I Could Have Been The Doctor But Now I Am Just His Wife

I watch my husband go off to work to be Dr. Scott. I listen to his patients love and respect him.  I hear him discuss cases with his colleagues in order to better his practice.

Every day, I see him do what I was trained to do.  I was good at doctoring.  Or I would’ve been.  I never spent any time with patients once I received my medical degree. I didn’t go on to my pediatric residency, not because I couldn’t, but because I chose to stay home with my son. I turned my back on not just my field but on the multiple departments who had asked me to consider their specialty instead of pediatrics.

When I announced my decision in 2006, my mentor at medical school asked: How can we keep good doctors like you from leaving? What can we be doing better?

I often think about her questions as my husband answers another page from a frantic patient. When I finish another load of laundry and when I pick up my children from school, I wonder how I could’ve kept myself from leaving. I can list out the reasons I left — the hours away from my newborn son, the relentless chipping away at empathy and tolerance by facing life-and-quality-of-life decision on 3 hours of sleep, the fact that I would’ve gone on to fellowship and been without decent hours until my son was 5 years old — but I still carry the shame of leaving my profession.

The significance of my choice is never more apparent than when we meet new people and are asked: What do you do?

Dr. Alex and her husband

Well, my husband is a pediatrician in the community. I am his wife. I am a mom. I write. Write what? A blog. Some freelance pieces. Oh, I once started a mom’s group with a nonprofit in town! Hmmm, what else…

I trail off wishing that I could answer with doctor. There would be nothing more to explain except what specialty I chose. What a relief. How much easier it is to feel important with a title.

Even if someone knows I went to medical school, there’s a pause that seems to shout: Why are you home? Why are you talking like you practice now? How could you never go back?

I hurry to fill in the details. To explain myself. But I rarely mention that sometimes I wish I was changing the world a patient at a time. I wish that I could affect health policy and research. I miss being seen. Being heard. Being Dr. Alex.

I love blogging, but anyone can start a blog. I never had to explain what medicine is or how I make any sort of living doing it. There is a modicum of respect guaranteed in the mere mention of doctor. We could debate whether it’s deserved (and for most doctors, it is), but it’s understood in way that is not true for staying-at-home or blogging. I never surprised people with my education background when I showed up as a doctor.

And even when I set aside judgement and remember the joys of writing and being with my family, I can’t pretend it was a simple career choice. I had a gift for doctoring. I saw through US and THEM. US, the normal well-adjusted doctors, and THEM, the addict, abused, depressed patients. I knew we were the same. Separated by how we could help each other, but together in this life. A gift not every doctor possesses or maintains. A way to help so many people.

But I gave it up and settled for being a mediocre mother, wife and blogger.

I don’t regret my decision as much as wonder how I could’ve chosen it. Is it pride that makes me want to be the doctor-mother or pride that made me leave medicine years ago? And what happens to a gift when it’s thrown away?

I wish I knew.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

47 thoughts to “I Could Have Been The Doctor But Now I Am Just His Wife”

  1. I can see how this would be a struggle. You left when you weren’t quite finished, well really you weren’t quite started – at a point where it wouldn’t be easy to just go back. I’ll be a SAHM soon and I have moments of panic – how can I give up a career and a name I’ve built for myself over the past 9 years to maybe go back a few rungs down the ladder. My career, education, is easier for me to go back to. Plus I have a graduate degree and licensure to step up if I wanted to. But the job I do now is very specialized and very specific to my district – and I happen to really love it. I may not be able to find it anywhere when I do go back. But I have to keep holding on to that part of me that longs to be home to raise my son (and his future sibling) – because I know that’s more right for me, for him, for us.
    It ain’t easy being momma…

    1. Those are some big and exciting changes coming for y’all! And I know, too, that it’s best for our family and based on my gut instinct. But it’s difficult — although doing the right thing often is.

    1. I completely agree with Megan! I’m a second year medical student considering leaving now before I get into any more debt. My husband is an intern and when I look at a future with both of us in medicine, I’m not happy about it. I feel as though we are trying to do everything and doing nothing well as a result. I, too, have my reservations about being “the doctor’s wife” rather than “the doctor” and this is proving to be the most difficult decision of my life. It is immensely reassuring to see others who have gone down this path.

  2. While Iris was a hot mess and in the hospital, we interacted with SO many physicians. So.Many. All were intelligent, all were skilled, but only a few really touched my heart and to this day are individuals I feel God specifically gave us on our darkest days. From what I know of you based on what you’ve shared, I feel that you would have been the same type of doctor.

