Anne Lewis is the founder of MeCoaching.Me.
I have a deep love for my father, a family doctor. During much of my childhood in Belfast, N. Ireland he was an absent presence in my life. He did two clinics a day, home visits, dental anesthetics, coroner’s exams and homebirths. In what should’ve been our living room he took family histories, examined and prescribed for the people of the nearby housing estate. We lived in the dark cramped quarters in the back. Imagine the servants in the kitchen of a Dickens novel. OK not really. That’s my ten-year old’s imagination talking, but you get my drift. Medicine took up all the home space.
The Belfast of that era fierce-brewed sectarian violence. When I was 16, Dad told me to pick a university “across the water” and go find a nice husband. My escape from the bombings saved me in so many ways, but the separation was a loss for our entire family. I mourn that truncated connection with my father – I missed our chats in the car, the joking around at mealtimes, and his gentle influence on my hot-headedness. I never thought until recently what a sacrifice he made and how that must have affected him.
Altruism is a deep and ingrained pattern in medical families. It’s in the air we breathe. I’ve been married to a physician for 32 years. What is this altruism that I was born to, that I married into and is deep in my bones? Altruism has been defined as the “unselfish concern for the welfare of others, and has been considered an inherent part of a doctor’s profession at least since the Hippocratic oath.”
When I met my husband I felt a subtle flash of recognition that chimed in with the family dynamics of my youth. I sensed something that would become the pattern, the expectation and the social project of our marriage. We were both professionals who went to work every day (he at a rehab hospital, in his private office and in several residential settings, me in my broadcast journalism career, seven of those as a medical reporter). And then there was this other thing: the gravitational forcefield of medicine that sucked on our lives. Altruism: I call it all-too-ism. As in all-too-giving, all-too-selfless, all-too-putting-oneself-and-one’s-family-last.
My husband was able to massage his schedule to be available for our offspring at every important event and to be present and alive at home. But I saw how the lack of support at work gradually ate into his energy. He loves being a doctor. I am proud of the contribution he makes. But there is all-too-much of these demands. For many years, it added up to a huge workload with no guaranteed time off. He always insisted on taking the high moral ground and would never abandon his patients. We had a 30-month stretch when no away time was possible. (The vacation that followed was the one when I was knocked down by a car, which ended my journalism career and set me on the path to becoming a coach. My husband got H1N1 and was very ill for the entire trip, all while he was looking after my accident-crushed feet.)
Every medical family’s elasticity and willingness keeps the medical system running. Our self-abnegation is expected in favour of the pressing healthcare needs of others. We love it, are proud of it, resent it and are angry about it. It moves in and we are grafted to it like an extra organ in our chests. We are tired beyond tired. Because eventually that elasticity can go brittle, the willingness to self-sacrifice can go sour. And we question how do we put the caring part into balance?
There’s all that equalizing work for us to do. Medical spouses work through the grief of lost careers and the dream of independence. We consider the myth the world holds of us as financially secure, while we experience a teetering sense of near-poverty. We make room for the jealousy and resentment and guilt and pain and swear we accept it’s okay to feel them. We even put ourselves first, yes, hopefully and maybe only for a brief moment in time. Ssshhh, don’t say we do that. But we do. And I have to add, from my own experience of 32 years in a medical marriage, honestly it works out, it’s all worth it, and we’ve been doing the right thing, even when we think we aren’t. Because we are heartfelt, caring people who walk in kindness, compassion and love. That’s what we saw in one another at the outset. Right?
This is a really beautiful piece, Anne. Wow, you have really summarized the challenges of a physician family. It’s hard to share your partner with medicine, the ever hungry “other woman” in a marriage. So many things are given up and much patience is demanded of medical families. Thanks for your powerful words to shed light on this juxtaposing topic.
So much of this piece resonates with me. It made me reflect on my 30 plus years of marriage to a family physician and how his work has affected us. In my mind my career always came second because his job seemed more important than mine. After all, he was dealing with life and death issues, and I was not. I didn’t give myself fully to my work in part because my time had to be more flexible in meeting our family’s needs. But I understood why this had to be and we all benefitted from this arrangement
Your reply was stellar. Thank you. Then I clicked your blog and found your own tribute to your father from 2012.
His words took me deep into a past you must have adored.
What a record of a beloved person, built entirely from his sayings.
Do please be in touch.
Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. Such a well written account of what so many medical families experience during training, practice and even into the retirement years. Altruism certainly does run deep in physician families.
The last paragraph is strange…seems as though you’re trying to bring all the discussed issues together in a package and tie a nice bow on top. We’re poverty stricken, compassionate, altruistic people who sometimes put ourselves first but are still doing the right thing?
So many questions swirl around these complex issues. Could I have expressed this more clearly? Thank you for commenting. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Tom Guzowski
I’m a practicing specialist and a caring father of an autistic boy – now teenager. I have found it very difficult to balance my work life and family commitment. As the author says – you do what you have to for your patients and your family in the end. Unfortunately that does mean that they often suffer. I’ve approached this topic with some of my colleagues and found that my words fall on deaf ears. I’m especially surprised at my young female colleagues. They dominate the field of medicine now, at least in our age group. And yet, they are as tough as those multi-talented GPs from the past (or even worse). None of us are discussing how to make our day-to-day more family friendly. If you are interested in this topic, I would ask you to contact me: maybe we can start with an interest group and work from there.
Dear Dr Guzowski,
This is a discussion that is urgent.
Thank you so very much for your comment.
I would love to be part of your interest group.
Our interests are very much aligned. I agree that work-life balance is very difficult to achieve in medicine, and that has a strong impact on physician families. I am the spouse of a physician, and very passionate about physician family health and wellness, so much so, I founded an organization (www.theflipsidelife.com) in 2019 to champion and support Canadian physician families. Please feel free to get in touch (email@example.com), I would love to speak with you further about how our interests align and what we are doing about it.
The essay was very enlightening and very well written. I have a better understanding now of what it is like to be a part of a medical family. Thank you.
Thank you Dina Fraid, I appreciate you taking the time to write.
So much we don’t know about the loves of doctors’ families!