People often ask me, “How do you do it?” They are referring to the fact that I’m in graduate school while also raising kids and working a full-time job. Well, since I’m starting my 6th (and final!) year, I decided I would talk a little about how I do it. Usually when asked, I picture the complete insanity that is my house, my calendar, and my poor mushy brain … but typically my answer is “coffee and grace” because, honestly, that’s about what it comes down to. Almost in equal parts, but grace definitely wins. Since that answer, while honest, is not very helpful, I decided to write down a few of the concrete ways I actually do it. I’m sure this list is not exhaustive but it’s at least a start.
A few disclaimers here … I’m in a looooong program. Don’t be crazy like me. Pick something rational, like a 2 or 3 year program! Second disclaimer, my program usually has me taking 3 classes per semester. That ain’t no joke, but it’s not as intense as some accelerated programs I have seen my friends in! Third disclaimer, my children are young. When I started school, my oldest was 3 and now he is 8 (whoa!) and while many would think that young children would make school harder, I feel blessed in that they are young enough that it has not affected them much. I can handle hard – but I did not want it to be hard on them. I don’t study while they are awake for the most part, and thankfully their schedules are not too crazy yet with extracurriculars. (In case you are interested in the specifics, I had a 1 & 3 year old when I started and a newborn about halfway through. They will be 3, 6 & 9 when I graduate in May).
That said, everyone’s situation is unique (and wonderful!) but this is how I
do it survive.
Most important rule of all.
There is no “how I do it” … there is only “ how we do it.” My husband is amazing. But before you want to punch me – trust me – I get it. You may be single or your husband may work crazy hours, travel, or may not understand exactly what your are up to in your school life. I am not suggesting this cannot be done without a husband … or even with one! But for us, when I have been in tears over the dirty house or the late nights studying, my husband has reminded me “we chose this.” That support has been monumental in helping me finish what we started here. Secondly, my children. When I started school we had two, we now have three (plus fosters here and there). My children are young, but they also do this. They don’t fully understand that yet, but they are certainly part of how we do it.
I can only do what I can do, and when I started school, I knew certain things had to go so that the few most important things could stay. Your list may vary … but for me … Netflix, late-night phone calls, afternoon naps, leisure reading, and dreams of fancy dinners or a perfectly kept house – had to go. The only thing that stayed? My faith, my family, my job, my friendships and my commitment to school. Seriously, anything else, was up for the chopping block. By the end of the first or second year, I didn’t even notice anymore how simple my life had become! I get glimpses of it in the summer, but that’s about it. I have grown quite comfortable with the simplicity of my priorities. I think many people look at me like I’m crazy because, in their mind, they have about 15 priorities. That is good and fine, but I only have about 5. I’m not on the PTO; I’m not in a book club. I don’t sew, bake, lifestyle blog, run a website or run marathons. It’s not that I hate hobbies, but for now school is my hobby (whether I like it or not). I look forward to re-entering the world of hobbies one day!
I say “no.” I do not say no to everything, but I do say no. I try to make my “yes” apply to my priorities as listed above. If something does not fall under those categories, then it has the fast potential to become a no. This was a tough one to learn because the reality is, unless someone has been in my situation, they really may not understand what it is like to be in grad school during this season of life. They may not understand that in a normal week I spend a minimum of 10-20 hours studying and writing in addition to all my other human obligations. They may not understand that I do not study while my children are awake, except in dire circumstances, because I want them to remember mommy went to school, but I don’t want them to feel punished by it. They may not understand that we are spending thousands of dollars a semester on tuition that could be going to other fun things. Sometimes I just have to say no. I usually want to apologize or explain but I typically do not; this is where I have chosen to be for now and one day soon I will be back to reality. Thanks for your patience!
I have tried every possible way of doing this in the past six years. I have tried to study in large blocks of time, small blocks, certain days and certain ways. Naturally, the only thing that has always been consistent was knowing that things always change. My life is simply too unpredictable to mess around with bad time management. If a test is due tonight and I have to take a kid to the ER instead – that’s my fault. Not to say that I never procrastinate, but it is simply not responsible for me at this point. I could easily lose an evening I expected to study to puking children, an on-call event, or an unexpected project due for my 3rd grader. I have been picked on for being so scheduled and not being spontaneous. But the reality is, staying on top of my schedule gives me the freedom to be spontaneous when I want to be. I don’t have to be surprised or set-back by the unexpected because I shouldn’t be that far behind on my school work. Another way of saying this is “margin.” Have margin in your life. Make margin one of your priorities (see #2). Margin is your friend.
Say goodbye to perfectionism
I like to make good grades as much as the next mom of three who is paying a ton of tuition to pursue her dreams … (insert exhausted laugh). But I can only do what I can do. Most of the time I do well; however, I have had to have a lot of grace for myself in this department. I want to do excellent work, but I refer back to #2 above. I do have priorities on the list that come before school. Excellence counts, but perfectionism is simply not the goal. When adding graduate school to an already full life, perfectionism is not reality. It may not be school that suffers but something will. Not everything can be perfect and that’s perfectly ok.
That’s right. I said it. Blood, sweat, tears, whatever you want to call it. When I started this program, the president of the school gave a speech and he said, “If you cannot tell me why you are called to be here today, then you may as well leave right now because you will never finish. It’s just too hard. You have to know your WHY to make it to the finish line.” He was right. He was soooooo right! I know my why. So as long as my priorities have stayed in order, I have simply made the exhausting, tenacious, steadfast, purposeful decision to absolutely not stop or give up.
I remember years ago I told someone, “If I could do anything (career-related), I would go back to school and get my M.Div.” – I was laughing when I said it because it was a ridiculous dream at the time (more about that journey here). Fast forward several years, and somehow here I am. I can see the finish line.
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