    And even though you are not practicing medicine now, who you are as a person will allow you move these skills, these abilities, to a different avenue of life. They are characteristics that are tied to who you are as a person and not just one professional field.

    1. Your words brought comfort to a place I thought would stay painful. I don’t mean to sound like a hallmark card but you made me cry in that ‘it’s going to be ok’ way. Thank you.

  3. I don’t think there is any end to the possibilities of a different choice. In some ways the why of our choices evolves, but I don’t think you’ve settled and I am sure you are much more than mediocre.

  4. Alex, a few months ago, you left a comment on my blog, on a post entitled “better than a million dollars or a medical degree”. It was a post similar to this: lamenting that motherhood is not really it’s own reward. It was a post about loss and dissatisfaction. and I remember you said you might have become a nurse instead of wasting your degree in its entirety. And I’ve been thinking about your comment, about my life as it relates to that post, as I shove my kids into preschool because I just can’t take fulfilling everyone’s needs but mine, all the time, anymore. And I’ve been thinking about that as I begin my job search. And I’ve been thinking about that as all these other moms say things like “look at the gift you’ve already given them (3 years at home).” I’ve been thinking about that as the billionth person tells me that blogging is a waste of time and an invasion of my family’s privacy. I left my career at its very beginning too. And I was a shining star there. People saw me, there.

    I guess, just, this ramble means you aren’t alone. But your position is unique in that your profession is incredibly elitist (and is structured against family life), many of the benefits of it involve prestige, and you worked your a## off to even get admitted.

    And this is going to be the biggest cliche of all, but I think at its core, it’s an undeniable truth: any doctor can pull all nighters and take a sick pride in the inhumanities of residency, any doctor can gather the gumption and courage and will it takes to pursue this elite fellowship at Mayo or Cleveland or wherever. But not very many can make the brave self-sacrificing and glory-less choice of putting family above self. I believe that anyone (who works really hard) can be a doctor, but not just anyone can be a good mother. And because of these choices, your family is lucky for your bravery. But it still sucks anyway. I know. Cause I’m there too.

  5. Giving up being a doctor for now doesn’t mean you have to give it up forever. My mom gave up her dream to get married and have kids, but when I was in 6th grade (I am the oldest, my youngest brother was four) she went back to school and became the accountant she always wanted to be.

    Maybe you are a SAHM for now, but that doesn’t have to be your future if it’s not what you want.

  6. Just because you’re not a practicing doctor _now_ does not make you a doctor. Now. Nor does it mean that you can’t go back later.

    I was completely geared for med school until the semester before I graduated with my B.A. I was going to be the best psychiatrist EVA. But something clicked in my head- (pardon the irony) and I realized that westernedicine was not my future.

    Does that make you or I any less prestigious, intelligent, or successful? No way!

    It just gives us the room to pick something different, to have other priorities… To not have those wacky sleep schedules, to be a greater influence on our family and children than we would gave otherwise.

  7. I am always telling my husband, and myself, that this is not the final deal in the card game of life. It is simply the hand you are playing now. I had a very important job that I enjoyed. I had tons of power and respect. I quit because it was horrible for my health and quality of life. People who knew me then still ask how I could have left that position. Pride is a difficult thing to wrestle. It is hard to go from making life changing decisions for other people to putting books in alphabetical order. I can’t say that I am completely satisfied or challenged with my current position but it is just the hand I am playing right now. Nothing is final! You CAN have it all 🙂

  8. Gosh your story hits close to home…because you sound like my mom. My mom had me during medical school, and my brother 4 years later. She didn’t finish her residency after my brother was born. But when I was about 10, she did go back and do a residency in family practice, and then practiced here in Richmond for many years (she is now retired).

    I’m offer this up merely as background, and as an example of you are not the only one who chose this difficult path. I have heard my mom talk of it often. But the choices she made for our family and for herself resonate so much stronger with me now that I am a mom, and I realize the sacrifices she made for us.

    We are local, if you ever want to talk to someone who has been in your shoes. I’m guessing you have my email address because I had to leave it in order to make this comment…I know that my mom would be happy to chat with you if you ever wanted to talk to someone who understands…

  9. you may not be changing the world one patient at a time, but you are changing the world one child at a time, specifically your two, who will remember that you were there, really there. and you make me laugh so there is that.

  10. I really connect with this. I have this conversation with myself and on my blog and with anyone who will listen ALL THE TIME (not that I was a doctor…but the rest of it is so much the same.) I am often struck with how I can be dissatisfied with my choice to stay home AND appreciate it AND would do it the same way all over again, all at the same time. It’s such a strange existence.
    I am also impressed that your boss asked you for input on what they can do to keep doctor/moms in their jobs. To me, that seems like forward thinking.

