Dr. Mom: Perspectives on Starting Your Family During Medical Training

Oct 20, 2016

“Our school education ignores, in a thousand ways, the rules of healthy development.” —Elizabeth Blackwell
By Margaret E. Gatti-Mays, MD, MPH, and Jennifer J. Gao, MD
National Cancer Institute
As we go through medical training, we make sacrifices. We put our personal lives on hold. We make active decisions to delay getting married, starting a family, buying a house, etc. While some times during training are admittedly better for these life events, when you work in medicine, there is never a perfect time—especially for women who want to be both doctors and mothers. However, if having a family is something you want, you can make it work.

Here are our stories.

Dr. Gatti-Mays:

My program director and mentor, Michael Adams, MD, was a strong supporter of family life. His respect and love for his wife and children was palpable. It was obvious that he knew his family made him a better doctor and, more importantly, a better person. He often told his residents, “Residency shapes you as a doctor, but it is also the time when you develop as a person. It’s the time when you get married or have children—and that’s okay.”

As a third-year internal medicine resident, I gave birth to my son. Dr. Adams was supportive, as was my program, the Graduate Medical Education Department, my co-residents, etc. My chief residents and program leaders worked with me to arrange my clinical schedule so I could make my prenatal appointments without issue. Unfortunately, this meant q4 overnight call in the Cardiac Care Unit at 8 months pregnant and night float while I was 37 and 38 weeks pregnant to enable the frequent visits. Due to this difficult schedule so late in my pregnancy, my program also designed a very elaborate coverage schedule in case I had to start maternity leave a little earlier than expected. The tremendous amount of support that I received from my program allowed me to take the time that I needed to be a mom—both before and after the birth of my son. I never felt like I had to choose between being a mother or being a doctor.

Soon after assuming the role of new mom, I assumed the role of chief resident. With Dr. Adams as our program director, we knew to expect “expecting parents.” Like the chief residents before us, my co-chiefs and I worked hard to create extensive coverage schedules not only for expectant mothers but also for expectant fathers so that they too could have time with their new families. We scheduled lactating moms on rotations that allowed time for pumping (one of the hardest things to do while a resident).

Balancing being “mom” and being “Dr. Gatti-Mays” has been difficult at times. However, my husband has truly been my number one supporter and my partner. He is an academic researcher specializing in behavioral cancer prevention. As partners, we help each other with this balancing act. We coordinate schedules up to a year in advance to ensure that our son is cared for, picked up from daycare, fed, and put to bed. During my inpatient months, my husband agrees to fewer meetings and picks up more of the parenting responsibilities. During his busy months, I lighten my responsibilities as much as possible so that the bulk of the parenting responsibilities shifts to me. Our shared Google calendars are a little absurd at times, with lots of color-coded events.

Now, as a second-year oncology fellow, my husband and I have a very spirited toddler. When we look back over the 10 years we have been together, the last 3 years have truly been the busiest but also the most enjoyable. Our son makes us laugh more and take life less seriously, which, in this profession, is very important. Being a mom has made me a better doctor and more importantly, it truly has made me a better person (I now know what Dr. Adams meant!). While I have worked very hard to earn the title of “Dr. Gatti-Mays,” the title of “Mama” makes me smile the most.

Dr. Gao:

There’s never an ideal time to have kids, especially when you’re a woman in medicine. Medical school is 4 years, residency is at least 3, and fellowship an additional few, so you’re likely in your early 30s by the time you finish all your training. Now that “advanced maternal age” is 35, it doesn’t leave much wiggle room if you want to beat that “deadline,” leaving you with one option—to have a kid during residency or fellowship.

Just like Dr. Gatti-Mays, I was very fortunate to have the most amazing and supportive program director, Hasan Bazari, MD, during my internal medicine residency. I remember the first day of intern year, he and our chief residents came around in the morning on rounds to bring us donuts and encouraging words as we navigated the floors and world of patient care as independent doctors for the first time, always reminding us, “Don’t compare your inside [feelings] to someone’s outside [appearance].”

I had my son as a third-year resident, after spending part of my first trimester on 36-hour call in the cardiac ICU and the last month of my pregnancy leading rounds from a rolling chair in the medical ICU. The morning my water broke, I called my husband, who was living in Washington, DC, at the time, and told him to catch the next flight up; thankfully, he made it in time. The next few months were a blur of exhaustion, sleepless nights, and trying to simultaneously navigate the challenges of motherhood, fellowship application, and board exam preparation. Before I knew it, I was an oncology fellow and finally living in the same city as both my son and my husband.

The past 3 years of fellowship have whizzed by and my son is now 3 years old. He has endless amounts of energy, is incredibly inquisitive, loves to be snuggled at night, and is a perfect blend of my husband and me. As someone once pointed out to me, when it comes to raising kids, or even making it through medical training, “The days are long and the years are short.” I, for one, am going to try to enjoy each and every step of this lifelong journey.

Support is key

We know from our mentors and our friends that many women (and men) have similar stories of being Dr. Mom (or Dr. Dad). Most, if not all, of these stories share a similar element: support. The support of your mentors, peers, and family are incredibly important to making parenthood and physician-hood work. With women accounting for more than half of all medical students, and about 40% of young doctors reporting having children during residency or fellowship, it is critical that a training program creates a family-friendly environment.1,2 Unfortunately, not all do. Looking back over our educational choices, matching into a family-friendly residency and then fellowship program was vital to our decisions to start our families when we did.

During our medical training, we often stall our development as a person to allow for our growth as a physician. However, our development as a person is intricately linked to our development as a physician. A life in medicine is not easy. It never has been. Rearing children is not easy. It never has been. But both are worth it—every hectic moment.



  1. Blair JE, Mayer AP, Caubet SL, et al. Acad Med. 2016;91:972-8.
  2. Jagsi R, Tarbell NJ, Weinstein DF. N Engl J Med. 2007;357:1889-91.
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