve thought a lot this week about what I have learned over the last thirteen years as a medical spouse. We married at the end of Michael’s Christmas break during his first year of medical school. Had the wedding on Friday night, and he was back in class on Tuesday morning. Those two crazy kids had no clue what they were getting into.

What have I learned? Well, first let me say that I’m still learning and coping and adjusting. Each year brings new challenges to his career and to our family, and finding the delicate balance between the two is a constant challenge. The good news for us and for others in a medical marriage, particularly those like us who got in at the beginning, is that it does get better. SO much better! If your marriage can survive med school and internship and residency and fellowship, then the rest will seem so easy in comparison. You will have survived the worst.

But if I could go back and talk to that insanely naïve 22 year old bride, here’s what I would tell her:

Hope for the best, expect the worst. This was my mantra through residency. It’s all about expectations. If he is on-call, expect him to be gone all night. Expect to eat dinner alone, to pick up the kids from practice, to put them all to bed by yourself, to clean up the kitchen by yourself, to spend the evening with a book or the DVR instead of your husband. If he’s not called in, celebrate and move through the evening/weekend with him. But his being with you should always be Plan B. It may sound cynical, but it is survival.

Take the small amounts of time you have and focus solely on each other. Some days, this may consist of a single phone call in between surgical cases. Even if that is all you get, be all there. Listen. Communicate. Laugh. Say “I love you.” If you get more than that, be thankful, and be all there. Make the most of what you have.

Make friends. This can be a tricky one, but I cannot give it enough weight. You absolutely must have friends who are also medical spouses. No one else in the world is going to completely understand what you are going through – not even your own family. That kind of support breathes life and sustains you like nothing else.

I met my best friend in the world during residency training. Both of our husbands were ophthalmology residents, and our kids were born within months of each other; they too became the best of friends. Neither of us had family within 800 miles, so we were family to each other for three years. We live on opposite ends of the country now (which we all hate), but we are still as close to each other as we were during residency, and every summer we take a family vacation together. No one else understands my life like she does. Which leads me to the second point about friends:

Be careful to whom you complain. As the wife of an ophthalmologist, I can’t complain about my life to the wife of a general surgeon. At the same time, it’s going to be a little difficult for me to empathize with the wife of a dermatologist (I probably could, but I haven’t had to yet. I’m just speculating.) Along the same vein, I have to be careful about what I say to my non-medical friends. During Michael’s first year of medical school, I was talking to my good friend from high school and whining about how Michael was gone all the time (oh, my word – really? I had no clue!), and she was genuinely worried about us. She thought we were on the verge of divorce. “Oh, no,” I assured her, “this is just what we do.” Again, no one else is going to understand your life like another medical spouse, particularly one in the same field of specialization.

Non-medical friends and family are going to make assumptions about your life. Even during training when your life is the most stressful and your bank account is the most depleted, other people are going to assume that because your husband has “Dr.” in front of his name, your life must be a cake walk. Many times while Michael was in training, I found myself having to explain the entire training process to our non-medical friends and defining words like STEP I, Match Day, internship, boards, and even residency. I remember one instance during medical school explaining to a friend that no, he is not able to work and go to school at the same time.

Now that Michael finished training and is now in practice, we still find ourselves defending our life and battling assumptions. On more than one occasion, I’ve overheard husbands tell their wives (who are usually wanting to buy x, y or z), “I’m not Michael Hunt. I’m not a doctor.” – as if we don’t have a care in the world about our finances. Believe it or not, we still get to the end of the month and wonder where it all went. (And don’t even get me started on taxes and malpractice insurance and disability and the debt that doctors take on during their training while their friends are out making a healthy salary.) It’s not that simple. So you have to grow a thick skin and learn to ignore it. You know what is true, and what other people wrongly assume about your life doesn’t matter. (I keep telling myself that – I’ll let you know when it sinks in.) My wise old aunt gave me this sage advice: “What other people think about you is none of your business.” Just remember that these assumptions are born out of ignorance – I don’t say that spitefully, but truthfully. The non-medical world has no clue how it all works. We know only because we are submersed in it.

