You dream of becoming a doctor or a professor . . . a social worker or therapist. You want to get your MBA. Then you have a child or two (or three), and those goals, if you haven’t already met them, seem further away. You tell your coworkers or friends that you still plan to pursue graduate school and are often told to wait: wait until the baby has grown, wait until the kids are off to college, sit on your dreams for the time being.
But why should you have to wait to meet your goals, better your family situation, broaden your mind, do something that, in the long run, can be truly life-changing?
I refer to grad school as my “second child” and delivered “him” in the fall of 2017, when my firstborn human child was just two years old. If you’re a mom who’s seriously considering grad school, I’m here in solidarity, standing right beside you, cheering you on. I commend you because it is hard work, and it requires sacrifice. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the end.
Before you go down this road, however, I suggest you be as prepared as possible. On that note, here are 10 things moms must know before going to grad school:
1. Get organized
It doesn’t matter how you do it, but you must figure out a system to keep yourself organized. Whether you need a whiteboard, a paper planner, or a handful of apps (or all the above), to keep your work, school, and personal life in order, you really must. Some days, you may need each one, plus alarms on your phone . . . and you may still forget to pick up the milk on the way home. Look, your brain can handle only so much, and trying to remember the minutiae of your day, such as your child’s name, just isn’t as important right now. Write it down. Put it in your app.
2. Make friends
I have two sets of friends: pre-grad-school friends, and grad-school friends. Grad-school friends understand my texts of “blughhh” at odd hours of the day because they, too, are about to pull their hair out over citations at the end of a 35-page paper. Pre-grad-school friends are the ones who know and love pre-grad-school you and are the blessed few who can distract you from school responsibilities when you just need a minute. It’s impossible to do this grad-school thing alone, and that’s especially true when you’re trying to get through it with adult responsibilities, such as keeping small humans alive.
3. Focus on the kid(s)
Speaking of small humans, make sure that in all your organizing you set aside time to really focus on them. It’s so easy to get caught up in the to-do list, the assignments, the chores, the work drama, the messy house. . . . Everyone ends up disconnected and grumpy, and nothing is going to get better. Spending some quality time with each other—without all those responsibilities distracting you—makes the times that you do have to forgo quality time for studying that much easier. I schedule specific times that I will study, and try my best to forget about the endless list of to-dos when I’m with my son. It’s not always easy, but these are quality times you won’t get back. Even if it’s just 30 minutes or an hour of focused attention, you will all feel much better. Plus, you’ll be reminded of just why you are working so hard.
4. Work is for the birds: Whether you have a job or not, don’t feel guilty
I don’t know too many people—whether raising a family or not—who can get through graduate school without some type of job. If you can financially manage to leave your job, take advantage with no guilt. Grad school is your job. If you can’t, keep working with no guilt. I do, however, recommend that you get creative with your jobs, if you can. Depending on your graduate program, you may be required to spend lots of typical work hours in class, participating in research, or attending clinical rotations, and bosses aren’t always happy to have an employee with an inconsistent schedule. If you can use your talents to work odd hours (for example, write articles about things you know well) and still pay the bills, I say go forth and prosper.
5. Look for free money
Look, graduate school is expensive. Kids are expensive. Groceries? Yep—expensive.
I sit down once or twice a year and go through my monthly spending requirements and figure out where I can make tweaks to reduce costs. Am I really using or needing that subscription app with pretty photo filters on it right now? Do I really need a subscription to Hulu, Amazon video, and Netflix?
Not only that, but look at your utility bills, too. What is negotiable? For me, it’s getting in touch with my internet provider annually and having them reduce my rate as much as possible. You may be surprised to find yourself saving hundreds to thousands of dollars annually by taking a look at where you’re putting your money.
Also, scholarships. Apply for them—all of them. Even if they’re for $50. They add up, and they give you a boost of support from strangers who created a fund to support you and others like you who are putting their best foot forward and accomplishing something huge.
It may take some trial and error, but you can (and will) learn to think outside the box when living on a tight budget.
6. Do something creative
I mean this literally. Pick up a paintbrush, dust off your piano, or break out those dance moves. Doing something creative not only helps you relax but also can help you retain information that you’ve been studying. After a focused study session, I will do something creative and let all that information seep into my brain. I swear it works. There is something about freeing your mind with the rhythm of creating that lets all that knowledge soak in. The bonus? You get some much-needed self-care without the guilt because you’re still getting your studying done.
7. Realize your time is what you make of it
Before I had my son, I had this expansive amount of time. But back then, I thought I was incredibly busy. What I really was, was very good at filling my time, even if what I filled it with wasn’t meaningful. Remember, time is a rare commodity in graduate school, and your time really is what you make of it. You don’t have the luxury of procrastinating because you may have only an hour here or there to get all your tasks done. You will find an inner focus that you never knew you had. When you’re feeling beat down and burnt out, dig deep. Be intentional. Take five minutes for yourself, then study for 20 minutes. Focus then release. You are in control of what you do with your time.
Please, binge sometimes. I implore you. I don’t care if it’s the latest season of your favorite show on Netflix or reading celebrity gossip or delving into a romance novel. Whatever guilty media pleasure you may have that lets you turn your brain off for a while, just do it. No guilt, just pure blissful nothingness in your brain. It’s glorious. It may even benefit your relationships (those that have been slightly neglected in favor of studying).
9. Take stock in life lessons
You will learn so much about yourself on this journey: your integrity, your stamina, your inner willpower, and your ability to follow through on a promise to yourself to accomplish your goals. Not only that, but those little humans we talked about earlier? The ones you have to keep alive? They’re watching you. They’re seeing you prioritize family and yourself simultaneously. They recognize (even if they don’t know it yet) that you are a strong, capable force of a mother whose love for her family and herself extends beyond their wildest imaginations. You are being the best role model—remember that, even on the messy days when you come undone and everyone yells and you eat frozen pizza and forgo all the healthy options. You are accomplishing something huge, and your children will thank you for it (one day).
10. Believe in yourself
Lastly, don’t forget about yourself. It’s easy to get lost in work and school schedules, the kids’ activities, and your next paper. You can get caught in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed, of not having a minute to eat a real dinner or exercise. Just remember, at the end of this tunnel, however long it may feel, there is a light. And that light is your future you, smiling brightly, arms held open, so proud that you believed in yourself enough to follow through on this promise you made to yourself: to dream big and show up—and, let’s face it, to finally rest in some financial security.
Now, I’m off to go finish my homework so I can spend tomorrow with my son. Grad school, you can’t bring me down.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.