I know a lot of mothers consider the pros and cons of going back to school while raising children, and whether or not they can be successful in doing so, so I wanted to share my story of completing graduate school with a new son while it is fresh in my mind. But first, let’s start at the beginning…
I didn’t do the college thing after graduating high school in 2003 – in fact I had this naive attitude that I didn’t need school and I’d be better off without it. However, once I decided to move on from working at a Whole Foods Market in 2006 (who was a great employer, BTW), I had a tough time finding a job with the salary I felt I was worth. For the positions and salaries I was interested in, I didn’t meet one basic requirement: a Bachelor’s degree. I was living in San Francisco when I decided to give college a chance and started taking a class or two at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF). At this time, all of my roommates were either in school or recently graduated, so they (unknowingly) provided me with the inspiration to attend. One even took a psychology class with me at CCSF (if you see this Phil – thanks!)! I had an interest in early childcare and special education, so most of my first classes were on these subjects. For a couple of years, I was very casual about college, taking only a class here or there and only in subjects that I had interest in.
When I made the moved to Maryland in 2008 to live with my boyfriend (now husband), I was inspired by him to do better and to get more serious with regards to school. He was almost finished with his Bachelor’s degree and it suddenly seemed more important to start working towards an actual degree. I enrolled at Frederick Community College (FCC), in their General Studies program and was able to transfer all of my classes from CCSF as electives which was good, but also meant to get my Associate’s I would need to take all of the required courses which I may not have interest in. My math skills were rusty and I had to take additional math classes to get up to speed which was very discouraging. I chipped away at it, taking two classes each spring and fall semester and in December of 2011 I received my Associate of Arts in General Studies. I had also been accepted into the University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) English program. It felt like I was FINALLY moving along with this school thing!
I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved reading, so studying English literature seemed like a safe bet for someone obsessed with Jane Austen and reading as much as I am. This program was completely online, and I enjoyed the classes I during the first semester. Prior to the start of my second semester, I decided to start going to school full-time, on top of working full-time. This was relatively easy to do as I enjoyed the subject matter, but I often procrastinated with writing papers and always felt rushed on Sunday nights when most of my assignments were due. Sunday night deadlines seem typical of online classes in my experience, but having a weekend to finish things up is helpful. During this time, my husband and I got married in 2012 and started discussing our plan to have kids, which was loosely schedule around the completion of my Bachelor’s degree, which was as far as I was planning to take my college experience. In May of 2014, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in English from UMUC summa cum laude – with honors! During my time at UMUC, I realized exactly what I wanted to do as a career, and it made perfect sense! I wanted to be a librarian and help people fall in love with reading while providing essential services to the community. I applied for and was accepted into Clarion University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Science in Information and Library Science (online) program.
This is where things start getting tricky…
As with UMUC, I wanted to test the waters with two classes at Clarion before attempting to go full-time in addition to working full-time. But, I learned after the first semester that two classes were my limit as the workload and subject matter took a lot more time for me to understand and complete. This meant that I would complete the program in three years instead of two, and committing to that amount of time seemed daunting. In spring of 2015 my husband and I tried and successfully became pregnant pretty much immediately, and two months into the semester I found myself battling near constant morning sickness. In fact, the week I found out I was pregnant I went on a school trip to DC where I had zero appetite and nausea spells, all while walking all around the city, going on tours, and getting to know classmates I had never met before! The rest of that semester I struggled with handing work in on time and concentrating. Working on school work at the end of a workday while I was nauseous was the last thing I wanted to do. When I feel sick, the only thing that seems to help is crawling into bed, falling asleep, and dreaming about non-stomachache things. Outside of work and school there was suddenly so much to do and plan for in my personal life – a baby on the way! I planned to read every parenting book under the sun (HA!). Luckily, throughout the semester I was able to pace myself and even request a few extended deadlines. When requesting an extended deadline, I always gave a reason why, told them exactly when I would have it turned in by, and acknowledged that I understand I would lose some points on the assignment – which seemed to work; I tried really hard not to do this often. My professors were always very understanding and one, who is also a mother, often would check in with me to see how everything was going, even after birth!
