Community is in our collective story

October 7, 2020

By Hayley Harlock

Someone recently told me that she never would have guessed that I had experienced any struggles in my medical marriage. Say what?!  While I think of myself as an open book, perhaps I haven’t shared enough of our story with before celebrating the first anniversary of TFSL, let me tell you how we got here.

I have been with my incredible and supportive husband for the entirety (we met during his first year of undergrad) of his medical training, and eight years of practice. We were engaged a month after medical school finished, and married 10 months later in 2006 during John’s first year of general surgery residency. Our oldest son came into the world at the very start of our PGY2 year. Our daughter was born with months left of my husband's Chief year when time was of the essence, studying for exams the priority, and stress on our little family at an all time high! Sadly, there are parts of these early years that I barely remember, mostly because I operated in survival mode.

When John decided to pursue a 2-year vascular surgery fellowship, we decided that I would leave my much loved job as a medical social worker, to be at home with our children and support his ongoing training. The decision was always mine to make, and I will never regret being home with our babies. Despite the stress and craziness of it all, I’m forever grateful, as staying home with our children was exactly what our family needed during those years. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that as time went on, I started to lose myself in my husband and in our children. When the chapter of my professional life came to a close, I made an unconscious decision that if I was going to be a SAH parent, I was going to be the perfect mom and perfect wife- whatever that means?!

I poured myself into our children, cheered on and fiercely supported John’s dream of becoming a surgeon, eventually to my own detriment as I lost myself and my identity in the process…my cup was empty, and I had nothing left to give. It was nobody’s fault, just the way things were. And nobody besides my closest girlfriends knew how I felt.

We got pregnant with our youngest during John’s final year of fellowship. When I was 38 weeks pregnant and convinced that I’d deliver this baby solo, my husband had to fly to Ottawa for his Royal College exam. I begged him to fly home right after the exam, but he insisted he had to stay the night to enjoy a well-deserved post exam celebration. Fortunately, our son waited two weeks to make his appearance.

While I was in labor, my husband received an email with the results of his exam. Nothing like a little medicine to steal my thunder while I was about to give birth! Luckily, the email brought good news of a passed exam, and we were able to focus on our sweet baby who arrived a few hours later.

2012 proved to be the perfect storm and the start of a difficult season for us. Two weeks before our youngest was born, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and a grim prognosis. What was supposed to be an exciting and joyful time for our family proved to be extremely stressful.  

I spent the first few weeks of my newborn’s life wearing him strapped to my chest, while I attended appointments at the cancer center with my mom. Transitions are hard in general. Starting practice, a newborn and a very sick parent took that stress to a whole other level.

In the 2 years that followed we would move again, and lose both my mom and beloved stepdad within 6 months of each other. People wondered how we kept going. The truth is, by this point, John and I had become a well-oiled machine. We were used to putting our heads down and getting things done. Efficient teamwork (especially related to parenting) was how we operated. But, this came at a cost. I often felt lonely. As the communication in our marriage decreased, resentment and frustration grew. Our lack of meaningful communication made me sad and embarrassed.

I know that this story is not only ours. It is yours as well. As spouses and partners of physicians, our experiences are unique, often misunderstood, and stressful at times. We all need support, validation and to be seen. Too many people in our community feel isolated and alone on their journey. I am here to lovingly remind you that you are NOT alone. Ever. My hope is that one day all physician families will feel connected and be better supported. Finding a community of people who understand you, support you and encourage you, is vital to our well-being and to the well-being of our families.

Sharing our personal narratives plays an important role in normalizing the unique challenges that many physician families experience. Sharing our stories gives others permission to do the same. It helps reduce feelings of shame and isolation, while fostering connection and building community. These are the foundational pillars of TFSL. Connection. Community. Collaboration.

This week marks TFSL’s 1st birthday. I created TFSL with the desire to make change and improve the experience for all physician families during training and in practice. I can’t do this without our community. Please share your stories. Connect with TFSL on social media. Join our Peer Support Calls and our private Facebook Group. Contribute to our TFSL Community Blog. We can only create change when we regain our voice.

We are stronger and better together.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for ONE extraordinary year.

With love & gratitude,

Hayley X