Motherhood provides many opportunities to learn and grow as we watch our children learn and grow. However, we are also women, with individual goals and aspirations. Perhaps a(nother) degree is on your “someday” list, but pursuing this goal seems impossible during your particular stage of motherhood. That doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve learned it’s possible, with help.
When I realized my ultimate career goal would require a terminal degree, I quit my full-time job and went back to school for a PhD. I had exactly zero children at the time, a lot of energy, and a desire to learn more about my chosen field: education.
Six years and two children later, I finished! My crash course in motherhood and higher education was packed with life lessons.
Should you find yourself balancing books and babies, consider this list of supplies and survival tips:
A supportive partner is your strongest ally. Support can be demonstrated through a spouse’s willingness and ability to take on additional caretaking, meal preparation, housework, and family responsibilities. Some families choose to hire help or enlist children to do the housework and yard work.
My husband was a superstar in this area. I stayed home with our boys during the week, and studied and wrote papers on nights and weekends when my husband was home. Whenever I had deadlines, he took our boys to the park, on daddy-son lunch dates, and single-handedly put them them to bed almost every night.
If you don’t have a supportive partner, then the next best thing is a network of friends or family members you can rely on heavily. If babysitters aren’t in the budget, then work out a talent exchange with the people in your network. If you bake or sew, for example, offer to trade your talent for childcare. Try to trade items or things you would already be making or doing, so as not to create additional work for yourself.
Manage Your Time
Time constraints will be a daily struggle. Creating and maintaining a family calendar, organization system (like M.O.M.), to-do list, and a work/family/study schedule will help create routine, predictability, and prevent conflicts—points of significance when children are involved. Work with your partner to get this system going. Keep family schedules accessible or use a digital system or app wherein each partner can view and edit it.
For some reason, assignments, projects, and papers took me at least twice as long as I thought they would. A traveling husband or a sick child can slow progress, or halt it entirely, so try to begin well before you think you need to.
The demands on you, your spouse, or your network will be especially challenging when your child is sick, or when you are studying, researching, writing, or preparing to meet important milestones. Try to prepare for this in advance by staying on top of your schoolwork. Meet deadlines in advance, if possible, and work as if a setback is on the horizon—there’s always a setback on the horizon.
Finally, find out how you work best. Do you accomplish more and feel less guilt when you go to the library to study? Or is it best for you to keep all your classes to one day a week, so you can spend larger chunks of time with your family? Are you more productive when you work from home while your kids watch a movie in the next room? Do you find it most convenient to space your school work intermittently throughout the week(end)?
Separation isn’t always possible, and sometimes you’ll work better with that baby on your lap. You can’t be in two places at once, but you can overlap your responsibilities in some situations. I spent long hours on campus, used my breast pump in my professor’s office, and shared my graduation day with my baby boy’s first birthday—my all-time favorite school-family overlap!
Time management is as important as spousal support in this endeavor. Remind yourself of the expense of your education and the sacrifice you and your family are making. Time management is key to keeping deadlines and for graduation.
Family time may become scarce, so make it high quality. Time with your spouse may be diminished to texts, emails, and interrupted phone conversations. Diapers, chatty preschoolers, and tantrums will likely get more attention during this busy time, so making time for your spouse may be a challenge.
Date nights are a great use of the childcare budget! You may need to calendar date night around your assignment due dates and family activities. This is temporary! I didn’t have many evening child care options, so a night off from studying with a movie at home after the kids were in bed was a special treat.
Your children may become clingy or act out to seek attention because they miss you. This is normal, so be deliberate about staying connected with each child. Remind them how important they are to you. Empathize when they are upset, and give them something to look forward to (e.g., “It must be so hard when mommy has to work for a long time. Should we go outside and blow bubbles after I’m finished?”). Then set a timer and take a break.
Make it a goal to spend at least ten uninterrupted minutes with each child daily. Some days, this “special time” may not happen, but the further you get away from it, the closer you get to a meltdown (theirs and/or yours).
Many times my children needed more than I had and my schoolwork needed more than I could give. During these times, I reconnected with my family and leaned on my network, and I always made it through.
Student motherhood can be possible with support, effective time management, and a strong family connection.
QUESTION: Is now the right time for you to go (back) to school?
CHALLENGE: Start gathering your school supplies.
Edited by Becky Fawcett and Amanda Lewis.
Graphic by Julie Finlayson.
Article originally posted on August 24, 2015.