Becoming a female physician is isolating, no matter how you look at it. Getting to that point is not for the thin skinned, faint of heart, or those who need a pat on the back on a daily basis. It requires self confidence, determination, and a devout faith that the end will justify the brutal means. The long hours, the sleepless nights, the “pimping,” the feelings of inadequacy in the face of an infinite sea of knowledge, the days of holding a retractor for eight hour surgeries while starving, the months spent studying for board exam after board exam….The process is particularly daunting as many of us were not brought up with female physician role models who could coach us along or assure us that life will be much easier after training.
As hard as medical training may be– at the end of it—we can predict that most women will land a lucrative and stable career. But, rarely does anyone during training ever sit down with female students and ask about the unpredictable…. “Are you dating? Have you found the love of your life? What will you do if you cannot have children or you cannot find a spouse?”
Many of us simply embraced the notion that a family will come when the time comes….but ….the time may not come. And for thousands of female physicians every year, the time still hasn’t come. And for many female physicians–the time will never come.
I was fortunate to have fallen in love and gotten married in my late twenties. I got pregnant quickly, but a month into my pregnancy, I began to bleed and asked my obstetrician what this bleeding was about. He said not to worry and the baby looked fine. I saw him again when I had even more bleeding. My obstetrician assured me that the baby was fine, and I was just a nervous doctor. He mentioned, though that it would be wise to do bedrest and take it easy, so I stopped working and stayed in bed for 3 months. Half way through my pregnancy, when I still had bleeding, I decided to visit a high-risk obstetrician. He told me that my baby did not make it, and based on the issues that could have been detected at 7 weeks, would have never made it. I lost my first child half way through my pregnancy on my birthday OF ALL DAYS.
Who could have imagined that I would deliver a dead child on my birthday? My belly was six months pregnant with a child who would have never survived. I had endured unnecessary bedrest for 3 months of my life. My high-risk obstetrician mentioned that there was a possibility that I may never be able to have a child. I remember going to a child’s birthday party a week after I lost my first child and feeling completely isolated. “I may never be a mother.” The older I got, the more likely that reality became for me.
We tried to have another child, but the emotional toll of our loss wiped us out. We tried and tried and tried, and became pregnant only right after I left a very stressful job. I look back at the time when I struggled to have a child. This was before the social media boom. I recognize that the social media culture, while it connects us to one another, is very “mom” centric. What If you cannot be a mom, or you are trying and you keep miscarrying? What if you are too old to become a biological mom? What if you want to be a mom, but cannot find a partner? There are so many wonderful groups that have blossomed all over social media celebrating children and the culture of being a mom. We are truly blessed to have them. But what about the infertile female physician? While she battles with the possibility that she may never have a child during her lifetime, she is flooded with millions of pictures and videos of childrens’ birthday parties, band recitals, science fair projects, soccer games, first haircuts, first days of school, and christenings on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.
We must educate the new generation of premeds and medical students about the possibility of infertility. Pregnancy may not “just happen,” and finding love may not “just happen” in your twenties or thirties. We need to discuss the role of stress in the rising rates of infertility, the interventions that can help, the avenues for adoption, the role of egg donation, egg freezing, sperm donation, and surrogacy. We need to discuss the importance of starting prenatal vitamins early and of consulting with high risk obstetricians and reproductive endocrinologists when conceiving after a certain age. We need to discuss the risks of having children with Downs’ syndrome and other genetic abnormalities. We need to openly discuss the opportunities to have healthy children without waiting for a spouse to come along.
We need to share the statistics. Failed pregnancies and infertility are more common for female physicians than the general female population. For example, according to a recent study in BMC Women’s Health, 26.3% of over 3,000 female physicians had high-risk pregnancies and over 20% experienced miscarriages—percentages far higher than for the general female population.
Our colleagues share millions of posts about their kids on social media every single day. We expect them to. But what about the stories of those who are desperately fighting to have children? The struggles… the challenges of infertility. The emotional roller coaster of failed pregnancy after failed pregnancy. The loopholes and frustrations of adopting. The overwhelming expenses of surrogacy and IVF. The anxiety of finding the right sperm donor and the pain of freezing eggs. The inhumanity of timing sexual intercourse. How about the stories of women who are facing the difficult and challenging decision not to have kids in this lifetime?
I had a discussion with a colleague of mine who was 38 and a single physician. She mentioned that she hadn’t found the right spouse, but would wait to have kids until she found the right partner. Four years later, she got married and tried to conceive. She did not succeed after multiple attempts and over a dozen interventions. She regretted not having frozen her eggs in her thirties and mentioned to me that she wished this was more openly discussed by women. Even with our sophisticated medical backgrounds, many of us don’t know about our options for having children.
So here we are. We have a generation of female physicians who are brilliant, ambitious, determined and building lucrative and rewarding careers. They are inundated with thousands of mom support groups, mom social media groups, mom education networks, mommy blogs, physician mom forums, and more. But there are still thousands of women who are feeling left out. We need to embrace these women, offer family planning guidance early in their medical training, share our stories, offer support, and–most of all–offer options that they may not be aware of for creating a family, should they want to become a mom.
We must welcome the women who don’t become mothers—whether or not it is in their control. Being a wife or becoming a mom may not be the right choice for many of us.
We must come to realize that being a mother or a wife does not need to define us as females, and especially as hard-working physicians. We will always be needed. We can embrace our friends, our families, our careers, and our communities and continue to create rewarding opportunities for ourselves and empower others. As female physicians, we have given up so much in pursuit of our goal to heal others. Now, it is time for society to give back to female physicians and celebrate us…not just as moms…or as wives…but as remarkable women. Creating a new family may or may not be part of our life’s plan. We may not have that option. But we do have the ability to build or expand our social communities to embrace, honor, educate, and support all female physicians. It is now the time to put an end to the isolation of infertility.
Dr. Farah A. Khan: Portland, Oregon
Editorial Contributor to DoctorCPR.com –America’s #1 Medical Career Site.