  11. Anyone can start a blog, but not everyone has a gift for writing like you do! More than any other, your blog makes me think, and I love that.
    I also believe that knowledge is not a waste. Your medical training can help you in your role as a mom. And who knows what you might choose to do with it in the future.

  12. What a timely post…We were just having this talk the other night (Yes already =)…will I stop working, will I go part time, will he go part time, how do we feel about day care? I often wonder can I do both “jobs” well or will I need to pick one over the other. I always knew that I would put family above my job on the priority list but I never thought it would be mutually exclusive…but now I start to wonder. I have plenty of examples here of women who do both – all are part time. But can you really be a part-time doctor or in my case PCP? The easy part of me says “Yes of course – you only have 1/2 the number of clinics.” The part of me that brought me to medicine says – no – how can I give up being there for my patients 100% of the time? But I know that I will not be willing to give up my family time either when that time comes. T thinks I can walk away for a year or two and the come back – I guess I could – but would I really have the ability to keep up with medicine during that time? Would I be able to come back where I left off? I know the answer is no – I would be back with the same knowledge I left with which would be 2 years outdated for my patients. At the same time I don’t think I could be a SAHM all the time. I know the answer is somewhere in the middle and yet I don’t think there is a “right” answer – just one that hurts a little less than the other.

  13. Alex, (((hugs))). I could have written this post this week, just substituting academia for medical practice. Instead of being a PhD, I’m “just” a doctor’s wife and stay-at-home mom. I chose it. I would make the choice again. But sometimes it’s hard.

    I believe in you, and I know that the answer to “what do you do?” goes far beyond your roles as wife and mother.

    (My first comment got long, so I’m blogging my own thoughts on Spark.)

  14. Never call yourself ‘just’ an anything. We get so caught up in our labels, but they are as limiting as they are defining. You are a writer. You are a mother. You are a wife. But not one of those shows the depths of you.

    I hope you find your way back to medicine when the time is right. You clearly want it. My friend, a doctor who made the other choice, says she wouldn’t recommend it. I think regrets are easy to see. Each of us has so many passions and priorities. The best we can do is keep what is essential to us at the top of our list.

  15. And so is the quandary of many parents out there. 🙁 My husband and I are teachers and with the surprise of our daughter, born 14 months after our marriage (married at 22), the financial need is what made the decision for both of us to work. I often wondered if I made the right choice or if we could have figured out a way to make it work. Thankfully, the teaching profession allows time with my kids that most professions to not allow. Now that they are in school, it’s not so much an issues…except for the fact that we’re considering keeping my husband home to unschool eventually, but that’s another post.

    Both my husband and I seriously considered careers as physicians. We even knew our specialties but decided that the ridiculous requirements of residency and the time it would take away from the rest of our life was not something we wanted. Sometimes I regret that decision, too, and I still greatly enjoy learning about medicine. I would have chosen OB/GYN which would not allow me hardly any time. The Universe, or whatever, pushed the right career choice since our daughter surprised us, but I still wonder. Enough rambling over here. You certainly got me thinking!

  16. You are in no way, shape or form a mediocre mother, wife or blogger. Period.

    Now that’s out of the way, I always find it so interesting that, in our society, what we “do” defines us more than who we “are”.

    I used to work for local government. I did fun things like run elections. (Really. It’s serious fun. I’d love to work my way back to it.) When I did that, people treated me with respect. Mostly because long titles = great respect.

    Then, when I became a SAHM, my IQ, in others’ eyes, dropped significantly.

    Now…well…when asked what I do, I say raise chickens. It usually stops people in their tracks. But, honestly, what I do is not nearly as important as who I am.

  17. Thanks for this beautiful post. I just discovered your blog through richmondmommies.com, so I’ll be going back to read more! I had finally found a career I loved (teaching) when I got pregnant and decided to become a SAHM. I want to go back to teaching, but right now my son is three and I’m focusing on him. It’s tough giving up something you love, even when it’s for something you love so much more.

  18. As a mother of three and grandmother of five, married 49 years to my high school sweetheart when I was 19 (one year of community college), and he was 21, following two years of active duty in the Navy. I was able to stay at home while my kids were small and went to work when they went to school. I never wanted to pursue a “career,” tho I loved being a secretary (now a bad word), before it became “admin assistant.” My husband had a career in law enforcement and eventually retired as a federal law enforcement officer. He could not have worked all the crazy hours and days that it required. I felt that he could earn a higher salary than I could, so I always felt his job was more important. I think it’s a shame that women should have to explain their reasons for staying home with their children. When you have a child, your priorities change….or should change… Parenting is the most important job a man or woman will ever have and probably the most difficult. But, if you fail at raising a child into a responsible adult, does it matter that you doctored x amount of patients? Wouldn’t you regret all those emergency calls and long hours? Childhood is so fleeting. And, you can’t do it over. We need to honor the importance of parenting. It’s our future world.