Take care of yourself. Whether you work full-time during your husband’s training or stay home raising your kids (or some combination of both), you have to be careful not to lose yourself as “Dr. ____’s wife.” A good friend of mine from residency advised not to put your own gifts and talents aside, but to work with your husband and find a way “for both people to fit into the marriage so that one person isn’t sucking up all in the air in the room. We, too, need to breathe.” During training, this is extremely difficult. Your life is revolving around your husband and his career. You probably left your family, friends, and job to move somewhere you never thought you would live (after matching, we said, “you just don’t grow up thinking ‘someday I’m going to move to Iowa!’”), and once you’re there, you are alone. Your time together revolves around his work schedule, you have no money to pursue your own dreams, and if you have kids, you spend much of your time caring for them alone. Somehow, in the midst of all that, you need to nurture your own spirit and do the things you love to do. Take care of the person your husband first fell in love with. Finding that balance during training is complicated, and it will look different for each one of us, but talk with your husband and find a way to make it happen. If you have kids, I would highly recommend finding room in your meager budget for a Parents Day Out program or preschool. If that’s not possible, work out a kid-swap with a fellow doctor’s wife so you can each have time to yourselves. Either way, the break from your kids will feed your soul and allow you a little time to take care of yourself.

Respect. I’ve saved the most important one for last. This is HUGE. My lack of respect for my husband and his career has shredded our marriage on more than one occasion, but particularly during his first year of residency. We went into our marriage with the conviction that divorce would never, ever be an option – but let me tell you, if it were, we would have gone there. It was that bad, and it was (mostly) my fault.

Let me again assure you that I am not at all devaluing us as women and wives. Each of us has gifts and contributions that are essential. We are each uniquely gifted to bring hope and healing to the world, and we should do so with every opportunity we are given.

Having said that, let’s talk about our physician husbands, particularly those in training. As we are all aware (but probably not to the full extent), they are under incredible pressure. The career they have chosen places someone’s life and health in their often incapable hands. If they screw up, somebody else’s very life is altered. That is a huge burden for anyone to bear. Medical training is rightfully brutal because of the magnitude of this burden they are choosing to take on. During training, our husbands are grilled, yelled at, and belittled. They are expected to know their stuff, which is why they work for 14 hours a day and then come home (if they come home) and study for another 2-3 hours. If they don’t know their stuff, they will suffer, and their patients will suffer. Once they have completed training and go into practice, they aren’t subjected to the yelling and criticism (at least by their attendings – some patients and their families aren’t always so gracious), but the pressure only intensifies.

This puts us, as their wives, in a precarious yet very powerful position. We love them. We value our marriages. We want to spend time with them. But they have chosen a very demanding career that requires more time and energy than they have, and we hold the power to make them better.

Which brings us back to McDreamy and Dark&Twisty. He could be the surgeon he needed to be because the one woman he loves the most has empowered him to be so. We, as wives, need to believe in our husbands. We need to be understanding – even when we don’t like it – of their long hours and limited family time. We need to give them a safe place to come home to after being run through the garbage disposal all day. They need to hear, “Thank you for working so hard for our family” and “You are going to be an incredible (doctor/specialist).” They need to hear, “I am so proud of you.” They need to know that they are heroes at home, even if they are peons at the hospital. They are working their butts off in order to learn how to save someone’s life. They need – and deserve – our respect.*

Yes, we have every right to complain about not seeing them and being a “single” parent. Yes, their careers put an extra burden on us as their wives. But for the sake of our marriages and our own happiness, we must learn to put aside our “rights.” We must lovingly and effectively communicate our frustrations while still affirming their value and appreciating what they do and how hard they work.

Medical marriages are extraordinarily difficult, and although far from “normal,” this life is all we know. I have learned in thirteen years of medical marriage that you can, in fact, have a loving, fulfilling, vibrant marriage. It takes more work and tears and effort than you ever thought you were capable of, and it never will be easy. But remind yourself of this: you are an amazing, strong, gifted woman, and your husband could never be the physician that he is and will become without you.

*Love and Respect, by Dr. Emerson Eggrichs, is a great resource for learning ways to show our husbands respect and how they will in turn respond lovingly.

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38 thoughts on “What I Have Learned About Being A Doctor’s Wife

  1. Hi there! I came across your blog through Physicians in Training. What a wonderful post. So encouraging. My husband is a first year surgery resident so we are right in the ‘mess’ of things. Your advice is so right on, especially the respect issue. If husbands feel loved and respected, they are going to be better husbands, fathers and more confident doctors. It’s a win win! It’s something I am trying to be better at. :)I’m going to pass this on to my other wifey friends! Thanks!

  2. Wow – this is a great post! Trisha passed it along to me, so that’s how I found you. My husband is a pgy 2 in rehab – and honestly, I’m not sure I knew it was going to be this hard (although this year is better) but I agree with everything you said. Thank you! 🙂

  3. I, too, was referred by Trisha.Jennifer, what an amazing post…thank you so much for writing it! Your “lessons learned” couldn’t be more accurate…the non-medical world just doesn’t understand. My husband is a PGY1 in Family Practice, so of this 7-8 year training “process”, we have just passed over the halfway point….the “light” is just a speck, but we can see it nonetheless. ;-)Again, thanks for sharing.

