Parental guidance?

Authors: Caroline Elton 

Publication date:  11 Sep 2012

Doctors being tailed by their parents throughout their careers can be a challenge, writes Caroline Elton

Many people will know about “take your child to work day.” This initiative was started in 1993 in the United States as a daughters only event by the feminist writer and critic Gloria Steinem and expanded in 2003 to include sons. But what about when it happens the other way round and people take their parents to work?

Anecdotally, medical school faculty talk about the growing trend of “helicopter parents,” who constantly hover over their medical student children, unable to untie or even loosen the apron strings and let their offspring toddle off into the adult world unassisted. But I thought it reasonable to assume that even the most tenacious parents would have lessened their grip by the time the young person has graduated and is working as a junior doctor. So I have been amazed when trainees have turned up for sessions at the Careers Unit at the London Deanery with one of their parents.

The first time it happened I was caught off guard. I knew from some previous correspondence that this was a complex trainee who had had a troubled trajectory through medical school and through the foundation programme and that there was also a potential disciplinary process being initiated by her employing trust (details have been altered in the interests of confidentiality). I had to make a snap decision, on spotting her mother with her in the reception area, and I went with my gut feeling that I needed to give the trainee a confidential meeting. So despite the fact that I had clocked how her mother had started to stand up and come with her daughter, I thrust my hand forward to shake the trainee’s hand, introduced myself, and made it clear that the meeting was for two not three people.

In the meeting the trainee’s sad tale emerged of her long term ambivalence about studying medicine and repeated exam failure, combined with an inability to extricate herself from a complex and ultimately destructive family situation. The fact that Mum had come along, despite the trainee stating her preference for going alone, was symptomatic of many of the underlying difficulties. I drew the trainee’s attention to the outstanding confidential psychotherapy service available for doctors and dentists in London (MedNet) and arranged to see her for a follow-up session to continue discussing her career plans. On the day of the follow-up session she rang to say that she needed to cancel and that she would get in contact again to reschedule. She never did, and later I found out that she had run into difficulties with the General Medical Council and left clinical practice.

In the light of this experience, my heart sank the next time I came into the reception area and saw a trainee with a parent in tow. Unconsciously, I think I had made some sort of correlation between parental presence and a poor outcome from careers support. But this time the mother did not start to stand up, and it was clear that she had come simply to accompany her son on the journey rather than out of a desire to be included in the careers counselling session.

This trainee, like the one described above, also recounted a tale of long term ambivalence about studying medicine. In fact, despite having done extremely well academically, he told me that he had never enjoyed any of his undergraduate or postgraduate studies. Clearly, it is always possible that this sort of retrospective account has been skewed by current feelings of depression, but when in subsequent sessions we started to explore extracurricular activities, he talked with energy and passion about various legal wrangles he had successfully fought. A potential talent for law became apparent, and after thoroughly investigating legal careers he abandoned his specialty training and trained as a solicitor. Once he was redirecting his career in a way that allied with his passions and interest there was no stopping him, and he secured a fully paid training contract from one of the largest firms of city solicitors, covering all his course fees as well as paying him a salary.

So, at least on some occasions, bringing your parents to work (or at least to the deanery) can work out well.

Competing interests: None declared.

Caroline Elton chartered psychologist and head of Careers Unit London Deanery, London, UK

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: