It’s 6:30pm on Friday evening, and Brian and I are rushing around the apartment, setting the lights, tidying the living room, warming food in the oven. Shabbos doesn’t start until 8:15, but like many other weeks, we’re bringing it in early. Brian is already dressed in scrubs and his backpack rests by the front door for a quick departure.
I light Shabbos candles, we sing “Shalom Aleichem” and “Eishet Chayil” and then Brian makes Kiddush. By 7:45 we have finished dinner, and leftovers are packed in a Tupperware for Brian to scarf down at 2:00am, or 4:00am, or whenever he has a few spare moments between patients. He kisses me goodbye, and I settle onto the couch with a book, the light outside a reminder that our schedule is frequently at odds with our tradition’s.
Brian and I live on medical time. He’s a second-year emergency medicine resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He works shifts ranging from 8-28 hours, rotates to new hospitals and departments frequently, and often cannot plan more than a month in advance. Synchronizing medicine’s arduous and inconsistent demands with the commitments of an observant Jewish life is rarely elegant and frequently impossible.
In my new book, Love In The Time Of Medical School, I joke that becoming a doctor is the top-ranking profession on “Bubbe’s List of Acceptable Careers for My Grandchild” for 347 years in a row. But while medicine may be one person’s career choice, it profoundly impacts the way that a couple organizes its life and the way that physician spouses participate in their Jewish communities.
Being married to a Jewish doctor means frequently engaging in Jewish rituals without one’s spouse. Brian is rarely off work on both Friday evening and Saturday morning, which means our Shabboses together are often limited to one or the other. We look forward to Shabbos – it’s our time to unwind from the week, spend time with friends or stay home for “pajama Shabbos,” and sit on the couch reading (even if it means he’s reading Rosen’s Emergency Medicine textbook and I’m reading about treating therapy clients with complex trauma). Having those quiet Shabboses together so sporadically feels like a true loss. His shifts have also led us to integrate into our Philadelphia Jewish community more slowly. Relationships in observant Jewish communities are built through synagogue attendance and Shabbos meals; he often cannot attend, and while we love to host, it is often impossible due to timing and work. I just don’t want to host alone.
But that’s the price so many of us choose to pay – doing lots of things alone and then explaining why to others. In my book, I talk about how partners of medical students can overcome this very real loneliness, reframe periods of time spent alone, and mobilize a support network, but for those of us operating in the couple-centric Jewish community, that loneliness can be potent. Each week, I have to explain to community members that Brian is working or sleeping off the shift from the night before.
That said, the community-centric model of Judaism also eases the burden. My friends give me an open invitation to join them at Shabbos and holiday meals whenever I am the “orphan spouse”. And we’re not alone in living on medical time. On Shabbos morning at Mekor Habracha, our synagogue in Philadelphia’s Center City, many other residents and attending physicians are absent because they work at Jefferson, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University Hospital, and others.
I’ve never quite figured out how to explain these challenges without sounding like I’m kvetching. Do I have it worse than everybody else? No. Do people in other careers work long, inconsistent hours, carry large student debt, and commit themselves single-mindedly to their work? Absolutely. And Brian and I are fortunate to be immensely happy together and each doing challenging, fulfilling work.
Perhaps the difference from other careers is that many perceive the life of a physician couple to be one of prestige, financial freedom, and relative ease. And those things might be true one day. We are fortunate to know that Brian’s career prospects are bright - emergency medicine physicians are ubiquitous, in high demand, and well compensated. After residency, we look forward to the flexibility to pick Brian’s shifts and mold them to our Jewish calendar.
In the meantime, we have embraced a life in which both Judaism and medicine demand to be top priority, to mention nothing of a spouse’s career. Flexibility has replaced perfect equilibrium as our goal and we are better for it.
Sarah Epstein is a marriage and family therapy intern, international speaker, and author of the “Love In The Time Of Medical School: Build A Happy, Healthy Relationship With A Medical Student”. She dated her husband Brian through medical school, where she did not lose her sanity or dump him thanks to productive relationship strategies. She and Dr. Husband live in Philadelphia where she is a master’s student at Thomas Jefferson University and he is an emergency medicine resident. Sarah blogs about medical relationships at www.Datingmed.com.
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