While I was still trying to figure out a plan of attack for the fall semester, as I would be having my son in November when classes would still be underway, my university made some changes and for the first time ever were offering seven-week condensed classes as an option! YES! Typical semester classes are 15 weeks long, so this meant I could take two condensed classes and be done in October and have all of November and December to concentrate on giving birth, recovering postpartum, enjoying the holidays, and getting to know my son. The only downside was that I’d be cramming TWO full courses in half the time – EEP! Luckily, morning sickness had passed and I had a relatively easy pregnancy. I was able to complete all my assignments and get most of my required reading completed, though, I couldn’t really enjoy myself on weekends as there was too much to do. I was open with my instructors about the pregnancy, on the off-chance my son came early or there were complications, but neither of those things were an issue. I finished my condensed semester in a blur and then my days leading up to my delivery crept by. You can read about my delivery here: Sarah’s birth story. It was SO nice to enjoy almost two months of no school AND no work after my son was born.
Mid-January I was due back to class and shortly after work as well. This was the semester where things got tricky! On work days, I would wake up at 5:30am after a night of a routine mid-night bottle feed and the occasional wakeful baby. My husband and I would get ready ourselves ready for work and get our son ready for daycare, which meant making bottles of formula as I wasn’t breastfeeding. We would drop him off at daycare and then carpool the hour drive to work. We would work 8 hours and then we’d go pick up our son from his grandparent’s house (his Grammie was spending a couple of hours with him each afternoon), and we’d all get home around 6pm. We would eat dinner, cuddle and hang out with our son, and put him to bed between 8:30pm and 9pm. At this time, I would try to get a little school work in if I felt up to it before bed, but I pretty much never felt up for it after a long workday. It was during this time that I felt a LOT of guilt that I was spending such little time with my son during the work week – only a few hours each day. The guilt that hits you as a mother is no joke, and I’m constantly trying to tell myself that I’m justified in what I’m doing that causes it. So maybe my son only gets a few hours with his parents each night, at least he’s at a trusted daycare, with grandparents who adore him, and he’ll have a highly educated mom in the near future, who will hopefully be able to provide him lots of opportunities in the future. Surely that’s a good tradeoff…right? During this period I felt like I had no “me time,” and the few times I decided to take “me time” I felt SO incredibly guilty. I felt guilty I should have been spending that time with my son, or my husband, or the dog, or cleaning the house, or doing homework. There was a lot of weight on my shoulders all the time, but I took each week as it came and counted down the 15 week semester. I don’t think my husband ever fully understood how much this weighed on me, as I don’t think he has ever felt this degree of guilt while away from home. I’m not sure why that is, maybe because society still places more responsibility of raising children on mothers than fathers? Anyway, my husband was very supportive and often took our son to his parents’ house on most Sundays so I could buckle down and get work completed and turned in. He offered help in many other ways, but again, I felt guilty asking too much of him. A few friends even offered occasionally, but again – the guilt. The semester passed surprisingly fast, which was a blessing because it was ROUGH. But I did it, and I knew it could be done, and I knew it wouldn’t be forever.
Summer break was fabulous and I felt like I could breathe again.
My 2016 fall semester was a little trickier, but I was also a little more relaxed and rested. By this time, our son was sleeping through the night and my husband and I felt like we got the hang of this baby thing (as much as anyone can). We also started putting our son to sleep a little earlier, so that was helpful for evenings I needed to get any kind of work in. But, he was also crawling at this point, and then walking, and eating solids, and still on formula, so all these things meant a little more physical work on our end as far as meeting his needs goes. I told myself that this semester I wouldn’t wait until last-minute to complete assignments, and that I would be happy earning a B and not working as hard to maintain a 4.0 if it meant more family time…but neither of those went as planned. I found I am incapable of turning in an assignment I am not 100% happy with, and that I work best under the pressure of having hours remaining to complete something! Procrastination is my best motivation! Much like last semester, my husband stepped up and allowed me quiet time to get work done and also offered “me time.” In case you’re wondering if the guilt got any better – nope, it didn’t, in fact, I think it was even worse because now I had the potential of missing milestones.
