1. Don’t beat yourself up over the stuff you can’t control
Top tips for being a less than full time trainee tend to start with really helpful stuff, like ‘get organised’. Which is great, but a bit limited and more-or-less telling me something I already know. Being ‘organised’ for me involves not just turning up to work, coping with a challenging job alongside studying whilst learning on the job as a doctor. Now it is many layered, multifactoral and quite often simply beyond my control. Like when the childminder was ill, or my grandmother died, or school is closed because of a teacher’s strike, or it’s snowing and no one can drive anywhere.
I’m actually really super organised; I co-ordinate five busy schedules, from preschooler’s toddler group, to primary school play-dates, to have we paid the council tax, to what will we eat at the weekend and have we got food for the packed lunches? If you add in the demands of caring for a child with special educational needs, it’s genuinely a full time job looking after a family.
I suspect the first step to dealing with all of this is accepting that sometimes the world will place demands on your shoulders that you just can’t help. And whilst the best laid plans will help you to cope, there is no shame in going back to first principles and prioritising what is really important to you, be that work, study time or time at home.
2. Work out your priorities and look at your options
I realised a while ago that my priorities had shifted. I’ve always been quite career focused, but I felt I needed to be at home for a bit to look after my children, so I took a career break. I’ve kept my NTN, as this is an agreed out-of-programme career break (OOPC) with support from my deanery. I just felt I couldn’t be as good a doctor as I wanted to be at the moment. My husband works reduced hours and is hugely supportive, but I’m not going to pretend it’s a simple decision.
Strangely, we’re slightly better off financially, because our childcare was costing more than I earn. I sometimes hear frustrating comments from friends who are advised by senior colleagues that they should ‘throw some money at the childcare problem’, but the honest truth is that most of us won’t have anything spare after we’ve paid for nursery and the childminder.
3. Talk to others, plan and don’t be afraid to access support
My coping mechanisms involve having a plan, drinking lots of tea, talking to people – and actually I find it really helpful to talk to non-medics, who are often much more sensible about career aspirations and priorities. It helps to get perspective, but it also reminds me why I want to continue in a medical career.
I try to plan together with my husband and we tend to think about short, medium and long-term; what are we aiming towards as a family, how are we doing, what could we change? I still keep involved with medico-politics, because it’s important to me and because I’m an advocate for those of us who are not taking a direct, full-time route through a medical career. I’ve also realised that there are lots of options for support for junior doctors out there; most deaneries have a support unit for trainees and mine have been amazing. Asking for help and advice isn’t a weakness; I just wish I’d realised that sooner.
4. Be kind to yourself
Keep positive and try to be kind to yourself. We tend to be very high achievers in medicine, but actually you’re probably achieving loads, even if it’s not obvious. Don’t panic if you’re not ‘that’ trainee; you know, the one who has published three papers, passed all the college exams and learnt a new language while they are on maternity leave. It’s wonderful if you feel able to balance lots of extra stuff, but it’s also OK if you’re just getting by; life isn’t actually a competition. If you can align your plans with life opportunities, then you’ll do just fine.
5. Things will change, even if they seem difficult now
Medicine is not a short-term job, it’s a vocational career. We’re more likely to be working into our late 60’s and taking time out now, either to work LTFT or even to take a career break is not the end of your career, if you don’t want it to be. It’s quite realistic to anticipate that there will be periods in your career where you are able to work more and others where you might need to work less.
The other day, my daughter presented me with her school workbook. In it, she’d drawn a picture of me and the teacher had scribed for her ‘I wish my mummy would stay at my home all day long’. I wanted to tell her to ‘lean in’ and that I’m being a good role model for her. But at four years old, I think she’s not quite ready for that. Her priorities are cuddles and having me at home; just for the time being, I can prioritise that. We’ll both change over time and she’ll need me less, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to be here more at the moment and that feels like the right decision for us as a family and for my career as a doctor.
Dr Lucy-Jane Davis is an academic clinical fellow in Public Health.
Good thoughts Lucy-Jane. Thanks. Being kinder to ourselves is a good lesion. Working on it!
I certainly feel utterly conflicted like that meme "work like you haven't got a family" and "be a parent like you don't have a job" at times. Its reassuring to hear that others feel just getting by is perfectly acceptable at times. Going back to first principles and working out the real priorities is good advice.