Jason has been back in school for over 2 months now (I know) but with the start of this new school year, I have had the strange phenomenon of not being the newbie anymore. At church we are introduced to all of the new med students who just moved into town when just a year ago we were the rookies being introduced to the pros.
Now, I am certainly not a pro at this med school business, but I have learned a lot in the last year. And lately when new med student significant others (which is a mouthful so from now on I'm going to say MSSO; bear with my annoying acronym) have been asking for advice, I struggle to impart anything useful as my thoughts are still a jumble. So in an effort to sort through those thoughts, reflect on how far we've come, and emphasize on things we're still learning, I'm compiling this list of advice for MSSOs everywhere.
Note: This is mainly directed at females. I thought about making this more gender neutral, but I realized I haven't the faintest clue about the complexities of being a male MSSO and did not want to come across as ignorant nor precocious. I realize this is obvious, but this is merely a list of lessons I have learned and may not apply to someone else's situation. And finally, we don't have children yet so that certainly has shaped my advice and this advice may all be totally bogus for those who already have kids.
- First and foremost, let's get this out of the way. Medical school is hard, yo. It's perfectly fine and dandy to admit that. It's hard on the student and it's hard on the student's family. There's no getting around the fact that you and your SO have chosen a difficult road, but my friend Kelly Clarkson once told me that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Ahem. So while I got a LOT of comfort from not being the only SO to think this whole process is crazy and challenging, I do advise not to dwell on that. Dwelling is throwing yourself a big fat pity party for one and that's a party I threw far too often for myself the first year (and even before the first year). This is advice that I still am learning to follow, but I've gotten so much better so take heart – improvement is possible!
- You and your SO are in this together. Together. I try to remind myself of this often. Sometimes it's easy to play the victim card. You probably had to make some sacrifices for your SO (whether that be moving to a new town; leaving a job, friends, family; finding an unsatisfactory new job or not finding one at all; pausing personal goals; transplanting your children; etc etc etc), but your SO is making sacrifices too. They have to study more than any human would ever desire, can't spend as much time on personal relationships and enjoyable activities, and now are carrying a significant amount of stress with them on a daily basis. It's really easy for me to be selfish and only think of my own problems associated with this new reality while breezing past my husband's personal challenges; there have been times that this selfishness was divisive in our relationship. Ultimately, we had to make the choice to do this as a team and lean on each other for support. Looking back over the past year, we've grown together through these challenges which is really rewarding. Any relationship is about commitment and sacrifice so congrats, because med school is the perfect platform to model these in your relationship.
- To add to the last point, while you're in this together, you will have your own struggles and it's healthy to recognize those. We are human and we need support through the struggles – don't be afraid to reach out to your SO. You may try to shelter them from your struggles because you don't want to add to their stress but I think it's important to still be honest about your own process. Try to make it clear that you're not blaming/guilt-tripping them. There does need to be a balance because while you want to be honest, you can't constantly complain about the situation. (If you find this balance, let me know.) A good piece of marriage advice I sometimes receive is to choose your battles, and it's completely applicable here.
- The faster you can accept the lifestyle, the better. Ugh, I still hate reading this and I don't know how to say it without sounding like a jerk. But really, this tough-love paragraph is written to myself. You can spend years bemoaning the less-than-ideal situation, OR you can put your big girl pants on and make the most of it. The medical school process is not family-friendly. Your SO is going to spend a lot more time with those books than you. He may be traveling 3rd and 4th year around the country for months at a time. And even better, grab a bathing suit because you can swim in the pool of your student loans.
For so much of this process, you have to surrender control. I'm mighty fond of control so this happens to be difficult for me. I like plans and I still don't know where we will be living in a year. Des Moines was not my first (or second or third) choice of where to live but that's where we landed (with divine intervention, certainly). The more I let go and focus on living in the present and focusing on all the good things in our life, the less I care about all those things I can't control (nor will I ever be able to control because I am not God).
- Along with the last point, worrying about the future (rotations, residency, careers) is not worth it. You can develop a framework of what you hope will happen, but leave room for flexibility. I feel silly for how much I worried about med school and how terrible it would be before my husband started, and now looking back, so many of my worries were off base and haven't come true. More tough love here (for myself): stop worrying about what may or may not happen. Take everyone else's experience with a grain of salt because you will have your own, unique experience. I still struggle with the lifestyle that comes with being married to a physician but it's something my husband and I talk about often and are seeking to find something that works for us.
