Just before starting residency, I watched the birth of my first son. On the cusp of starting a surgical internship my life was filled with excitement, chaos and a little bit of fear. Confident and naïve, I did not spend much time considering the role my career choice was going to play on the father I would become. As we took my son home from the hospital that spring morning, there were obvious hurdles that I did not foresee, and in hindsight, I’m glad they never came to mind.
Fatherhood has defined the person I have become over the last 10 years. In many ways I do not think I could be the surgeon I am today without my kids. Because of this I often invite my residents to talk to me about their lives at home. Interestingly, I find that they frequently struggle with the idea of having children. They are concerned about whether they can succeed as a resident while being a parent. Some have fears about letting their co-residents down when they take time off or worries over how it will affect their career. Given the demands we ask of our residents I understand their concerns, but when they ask me about my thoughts on having kids during training my reply is always the same: “My kids are the best part of my day. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Approximately 25% of surgical residents have children1. Interestingly, surgical residents with children are more likely to look forward to work and more likely to be happy at work than those without children1. Why do surgical residents with children appear to be so satisfied? In my experience, my kids give me perspective. In residency they reminded me that life is more than a bad ABSITE score or a rough night on call. They forced me to demonstrate the values that I wanted them to learn. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of a tough day filled with mistakes and uncertainty I had something to look forward to and to make me smile.
Of course having children during residency is not easy or without problems. Gender plays a large role. Women who have a child during their post graduate 1 – 3 years report they are more likely to feel overwhelmed than female residents who do not have children2. Both male and female surgical residents with children are more likely to report that their work hours create family strain1. I understand these realities. I missed parent-teacher conferences, was often late to soccer games and fell asleep during family dinners. I fortunately had a spouse who could make up for my absence and still maintain her own career, but not everyone has that luxury.
We cannot ignore the reality that surgery residents struggle to find a work-life balance. I would encourage other faculty members to invite their residents to talk about their family life. I understand that not every surgeon has a desire to be a parent, but our residents who do want to find a balance between family life and their career choice deserve our guidance and encouragement.
My residents often hear me use the phrase “I’m more lucky than good.” It is my way of emphasizing that I realize the good fortune I had in my training. I was a male surgical resident with wonderful, supportive wife. I went to a residency program where others had already set the precedent that having children was acceptable and encouraged. I had mentors and colleagues who supported my family decisions and made allowances as they became necessary. As academic surgeons I feel that it is important to provide a similar culture and opportunity to all of our residents.
- Sullivan MC, Yeo H, Roman SA et al. Striving for work-life balance: effect of marriage and children on the experience of 4402 US general surgery residents. Ann Surg. 2013 Mar;257(3):571-6.
- Chen MM, Yeo HL, Roman SA et al. Life events during surgical residency have different effects on women and men over time. Surgery. 2013 Aug;154(2):162-70.