Can a woman with children make it though Medical School?

A little while back this email hit the inbox:

I am looking for advice from experienced Doctors. I am hoping you can answer a quick question for me. In your opinion, is it impossible to successfully get through Medical school, residency, etc. with children? I am hoping to become an RN, and then continue my education to become a Physician. I admit that I don’t know much about what it takes other than the basics, and that is why I am reaching out for advice from Doctors who have already been there. Any help you can offer would be much appreciated.

It is certainly NOT impossible. I had classmates with kids, and they made it through (anecdotal but real information). As I recall they were a touch older than the ‘straight-through’ students, and their kids were in the ‘can take care of themselves’ age bracket. Everyone you ask will give a different answer (I hope!), and I asked my wife what she thought. In only the second topic here she’s weighed in on, this is her input as to what the life is like:

Med Student Spouse…. 3’rd year medical student has a day off. It’s close to Christmas, mid-school year, and the 3’rd grade son has a holiday program at school. The entire family loads up in Dad’s car to attend the program: Dad is tired but game. He backs out of the garage, stops, and says, " I don’t know where [sons] school is". [Son] has been at the same school for about five months and Dad has no clue where the school is located.

He has been away from home so long that just to see him walk in the door is a bittersweet treat. I know he’s hungry, tired, and yet wants to inter-act with the family. What a struggle it has become, trying to balance it all.

As the spouse of a med student you must be able to function as a single parent. Pay the bills, shop for food, prepare the food, clean up the mess and most likely work a 9 to 5 job and WHEN the spouse is off work (and not sleeping) included them in the family functions. It is a very odd lifestyle, Spouse is working extremely hard, but not earning one dime to contribute to the budget. The reward will come much, much later (note to self, check insurance reimbursement rates). They are remotely connected but so immersed in school and medicine, that the study takes over their life.

I also remember on one occasion I actually called the hospital [ed: this was during my internship], asked for the chief resident on surgery, and told him I would pay the ransom, if I could just see my husband again. At that stretch, I think he had been at the hospital for 4 and 1/2 days.

Some habits die hard, I will always shop the clearance rack first, only call spouse at work when absolute needed, be thankful for days off work. See, I can rant also. Mrs. Grunt Doc

I was able to do it with a family only because I have been blessed with a very strong and independent spouse who can handle things in my absence (for instance). If I had to tell you the One Thing you’d need, it’s a supportive and committed family behind you.

As an aside, I think the RN first is going to be a deterrent to going to medical school. I’m not saying that it’s either a mistake or that people cannot go to med school after obtaining their RN, but I have seen people take that route and stop at RN (same for PA). Why? Being a nurse is a full-time occupation, it is its own profession with a real knowledge base, and frankly once you go from student to making RN money another 7+ years of being financially upside down isn’t terrifically attractive. Nurses are becoming more scarce, and thus more of a commodity, and that trend will only continue.


  1. Navdeep Gill says:

    Its not easy but has been done by my wife. She went to undergrad when I was in residency. Started med school after I was done. Took a year off during medschool to have a baby and will be starting residency this summer. Not a few times along the way (after having the baby) she commented ‘i just want to be a mom and stay home with my baby-why didn’t you stop me!’ In our situation, one spouse was earning and taking care of a baby(me and me) and paying back massive med school debt-but with tremendous help from a very hard workin mom who is going to make a great doctor. It can be done, but I will tell you that this **@* is not easy! It will age you before your time. Make sure your marriage/relationship is STRONG to begin with. We were blessed that way. And, IMHO, going to nursing school followed by med school is insanity especially when med school is the final goal anyway.

  2. I graduated with a woman who had THREE children. Several of my classmates had children during medical school, and one became a grandmother while studying medicine (after the nursing program rejected her for being too old-HA!). Yes, it can be done. And yes, it will be challenging and you’ll need support from your family and friends. If it helps, several of my classmates left due to their own medical problems, and one realized he just didn’t want to be a doctor. But I don’t know of any who quit medical school because of family or kid issues.
    I also agree with the first comment: don’t go to nursing school unless you actually want to be a nurse.

  3. I’d agree with the RN thing. It’s probably best to just go through with the med school and enjoy many years of Top Ramen noodles and peanutbutter sandwiches, rather than get an RN and try it that way. But who knows?
    I have met at least 3 docs who were RNs first.

  4. TheNewGuy says:

    Medicine is hard on marriages period. I’ve lost count of the number of my colleagues who are married/divorced/married/divorced. However, if you have a spouse who faithfully sticks by you during the lean and painful years of your training, that bodes well for weathering future adversity.

    As far as going to nursing school first, there is something to be said for knowing the nurse’s job as well as your own… but going to nursing school is probably not the best way to do it.

    Pay attention once you become a physician, and you can learn plenty of basic nursing. It will teach you a lot, and actually allow you a good bit of flexibility. A good physician should be able to perform basic nursing duties in a pinch, or assist in those “Oh sh*t!” situations when you don’t have enough hands on deck (or when you get a nurse who’s spiteful, passive-aggressive, or one of those “policy-says-I-don’t-have-to,” types).