  19. First of all, you are adorable. The two of you together are double adorable (because of you of course. LOL)

    I have been struggling with the same feelings: even though I have a FT job, it has nothing to do with my degree. Now that most of my graduate school colleagues are PROFESSORS with published books… Yes, I envy their reality in which they do not have to explain what they do for a living. (I sound like a Jewish or a Chinese mother, don’t I? “Only professions that need no explanation are good professions. e.g. lawyers, bankers, doctors…” Ironically, I AM a Chinese mother, but not in that way… Oy. Sorry for reinforcing stereotypes) I wonder about the day when I made the detour often, and I try not to go there. I don’t know about medical profession: is it possible for you to ever go back without repeating too much work when say the kids are older? Do you read The Bloggess? Her recent post talking about her lack of a life plan generated hundreds of comments. Reading through them I saw doctors, lawyers, Ph.D’s giving up their career paths, mostly women, mostly when they became mothers… How far have we come indeed?

  20. I think your decision to stay home with your son speaks volumes about who you are and what you value. I’ve done both and I can honestly say that even though staying home can be incredibly mind-numbing and thankless some days…the moments you get with your kids are fleeting. You don’t get that time back.

    Once they’re grown you’ll have the rest of your life to go back to work. If you want to…You haven’t thrown away your gift Alex…you’ve tucked it in the attic for safe keeping.

    Selfishly, I love you dearly and I love your blog and I think you ROCK!!!

  21. I was an accountant until after I had kid number 4.

    I was missing so many firsts that you just can’t get back. It occurred to me that Arthur Andersen wasn’t going to be there at my deathbed and I should focus on the people I wanted to be there.

    It’s been ten years. Sometimes I miss wearing business clothes (people really do treat you better), but you have to focus on the goal.

    My kids are half grown. My boys will move out next year. I’ll have plenty of time to do those Me things soon enough.

    You are important as Just Alex. You don’t have to be Dr. Alex to be important.

    I look forward to meeting you sometime. We Richmond bloggers should form a guild or something.

  22. I’ve put my pursuit of my PhD on hold so that I can be the mom that’s available for my little girl. At least until she gets to be more independent and involved with her own extracurricular activities. I’m blessed that my husband has a job that allows me to do this. I like being there to drive her on her field trips, go to her school for her birthday celebration, help out with the Fall festival. I know while I may have not been trained as a physician, but my training, I feel is also helpful in my role as a mom in not only understanding her, but in helping my hubs understand her, and helping her understand other kids. Of course every now and then I have small regrets that I’m not out there now practicing and that I could possibly be a senior citizen before I get tenure and full professor status, but then I look at my girl and I know I’m where I’m supposed to be at this moment. And I don’t see it as a gift being thrown away… it’s a gift that just keeps giving and giving to the most important people in your life.

  23. After I had triplets I had intended to go back to a job that had alway been my dream job. Once our daughter passed away, the choice to quit and stay home with them was an immediate one. Life is short and you will never regret the time you spent with your children whether it be 2 days or 18 years.

  24. Ouch- what does happen to a gift when it’s thrown away? I wish I knew too… I left my career when it was starting to take off. I can’t say that at times I don’t regret it. I also can’t say that I would do it differently.

    PS- I highly doubt you’re a mediocre mom.

  25. The medical profession’s loss is the blogosphere’s gain. If you were a pediatrician, we never would have crossed paths and I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon your blog. Your life may not be the richer because of my reading you, but mine is.

  26. That’s the thing about real gifts. They never go away, even if we put them aside for a while. They mature along with us as we change and grow and should we chose embrace them again, they are even more challenging and exciting. (That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.:)

  27. Oh sweetness, how I love coming here and reading all these words that pour from you like a gift … in everything there is a season. This is your season to take care of your family, to be the Mom, to strengthen and nourish those you love in the way only you can choose … Then there will be time for another season, and you will choose the journey for that time too.
    Trust your instincts … you are very smart, and intuitive and … wonderful !

