Engaging with Your Family

Engaging with Your Family

You're on call, you’ve got a sick patient looming on the horizon, a ton of dictations wait for you and your spouse wants you home for dinner with the family. Which one of these causes you the most frustration? I thought so. Maybe it’s better not to answer that question out loud.

by Sharon Chatwell, MD

You're on call, you’ve got a sick patient looming on the horizon, a ton of dictations wait for you and your spouse wants you home for dinner with the family. Which one of these causes you the most frustration?

I thought so. Maybe it’s better not to answer that question out loud.

Today’s healthcare professional deals with enormous pressures and strain. So how can the average physician have the time or energy necessary to engage with his or her family? However difficult it may seem, it is certainly worth the effort.

God didn’t make us to be alone. We have spouses, children, family and friends, and we need to take time for ourselves to be involved with them and be engaged in their lives. It is, in fact, one of the important ways God ministers to us, as well as one of the ways we minister to others.

But how do you do it? It’s one thing to say you want to be more engaged with your family and another thing to actually make it happen. Here are some ideas.

Start with prayer (always a good place to start). Ask God to show you how He would have you be engaged with your family, for we can do nothing without Him. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (NIV 2011). We must be firmly rooted in the Vine, if we expect to see any fruit appear.

Next, be purposeful. You have to identify your family as a priority and keep it as a priority. And every once in a while, if you notice it has slipped down a few notches, you have to dust if off and put it back up there as a priority.

One reason to be purposeful is that you and your spouse are both busy. Busy people don’t often run into each other; they have to plan to run into each other.

Case in point: My husband and I were residents at a major teaching hospital in downtown Dallas. We were in the same program, but on different teams, which meant we would see each other exactly zero times a day. So, we had to make a plan that allowed us see each other at least once daily. We decided to have lunch. From that time on (admissions allowing) we arranged to have lunch together in the cafeteria. By the second week or so, the lunch ladies had us all figured out. With wide smiles and their charming, southern drawl they would tell me things like, “He’s already here, honey, and he’s saving a seat for you!” They loved us. We were famous. Young love!

It worked for us. It helped us stay connected and sane. And now, many years later, we still have lunch together as often as possible. No matter what your schedule looks like, you will probably have to plan ahead a little to spend time alone with your spouse.

If you are married with children, make sure you and your spouse have at least one date a week away from the kids. Find a babysitter and get away for the evening. If there isn’t money in the budget for a sitter, find another family in a similar situation and trade off babysitting services. I watch yours; you watch mine.

It’s also important to talk with your spouse at home each day, even if it is just a few minutes. If you are the husband, please note that “talk” may simply mean “sit in the kitchen with her and listen to her talk.” Every once in a while, nod your head in agreement. Be sure to smile or laugh if she tells you something funny.

If she tells you she had a “horrible day” and the kids have been little “wild people” and she has gained five pounds, hold her in your arms and tell her that she is beautiful and that she is the only girl in the world for you and that you love her and that you are extremely proud of her and that you appreciate everything she does to make sure the world goes on spinning while you are gone all the time. And make sure she knows coming home to her is absolutely the best part of your day. And you must mean it. Then everything will be fine. Trust me.

Next on the list, your spouse and your children are extremely important, so you must pay close attention to them. As a healthcare professional, you take care of complicated patients every day—this requires attentiveness. The temptation, of course, is to turn your attentiveness “off” for a while when you come home, just to rest. This is completely understandable; however, if you do it all of the time, things are going to slip through the cracks.

Often your spouse or your children will tell you when something is wrong. Don’t screen them out. You may be tempted to do so, thinking they’re overreacting or it’s not important or it will go away with time, and you may be right…but then again you may be wrong. And when you are wrong, as occasionally occurs in healthcare, the results can be serious.

Let me use another one of our family experiences to illustrate the point. One of our sons had appendicitis. To make a long story short, it was missed the first time. We thought it was appendicitis and the pediatrician thought so too, but some lab tests and a resolving clinical picture overruled us. Time went by and things normalized, and we forgot. But the pediatrician didn’t. She told our son, “If you so much as sneeze again, that appendix is coming out.”

Two years later the same child complained of abdominal discomfort. At first, I didn’t take his complaints very seriously. But when I took him in to see the pediatrician later that day, he had every single positive sign for appendicitis. Every. Single. One. A textbook case. Three hours later, after his appendectomy, the surgeon said, “You know…this isn’t the first time he’s had appendicitis.”

In healthcare, attentiveness plus a high degree of suspicion often leads to the correct diagnosis. It is the same in the family. Being attentive pays big dividends. For example, recognizing when your child has moved from being happy and engaged in school to being unhappy and disengaged is extremely helpful. This doesn’t happen overnight. Typically, it occurs over a period of time. The sooner you recognize it, the smaller the problem usually is and the sooner you can do something about it. In this way, it is a bit like cancer screening.

If you find yourself wondering, “Why is the child unhappy or disengaged?” it’s okay to start asking questions. Start with the child, the schoolteacher, the school counselor or the child’s friends. Sometimes the problem is just that your child doesn’t know how to address a new situation. Figure out what it is and discuss it with the child.

Ask your child, “What does God’s Word say about this?” Look up the answers in the Bible together. Help your child understand that when we hear God’s Word and put it into practice in our lives, we are like a wise man who built his house upon a rock, but when we hear God’s Word and don’t put it into practice, we are like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand (Matthew 4:24-27).

This brings up the next point—you have to know God’s Word. One of the best ways to do this is to be in church. I know…you’re still busy. It doesn’t matter. You still have to go to church. If you’re on call, set your phone on “silent” and sit at the end of the pew. No one will care if you get up to go deliver a set of twins.

Church is important for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that your family (and that includes you) needs the spiritual growth that only comes with regular study of the Bible. You need a church where they read and teach the Bible, and your children need the Bible stories they teach in Sunday School.

Additionally, you and your family need the community. A supportive church family provides a wonderful place to grow. It is there, as well as at home, that you first put new spiritual insights into practice.

Remember that being in community with other people (even with Christians) occasionally includes being in conflicts. Don’t be discouraged. That’s one of the ways we grow as well! The trick is to find out what God’s Word says about those particular types of conflicts and put into practice what He says about them.

Last, but by no means least, engaging with your family means you must love and be faithful to your spouse. Your marriage requires your complete personal commitment. Nothing else will do. It is completely necessary.

As my husband likes to say of us as a couple, “It all starts here, with us; if we don’t work, nothing else works.” He’s right, of course. If things are good between you and your spouse, your family has a better chance of being healthier and more stable.

As a physician, you have countless things to distract you. Don’t let that happen. Jealously guard your relationship with your spouse. Have time away together; pray together; listen to one another. Don’t let other responsibilities or persons (including your own children) come between the two of you. It is harder for other things to intervene, if your relationship with your spouse is strong.

When you love your spouse and are committed to being engaged with your family, not only are you and your family blessed, but other people are affected as well. They notice and may even come and talk to you about it.

My husband and I don’t have a perfect marriage (we are sinners saved by grace, just like you), but by the grace of God we have been married now for more than 30 years. One day a young man at church came up to us and said, “I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I never knew what a loving marriage looked like. I have learned so much just from watching you. I want for myself what you have.” (By the way, no one was more surprised by this sweet confession than we were!)

It is a form of witnessing to others that I had never imagined possible. But, of course, nothing is impossible with God. He is able to accomplish the most amazing things, even with the humblest of offerings. May God bless you as you continue to engage with your family.


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