By Autumn Hope Gallagher
Positive. Christmas Eve five years ago. We were expecting our first sweet baby. It was terrifying. Joyous. Heartburn-inducing. Then my husband got accepted to medical school. All those feelings were rinsed and repeated (including the heartburn – because pregnancy, y’all). Soon after, we came to the difficult agreement that once school began, I would be a SAHM. We did enough research to know that the strain on our family would be high during med school and residency, especially while raising a baby. We also chose to lump the majority of our living expenses onto what we jokingly called “Uncle Sam’s Tab” (aka racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt).
Fast forward through four years of medical school and the births of our two children. Our boys are charismatic, beautiful, and healthy. We relocated to a state we never considered moving to: South Dakota. We’re here because of the Match, a computer-generated pairing between a physician-in-training and residency program. Some people get matched to their dream location, many do not. The bottom line is you go where you match. The resident has some influence, but almost no choice. In my husband’s case, the program is five years long. He is training as a general surgeon which is, in fact, his dream job. I am so proud of him that I well up when I think about it for more than a few seconds. We have been through so much these last five years, but challenge often brings growth.
It sounds amazing, doesn’t it? A surgeon’s wife. Heaps of money, a beautiful house, two expensive cars, and maybe a nanny so you can go get your hair and nails done. Cue the super-handsome doctor husband rolling into the garage at the end of the day…
Our recently-purchased first home is a 100-year old character-filled beauty with great bones. I adore our home. It needs some love (the garage floods with every heavy rain), but it’s ours. We have a wonderful yard that’s fenced in so the boys can run around safely. We’re gardeners and have big plans for a veggie garden this upcoming growing season. We have two old, unglamorous cars that pending weather, start without trouble. We have full bellies and clothes on our back. The mortgage gets paid on time every month. I get to enjoy the sounds of our boys’ side-splitting laughter every single day, and snuggle them into bed with stories and songs every night. Our lives are full and we are deeply grateful. For everything. Truly, deeply, in my soul I am grateful. I have plenty of friends, but it’s not the same. I miss my husband, his voice and the warmth of his hugs. Our boys desperately miss their papa bear. This kind of loneliness is deeply painful.
There are times the boys go a week without seeing my husband because he works over a hundred hours per week. He leaves the house well before they wake up, and comes home hours after they’re asleep. Usually, he’s in the 80-90 hours per week range, which isn’t so bad, so the boys see him maybe for an hour at night. Nearly 9 months into residency, this is still all so new. I didn’t read about how to prepare for the nights my oldest son, only four, would cry himself to sleep in my arms. He says, “Mama, I wish papa wouldn’t be a doctor anymore.” How do I make sure my words soothe and reinforce pride in who his papa is, when sometimes all I can do is weep silently and hold my son, saying “Your papa loves you to the moon and back, baby.”
Nothing prepared me for the tearful rage that boils up when someone says “it’ll all be worth it soon, right?”. They mean well. To the general public, a surgeon’s family (resident or attending) has an easy life, cushioned by wealth and its conveniences. The truth is, when I hear that overused phrase about worth, I want to scream. I want to cry with rage and hurt and scream FUCK OFF until my voice is gone. That phrase makes my circle smaller because I refuse to associate with people who are incapable of realizing the kind of pain the partner of a medical professional lives through. It is a constant battle against loneliness and bitter resentment, thinly cloaked in gratitude. I refuse to associate with people who seem to think I’m in this marriage, this journey of motherhood, this life we are living for the financial perks that will come some day when my husband is no longer a surgical resident. Am I looking forward to being able to take our boys on adventures without worrying that it will screw us financially? Or maybe just take them to the store and buy them something completely useless without having to consult our budget first? Hell yes. But that’s not my driving force.
This is how heaps of medical families go through life, and sadly, a lot of them don’t make it through together. The emotional stress, regardless of paycheck size, proves to be too much. Our public is generally unaware of the sacrifices physicians in training and their families live through. They’re unaware that statistics are stacked against us – statistics that say our marriage won’t last, and our babies will wind up watching their home be split in two.
This life comes with massive weight. Our partner’s hands are in charge of saving lives. Sometimes they’ll fail. They’ll try to compartmentalize their experiences to save us from that pain, too. We’ll feel it, though, and have to quietly watch it change them, never being able to fully understand the weight or depth of their own work-related traumas. This life means missed birthdays and Christmas days with a heart wrenchingly sweet little one’s voice saying “I wish papa was home”. It means being desperately lonely for a best friend and partner when we go months on end barely seeing them in passing. When they are home, they’re nearly comatose from sleep deprivation. It means burning with jealousy for all the time their patients get to be with them.
This life is painful. But it is where the true worth lies. The worth is in this lifetime of being connected to the heart of someone who has the privilege of saving lives. I get to be the partner that fuels him when he’s running on empty and wants nothing more than to give up everything he’s worked toward. I get to be there with our babies, to help soothe his heart when he comes home after losing a patient. I get to be the reason he’s able to go back the next day – his heart lighter, but more full. Recharged, ready to be the help someone else’s life depends on. This life comes with weight… but I say bring it on. It won’t be worth it some day. It’s worth it now. It’s worth it right now – because right now is when my boys are learning that their mama is a fucking superhero.
Autumn Hope Gallagher is a mother to two beautiful little boys under five and wife to a surgical resident who is in his intern year in Sioux Falls, SD. She also a portrait and wedding photographer, voter, fan of kindness and bourbon – neat. Autumn can be found online here.