Doing it all…
This post is a response to this comment on a post about mothers returning to the workforce. Jen mentioned that I’m a full-time Mom and am simultaneously pursuing my PhD full-time, and asked how I’m able to make this work…
There are so many ways I could answer this question, I feel like it would take a year of posts to do so (or more)! But here are a few of my thoughts. I hope that commenters will add to this list, because I know many of us have experience with balancing motherhood and career aspirations.
- The whole family is committed to my being in school. All of us have had to learn to make choices based on this–so it’s not all on my shoulders to do it all.
- I started back to school part-time until my kids were in school themselves. I took a class here and there-at community colleges, universities, etc. I kept in mind some of the requirements I would need for the PhD (e.g. an additional foreign language), took classes for fun, and also took classes with professors who could write me good letters of recommendation for my grad school applications (meaning: when possible I studied with tenured faculty rather than lecturers or TAs). I “worked the system” by talking to counselors and learning that I would be automatically readmitted to the university where I did my undergrad if I applied as a second baccalaureate. So I took classes under the pretense of getting yet another bachelor’s degree as I familiarized myself with the department where I’d be applying for my PhD. And also during this time I got special permission to enroll in graduate classes–so by the time I was actually an enrolled PhD student, I already had several of my coursework requirements completed.
- For various reasons my husband and I decided that we wouldn’t use after-school care for our kids so I could return to school. This meant that John chose a job with flexible hours so if/when I needed to be in class in the afternoon after the kids were home from school, he could be with them. When my kids were young, I spent many hours volunteering in their school classes. After I began my PhD program John became the parent volunteer for our family since my time was already stretched thin.
- I simplified other aspects of my life so I could focus on school & family. We moved into a small apartment on campus so all of my classes, our kids’ school, and John’s work were all within a few blocks of each other. This meant no commute time, ease of dealing with emergencies, etc. Most importantly, moving to a smaller home meant less stuff to clean and manage–which has been a huge timesaver for me because although we share household duties, the bulk of them still tend to be mine.
- We don’t have a TV. This may seem odd on this list, but it means there’s no temptation to waste time watching it, and it reduces the amount of distractions and information that enters my life. Meaning: if I don’t know the movies that are coming out, I’m not likely to “need” to watch them. Also, my kids are far less “commercialized” than most and can read for hours (that’s what they’re both doing while I write this post–my daughter just now finished reading Animal Farm and I can see the wheels turning in her head as she’s trying to make sense of her experience with it–adorable!). We do school together–in the afternoons/evenings the kids do their homework while I do mine. It bonds us together as a family to all by studying and working hard on our goals.
- We eat simply and healthfully. We make exercise a priority for each family member. Sometimes this has been tough to do–my first year of grad school I put on a few pounds. But I’ve learned that you can read the same book while slouching on the couch or while on a stationary bike. I make a weekly meal menu and grocery shop once/week, often in conjunction with our local farmers’ market. I’ve learned that my bread machine and my crock pot are my best friends. Also, my kids know how to cook several simple meals themselves so they aren’t always reliant on me or John.
- My kids have daily and weekly chores: they take out the trash, do the laundry, clean the litter-box, mop the floors, etc.
- I’m very open with my colleagues about the importance of my family, but I don’t use my family as an excuse for not getting my work done on time. While I was still taking classes, I typically worked a week or two ahead of the schedule so if I had any kid drama, I wouldn’t get behind in my classes. Some quarters I read all of the books before the term even started, so I could better balance the coursework with everything I was doing at home.
- I’m incredibly organized with my schoolwork (I’ve talked about this on my history website/podcast) using technological tools like Zotero to manage every book I read and I keep an online calendaring and task-management system. I streamline other parts of my life: all my bills are on auto-pay, I order stuff online when it’s convenient for me rather than having to go to a brick-&-mortar store, I have my kids’ music teachers come to our home rather than going to a studio, etc.
- I’ve garnered external funding for school (grants & fellowships) to free my time up from being a Teaching Assistant. (I should note: I’m currently in the final year of my PhD, so most of my time is spent writing, researching, or attending conferences. Though I loved taking classes, my time was far more stressed during those years than it is now).
- Unless I’m under a pressing deadline or I’m at a conference, I turn off school on the weekends. They are for my family. Oh, and I take a break every afternoon for “tea” just as my kids get home from school, so I can shift my focus from my work to them.
- I’m not a perfectionist. I know that it’s often more important to get a thing done than to do it perfectly–whether it means dinner, a grant proposal, or an email to a colleague.
As I’m sure anyone who knows me in “real life” can attest to, there are moments when everything erupts. The house might be a disaster-zone, or each member of the family has a “must-do” thing all of the same time and I find myself zipping from one place to another, or I realize that I’ve forgotten an important commitment, etc. Often when I ‘m ovewhelmed I remember an experience I had with my own Mom, who also went to school when I was growing up–finishing her grad school the same year that I graduated from high school. She was exhausted one night after dinner, facing a load of homework and realizing that she would be up most of the night in order to finish it. She said sometimes she just wanted to be like my friends’ Moms who were all SAHMs and could just go to bed when they were tired…I remember aching for her weariness, wishing I could take it away somehow. But instead, I’ve followed this same path myself. And while I do sometimes have those long nights…I really wouldn’t have it any other way.