When people learn that I am both a medical student and a single mom, there are a few questions they tend to ask. These include:
“Are you insane?”
“Do you have a live-in nanny?”
“How do you manage to do all that while maintaining such a gorgeous complexion and impressive personal physique?”
“Is your family nearby?”
“How do you study with a toddler around?”
The first four questions are easy enough to answer: 1) Yes, 2) HAHA, 3) …okay maybe I made that one up… 4) No. The fifth one can be a challenge, however, and not only because I’m usually cry-laughing too hard to respond.
So, for everyone who’s curious, I am now prepared to reveal the big secret behind how I study with a 2-year-old around — I don’t.
I’m sure there are children in the world who are content to be plopped in front of the television for an hour or two while mom makes path flashcards in the next room. There are probably also children for whom crayons and a cardboard box means a solid 30-90 minutes of independent play, as well as children who can be let loose in the backyard to entertain themselves while mom reads her neuroanatomy textbook on the patio.
My daughter is not one of those children.
It became obvious early in my medical school career that studying and keeping my daughter entertained were incompatible tasks, though it took me a while to come to peace with that fact. In my initial haze of desperation and denial, I set my mind to fixing the problem. I scoured Pinterest for elaborate toddler entertainment devices that I could construct from masking tape and paper towel tubes. I bought a 36-can Mega Pack of Playdoh and the deluxe set of accessories to go with it. I threw my pre-med school parenting principles to the wind and tried to get my kid hooked on toddler iPad apps. Eventually I abandoned all pretense of self-restraint and adopted a kitten.
That’s right, folks — I got a kitten. For a 2-year-old. I was THAT desperate.
While the cat has provided a great deal of entertainment and some amazing photo opps, neither she nor any of my other “solutions” were enough to buy me the time I needed. At the end of the day, the only thing my daughter wanted was the one thing I was trying to withhold: my attention. As a result, any attempt to study with her around was doomed to be an exercise in futility that left both of us feeling frustrated and resentful.
Once I admitted that to myself, everything changed. I gave up on studying during my “mom time” and decided to be present instead, both physically and mentally. This seemingly small shift in attitude had an immediate transformative effect on our relationship. Knowing that studying was off the table made me free to enjoy my time with her instead of constantly trying to escape it, and she was happy that she no longer had to compete with school for my focus.
I won’t pretend that everything is perfect now, or that the stress of being in medical school and running a household never creeps into my parenting. My patience and flexibility run thin from time to time, especially on days before big exams. I also won’t pretend that it’s been easy to cram all of my studying into weekday afternoons and late nights. My test scores are often lower than I’d like them to be, and my sleep debt is so astronomical at this point that it’s scary to even think about.
Still, I know that this is only a brief period of time, both in terms of my education and my daughter’s development. I won’t always be the most sought-after figure in her life, and soon enough she will have better things to do than help me build snow monster stores out of blocks or challenge me to hopping races across the living room.
Plus I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to relax and catch up on sleep during my clerkships and residency, right?