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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Day I Gave Up My Medical Career to Become a Stay-at-home Mom

Okay so it wasn’t as dramatic as ONE DAY, but I did, in essence, put away my medical career for good (unless the government changes the requirements to practice medicine, i.e., stops requiring doctors to attend residency, be licensed, be board-eligible, etc.)

I was a fourth-year medical student whose husband, S, was a second-year resident in pediatrics.  We had thought on and off about getting pregnant but the PLAN was to wait until I was a second-year pediatric resident when I would have the least amount of hours to work. 
Well, in January 2006, I’m two weeks late. Like any normal medical student, I think: I would tell my patient to take a pregnancy test just in case.  So off we go to CVS and S jokes: Wouldn’t it be funny if you really were pregnant?  At this point, I should have known a pink cross was in my future, but it took two pregnancy tests (one that night and another in the morning JUST IN CASE) for me to realize I’m pregnant.  YAY!  But wait ... what is that due date again?  Hmm... I’ll be two months into my intern year in a pediatric residency (which is the worst year of a resident’s life -- working 80 hours-a-week with 30-hour shifts (no, you did not misread that) thrown in the mix every four days most months of the year).  And my husband will be a third-year resident in the same program ALSO working 80 hours-a-week although less months of the year.  When we put our name on the daycare waiting list at the hospital the following week, we found out it is open from 6:00 a.m. to midnight.  I started imagining my baby there at midnight.   And I was not happy.  I spoke to many moms who are able to be great pediatric residents and great moms.  But I had a sinking feeling as this little boy grew inside me that I was not one of them.

Soon I rallied and I thought: I can do this!! Just not THIS year.  I’ll just take a year off after graduating medical school.  Lots of people do it.  I only have to resubmit my application in November when my son is 3-months-old.  But, I reasoned, he’ll be almost a year when I begin my residency, and my husband will be working an 8-5 job with most weekends OFF. 
So only I will have be gone a lot.  Just me.  Gone.  A lot.   

I waddled down the aisle and accepted my medical degree in May with my shiny new plan in place.  I pushed my son out in August.  Mom, M.D., doing her thing.  But as November loomed closer and I hadn’t slept in months and my husband was working 30-hour shifts, I just couldn’t do it.  I ignored the upcoming deadline for as long as I could, but finally called my husband at work.  I’m not going to apply for residency.  He said: I know.  I told my friend K.  She said: I know.  I seemed to be the only one not in the loop.

I realized over those first few months that I was not capable of being the mom I want to be and work that much.  Some people can.  They are AMAZING women.  But some people can’t.  They are ME. 

Honestly, I was (am?) shocked that I’m built to be a stay-at-home mom.  If you had asked me the month before I got pregnant, I would have said: no way.  I will never stay at home.  I am a working mom.  Period.  I have NO desire to be a stay-at-home mom.  I thought that the best mom that I could be included me working.  I was wrong. 

Staying at home is hard, but it’s hardest on my ego.  I often avoid telling people about my medical degree because I know that without a residency, I can’t practice.  When I tell them, I feel like I have to tell my whole journey.  (Although I’m pretty sure that they are just making small talk -- no one envies the guy who asks me THAT question at the dinner party.)

When I am feeling uncomfortable with my decision, I think: I’ll eventually do something with the medical degree.  But maybe I already have.  Maybe it’s in having a little extra knowledge while I take care of my children.  Or help out friends with their medical questions.  I love hearing stories of others who found callings outside of the hospitals because I want to have a career once my children are in school full-time.  But I can’t ever see myself spending 80 hours-a-week away from them.  Maybe I’ll focus on my writing full-time. (Don’t hold me to it. I know better than to make any predictions these days.)

Did I waste my time?  I don’t know.  Would it have been nice to know all this before I got pregnant?  Heck yeah!  I would have picked a career that I could go back to in five years.  Nursing.  Teaching.  Law.  But I also trust that I made the decision to attend medical school with the facts I had at hand so I must have been meant to get the degree.

I know that staying at home with my (now two) children is the right thing for me today.  And I still stick the M.D. at the end of my name when I feel like it.  Because I earned it.  And whether my pride sometimes tells me I could be “more,” my heart tells me to stay put.  Because there is no more or less. I am no more or less than the moms who are doctors.  They are no more or less than moms who stay at home.

PS.  My story is my story.  I have no judgment on moms who work or moms who stay home.  I hope that my post reflects this -- I know that I’m delving into a controversial topic right off the bat.  I heard a study once (on NPR?) that moms who work part-time are the happiest.   But I’m pretty sure it’s the moms who can choose to do what they feel in their hearts is right for them.  I didn’t have as much choice in my decision as I would have liked (part-time-medical-residency isn't much of an option, trust me), but even if I had, I would have eventually realized that staying at home is for me.  It may have just taken longer and maybe another degree.

This post is written by Alex Iwashyna, a happily married (seriously!) mom with a BA in Philosophy and a Medical Degree and the drive to become neither.  She is hopefully this writing thing will pan out.  Follow her rants on but be prepared for baby poop and liberal bias.


  1. Well said Alex. I am half way crying reading this. Why? I have no idea! Is it because as a former teacher to inner city kids, I feel like I'm not out in the world fighting for them anymore? That people make so many assumptions about me and my family when they know I'm a SAHM? Who knows. But what I DO know is that I am using my degree. Maybe not on others but with my 2 yr. old little boy who is my greatest achievement as a teacher yet. AND I never have to leave home for parent teacher conferences. ;-)

  2. Kudos to you for following your heart, and for being so open and receptive to the idea that great moms can, and do, work outside the home. I am a full-time attorney and mother to a 7-month-old girl, and I can't imagine my life without either, and I am grateful to have a less demanding career than medicine(!) that will allow me to do both (as well as a husband with a pretty flexible schedule). I appreciated this post, and thank you!

  3. You are so right about staying home being hardest on the ego! I gave up a career as a hospital administrator - also a hard job to do part-time. I have been home with my two kids for the last six years. I never thought this would be my story. Never in a million years. But I am happy and my kids are happy and that's what counts. They are both in school full-time now, and I cannot believe it, but I am even busier than before! I am starting to build a new career for myself - something flexible and home-based - because I need to keep my kids as my first priority. As you said, that's just me.

  4. This couldn't have been posted at a better time. I am quitting my job to homeschool my son. I was so proud when I earned my degree and landed my career.

    I feel like I am giving up my dreams, but I am sure I will not regret my decision in the longrun.

  5. It is great that you have that choice. I and so many moms are forced to go out there and work when their hearts and souls are at home.

  6. Hey Alex! This is Amber Sharp Heise from UVA. What a great story... lame me, I never even knew you were pregnant 4th year! I guess I was in the throes of my own bed rest filled pregnancy with Alivia. It's hard to remember that our worth comes from God and who we are, not what we do. You have made an excellent choice :) Hope all is well!

  7. Ok. My time to cry. Pride vs. one's heart.... Thank you! For sharing... and for being you...Your little ones will reap the rewards... XO...K-L

  8. I agree with #5. What luxury choices

  9. Thank you for all your comments and insights! They mean at a lot to me.

    #5 & #8: I agree. I'm not sure that any one has it harder than the parents who have to work and want to stay home or have to stay home and want to work.


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