• Margaret Curtis, MD

Dual-Physician Couples: The Long View

Updated: Jan 5, 2019

When my kids were little and my husband had a solo urology practice, I was a full-time parent.  I taught pre-clinical medical students once a week, to keep myself in the game and so I wouldn’t go bonkers.  Female students would say to me, “You are so inspirational!  Now I know that women doctors really can have it all!”, which is ironic, since I had left clinical medicine to take care of my kids.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I don’t think women physicians – or any physicians for that matter – can “have it all”.  To me, having it all means being connected to your kids, having a thriving career, and enough free time and security to explore your own interests. There are not enough hours in the day to do all three of these things.  Sometimes, you are lucky if you can do one.

I do think, however, that we can have it all over time.  Some years may be all medicine, some kid-kid-kid, some an exhausting combination of the above. Hopefully you will look back over the course of your life and say that, on the whole, you did what you had hoped to do. You just did it sequentially, not simultaneously.

If you are married to another physician, or to someone with a similarly demanding career, your sequences may need to complement each other.  I know two-physician couples who both work full time, but they have a heck of a lot of household help.  My husband and I have tried it, and it didn’t really work for us; it was also financially draining, even with two physician paychecks.  What has worked for us is to take the long view.

This article lays out some of the choices two- career couples make.  To put these in terms of dual physician families:

Single Career:  when one partner has a very demanding job, it really helps to have the other partner be the “hub of the wheel”.  Remember that men are more likely to marry non-physicians, and women are more likely to marry other physicians[1], so for women this model is less likely to be an option. 

Lead Career:  sometimes it’s obvious whose career takes priority: if one of you is in the military, has a very narrow specialty, or is still in training.  Often it is the higher earner.  It wouldn’t make much financial sense for my family to revolve around my work, because urology pays about three times as much as peds. 

Alternators:  similar to above.  Medical careers tend to have a long arc:  if you are married to a chief of surgery, and are just waiting for your turn so you can take a new job, you will be waiting a long time.

Parallelograms:  two full-time docs. If this works for you, more power to you.  We felt like we weren’t doing anything – work or family – well. 

Complements:  this is us.  I ran the house while my husband established his practice, and when the kids really needed someone at home.  My husband dialed back his work when I did my residency, God bless him.  Right now my husband is in his peak earning years and I am structuring my work around his.  Our goal is for him to be able to go to part-time in five years, fully retired in 10.  By then the kids will be out of the house and I will be able to ramp up to full-time (which may include volunteer work for both of us). 

I will be honest: I sometimes feel wistful about what I will never do in medicine.  I won’t do a fellowship or have an academic career.  I will probably always be an employed physician and not a partner.   Finding the right job has been much more challenging than if I had fewer requirements as to location and schedule.  Still, if I had it all to do over – I would do it all over again.

I am trying to hold

In one steady glance

All the parts of my life

-Margaret Atwood

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