Surviving Graduate School with Children

A lot of people claim that children prevent adults from accomplishing their goals. This is especially true in regards to women. I am thankful to live in the current era where it is not completely uncommon to see mothers in higher education, but the narrative that children prevent parents from pursing their passions and interests is still present.

I always wanted to attend graduate school, and that desire was actually amplified for me when I found out that I was pregnant. I began applying only a few weeks after seeing the positive test results, was accepted, and even met with my current advisor while six months pregnant. I waddled my way into his office, discussed my academic interests, and picked courses for the year.

Of course, as most mothers are, I was judged by some people I know. (If you want my opinion on parental judgment, check out my blog post, Taking Childcare Opinions with a Grain of Salt.) I remember being asked how I would make it all work, how I would find time to read materials, write research, etc. The truth is: I didn’t know how I would make it all work. I decided to throw myself into both motherhood and graduate school and hope for the best.

After a whole year of balancing and experiencing both motherhood and graduate school for the first time, I came up with a short list of ways to manage. I will not lie: it was hard to balance both new motherhood and graduate school. As a new mom, I fumbled around in the dark trying to learn how to take care of a new little person all while battling postpartum depression. As a new graduate student, I had to relearn a campus, meet new students and professors, commute, write longer papers, and read more material. Despite the difficulties, I managed. I am genuinely glad that I embraced both the roles of mother and student at once, and believe it taught me a lot about time management, parenting, and even myself.

Here are my tips:

  • Get an agenda

I genuinely have no idea how some people live without an agenda. I found that if I carved out specific times to complete my readings, complete my assignments, attend office hours, and even send emails, I was more productive and achieved my weekly goals. Not to mention, in addition to keeping up with my studies, my agenda allowed me to keep track of my parenting! I scheduled the doctor’s appointments, made time for walks, nap times, etc. This schedule may seem overly regimented to some, but it helped me keep track of everything.

  • When the baby naps, you work

You know how people say, “when the baby naps, you nap”? This is not always true in graduate school. I found that my son’s two hours of napping every day allowed me to complete some longer readings and homework. I used the alone time to my advantage. This rule also applied to my son’s bedtime. Even now he typically goes down for bedtime at about 8:00-8:30 PM. I would try to complete a reading or short assignment before relaxing for the evening.

  • Make your professors aware that you have a baby at home

Okay, this is for a few reasons. First, your professors might have kids of their own and can quell your worries. I remember telling one professor that I was somewhat nervous about beginning graduate school as a new mother and he told me all about how he managed graduate school as a new father. He gave me some great points (such as keeping an agenda!), and even shared stories with me about how he used to bring his son to class with him. Children are a natural part of life, and the more normal we make parenting seem in the academic world, the easier it might be for parents to pursue academia.

Secondly, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes the baby spits up on you as you’re walking out the door and you have to change quickly and then you are ten minutes late to class. Or, sometimes you’re breastfeeding before class and are ten minutes late. Being transparent with your professors makes them aware of your situations at home. I am not suggesting that all professors will be (or should be) more lenient with grading or anything, but more often than not they will understand the craziness of parenting, especially if they are parents, themselves. If your baby-sitter is calling to let you know that the baby needs Tylenol to ease teething pain and you have to pick up the phone to tell them the correct dosage to give, your professor will probably be understanding.

  • Take all the help you can get, and ask for help when you need it

Graudate school is hard. School in general is hard. No matter how many tips are given, the reality is that sometimes you’re still overwhelmed. With that being said, if one of the grandparents want to babysit for a few hours to give you an opportunity to finish your paper, let them. If your partner offers to put the baby down so that you can make it to evening office hours, let them. Further, if you need help, ask for it. Sometimes your partner doesn’t know your schedule! It happens. There would be nights when I would tell my husband that I needed help in order to finish an assignment, and simply making him aware made all the difference.

I always think of that movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker, I Don’t Know How She Does It. We always talk about modern women “having it all,” or “being able to do it all,” but the reality is that no one can do it all without a little help sometimes. Maybe that help is day care, a nanny, or a baby sitter. Maybe that help is a little extra screen-time for the baby. (Hot topic: I know!) The point I am making is that help is okay and even good sometimes.

  • Practice self-care and be kind to yourself

This is an important tip for many reasons and in many different ways. If you have been on my blog before, you know I am a huge fan of self care. I think that self care is an important practice, and is essential to be happy and successful. When you’re stressed out about a long paper or reading and the baby is teething and the dog is sick and you have to make dinner and you’re playing Baby Shark for the 12th time that day… the list goes on. When life is stressful, take a breather. Relax and regroup. In that agenda that is chock-full of pediatrician and office hour appointments, carve out time for a bubble bath and glass of wine after the baby goes to sleep. Carve out some time for a manicure or a girl’s brunch. Carve out time for meditation or yoga. It is okay, and even healthy, to allow yourself to relax and regroup. Mommy burn-out is a real thing, and so is graduate school burn-out. Combining the two is just a recipe for disaster.

  • Embrace the crazy

Once I embraced my two new roles as mother and student, I was able to let go and just go with the flow. Some days were easier than others, and some days were chaotic. I genuinely believe that once I accepted that some days were going to be crazy, difficult, happy, wild, etc., everything became easier. I became accustomed to reading an article online while stirring a pot with a baby on my hip. You do what you need to!

I hope that some of these tips help you balance all you’re doing in life. If you have any other tips, I’d love to hear them!

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