MSTP and Marriage: Mission Possible.

I realize the immense task this is, of summarizing my experiences as both a husband and father in medical school over the past few months. The implication is that, somehow, I got it right. But, I hope in this short description of the past few months that you could gain insight into the struggles and rewards of balancing family with medical school, from both my successes and shortcomings. This is by no means a comprehensive assessment, but I hope to give those considering the MD/PhD a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The first reality that came to bear was simple: this is really hard. Nothing about the past few months of sharing medical school with my personal life has been laid-back and relaxing. My wife, 3 month-old daughter and I moved to Birmingham from California, not knowing anyone in Alabama. I thought this would be a difficult adjustment for me, since running in the South can be brutal. However, I was surprised at how much more difficult this transition was for my wife, who thrives in community and is exceedingly gifted at socializing and making friends. But it makes sense, having a new baby requires a lot of attention, and since her full-time job is taking care of our daughter, it seems that a lot of my wife’s social needs go unmet in a normal day. She anticipates the time when I will get home from school, so we can do something fun. This leaves us at a difficult situation at the end of the day, when I am drained from studying and attending classes; all I want to do is relax inside and go to bed early. This comes to an obvious conclusion: there is always a sacrifice. I had to realize that I could not obsess over every single assignment or activity in school like I once could, because doing so means removing valuable time and energy from my family. At the same time, as Prefontaine (famous runner) put it, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” To sort of study or sometimes work hard is like sometimes doing my job with excellence, which is what the MSTP is paying me to do. But, when I married my wife, I promised her that I would take care of her. Most often, our biggest problems are not financial, despite a relatively tight budget. The big problems are when I cannot leave Volker Hall (the medical school building), even when I am sitting at the dinner table. The ability to disengage is a difficult task for me, but as I’m sure you know, an invaluable one.

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My wife, daughter and me at the White Coat Ceremony

I realize that all I have shared so far would suggest that my life is miserable and I regret entering this program, which is totally untrue. With all my heart, I know that I was designed to be here, and I find many aspects of this season of life very fulfilling. Sure, it can be tough for both me and my family, but we know it’s worth it. I feel the same way when running. Getting up at 5:30 for my morning run doesn’t always bring a smile to my face, but once I get moving, it just feels right; I feel like I was made to do it. My wife and I are beginning to find a rich community in Birmingham, and we are starting to find those aspects of normal life that we used to have in California. We found an awesome church, and have made friends with non-medical people (ESSENTIAL).

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Enjoying the Farmer’s Market at Pepper Place on Saturdays

To go even further, I think I have the advantage of being a husband and father, since the essence of time is so valuable that my ability to manage it has become very efficient. I am motivated by the thought of giving my family a future, and nothing de-stresses me like playing with my daughter and making her (and my wife) laugh by being goofy. Now that I think of it, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Sun bathing on fall break!

In short, I truly believe that the MD/PhD is not for everyone, especially those who lack the ability to balance life. In fact, I don’t think anyone can be a good physician or scientist without first balancing their life. To conclude, my last piece of advice is this: don’t let your life become medicine (or research in the grad school years), which is all too easy in the demanding environment. I have to constantly remind myself that I am a husband first, father second, and MSTP student after that.

– Mark

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