- Communication is key with household chores. Talk about how you want to divvy things up (and have grace when your spouse can't meet their end of the bargain). Also recognize that initially when they start school, they won't think they have any free time. They do, but it may take several months to figure this out. Now with errands and household chores, my husband and I divide and conquer. Some weeks I'm busier and my husband does more around the house, and some weeks it's the opposite and I pick up the slack. We stay flexible and try to be understanding when the other isn't able to help as much. I've taken on a bit more responsibility just because I usually have more time (such as I pay all the bills, go grocery shopping, and do the majority of the cooking), but again this is just something you have to work about between the two of you. Another tip: when I have several errands and I don't have time to do them all, I will give my husband a choice and ask if he's able to do any. He rarely turns all down and will do at least one.
- I heartily recommend a weekly date night. Like I mentioned before, it may take some time for your SO to figure out their schedule and that they do in fact have free time. We weren't doing regular date nights for the first 6 months of med school, and come December it felt like I had a roommate rather than a husband. We started being intentional with our dates and I've felt so much more connected as a couple because of it. You're probably on a budget, so google free/cheap date nights for tons of ideas. Get out and explore your new town together. Spend time dreaming about the future. Be present and intentional when you are together. Bonus idea: challenge yourself to a date night where neither of you are allowed to talk about med school.
- Not only do I recommend getting out as a couple, but also try to get out on your own and meet people. Netflix doesn't have to be your only friend. I'm a shy introvert so my husband was a bit of a crutch I used in social settings but I've grown much more brave and am now more comfortable doing things independently with people I may not know that well. It's harder after college to make friends but there are still plenty of ways to do it. Seek out potential friends at places you commonly go, whether that be work, church, the gym, the playground, etc. Join a special interest group. Take a class at the local college. Be a regular at a local coffee shop.
I received good advice to never turn down an invitation when you're in a new place as you never know what will come of it. I still do say no (remember, introvert) but I much more readily and frequently say yes. Also understand that in your new city, not everyone knows nor remembers what it's like to be new so they may not know how lonely you may feel and may not think to reach out to you. If you like someone, don't be afraid to initiate the first contact. I've found that often the easiest friend to make is one who is also new to the area and doesn't already have an established group of friends.
- When trying to make new friends, friends that are also MSSOs will be a huge help to your sanity. You all have this big part of your life in common and can share in the struggles and joys of it all. They will understand what you're going through in ways other friends simply can't. And bonus, they're also new in town and are probably needing friends just a badly as you.
While my MSSO friends have been a huge blessing, I also appreciate the friends I have who are completely apart from the medical school world. Sometimes you need someone to remind that you that there's plenty of things going on besides rotations and residency and Pharmacology and husbands giving their first pap smears (mine just did recently. helllllo weird life I live).
- Enjoy your freedom. You are in a unique situation where you are married but you have more individual time than the "normal" couple does. Embrace it! (If this isn't appealing to you at the moment, I understand. Just don't punch me.) Don't let his schedule stop you from doing things that you want to do, whether they be traveling or trying new restaurants or checking out the local attractions. Invest in mastering an existing hobby or learning new hobbies. Have girl time with friends. Read a new book or write your own. Go to Target and don't feel guilty if you spend an hour and a half wandering each and every aisle (but maybe feel guilty about how much stuff happened to make it into your cart in the meantime...whoops). Watch all the Pretty Little Liars and America's Next Top Model and Revenge and whatever other girly guilty pleasure show you want. Start a blog so your family can keep up to date on what you guys are up to (for the record, Mom and Dad, we're doin great!). You can make this as fun or as painful as you want, it's up to you.
- Supporting your spouse can make all the difference for them. Medical school is not for the faint of heart and our students need all the support they can get. Your life will be this constant cycle of upcoming tests and often your weeks will be good or bad based on these tests. You don't need to be their mom and worry about the not-so-great grades. It's hard when their grades can affect your future because certain grades mean certain residencies, but you have to let it go and trust your SO. Mourn the discouraging grades together, help encourage them when they're ready to come out of the mourning stage, and by all means celebrate the good grades. Insider tip: the more supportive I am as a spouse, the more support I receive in return from my husband. Often if I am not feeling appreciated/loved/supported/etc, it's a sign that I'm not doing the same for him.
- Time flies! Seriously, you will be amazed at how fast this all will go by. Enjoy it while you're living it so you can look back on these years and take pride in the challenges you didn't merely suffer through, but overcame. I reflect on this when it's hard because I do see how fast it's gone thus far and I know this won't be our life forever. Can I say it again? This won't be your life forever. We'll all get through this. It's hard, but we'll do it.