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You’ll be fine: 5 Lessons Learned As a Working Grad Student and Mother

Everything will be fine

Photo by Rare Pearl, Deviant Art

For the last six years I’ve been working on either a Master’s degree or doctoral degree. I’ve been taking classes, writing papers, reading texts all while working full time as teacher and technical writer. And, while my time was divided between work and school, it was divided yet again among my two children and husband. One of my former students who recently graduated (and writes her own blog Scraps of Yarn) asked me how I manage it all.

I’m certainly no expert on time management or organization, but I thought I’d share how I keep it all going. I could write about how I’m always going over my lists, about how each morning I wake up and mentally run down what needs to be done (in triage order), about how there is never a moment when I can say “Everything is finished”, or about how I know that there will be times when I’ll feel overwhelmed, like a wave I have to let them flow over me, feel scared for a moment, and then come out the other side. But, if I had to give anyone a few tips about how to survive graduate school, a career, and a family, I’d say this…

  1. Start thinking about life in blocks. Once you teach or write for a while, you know how long it will take you to read a set of drafts, grade a stack of papers, or edit a document. So, for example, I know it will take me about an hour to read through a set of process document rough drafts. So, if my class starts at 9:25, I know I can drop off my kids at 7:30, drive to campus and park by 8:00, and read through drafts until 9:15. Is that cutting it close? Yes. Ideally, I’d take that hour the night before, but if I needed to cut it close, knowing the block of time that a task takes is helpful.
  2. Get used to feeling guilty. Honestly, if you’re caring for loved ones while working and going to school, you will feel guilty. Guilty because you didn’t read and instead played outside. Guilty because you did read and didn’t play outside. Guilty because you didn’t really want to do either. You just wanted to do nothing. Guilty because you had to say again, “I can’t, Sweetie. Mommy has to read, grade, work, etc.” It’s fine. Every graduate student, parent, employee does. The sooner you reconcile with that, the better. I once completely forgot about my daughter’s birthday while my husband was deployed, and I was working two jobs and going to school. But, you know what? She survived, and I did, too. And, when I took her to Chuck E. Cheese, suddenly her childhood was recalibrated.
  3. Come to understand that sometimes mediocre is the best you can offer. When your life is full of tasks and assignments and wants and needs, you need to understand that sometimes giving all you can means giving everything just a little. There will be days in your life when being jack of all trades and master of none will have to suffice. You will have those days. You will feel guilty (see #2). And, you will move on. Tomorrow you will be amazing.
  4. Let your husband fold the towels. Okay, so the folding of towels is one of my things. I like to have the towel closet look like a shelf in Macy’s. Each fold facing out. Every towel the same size. (It’s not just a freakish OCD thing. It’s how they best fit in the cabinet.) But, one of the ways I made it through it all was that my husband helped…a lot…and I let him. He’s folded laundry, helped with homework, cooked (and cooked, and cooked), and I had to be okay with whatever way the towels came out. Because during all of the mess of working through graduate school with a family, you cannot refold the towels every time. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Let the folds go. If they fit in the closet or cabinet, you’re good.
  5. Find your thing and do it. I’ve played soccer since high school, and I still do. Not as well and not as fast, but I do. Every Friday, no matter the papers due Monday or books to be read, I play. It’s something I enjoy and exercise that I so desperately need. And it’s time I can just relax. You need to find whatever that thing is for you and do it. Give yourself that hour or two a week that you look forward to and don’t feel guilty about.

About a week ago, I reached another checkpoint on the academic career path: I completed my comprehensive exams. It was a grueling, stressful, nerve-wracking, horrifying three-day process. There may or may not have even been tears involved at one point when a certain laptop shutdown for updates without saving a draft.

Since the last day of exams, though, I’ve finally felt like a normal person again, probably the first time I’ve felt this way in a very, very long time (about six years I guess). So, the best advice I can give is to keep it all in perspective. No matter what, you will come out the other side. No matter what, your family will love you. And, no matter what, you will be fine. Really. It will be a rough period of time with great highs and sucky lows. But, it will pass, and you will be a changed, improved person because of it. Enjoy the process. Learn from your friends. And, remember, you’ll be fine.

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3 Comments

  1. Autumn says:

    First of all, congratulations on making it through your comprehensive exams! They sound horrible.

    Also, thanks for posting this. It’s nice to know that it’s normal to feel guilty and you really can’t give every single things your very best (no matter how much you may want to) when you’re juggling multiple commitments.

    Maybe I’ll even get better at letting Logan fold the towels…

  2. clover0121 says:

    This blog made me feel better in a sense that someone can relate to me as working mom/grad student. I’m sure many people did but I don’t know them.

    Also, congratulations on your comprehensive exam!

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