  4. Wonderful Post! My husband is a PGY-3 in Anesthesia applying to Pain Management fellowships. As I read this post I could not quit shaking my head yes. I completely agree with everything you said–and you put it so eloquently!!

  5. I jumped over from Joy’s blog. My husband is getting ready to graduate from medical school, so we’re not at the hardest yet. Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. I know everyone else has said it, but what an amazing post. We are in our third year of school and I am so excited about what is ahead of us…the good and the bad. Thanks for providing such a wonderful perspective.

  7. Great post, Jennifer. Lots of nuggets of wisdom that can apply to any marriage. I love reading all the comments from other wives … what a blessing to be able to share your lessons.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. I totally agree with everything you said. I am not very good with writing my thoughts and feelings. If I could have, I would have said the exact same things you did. It is nice to hear it from your perspective. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom. Thank you!

  9. I am not married to a doctor/med student but I was married to a career Army Officer and although in completely different relms the premise is still the same. It is not an easy life, but oh so worth it. I applaud you for your insight, amazing post. I plan on sharing with some Army wives as well as it pertains to that draining life as well. Thank you! Amazing post!

  10. I too heard about this from Trisha and enjoyed it. My husband is PGY-2 in Radiology and it’s nice to know there are other wives out there who have “been there, done that” and can pass along advice!

  11. THANK YOU. THANK YOU so much for writing this post. You have put into words so many things that I think/feel as the wife of a Resident but cannot quite put my finger on. We are almost to the end of being PGY, and I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about the next stage of our lives but eager to see what happens.

  12. thanks for this great post. your words kept popping into my head all evening and i passed on many of them to my husband. i am going to send him the link to read it.

  13. Thanks so much for this post. It left me in tears. I think I need to re-read it every morning, especially ones like today when my husband is on call tonight and I won’t see him until noon tomorrow. The worst part is that no one understands, other than other medical spouses. Thank you again!Peace and Love, Carrie

  14. I wish I could give each one of you a huge hug. Know that – really – it will get better. I promise. It’s never going to be easy, but it will get better.Thank you so much for your kind comments! I am lifting up prayers for all of you. Hangeth thou in there!

  15. Jennifer,I found you through my dear friend Trisha. This is a wonderful post, full of thought and respect.My DH is PGY1 in a Army Family Practice residency. Our situation is somewhat unique due to the military, but I have these same feelings which you spoke so eloquently. I feel torn at times being a Patriot and a Doc’s wife. It is true very few people understand, except those who are on the same journey.May God bless you and your family!

  16. Thank you SO much for writing this! This is everything that I have been feeling over the past year. My husband is a 1st year OB/GYN resident and it has not been the easiest road. Kudos for writing this!

  17. The title of your March 31st 2009 post caught my attention because I am likewise married to a surgeon, but on the contrary I do not share, nor feel your need for self-sympathy. Most of your conjectures regarding what it is like being a physician’s wife do not parallel my experiences nor many of the other wives of physicians of whom I associate. We do not watch “Grey’s Anatomy” simply because it is fiction and daily we actually live the non-fiction version so we don’t really find any value in it . We’re also too involved in our community and careers to be concerned about ‘commercials in a t.v. drama’. I am also perplexed with your “rule #1” that states “No talking” when on the other hand you express throughout your posts your dissatisfaction with the limited amount of time your husband is able to spend with you. I went through med-school and residency with my husband but I have never felt your desperation… in fact I feel completely blessed to be married to my husband… the extremely compassionate, altruistic, fun, artistic, humble person who just happens to be a physician. We do not attach ourselves to a title nor do we wear it as a lapel pin because our identities do not revolve around the simple fact that he’s a physician. We hang out with a diverse group of friends that include physicians, nurses, painters, photographers, musicians, technicians, veterinarians, landscape designers, architects, teachers, activists, writers, and professionals from all genres of life. I don’t believe that a wife of another specialist can give me better advice than a wife of an architect but then again I don’t feel that I’m entitled to empathy simply because my husband chose a demanding profession. God gave my husband a wonderful gift and I support him unconditionally just as he continuously supports me on my own professional journey. We do not consider his profession a “burden” as you call it because we would never refer to God’s gift as a “burden” of any “magnitude.” I think your post would have been more astute if you would have took your friend’s advice and included more information about your own “gifts and talents.” This alone would offer future “wives” more useful advice simply because it would have communicated the importance of using our own God given gift. You state that you “can’t complain about my life to the wife of a general surgeon” yet your entire posts centers around this need for “survival.” You say that “it’s going to be a little difficult for me to empathize with the wife of a dermatologist…” But I can’t help but ask, why? I don’t remember anywhere in the Bible it stating for wives to only empathize with mirroring specialties… If fact it actually clearly states “Blessed are the merciful…”period. I just want you to know that sincerely appreciate the time you took to compose your post and I hope that you can be open to a slightly different angle on an extremely personal topic.