Spring 2017 was my final semester, and also the one where I had to figure out how I was going to manage parenting a toddler, maintaining a happy marriage, working full-time, commuting two hours each day, taking one graduate course, and logging 135 internship hours (wtf, right?). I planned ahead starting in December by arranging an internship with my place of work. My internship would be creating a website for the library I worked in, not something I was especially excited about, but something that would allow me to intern from home during hours that suited my schedule best. It averaged out to roughly nine hours a week, so I could knock a few out on select weeknight evenings, and the bulk of the week’s hours on a weekend day. Again, my husband was SO helpful, and even his parents helped out with the occasional weekend childcare while I logged my hours. I had a big reflection paper due at the end of my internship that I started working on early and each week added another page (why didn’t I start on large assignments early every other semester?!). The day my paper was due, I was about to read through it for the 100th time, but for the first time ever, I said “fuck it” and turned it in “early.” I was lucky that my final graduate course was on the easier end and wasn’t too time-consuming so I could really focus more of my time on my internship. Somehow, by counting down the weeks again, I made it! I’m the first person in my family to earn a Master’s degree, and all while maintaining a 4.0! And as silly as I feel sharing this, I’m going to: the only reason that I wanted to attend the commencement ceremony was so I could take pictures with my son afterwards and have the memory of him coming to my graduation with me!
Now that I am finally done with school (at least for the near future!), I need to find a way to shake that feeling of dread I get on Sunday mornings, when I knew I have hours’ worth of homework would need to be completed before I going to sleep. I need to remember that I no longer need to squeeze in family time, which I knew would heighten my homework anxiety and created a more serious time crunch for me in the evening. And, I also need to own up to my own forgetfulness now for not getting things done around the house or forgetting to call someone – “sorry, I’m swamped with school” is no longer a valid response! I can also ease back into doing things I enjoy, like reading fiction, or things I have put off, like knitting a blanket, because I felt guilty adopting a new hobby with so little time. I can’t begin to explain how excited I am for this summer – spending the evenings outside in the yard with my son chasing the dog and chickens, or making spontaneous stops on car drives on weekends to try a new ice cream spot. I am so incredibly happy to have time again – it is so precious.
If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I had a blast as a young adult and valued my freedom. I got to live where I wanted, travel where I wanted, and other than work, didn’t feel constrained by deadlines. As a mature adult (HA!), I feel I took college more seriously than I believe I would have right out of high school. I felt more comfortable making big decisions, like choosing a school or choosing a major, and a poor grade wouldn’t upset my parents (because they wouldn’t know!). College was and still is expensive, and I will be repaying loans for years to come, but paying for it myself made it that much more important to succeed. And as far as having a baby smack in the middle of graduate school – it was the best decision ever. My husband and I were both “ready” and our son has brought more joy to our lives than ANYTHING else could have. We KNEW it was the right time, and meeting our son on the day of his birth reaffirmed that. As guilty as I felt not spending time with my son so I could do school work, I don’t think he suffered one bit. He spent that time with people who loved and cared for him, and when we did spend time together, we made the most of it! He knows who is mama is!
So, my advice to anyone with children that may be considering going back to school is this: if it’s something you want to do, just do it!
Before starting, look into your different school options: is there somewhere nearby you can attend, or a program online? Make sure you consider how long the drive to and from school is beforehand, because that drive could be precious time. Evaluate your schedule: how much time do you have after your child goes to sleep and before you do? Do you have a lunch break at work you can take advantage of? Can you get an audio version of your text books to listen to in the car? Are there options for condensed semesters? Start with baby steps: after the first semester, consider your course load and adjust how many classes you will take next semester. Find support: do you have a partner at home who will support you and willing to take on extra duties? Discuss this with them and make sure you’re both on the same page. Do you have family nearby willing to help? Do you have someone you can call to babysit last-minute in case something falls through? Be ready for guilt: you’re going to be stretched for time and you’ll have to make sacrifices, but this will hurt you more than anyone else. I’d like to say to just ignore the guilt, but for me that was impossible. So, expect guilt, and learn to live with it. Remind yourself of all the ways you and your family will benefit from your education, and repeat them anytime you feel that guilt coming on. And lastly, take care of yourself: make sure you find time each day to have a special connection with your child. Make sure you get a little “me time” at least once a week – whether it’s reading a book, exercising, grabbing coffee with a friend – anything. And remember, it won’t last forever! It will be TOUGH, but it can totally be done!