    None of the above should be construed as a slap against nurses who legitimately refuse something they’re not comfortable doing, or something that’s beyond the scope of their practice.

    Anyway, good luck.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why go to medical school at all? Become an RN – big time job security. And then – consider nurse anesthesia. Great hours, choose what type of job you want (ambulatory surgery vs. hospital) and great money! If you become a physician – you become a target for liability. Do you want to subject your family to that constant worry? Also agree that you really need big time family support!! I am a mother pediatrician. I have a great husband – unfortunately, a physician also, so little couple-alone time. We raised two kids through both are medical school and residency years. Also had help from mom and dad. My mom was a nurse anesthetist. If I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen to be a CRNA.

  6. As a Nurse Practitioner and adjunct faculty at one of the local Universities I would tell you to skip becoming an RN unless that is your end point. Nurses can be spiteful, vicious, angry and vengeful and those are the qualities they exhibit to other nurses who don’t want to be doctors. I can guarantee if you become a nurse you will always get the worst assignments and the worst working schedules. You will have no back up and essentially be on your own as a nurse. How do I know this? Because that is how I was treated by petty poorly educated ADN’s who were in positions of power and were threatened by me pursuing a graduate degree. Besides the five years it takes to get a BSN will not include many of the core science courses you will need to take to get into med school unless you take an extra year to get the bachelors degree. Just skip it (RN) and go for the DO/MD.

  7. I agree with the above. If you want to be a doctor then skip the RN thing.

    But I say forget the doctor thing and become a nurse. I know many who know how to game the overtime, incentive pay and make more than me. Shift work, No call, benefits that I don’t have, and leave the liability for the poor sap who fought his way through medical school.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am an emergency doc who finished my residency a year and a half ago. I went through medical school and residency with five children. My youngest was 6 years old when I started med school (oldest was 12 – we have twins in the middle). It certainly can be done. I do not regret my choices at all.

    The key is to have a strong support network. I live near my large extended family – all of whom helped raise my kids. We had a very happy but chaotic home during those years. My children became quite self sufficient- born of necessity. My husband worked full time to support us and pulled double duty at nights many times. We choose to live close to the med school, and my residency was done 15 minutes from our home. I incorporated my children into my career path. They came to lab classes with me and were well known at med school. During residency I even had them stay with me at the hospital on call several times (it was fun! And, no I didn’t ask permission!).

    I too thought of becoming an RN first (or PA) but the paths are very different and I am extremely glad that I plowed through. I had several friends through out my training that were raising families too—we banded together.

    The most important thing I can advise is to not cut corners where the kids are concerned. And, while the whole family will have to make sacrifices, the needs of individuals must take priority. For instance my oldest son played ice hockey – it was the most important part of his life at that time—we found people to drive him and worked like mad to get him to all the practices and games. We found that our family and friends were instrumental in keeping our kids healthy, happy and able to achieve their own desires and dreams.

    I am very pleased that I didn’t give up and I think my children and husband are too.

  9. My advice? Pick one or the other. If you don’t want to deal with the seven years of medical school but still want a more “medical” approach, consider advanced practice nursing (NP) or becoming a PA.

    There isn’t really any “continuing your education” in going from RN to MD. The two fields of practice have different foci and different emphases. What you learn in one will help with the other, true, but you’re not going to get a whole lot of overlap.

    And Azygos, all I can say is, Damn, but you worked in a crappy environment. I’m sorry.

  10. Wife of Former Resident: I think Mrs. Grunt Doc’s descriptions are right on target. While I was in an Sc.D. program, my husband did a residency. He was rarely at home, and exhausted when he was. We didn’t have children, so I wasn’t functioning as a single parent. But I did absolutely everything to keep our family going for those years, plus my doctoral research and writing a dissertation. My requirements for school actually helped. Lots of time I was working very long, crazy hours to get the research done. We weren’t bothering one another!

    I remember one phone call from my mother — she asked if my husband was at home. I gave her the answer that I had many times before, “He’s on call every fourth night.” She was horrified about the call schedule and was probably as happy as I was when it was over.

    If you don’t have a spouse who’s willing to give up a lot to see you through all those years, it’ll be difficult for both of you. Even if your kids are old enough to understand what you’re doing,there will certainly be some complaints from time to time.

    About the RN first — why are you doing this? Aren’t you sure about medical school or do you think the RN will be a plus for getting into med school? If you plan to work after receiving your RN, then I agree with the comments about salary. If you plan on going right from one education to the next, I don’t understand it.

    Good luck with whatever your decision is.

  11. Well I’m a nurse with an ADN and have nothing but admiration for those who go on to get their BSN or become nurse practitioners.

    But…if you want to be a doctor, then be a doctor!

    Nurses are not mini-doctors. We are an entirely different profession with our own education pathway. It’s not like going from one to another is a natural progression.

    If you do want nursing, you can do it with a family but you’ll need all of the above support, the only thing is you don’t have “call” and when you are “off” you are really “off”!

    Best of luck no matter what you do.


    I am 48 and wondered if I could go to medical school at my age.
    I’d have to get my BS degree, get accepted, get through it, go through residency. Figured I’d be 60 when I was done! LOL! I could specialize in geriatrics ‘cos I’d BE one!