On How to Thrive During Your Spouse’s Residency

On how to thrive during your spouse's residency

A little over two years ago, I watched my husband walk across a stage and receive the title of “doctor” after 4 challenging years of medical school. It was a moment filled with extreme pride and satisfaction after much hard work. But it was also a moment of great anticipation as we prepared to turn our attention to the next big adventure that awaited us, residency. Match Day revealed that we were headed to Baltimore, MD, but there wasn’t much we knew beyond that. It would be a brand new city for us, a place where we knew no one, but instead of allowing that to cause us dread, we were determined to look ahead with anticipation and a sense of adventure.

It’s the first thing I encourage new resident spouses in, embrace the adventure, the fact that you don’t know what’s around the bend or how everything will work out. Consider it an adventure and purpose to enjoy the ride! We’re only 2 years in on a 4 year program, but I can already tell you that perspective is everything. Yes, this season of life is probably the hardest I have ever experienced in terms of loneliness, marital strain, and emotional exhaustion, but that’s not the end of the story. There is so much more to this experience than that, the sharpening of skills, the exploration of a new city, the discovery that you can endure more than you think,  and the friendships gained, just to name a few. And yet, the sometimes ugly stuff is still part of the package, but it’s the combination of both the good and the ugly that make that moment when you cross the finish line so full of celebration and satisfaction, filled with victory and relief. And it’s because this road is hard that I want to help encourage you along the way.

As you set out on this adventure, purpose to dive all in, not just survive (though it really will feel like survival is all you can manage most of the time). Surround yourself with people that have your back and will spend time listening to your heart, especially if you’ve moved away from all your family and friends. Your spouse cannot and should not solely bear the responsibility of meeting your emotional needs 100% of the time. So don’t hesitate to dive into community wherever you find yourself. It will take effort, but it is so worth it. There’s so much more I could share, but this single piece of advice is the main thing that has kept me going so far!

How to survive residency

Below you’ll find advice from a number of women that have already traveled through the residency season, several of them having also journeyed alongside their husbands through fellowships and beyond. And while I only asked physician’s wives to weigh in on this discussion, I’m absolutely convinced that residency is not unique is its challenges, and that many families with different career paths experience the same kind of struggles and challenges. It’s our hope that we can encourage the disheartened, build up the broken, and cheer on the weary! You can do this! You’re not alone!

S A R A H  A B B O T T

wife to an OB/GYN and mom to 5 kids.  

I learned early on that having high expectations did nothing to help my attitude when they weren’t met. So, when hubby says he will be home by dinner, I just plan on doing dinner and bedtime alone. That way, if/when he does show up somewhere in there, I can enjoy his help and the fact that the kids get to see him before bed. Another thing that was hard to get used to was his work load even when he was home–there was no guarantee that just because he was “off” on a weekend that he wouldn’t have to go in and round or have a zillion notes to catch up on…or even be called in.

When I just expect to be the “single parent” all the time, I’m able to enjoy his company and help when he is able. It also keeps bitterness away. In my life, I have found that it’s easy to get bitter and discontent when my expectations aren’t met the way I had planned. God has promised to give me what I need to accomplish what He has called me to do. He alone can help me fight anger, discontent, bitterness, loneliness, and pure exhaustion with His truth and grace. I must rest in Him alone to keep going on long days and to still respond with grace to my children even when I’m totally ready for it to be bedtime!

D E L  D E E  H I N D M A N

wife to a med-peds physician and mom to 4 kids

We started our family during my husband’s first year of residency.  I remember going to the first family picnic for his pediatric program with our newborn son.  During residency we had two more children and our fourth was born at the end of his fourth year of residency. Residency was a blur in many ways because as parents and a resident we were both in “survival mode”.  We were both desperate for sleep and stamina!

The kids and I would try to visit my husband at least once or twice a week when he would break for lunch or dinner.  Sometimes it would only be for 30 minutes, but it would be an encouragement to my husband as well as me and the kids.  We also got to know the other residents well, and we were able to encourage them in many ways.

I had to learn early on not to expect much on my husband’s day(s) off.  Many times, his exhaustion level dictated what we did or didn’t do.  At times, it was easy to resent this, but I learned that pouting on my part did not change the situation, only worsen it.  Learning to be flexible was an important life lesson that has also moved into my post-residency years as a physician’s wife. While I am often alone at family events, holidays and school programs, I learned how to joyfully cope with this during residency.  I will never forget my husband telling me at one point that he would much rather be with us than at work.  At that moment I realized that his “heart” was always with us, whether or not his physical body was present.  This gave me the desire to make him present through pictures, texting and phone calls.  Texting has been a wonderful invention!

