Career or calling: Should my children be physicians?

December 20, 2019

After a patient asked, one physician wonders why her children aren’t going into medicine.

I am having a moment of existential crisis. One of my patients asked me about my kids recently. I recited their ages and a funny anecdote before he asked me, “So, are any of them going into medicine?”. “No,” I replied. Truth is, I have a budding mathematician, engineer, teacher and professor, but no potential physicians. This is perplexing to me as both I and my husband are physicians and both come from families populated with nurses and physicians. I assumed at least one child, if not all four, would pursue a medical career.

There are articles out there about how many physicians would discourage their offspring from charting the same course they did given the hours, the debt, the current state of health care, and the demands of the job. I’ve never been one of them. I love being a doctor even though I don’t love every aspect of being a doctor. Medicine is a wonderful combination of applying science to ever-changing situations. Almost every day in clinic, I am simultaneously intellectually and emotionally challenged. I have such a unique and privileged view into people’s lives and enjoy partnering with them through some of the most difficult moments they face as well as the joyful times. So, I wonder, why has my enthusiasm for what I do not caught on with my kids?

In my better moments, I pat myself on the back for this. Clearly, I am teaching my children to develop their own interests and passions. What a great mom I am! However, I can’t really claim that as I do struggle to keep my opinions at bay when talking to them about their futures. In other moments, I consider what they see of Dr. Mom from their vantage point. Maybe, I spend too much time complaining about the aggravations of medicine or am away from home too many hours, and they don’t wish to live with those same burdens. The dedication I try to show my patients may inadvertently reflect back on my family as a lack of dedication to them.

I wonder about their perception of the notion of a career rather than a calling. It is certainly the case that younger generations of physicians have a different view of things like work-life balance which impact how they practice. The abuses I suffered, somewhat willingly, were born because of my belief that this was the price of admission for the calling of medicine. Newer generations may be smarter than I in questioning what degree of sacrifice is actually necessary for our profession. My high school age children completed a school exercise in which they had to research possible careers and their desired lifestyle and then crunch the numbers. This required them to identify the average salary and then calculate the cost of living for where they’d like to live. I don’t remember those kind of pragmatic exercises as I was growing up and wondering what I wanted to be someday.

Truth is, I only decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was 17. Prior to that, I had my heart set on attending the Air Force Academy and becoming the first female fighter pilot. In a psychology class, we learned about the research being done on premature neonates and how much human touch improved their physiologic function, and I was fascinated. I can still remember that moment when it clicked for me and all of the things I loved to learn about and could see myself doing came together into a career path from which I’ve never deviated. The wonder I felt in that psychology class is replicated regularly as I learn something new about an individual patient or about the human body as a whole. If my own children find that combination of wonder and purpose, I will be a proud mama whether that is in medicine or in another field.

Jennifer Frank, MD is a family physician and chief medical officer in northeastern Wisconsin. She continues to find medicine to be the most rewarding profession imaginable, second only to motherhood. She's married to a fellow physician and has four children. Her family reminds her of what is most important and inspires her study and pursuit of work-life balance.