When Brandon first started medical school, I definitely did not know what we were both signing up for. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been honored to accompany him on his medical training, and I’m proud to be his number one fan! But, reflecting on from the beginning of medical school to now, I really had no idea how much his decision to become a physician would influence our marriage and life path. It kind of seems silly, obviously going to medical school will have some impacts on a life route. But for me, there was a big difference in seeing the plan on paper, and actually living it.
It wasn’t until recently that I started feeling a need and desire to connect with other wives in similar situations. Being the support role for someone in medical school definitely has its own unique challenges. I thought there would be a plethora of blogs, podcasts, and communities where wives could share their stories and tips. To my surprise, there are only a few available (I linked the few resources I have found helpful at the bottom of this blog post).
In particular, this time last year was really hard for me personally in supporting my husband as he started studying for Step 1 boards. I was searching for stories from others about what this time in their life was like, wondering if what I was experiencing was normal. But I found nothing applicable online. Last January, Brandon was in his second year of medical school and was starting to really drill down on studying for the boards. All of his first year of medical school, I heard horror stories from older students about preparing for this monstrous exam that heavily impacts their future as a physician. This time last year, I knew this was a test that you would need to spend months preparing for, however I didn’t know what that would look like for Brandon, and therefore for me in order to support him.
What I wish I had found last year was stories about other spouses who have gone through this part of medical training with their husbands, and tips to get through it. Every medical student studies differently and has their own groove. So everything I share may not be completely applicable, but I do hope that if your husband (or wife) is in medical school about to start studying for boards for the first time, that this post brings you clarity and peace about the process. I hope that a window into my own experience helps you understand what’s to come and how to better prepare for it. And if I’m being completely honest, I’m also writing this for myself (lol). Bran will be focusing in on preparing for Step 2 boards this year, so we’ll be living the “boards season” over again before we know it.
So let’s get into it! What I wish I knew when my husband started studying for medical boards…
1. This is a temporary season of life… but it feels like it lasts forever
This seems obvious, but oh how it is so easy to get sucked into the “boards black hole” and never find a way to get out. All that studying, uncertainty, and anxiety about this important test can REALLY weigh heavy on a person. I remember my husband worrying if he was studying the most efficiently, studying enough, preparing enough – the list goes on and on! As his wife, it was really easy to get dragged into that cycle of stress with him. Even though I wasn’t the one taking boards, it very well felt like I was right there with him in the trenches (so to speak). It’s so easy, as the wife/husband, to get caught in this overwhelming amount of stress that your spouse is feeling. After Brandon had been studying for several months and I started to feel the pressure myself, I realized that I needed to be intentional about remembering that this stressful “boards season” was temporary. I wasn’t perfect at this, but when I did it well and was intentional in my mindset about this, it truly helped.
I’ve come to realize on this medical journey you have to embrace the chaos and uncertainty and accept the seasons of stress. A huge tip I can give anyone who is about to support their spouse in preparing for boards, is to just remember this is a temporary season of life and there will be much less stressful times after. There will be times when it seems like there is no end in sight, but that boards test has a date and there will be a sense of rest after the test is taken.
2. Listen, listen, and listen!
Going off of my first tip, is my second tip to be a good listener! Actually I received this advice from the husband of a medical student who is a year ahead of Brandon. He told me that in the beginning when his wife was stressed about studying for boards, he would try to solve her problems and respond with solutions. However, he learned that when he just listened to the stress and offerred reassurance instead, he was supporting his wife much more effectively. This is a tip that stuck with me, for whatever reason, and I decided to be intentional about listening and offering reassurance rather than solutions. When Brandon would discuss that he was worried if he was studying enough or using the right resources, I wouldn’t try to solve the problems for him, and instead I would just reassure him that he’s on the right track and doing his very best. I really feel like this simple tip was huge in how I was able to support my husband during this stressful time, and is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received!
3. If you have the flexibility, help your spouse as much as possible… even with the little things!
Sometimes the smallest things can alleviate lots of stress on your spouse who is studying for boards! When Brandon is in boards mode, he pretty much does nothing but study. He wakes up, grabs coffee/breakfast and then heads to the library until dinner. During this time, I really try to take control of the household chores so it’s one less thing for him to worry about (although he still takes the trash out because it’s my least favorite chore lol). Sometimes when I’ve explained this to my friends who aren’t in the medical world, they don’t exactly understand why I choose to take on these responsibilities that in a typical, ideal marriage should be shared. And I do agree, it’s sort of a weird concept and can definitely be taken in a negative connotation. But in my opinion, in any marriage, there will be seasons when one spouse has to cater to the other. I know this isn’t a permanent situation, and when Brandon gets back to normal life, he’ll be right there helping me with these chores. In my perspective, Brandon and I are a team, and I want him to do well on boards. So the way I see it, while he is studying really hard for this test so one day we can have a great life together, I do my part by taking care of some these responsibilities.
