Welcome to the new you—“The Doctor’s Spouse.” Yes, you have had your own identity up until this point, but now you are not only a Mrs. or Mr., you’re a Doctor’s Mrs. or Mr. Once people discover this about you, whether it’s intentional or not, their perspective and assumptions of you will change.
Some spouses won’t mind this change and will embrace it. Other spouses may initially feel uncomfortable and judged. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, I invite you to acknowledge this new role you have (whether it’s welcome or not!) and prepare yourself to navigate the world under this umbrella. You can use this situation to discover more about what you really want for yourself and your family and then create an authentic life based on your values, priorities, and desires, not on society’s expectations of a doctor’s family. How? Let’s dive in!
#1. Expect that people will have outdated and stereotypical assumptions about doctors, their spouses, and gender roles. Let’s help change this.
If you haven’t received the dreaded, “You married a doctor? Good for you! That must be sooo nice!!” response, get ready because you’re due for it. Most people really do have the best intentions in mind when they are responding to someone’s life details, but it often is based upon inaccurate assumptions and could use a bit more thoughtfulness.
Male and female medical spouses will receive different reactions purely based on outdated gender stereotypes. For females, our society has a long history of expecting women to find the “best” spouse (i.e. makes the most amount of money) and to portray a polished and poised presence (i.e. dress and act the part, don’t speak up or create attention). If you’ve checked the “married to a doctor” box, people will congratulate you on a job well done and expect you to have no desire to have your own career or passions. For most of us however, a fulfilling life comes from discovering our talents and using them, no matter what stage of life we’re in or who we’re married to. We have our own contributions that we want to make to our families and communities, and we can choose the best avenue for using our talents to make an impact.
For male medical spouses, people will most likely be caught off guard and have a “Wow! I don’t know what to say!” expression on their faces. It doesn’t compute yet. Even though half of medical school graduates are now female, and they may have a significant other or find one along the way, our society has a deep-seated status quo of men doing the work and making money, and females staying at home and raising children. It’s slowly changing, but we’ll likely continue to experience these outdated thought patterns for most of our spouses’ careers.
When you encounter this typical response, try to curb the desire to give a sassy retort, and provide the person with the benefit of the doubt. Try to think of these comments as an opportunity to help dispel the myth and offer a more realistic view of medicine for them. It’s time to respectfully and kindly set people straight.
Personally, if someone asks me what my husband does, I say, “he’s in medicine.” When pressed for more specifics I respond, “He’s a resident. It’s been a long journey so far, but we’re looking forward to finishing training soon.” If they insert a comment about “how nice it must be,” I respond with humor, something like, “Are you kidding!? It’s terrible!! I’m kidding, of course, but honestly everyone’s got the wrong idea. It’s really hard, but we’re making it work!”
If someone says something more directly about “it must be nice to be so well off,” I respond with “Oh you’re sweet. Actually it’s incredibly expensive and we’re swimming in debt. It’s not the easy money tree people think it is!”
Brainstorm your own way of responding that fits with your personality, and practice it so when the time comes you’ll be prepared. Help change the assumptions about this profession with honest conversation.
#2. Embrace yourself as you are, not as how you think you should be.
I grew up in a small town in New Mexico. My mom worked at a grocery store and my dad worked for a paper supply company. I grew up with humble means. When I met my husband in college (long before he was interested in medicine), I was initially very intimidated by his family. His dad was an aerospace engineer and all of his older siblings had gone to college, graduated, and had prosperous careers. I felt like a “nobody” trying to fit in with a family of “somebodys.”
This wasn’t real of course, it was just thoughts in my head, but I have learned through the years that many of us experience this feeling at some point. When we are in the presence of people who we admire or who seem more educated, well off, or attractive than ourselves, our instinct is to either retreat or to do something to compensate for that uncomfortable feeling. We might try to change ourselves to be more like them, which could bring us farther away from our true selves.
Couple the “nobody vs somebody” business with society’s expectation for us to “fit the part” of a doctor’s spouse—whatever that is—and we can easily feel overwhelmed by the pressure of it all. But, we know the truth. Contrary to social assumptions, there’s no one size fits all for a doctor and a doctor’s spouse. Let’s dispel the myth and embrace who we are now, not how we think we should be.
We all present an image to the world. If you love trends, high-fashion, and nice things, good for you! Enjoy it! If you would rather live in a modest home and wear discount clothing, right on! Don’t look outward for what you should “be like” or “be doing.” Focus on the more important and lasting work that you want to engage in, which is whatever feeds your soul and helps you live an authentic life.
Look inside and discover what speaks to you, and how you want to be a model for those around you. As a doctor’s spouse, your words may carry more weight in your community. People will look to you as a model and follow your lead. How do you want to use this position?
#3. Your new role has financial consequences – both positive and negative.
Once medical training is finished you can celebrate! You and your spouse did it! You’re finally on the other side! Think of all the things you can finally do! This will be an exciting time and well-deserved time.
On the flip side, medical families are at high risk of ending up in financial trouble because they get caught up in “having it all” and living the image of a well-off family. The training system is flawed and sets us up for it. After years, if not a decade of hard work, long hours, and great sacrifice both personally, socially, and financially, doctors almost overnight go from what feels like rags to riches. Many couples will quickly overspend to make up for lost time, or because they feel they deserve whatever they want after paying their dues.
It’s a tricky situation, because you can and should enjoy your new financial abundance, but the key is to have a plan and use your income in a way that fits with your priorities and values, not with a perception society has of what you should have as a doctor’s family.
Another risk to watch out for is that if you and your spouse overspend, and still have massive amounts of debt to repay, your spouse could end up becoming a slave to work, being trapped by the need for more and more money to come in. They will be ripe for burnout and dissatisfaction with their work. This type of situation can actually lead to much less happiness in the long run.
Buy because you like things, not because you’re trying to portray a certain image and status. It’s also essential to create a financial plan and follow it the best you can (more on this next month!). Ask yourself before you purchase something or participate in an activity—will this bring me joy? Your instinctual response will reveal if it’s right for you or not.
So wherever you are in this journey, you will encounter some assumptions about “how you should be,” but remember you are enough and you belong exactly as you are. Find your people within the medical community that you resonate with and that make your soul shine. Also, you are in a position to respectfully correct people’s assumptions about a doctor’s family and help dispel the myths about this profession. Lastly, once you have substantial income in the future, create and keep a financial plan and choose possessions and activities that you enjoy, not what you think you should have.
This medical journey is intense and defining, but you have nothing to prove to anyone. Be yourself and enjoy the ride!