At the end of the day, I would say that it is about being intentional.  It takes work to include your husband/wife who has been away for 72 hours.  Engage them with your kids when they are available at work.  Re-entry into family life after a long string of working hours can be overwhelming, so downtime is usually needed by most residents.  That will look different for every individual, but this process is important so that the time that you do have, is quality.  Guard your time together—don’t be afraid to say “no” to others.  Not everyone will understand, but remember you are in survival mode and your family time is precious.

H E I D I  W A S H E R

wife to a surgeon and mom to 3 kids. 

Residency is tough. There is no way around it. The hours are long (for you both), the pressure is enormous on your spouse at the hospital, and there will be times you seriously wonder if you’re going to make it through. I wish someone had told me how important it was from the start to have another spouse who was a few years ahead of me in the process to call upon for support and advice. While I was fortunate to have several great fellow residents’ wives going through the program at the same time, I really benefited from the times I was able to talk (or cry!) to those who had already been through it. So seek out support – maybe your spouse can get you in touch with the spouse of an attending. Or if you happen to know someone who also married a doctor (in my case, a friend from high school had also married a surgeon) get their number or email address and seek their help. Having the support of someone who “gets” what you’re going through is essential!

L E A N N E  L E E P E R

wife to a trauma surgeon and mom to 3 kids. 

When Rob first started his residency we were child free, and this made date night’s so much easier. We would enjoy spending time together in ways that were as cheap as possible. A trip to the book store to peruse the shelves and enjoy a coffee was always a favourite option. It’s cheap, it doesn’t require any planning and if it falls through there is no money wasted. We also loved buying special ingredients to make a special meal at home, again its less expensive than going out and if the plans fall through the meal can be made another day. When Rob had prolonged periods of working through the night or was taking a lot of call, I would often pack a “picnic” to take and enjoy together at the hospital. This was the date that was most often interrupted. I tried to be realistic about the likelihood that it wouldn’t work out, to keep my expectations low. These hospital visits continued when we had one child, but became unreasonable once we had more!

We try to make a point of getting out of the house for date night’s more now that we have kids. We have a bit more flexibility with finances, so buying tickets to a play or making reservations at a nice restaurant are not out of the question. Sometimes having these arrangements are even necessary in order to not decide last minute that we are too tired and just spend the night at home! A great way to cut down on the expense of a night out is to arrange for a friend to babysit, who you can later pay back by watching her children.

I think it is hard to avoid disappointment when date nights fall through. I found that the only strategy that has really worked is to avoid making plans when timing would be tight. It is also handy to surround yourself with supportive friends who are happy make last minute plans and understand that this is just the way life is for you right now!

How to thrive during your spouse's residency

^^the above picture was taken by one of my husband’s attendings^^

M A R C I A  N Y A K

wife to a med-peds resident nearly finished with his residency training! 

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of surviving residency years is sleep. I came into marriage midway through the 2nd year of residency, and by then, my husband’s sleep debt was huge.

We found an excellent and comfortable sleep mask as well as European made soft wax earplugs. What these did was allow him much needed, uninterrupted sleep.

Another thing we did was to take naps. My husband used to stay awake during the day before his night shifts, so he was already “winding down” on his way in to work. This made his sleep debt even greater. We found that taking a 3-4 hour nap before night shifts helped him. We also found that if I could take 30 minutes or so of “cuddle time” as he was falling asleep, it helped meet both of our quality time/physical touch needs. We would get to talk a bit before he dozed off.

We really struggled with injustices in the time demands (residents basically being coerced/manipulated into staying at work longer than the legal time limits, and their time sheets being altered). During a month where my husband was working about 100 hours per week, the level of anger about the situation and the system peaked. At this point, residents are in a very vulnerable position. Physically, they are exhausted. Emotionally, they are fried. Spiritually, they feel dried up. Relationally, they are often strained. It is a recipe for disaster. This was an abusive system.

For myself, I recognized that being angry at my husband for submitting to this abusive system was not the answer. I was feeling some of the same symptoms that he was, because I woke with him and stayed awake until he got home, and I was in a city where I knew basically no-one, and was between jobs so didn’t even have work to keep me distracted.

What we did was to pray specifically about the rotation that was notoriously the worst. “The O” was spoken of by residents with a tone of dread. We asked God to bring an efficiency to the rounding process (so they wouldn’t start evening rounds at 11pm), for the work-load to be better distributed, and for the system issues to be addressed. God changed the system! The following “O” rotation, we praised God that He had changed the system to reduce the patient load, rounding ended by about 6 pm, and my hubby usually got home by 7! Our hope is that residents in the future will be able to have more time with their families, or just to get much-needed sleep. 🙂

So, I guess to summarize, the two key survival tools for us have been good sleep hygiene and specific prayer. As a sub-category, I would put flexibility. I learned to appreciate quality time in whatever form that took–getting up in the mornings to have 30 minutes together, holding hands on the way to work, cuddle time, etc. We tried to go on dates when my husband had 2 days off (the first day was usually a sleep catch up day).