4. Be mindful of your social calendar and be prepared to go to events alone
This goes right along with tip #3 in helping your spouse in a different way – managing the social calendar! When Brandon starts getting into boards mode, I know from February to the end June, he needs to have a clear calendar so he can be studying. This means that we don’t make travel plans with friends for a getaway weekend, we sometimes can’t go to family events, and we sometimes have to decline wedding invitations. If you’re not in the medical world, I’m sure my last sentence definitely just threw you for a loop! But it’s true, it is so true! Every weekend and weeknight hour towards studying is important. What I learned last year was that if I was intentional about keeping our calendar free of events that took a lot of time away from Brandon studying (for example, saying no to driving long distance for a wedding that would take the entire weekend or saying no to a getaway weekend with friends that spanned Friday-Sunday), Brandon was a lot less stressed about trying to find time to study. Unless it was an event or social occasion that meant a lot to me (which I will dive into in just a second) I chose to decline these events so I could be here to support Brandon, and honestly it took a lot of stress off of me too! This isn’t to say that I sat out on every social event, but I chose to be intentional with my time and commitments, so things that I (or we) did attend, were really worth our time and something that helped us both unplug from the stress of boards.
I particularly remember one of my really good friends was getting married and the event was four hours away. It was just a few weeks from boards and Brandon really couldn’t take off, even just for one night to go with me. I had to decide if I would go to the wedding alone or not go at all. I decided that because this friend meant so much to me, I was going to go solo! I’m not going to lie, I was pretty nervous. Getting ready alone, ubering alone, it was very different. However, once I got there and saw a few people I knew, I had a great time! Luckily, the couple getting married are both a student doctor and PA so they were more than understanding of why Brandon couldn’t come. Though I wanted to have Bran with me there, I learned a valuable lesson that sometimes you just have to be confident and independent enough to do things alone during boards!
5. Its okay for you to plan away weekends, and you should make these plans!
Now on the other hand, I do think its important that if your spouse is studying boards, that you make time to getaway. The first weekend I left Brandon during boards studying time was for Memorial Day Weekend. I hadn’t seen my parents in a while and I really wanted to spend time with them. Brandon couldn’t leave for the long weekend, so I decided to go alone. I made sure he had groceries at home so he could easily pack lunch and have dinner, but I still I felt REALLY guilty for leaving while he was studying. Throughout the weekend though, I realized how spending some time away and relaxing at my parents house helped me unplug from feeling the weight of boards, and Brandon didn’t miss a beat with studying. I realized he was studying so much, a few days of me away didn’t impact him as much as I thought it would. I came back from the weekend refreshed and ready to be a support system for him!
6. Have a trip planned post-boards!
Ah this tip is the best, really! If you’re able to, have a trip planned for after boards. Whether it’s a quick getaway somewhere within driving distance, or an exotic destination, have something planned that you both can look forward to.
We actually went to Japan with my family the very next day after Brandon took boards. I remember that night at dinner, a few hours after Brandon had finished his test, he looked at me and said it was weird that he didn’t have to study after dinner. And honestly, it felt weird for me too. We both had a HUGE weight lifted off of our shoulders and couldn’t believe we were about to go on a vacation without Brandon having to study. This year after boards we are planning another trip and heading to Hawaii with my family! It really gives us something to look forward to and helps us remember that boards season is temporary and there is a relaxing vacation planned for after!
7. Not everyone will understand, and that’s okay!
This one is something I’ve finally become at peace with. Though I believe people know that medical school takes a ton of dedication and hard work, I think it can be challenging for some people to understand exactly what that means. I’ve definitely had a few conversations with friends or coworkers who don’t quite understand why we can’t just get up and travel for a weekend, or why I don’t want to grab wine after work because I want to see Brandon for an hour during his study break. And I 100% get why our lifestyle, especially during boards, seems quite rigid and isolated. I’ve come to realize, that unless you’re going through this journey or have been through this medical training journey, it’s just a really foreign way to do life lol. Initially after having people question why I made the decisions I did, I would then question myself if I was catering too much to Brandon or if I was overthinking how important the boards test is. But I’ve realized that I’m making the best decisions for Brandon to be successful and what’s best for our family, and at the end of the day thats what matters. I don’t need to justify my decisions or have other people’s approval for the decisions I make to support him in a way that works for us. Finally being at peace with this has really helped me, not only during boards season, but during this medical training in general.
WHEW talk about a long blog post! I hope that if you and your spouse are about to enter boards study season that my own experience helps you during this difficult and challenging time. You’re about to enter a crazy time that many view as the hardest part of medical school, but it’ll all be worth it in the end! Did this post help you?! Please let me know in the comments!
Resources I have found that have helped me as a spouse to a medical student:
- Married to Doctors (I love this podcast), click HERE
- The Mrs. Behind the MD blog, click HERE
- Physician Family Magazine, click HERE