BY R. ALEX HARBISON, MD, MS
Considering a career in otolaryngology is a big decision. The thought of doing so with a family during training can seem impossible. However, nearly anything is possible with the right combination of hard work, planning, humility, and help. Fatherhood is a remarkable journey that not only brings personal joy but enhances the surgeon’s career. I am currently nearing the finish line of my residency and was asked to write about my experience of fatherhood during residency. To put this in context, let’s consider the contemporary model of fatherhood in the setting of surgical training, and its impact on the family and trainee, as well as discuss practical tips for achieving your dreams as a surgeon and father.
Fatherhood in the 21st Century and Residency
The concept of fatherhood has evolved over time. The contemporary model of fatherhood is that of a co-parent, an equal to their spouse in the responsibilities of child-rearing. The expectation of being a father in modern time is that they are present in the lives of their children and contribute to their development. This often makes the combination of a surgical residency and fatherhood very difficult. Surgical residency involves long hours of patient care, education, and dedication to training that often continues even as you go home at the end of the day. This leaves limited time for the role of being a father.
From my experience, being a father means being ever-present. It means answering questions that come up while at work or “Facetiming” between cases, for example. Those few moments demonstrate dedication and care that mean much to the family and allow you to balance work and life. The sacrifices are met with great reward when you see your child, and they are excited to see you and show you all that they have learned. These little moments also help you keep your eyes on the horizon with the knowledge that residency is only a limited amount of time in the grand scheme of your career.
A Mutually Beneficial Experience
Being a father is a mutually beneficial experience for you and your family. While it may seem that you will be engulfed by residency only to emerge several years later, I believe there is much to gain from the combination of fatherhood and surgery. In the first place, you learn to prioritize…really well. There is no alternative. If you have limited time, you can only do what is most important to you. This means your actions are more focused and goals are precise. No time is wasted and everything you do is goal-oriented with a specific purpose. Second, you learn to be efficient so that you can make time for your family. This means that you study harder so that you can think quicker on your feet, and finish work as efficiently as possible maintaining a high level of clinical acumen. Third, you learn to plan ahead. This means planning both in terms of work and family. Maybe you have a tough stretch ahead, but you know that there will be a lighter week that you can plan family time. You finish everything you can during the busy periods so that you can let go while you are with your family. Lastly, you develop a greater sense of responsibility than you already had. You wake up early while your child is still sleeping so that you can complete some of the checklist items for the day and have an extra moment to spend with them. You also think about the most important tasks of the day for the clinical service and/or your other academic endeavors.
So, what are the steps for making fatherhood and residency work together?
Some days or weeks, patient care may be so variable that you will be wishing you had more time with your family. Patient issues will come up right when you are ready to go home and put your child to bed. My spouse and I have learned that there will be times where being home is a luxury, such as while on call, and there are times where you have “protected time” to be home which you can make the most of. For us, this means scheduling time for me to spend with my daughter on my day off and planning family activities such as walks and playtime for that day. When you do find yourself home before bedtime, that is the perfect opportunity to practice fatherhood by helping with bath time, dinner, or bedtime- all of which are very fulfilling and help energize you and your spouse for another learning-filled day.
Having a support network cannot be overemphasized. Some people have family nearby while others have family far away. The latter is probably the case for most residents, as it is for us. Having a support network provides an extra hand when you need it. Having hired help is essential in many cases. Friends with children can also be helpful to share the load.
Cherish Time with Family
I quickly realized that if I tried to limit my time with my daughter to work on other tasks that could be triaged, I would regret it during the busy times. I could always finish work another time, but it is tough to get family time back. Thus, when I am with my family, I make a point to put the cell phone away, turn off all distractions, and give 100 percent of myself. In that way, everyone’s “happiness buckets” are filled.
Prioritize What Is Most Important
While there can be a tendency to spread yourself thin and take on as much as possible, this is less feasible as a father. It also may not be the best way to contribute to and advance our field. However, you can certainly accomplish quite a bit depending on your goals and motivation. If your passion is research, for example, you can find mentorship to coach you and maximize your productivity in a way that balances life. Depending on your passion, you can arrange your time so that you make the biggest impact in areas that matter the most to you.
While this may seem overwhelming, the challenge of fatherhood is completely worthwhile. It is a privilege to help others as an otolaryngologist. Our accomplishments and talents are critical and highly valued. Family is the glue that holds everything together and enriches our career. Fatherhood is a rewarding journey bringing new meaning to all that we do.
I would like to thank my family for their support and especially my spouse, Katie, for her thoughtful comments and edits of this article and for encouraging me to pursue my passions.
About R. Alex Harbison, MD, MS
R. Alex Harbison, MD, MS, is a resident physician – PGY 6 in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine.