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Female residents face singular challenges balancing marriage with medical training

Two months after getting married, Dr. Jennifer Lucarelli started an 80-hour-a-week job as a pediatric resident. The 29-year-old quickly realized she would need to adjust her expectations for herself.

“You are supposed to be that wife, that cultural ideal who has dinner on the table and is always available to go with him to his work events as the supportive wife,’’ she said. “But I am not always available. And he is often cooking for himself.’’

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Male residents also struggle to balance family life with the arduous training required to become a doctor. But Lucarelli said female residents often face singular challenges, because most don’t have spouses who stay at home or work less-consuming jobs to run the household and raise the children. Lucarelli’s husband is a stock analyst.

More often than male residents, women training to be doctors may find they are taking care of the house too -- or feeling that they should.

A story I wrote for the Globe’s g section Monday on married residents drew some criticism because all the couples I interviewed included male residents and their spouses. Several female doctors e-mailed to say I should have profiled a couple that included a female resident, given that about half of all medical students are now female. The candidates that fit the bill fell through for my story, but the criticism was fair. (Of course, gay and lesbian residents can face an even more complex situation at work, as eloquently described by a Boston Children’s Hospital physician here.)

I wanted to try to fill the gap a bit. Lucarelli was one of the women who wrote to me.

“My medical school class was 50% women and many of my co-residents also have husbands that struggle with not having a wife available for dinners and birthday parties. This is particularly difficult when the cultural “role” for wives includes being the one to cook dinner, host the boss for cocktails, etc.,’’ she wrote in her e-mail.

Jennifer and Michael Lucarelli both work long hours. Mike got a good job at an investment firm in New York City, so Jennifer had to abandon her plans to train in Boston, where she grew up. Now, she’s in the second year of a pediatric residency at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“I can go a week without seeing her,’’ Mike said. “How do you make it through those times? We would write each other notes and text messages. I would stop by the hospital once a week. You have to schedule time with your wife so when you can, you see each other.’’

Most of his colleagues are men and many are married to women who stay home or work less time-consuming jobs so they can care for children. His co-workers spouses are more likely to attend Christmas parties and other work functions, while Jennifer might be called in to the hospital at the last minute or be recovering from a brutal overnight shift.

“She tells me she’s a game-time decision,’’ he said. “I understood that getting into it. I look at our relationship as a partnership.’’

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com. Follow her on twitter at @GlobeLizK
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