Published in The New Physician, March 2005

(sidebar to “Babies on Board)

If all goes according to plan, by this time in 2007, Meredith Hancock will have a 1-year-old child and will be nearing the end of her first year of medical school. For this to happen, Hancock must first complete the prerequisites she needs to apply to medical school, take the Medical College Admission Test next month, get pregnant sometime after that, get accepted, have her baby and start training in fall 2006.

If, if, if.

“That’s my hope,” says the Sacramento resident. “I’d like to stay home a little bit before I actually start school. But I know there’s no good time, so I’ll just have to take it as it comes.” Indeed. Hancock and her husband may have plans for a family, but her medical training is the only thing she has certain control over, assuming she’s accepted. Visit the online chat forums of the Student Doctor Network or MomMD.com on any given day, and you will be bombarded with the question: When is the best time to have kids?

And it’s one, most women say, that not even a soothsayer could pinpoint. That’s because no matter how controlling you may be, Mother Nature is in charge when it comes to having children.

Dr. Erin Harris, a second-year family practice resident at East Tennessee State University James H. Quillen College of Medicine, wanted to start a family with her husband soon after they were married following college. Instead, after struggling through several miscarriages in medical school, Harris conceived her first child just in time to waddle through her third-year clinical rotations.

“The right time just decided on us,” she says. But if you could hotwire nature, when should you have a child? “Third year of medical school is a hard time to have an infant,” says Dr. Julie Wonderling, an emergency medicine intern at Drexel University College of Medicine and a mother of two. “Second year is an easier time. But there are no perfect years. They’re always going to be difficult; there are always going to be extra challenges.” “The fourth year was definitely easier,” says Brooklyn pediatrician Rivka Stein, who had a child in her first and last years of medical school, plus one during residency. “I had a lot of vacation time. But the rotations were harder. Being pregnant and being in class is a lot different from being pregnant and doing surgery. And if you’re breastfeeding, pumping as a resident is very difficult.”

A MomMD survey taken last year showed that nearly one-third of respondents had their first child after residency and one-quarter during residency. “What frequently comes up, however, is that there is no exact right time,” says Sethina Edwards, founder of MomMD. “It just depends on where they are and what stage in training and life they’re at.”

Bottom line, Wonderling says: “If you wait for the best time to have a child, you will never have children.”

Copyright 2005 American Medical Student Association