M A G G I E  L O F T U S

wife to a family practice physician and mom to 2 kids. 

Residency is such a tough time– sleep is short, the hours apart are long. Lots of expectations have to be adjusted, or (as one of Matthew’s coresidents and I would always joke) in the case of nightfloat, marriage counseling has to be scheduled. Matthew and I really felt like our marriage was sweetest when we tried to look out for the other person’s needs first. Asking “how can I love you well this week?” as well as talking frequently about wants or expectations about a day off or date were key for us. When we each sought to serve each other’s needs in front of our own, we felt well cared for.

S U Z Y  W I L L I A M S

wife to a radiologist and mom to 2 kids. 

I have to be very honest, I emerged from residency proud and invigorated to tackle the next adventure. We went in not knowing what to expect and felt like champions the day he graduated.

I did not resent residency, nor view it to be awful or horrible or dreadfully difficult, it was just the next step along the path to reaching his goal, no, our goals. It was a finite adventure. I knew that I could do anything for four years. I was young, I was in love. We knew that it had a grand reward at the end and that made us buckle up for the marathon and enjoy the run.

Looking back 20 years ago, residency was a beautiful time when we forged friendships that remain today based on the common core of plugging away to achieve a dream.  Our families grew side by side during residency and years later these are the true blue friends that we wish could be back together again, for just one more pot luck and a game of charades.

Friends, family and even strangers were so very proud of Todd, his devotion, his stamina, his intelligence. How could I not get drunk on all of that and “claim” him as mine. I was bursting with pride and simply couldn’t believe that this smart boy from high school biology class had taken me along for his partner.

We were creative, we were frugal, and we were together. My memories are rich with gourmet wanna be dinners cobbled together on a lean pantry, homemade Christmas gifts, double hand me down furniture, do it yourself everything, clearance rack fashions and nothing without a coupon grocery lists. I loved residency and its challenge of beating the odds to make something spectacular out of nothing.

Todd and I learned to rely on one another completely, no one else, no parent, friend or neighbor, it was us against the world. We developed complete trust in one another, whether it was tag team parenting on the weekend or figuring out how to fix a dishwasher, without the Maytag man or any man.  Our financial and familial discipline was forged in those “not 2 nickels to rub together” years without babysitters or back up teams. We were it. 

I am so very grateful for those simple years of residency when I fell in love time and again with my hard working husband, learned that I could do and fix just about anything and created children who appreciate nightly family dinners to this day.

I am a firm believer that life is simply easier if you embrace the station in which you find yourself.  The awkward years of high school, turning 50 or being pregnant.

I guess that is the summary point for me. Enjoy it while it lasts.  Because nothing is forever. Residency included.

When Mitchell was little, he was abominably slow at everything. Everything. One day while ticking off 42 minutes with a bowl of Honey Combs as I hustled him along, he simply stated “Mom, don’t rush the magic.”

It’s funny how that sweet little soul grounded me with those words, then and now.

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How to survive residency

I’m so glad these ladies agreed to share their wisdom and experience with you all! I hope it was helpful! This season, though full of hard and often discouraging days, can be so rich. Everyone’s experience is going to be different, and some of us are going to have a harder time of it than others so don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong if you feel like life is coming apart at the seams. But don’t feel like you have to go it alone either. Get in touch with someone who’s been there and can speak into your life. Feel free to email me at revisionaryreaders@gmail.com if you like! I can’t promise I’ll have an answer for you, but I’ll definitely share what I can.

After two crazy hectic years, I can honestly say that the days are long, but the years are short. Like Suzy Williams’ little boy said, “Don’t rush the magic.” 

Comments

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for this! We just finished residency this past June, and I was in tears as I read this. What an encouragement to hear so many same-felt sentiments and the accompanying encouragement. Thank you for posting this on your blog!

    • Susanna says:

      Congratulations on finishing up! That’s so exciting and encouraging to hear. I always get invigorated by seeing families cross the finish line since it reminds me that we’ll be there someday too! 😉

  2. Sarah says:

    This is great! I’m sharing with a friend whose hubby is in the mist of medical school and they starting to taste the crazy of life that is ahead.
    As a wife to worship leader I can relate in may ways to these. No it’s not the same, but the practical advice is great. Building a career is tough and takes hard work, and of course keeping a marriage/ family strong during the in-between / training years is even harder.

    • Susanna says:

      Wonderful! Thanks for passing it along. And yes, I totally agree. These are tough years, no matter what career you’re in. I’m so glad you found it helpful!

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