Dr Sally Ayesa
Parenting through exams
It is no secret that my viva experience was a little unique. My daughter was almost seven and my son just turned one when I sat the exam. Full disclaimer, I sat it while I was working part time after the birth of my second child. Towards the end, however, I was at work most days - running through practice cases and tutorials from 8am and rushing home to collect the kids from school/daycare by 3pm. Occasionally I would race home from a tutorial, pick up both kids, head to my daughter's tennis practice then drop the kids at my mums while I went to an evening viva session halfway across the city.
Because of this, I occasionally get asked for my advice on how to sit the RANZCR Part II exams with children, or indeed when is the best time to have children if you are training in radiology. I have absolutely no idea when is the best time to have children in training (is there ever a good time?) but I can share with you my thoughts on sitting exams with kids.
I am going to be honest with you - sitting exams with children is hard and there is no way to sugarcoat it. You will need to sacrifice time away from the people you love the most to pass this thing. At times it is going to hurt like hell. At times I felt like I was a bad wife and mother, as well as a bad radiologist. You need to remember, however, the sooner you get this done, the sooner you get your life back.
The most important piece of advice I can offer parents who are preparing for exams is to ask for help. Even though you are strong and hardworking, you cannot do this alone. Everyone's village is different, but here is how I used mine.
1. Ask for help from your significant other
My husband is great, and I tell him so. He understood that if he helped me through exams it would be potentially over quicker. He is a GP who works full time but luckily doesn't have to work weekends or after hours. Having already gone through his own fellowship exams he understood the level of support I needed (and as a bonus he knows me and how I take everything very seriously). I scheduled study sessions on weekends and out of hours around his schedule. We have always had a fairly fluid distribution of home duties, so he picked up more of the food preparation and home care in the lead up. Kindly, he let me sleep and put our son to bed. He poured me a glass of wine when I looked frazzled. We were honest with each other and got through it (even though I was a nightmare).
2. Ask your extended family (and friends) for help
We live in the same suburb as my mum and dad, which isn't an accident. It has been a significant sacrifice on my part in terms of travel time to and from work (up to an hour each way every day), but worth it because the grandparents were around to help with childcare and emotional support for me. My kids have an excellent relationship with their grandparents which is an added bonus.
My parents sat down with us early in the piece and told us that they would support us through exams and I just needed to be honest about my needs. They fed me, my husband and the kids a couple of times a week, picked up the kids from school/daycare on the days I couldn't and helped out my husband when I was interstate trying to learn. I was (and still am) exceptionally grateful.
But - they couldn't provide all the help I needed. Onto point 3.
3. Ask for help with childcare
Early on, I would look after my baby son on the days I was home. It was treasured and valuable time, but it quickly became apparent that I needed to study more. Having a tiny and very mobile person around was hindering my ability to use my (little) time at home effectively. I was becoming resentful that I couldn't get the study done. I was falling behind and I could see it.
My parents were already looking after the baby two or three days a week, but I sensed that was their limit. I was becoming increasingly anxious always asking for help and it was doing my head in. We had an honest conversation about my study needs and decided to send the little one to daycare. That was a rough conversation because my mum is a very hands-on and caring grandmother, and although I wasn't thrilled I knew it was the right decision.
We found a daycare close to my daughter's school, with a caring and very practical owner, and amazing staff. It was hard sending him off because he was so little, but it was the right decision. The main downside, however, was all the illnesses he brought home. The winter before the written exams I had gastroenteritis, three colds and hand-foot-mouth.
4. Ask for help at home
We already had a cleaner helping out once a fortnight but this continued to be a godsend. Outsource some of the home duties if you can, even if it is only temporarily. You want to free up as much time and emotional energy to study as you can.
We did some periodic outsourcing of meals with The Dinner Ladies, who do great ready made meals. During my husbands GP fellowship exam we did Light & Easy.
5. Ask for help from your colleagues
It feels like during viva preparation especially you are constantly asking others for their time, which is very humbling. Be honest with your consultants and colleagues, and usually they will be more than happy to help you out provided you treat them with respect and make them feel valued. Be honest about your availability and childcare commitments. Some of them might also be able to share some stories about how they balanced children and exams!
Your fellow candidates will also (hopefully) be able to help you manage the tutorial load around your family, particularly if you are honest. You probably won't be able to make every session they are (which is the unfortunate reality) but you can ask them to take a few notes to share. Try and pick out the categories of cases and broad concepts that you can read up on.
Final thought - be kind to yourself
This isn't easy, and missing your family adds another layer of difficulty to an already trying time. Don't be too hard on yourself, and don't put too much pressure on yourself to be all things at all times. Be brave - you've got this.