Doing it all…

By Jana

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.


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is

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13 Responses

  1. Jen G. says:

    Wow, thanks Jana. I think I struck gold here in asking you about this. I have to say, that was really cool of you to take time to share all of that info with me, and to be so thorough. Very cool. It seems the key here is to be extremely organized, I think I can do that actually. And to not lose it if things go heywire once and awhile. This gives me hope that I can actually achieve my personal goals while being there for my family. Reading this enables the beginnings of a mental framework for me that I can use to start figuring out how to make things happen, versus feeling like I have no options. This actually means a tremendous amount to me, thank you.

  2. Caroline says:

    I appreciate this too, Jana. Very helpful for me as I contemplate balancing my young family with going back to grad school.

  3. ZD Eve says:

    Thanks for the tips, Jana. I too am trying to figure out how to get a Ph.D. and raise a child, so I very much appreciate hearing what’s worked for you.

  4. Azucar says:

    I’m not that organized, and I do love TV, but somehow, we’ve made working even with small children function.

  5. mmiiles says:

    “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 know having homework is a heavy load, but honestly–I don’t know even one SAHM who gets to go to bed whenever they are tired…and plenty who occasionally stay up most the night to get things done.

  6. jks says:

    Great post. I like all of the practical views of how you do it.
    I thought of a question? Does the number of kids you have enter into it? I know that now that I have four kids rather than three, I have taken some of my ideas off the table because there is less time in the day (and there will be less time in the day even when they are in school). When I had two or three I could imagine all sorts of things I could do in a future season, now I no longer can. Perhaps it is just because it is the right path for me, but perhaps it is because the demands of four kids are truly greater than the demands of two or three? I can view my toddler as my “second career” and my “new season” and embrace all the challenges and work that he will bring me for the next 17 years?

  7. Jana says:

    Great question, jks. I only have two, so that’s all I have experience with. I’d imagine that if you had an age spread among your kids, the older ones would probably take over more childcare & housecare duties. Anyone else have some experience to offer?

    mmiiles: sure, but then add the homework on top of that…

  8. esodhiambo says:

    jks–to me, the age of the kids makes a big difference. You mentioned a toddler and Jana has older kids who are more self-sufficient (do chores, make own dinner, etc). Maybe 4 would be doable when your kids are as old as Jana’s.

    I started my graduate program when my first child was 3 months old and finished a month before my second was born. I attended classes and did all my homework after my kid’s bedtime. For me, that was easier; it meant that I devoted all day to my kids (not thinking about all the homework I had or getting that paper done) and my school time was uninterrupted, too. Essentially, graduate school was my “me” time–other people might have gotten manicures or shopped or seen movies–I read and wrote. It worked great for me.

    My cousin arranged for 10 hours of child care a week and used that time to school. It worked for her.

  9. rachel says:

    my aunt had 11 kids. she started having kids when she was 16 so she didn’t go to college until a little later. every summer she’d move her family from california to utah to take summer classes at byu. the older kids were responsible for the little ones. chores were divided and meals were always simple….she was a big believer in soup and bread. she graduated in the mid-80s then went back to byu in 2000 for a graduate degree. by then most of the kids were grown. thru all this she also managed to write several books and articles. she’s my hero.

  10. Spiritual Pilgrim says:

    We have four children ages 8 and under. My wife has a Ph.D and is a full time tenure track faculty who obtains grants, conducts research, and publishes regularly. I have a demanding job in the financial advisory business that involves some travel and recently started working on my doctorate, as well. We have no family in the area, so we are on our own. Other than taking one day at a time and being very organized, I don’t know how we do it and we are many years away from being able to declare that it all worked out successfully. Part of it is a result of having simply been blessed with good health.

    I think that as a general rule, we decided when we got married that children would never be an excuse for us not making contributions to the world outside our home that we were inspired to make. In addition, I have seen my children excited about it, especially when they get to hang out in a university environment or we have family quiet reading/study time and they see us studying, as well. I have overheard them talk about it with friends. As young as they are, the two oldest know what we do for a living and use terms such as research. They talk about going to college and what they will be (even though I pretend to cry and tell them they are supposed to live with me forever). They talk about helping people. Perhaps they see that one’s spiritual mission can be totally intertwined with the secular one. I appreciate Jana and her typical inspirational post. It gives some practical ideas we are taking to heart on how we might be more organized and effective. Just know that whatever you REALLY want to do, you can. It is possible.

  11. Emily U says:

    Thanks for sharing all this, Jana. This is the kind of information I wish I’d had 10 years ago when I started grad school.

  12. D'Arcy says:


    I loved that you have done these things with your life. I had parents who worked while I was growing up and I was left, with four siblings, to be raised by a lot of television and a lot of babysitters. Thus I didn’t really know how to work the college route. I went to BYU because everyone did and it was only with my MA at NYU that things started coming together. I’ve been accepted into a few PhD programs, but none have felt right. I’m taking my time and finding the place where I really belong.

    It’s interesting that I’ve done this mostly on my own. I always wonder what it would be like to have other obligations. I think both routes work and we are richer for them!

  13. Kelly Ann says:

    Jana, you are my hero!

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