  28. Great post – and, as all the comments indicate, you are not alone. I watched a train go by today remembered my many long commutes to my big, fancy law firm in a big, fancy city. Part of me loved it (I worked damned hard to be carrying that business card that said “lawyer” and it was kind of a rush to watch people’s eyes pop and their moths form and “O” when you answered the question “what do you do?”) but a bigger part of me hated it. I tried to keep family friendly hours (out of the house by 7.45, home by 7.45) but I couldn’t keep up with the demands – they said I needed to bill MORE hours. I missed school plays and sports days and just hanging out. I was tired and cranky and way too stressed. I gained a lot by walking away. I still think about it as I watch everyone else’s careers progress, but in the end, it was my choice and I made it for me, not for anyone else. So I’m no longer on the path to an equity partnership at a top 100 world law firm. I no longer wear nice clothes or take the early train to London for a meeting with clients. I homeschool and a do dishes and take long walks around the lake when everyone else is at work. And if I want to get on that train for old times’ sake, it’s still there. I just don’t have to get on it at 8 a.m. anymore. Bliss.

  29. I don’t know what to say to this. I can relate to the desire to want to do … what the world acknowledges as excellent, to the fact that you made a good choice, to the fact that you might still miss doing what you’re good at …

    So I don’t know what to say.

  30. Just found this post tonight… and even though we’ve already talked about this, I still loved reading your many conflicted thoughts about the whole thing. I have those, too. I can’t go back to my career either. I love what I do and who I am for my kids. But I still beat myself up in the “what-if” moments, even though I know the “what-if” never was to be, and that’s okay, too. Worrying less about what comes out of my mouth when I meet people, and thinking instead about how I relate to the people I really get to know (to whom I don’t have to explain my career choices anymore), helps. Though I never had the easy answer of “doctor” for the “what do you do?” question… music theory almost always just got blank stares. 😉

  31. Hi Alex, Thank you for writing this blog. Really great to see someone make that choice. And then waiver. Like you, I graduated med school and married a doctor. I am sure we share a lot of thoughts: God, did we have to claw our way in to med school. Organic chemistry! And then study hard and forget most of the rest of life. Surgery rotation! Oh God and the rounding, rounding in heels, all that work! And then some fish faced kid comes and upsets the apple cart. And then a couple more. But like you I did the math: There were two people for every one of us who went to med school. Roughly 30000 med school rejects willing to take our places and yet Fish Face(s) only had one mom in the universe. That was some good math. And this job is hard…sometimes especially hard to the logical mind- (stop putting your tooth brush in the printer, balloons aren’t sad when they are popped and honestly I dont know how lollipops are made, Fish face.) But I love these guys and no one could love like I do. And honestly, if I were paid to do this job I would have quit it ten times over. Sometimes I think why do I match socks…I could buy new ones for 30 dollars every week and save two hours of my life and maybe my dignity too? I digress. Like you I spent most of my time and talent in those formative years with all momentum to med school. I hate reading fiction. I don’t like movies. I don’t take myself seriously enough to work out constantly. I sit reading medscape. So I’m jumping back in. Or at least trying to. Last little one will be 5 when I start if I can get a spot. I did do a year of path, loved it, but think family medicine may be a great fit now. I miss medicine. I suck at keeping house, dishes cooking, and sock matching. 8 years since PGY1 and I think I am going to try and be the weird old chick PGY1 all over again. What about you? Honestly, I would evny if you were able to let it go. I just cant kick the desire.

  32. You wasted a medical education! How many people were denied a spot in your program so that you could take it, and then not use it? How many children are without a primary care doctor today because you do not practice?

    Women like you do a disservice to the rest of us.

    1. @Anonymous – Because the value of women rests in their societal utility? You get to determine the value of other’s personal choices and situations.

      You are everything that’s wrong with women.

  33. Alex,
    I stumbled across this and read your story.
    I like what you wrote and appreciate the conflicting issues you deal with. I quit to stay home with my kids. For me it wasn’t that big a deal because I had worked and I had no great love or feeling of vocation for what I did. If I had never worked it might have been harder mainly because I would have wondered and likely glamorized the working lifestyle. I don’t, probably because I never sought or received fulfillment from a job.

    When I run into a situation that I’ve ‘had’ to give something up (basically had to make a choice that was not an ideal choice) I remind myself that – bad as the options were, I did have a choice. It’s a choice I made and in most cases it’s not a terminal one. That frame of reference allows me to have some leeway in how I look at where I am. In your case you can flip the point of view to the wow factor of accomplishing a medical degree with all the hard work and expense and then choosing to walk away. My sister went to law school with a guy who graduated then never practiced. She’s in California, he drives limos out there. Always fascinates me, he may be the most interesting man in the world. Who does that? He had the brass ring in his grasp then chose to let it go. He didn’t flame out or crack under pressure…he basically laughed in it’s face because he had something inside that only a handful have.
    You must have that too.

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