  18. I can’t even express how much I appreciate this post. I’m a first year med student, and my boyfriend is PGY-7 in plastic surgery…on the opposite side of the country. It’s incredibly encouraging to be reminded that even though this is process is difficult, there are other people out there going through something similar who have gotten through it. Thank you.

  19. Wow! Thanks for taking your time and writing these lovely encouraging words. I am having one of those nights where the husband is on call third day in a row and I am starting to feel sorry for myself. He’s in his 2nd year ENT surgeon training and we have 3 more years to go.I searched on google about “doctor’s wife” and this article came up..just what I was looking for! You are so right about sharing stuff with family or friends who aren’t fimiliar with this lifestyle …Everytime I ever complain to my mom about the stress, she gets extremely worried for days worrying over our marriage. Whereas, i just see it as a part of my life now, which btw I don’t completely dislike. I do feel very lucky to have my wonderful husband. 🙂

  20. I found your post from Joy's blog and find that we have a little in common! I will marry a first year medical student this December. However, we should have about two weeks before his classes resume. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  21. This is the ABSOLUTE best post ever. So true!!!I feel like you are me. I feel the exact same way. My husband is approaching his 4th year in General Surgery so I really understand where you are coming from. It is very hard but I love him and our family and we always get through the tough times no matter what.Thank you so much for you post!!

  22. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I found your link through your Facebook comment. My husband just graduated med school yesterday and first day of internship starts in a couple of weeks. I'm starting to have worst-case-scenario nightmares about it. We survived med school (we got married in undergrad) for four years with 2 kids, but I'm expecting residency (in ortho!!) to be much harder. Anyway, I appreciate your insight, advice, and optimism. It's nice to hear from someone who has survived the whole thing and is still going strong. Thanks again. 🙂

  23. we are about to start ortho residency in 3 more days….and this could not have been better timing. thank you for you honest thoughts. the last point was the hardest to read but the most important one i need to remember! thank you for sharing!

  24. I just found this today and have to thank you! I love your wise old aunts quote, “What other people think about you is none of your business.” Just remember that these assumptions are born out of ignorance – I don’t say that spitefully, but truthfully. The non-medical world has no clue how it all works. We know only because we are submersed in it.SO true! Thanks for your words of encouragement!

  25. Just stumbled on your blog through a friend sharing this post. Thank you so much for sharing, and know that after 2 years, you are still helping fellow medical wives! We are just starting our journey into my husband becoming a doctor (he's in his first semester of med school), but your post was so helpful and it has been bookmarked for me to read in those times when it really gets hard! Thank you!

  26. Thank you so much for this post! I came across your blog this morning and it's been such a comfort. I'm not a spouse but have been dating a resident for a while and it's been incredibly difficult at times. Reading things like this post make me feel much more hopeful!

  27. Great post. Got to it a bit late but since I was in Iowa with you, I had to read it. You put it perfectly in so many ways. As for Lavelle, above, I'll have some of whatever she's taking!!! … LOL … I guess some of us just have it all figured out. You go, girl. Wish we were all as blessed and unconditionally supportive as she is. Some of us are just human, I suppose, and sometimes sad, and sometimes weak. And I know that's all you were saying. Good job, Jennifer and thanks for your honestly.

  28. My husband and I had our wedding just over three months ago during the break between his board exam and his third year rotations. I'm only beginning to see just how hard of a time the medical world gives to married doctors, and lately I've been feeling very pessimistic about our future, even though we too decided from the get-go that divorce is not an option, ever). After reading so many posts online about how "patients are always take priority over family" (I totally disagree, no matter what the career. Family is always first) and "choose between family and the medical world, not both", your post is so uplifting. It made me realize just how important my support is to my husband, and how by supporting him, he has more energy to give back in to the relationship. It's also really great to hear all of the comments of other women who are happily married to doctors, some for many years. If all of you can make with work with your doctor husbands, then so can I! 🙂 Thank you for your great advice. I'm bookmarking this page.

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