I am on maternity leave (again), with baby number 2 (she is beautiful and perfect and all good baby things). It occurred to me that this is the first time since starting medical school, that I’ve had a real break. The first round of maternity leave was filled with exam study while learning how to be a mother. You don’t realise how fraught you were as a new parent until you have a second! Newborns are actually pretty easy, they sleep a lot and can’t run off on you, waving their pants in the air, bare bum disappearing from view. I digress. Holidays aren’t really a proper break, although to be fair, I’d had proper holidays denied since 2013 for a variety of classic medical workforce excuses, which one day I’d like to turn into a bingo game for all junior doctors to play, so pervasive they are.
And here I am now, with 8 glorious months off work. It’s hard to put into words what a proper break from medicine feels like. It’s like there was this giant piece of furniture in my mind that I didn’t know was there until it was gone, and suddenly there’s all this space in my mind. All the things that were so hard to do before are suddenly easy. Exercise? No problem. Healthy eating? Too easy! The other thing I realised is just how anxious we all are at work. I’ve been reflecting on some of the advice I’d received over the years, which frankly, has often been terrible. I remember in medical school, telling the gunner resident I wanted to do physician training. She archly told me that I needed to start studying now (in 4th year med!) if I wanted to pass it. Or this strange phenomenon of everyone putting their basic needs, like using the toilet, eating, or forcing down tears, enjoying their partners and friends, absolutely last for very little yield. I’ve never been an angel in this game, but I’ve fallen into that trap time and again. It’s so consuming.
Taking a break is like stepping into an open field without anyone there, but with all the knowledge and all the lessons you’ve learned so far, right there with you to examine. It’s like getting to start again, knowing what you know now. There’s so much pressure to stay on that conveyor belt, to never get off, that Something Really Bad will happen if you take time out to rearrange your head after so many years of grind. You get a lot of bad advice from well meaning but out of touch people in this game. A lot of that advice comes regarding parenting in medicine (given by people who’ve had the luxury of having a wife managing their entire home life), and taking time off (given by people who’ve never had time off and have developed maladaptive ways of dealing with things at work). So many anxious people relaying their anxieties in the form of bad advice. Things like “you can’t have a year off without doing something medical because people will think you did nothing”. Like, you just sat there and stared at a wall for a year? Like taking time to better yourself, or expand your horizons, or raising kids is nothing? Sometimes becoming a better doctor has nothing to do with medicine, and everything to do with where you’re at in your heart and your mind.
I know the clinical exam is coming up. I remember so well how I felt afterward. I wasn’t brave enough to take a year off after that. Even a few months would have been enough. I used to be so scathing of people who quit before their contract finished, but I get it now. It’s not great that it happens, but I so get it. It’s a function of a system that pushes people to the edge, and walking away probably does pull those who do it back from the edge. I wish there was enough redundancy in the system to allow trainees a proper break after the exam onslaught, not the token couple of weeks you’re graced with. When you’re at the coalface of human suffering, combined with those exams, and all of the personal life you miss out on, compounded by all those previous coalface years, it changes you. Taking a break, whatever the reason, is breathtaking in that once the job falls away, you’re met with the self you thought you lost all those years ago. If you can, do it. If you can’t, plan for it so that at least it’s on your horizon.