Friday, March 24, 2017

Doing Grad School with Kids

One afternoon as I stood outside the elementary school, waiting for the doors to open and pour out little screaming humans (including my then second-grader), I overheard two Midwestern moms in active-wear talking about a mutual friend.

"Did you know she's going back to school? I mean, GREEAAD school!"

"Really? She's gonna be so busy, oh my gosh. That's just too much, GREEAAD school, with kids and a house..."

"Yeah I think it's just selfish to go to GREEAAD school like that. I mean, she's got her bachelor's why not just stay where you're at..."

I was in my second year of "GREEAAD school," and in addition to the stinker I was waiting for at the elementary school, I had a toddler at home.  Their words didn't hurt me, but they made me chuckle a bit. While graduate study isn't for everyone, who are these judging women to assume their friend isn't an awesome person who can handle the "triple burden" of school, work, and home?  If I can do it, other women can too. They were selling even themselves short, I thought.  (Maybe they just really loved staying all day in yoga pants that much, I thought snidely.)

So what do we do, as parents in graduate school, to keep ourselves emotionally afloat? And conversely, how do we know we're doing what's right for our kids? Support and understanding is probably thin on the ground, whether you live in the affluent suburbs where success = $, or in a crowded city (or empty rural area) where people are just struggling to get by and don't care to make head or tails of what strange thing it is you do at the Local University. Even seeking out other students like us is hard. I've met a few couples and single parents at the school I attend, but just having kids is not a guarantee that you will have anything else in common to talk about.

I argue that we look to the source of our seeming "burden" for some relief: look to your children. 

Early Childhood: The smallest children can understand that you are in school, that you are smart, and that you are atypical. They may even cutely brag about you to their classmates. (Once I brought my son to class with me and he told all my students how smart I am. He was only 7, so he got away with it.) It's an early model for doing what you love, and working independently. Since early childhood, my son and daughter have never doubted that they can achieve what they set their minds to, or that mothers can have important careers.

Middle Childhood: Going to school brings them the ability to share in what you study! You can enrich their school experience by sharing what you know with them. My son always impresses his teachers by his background knowledge. Having grown up with a mother who does school for a living, he knows a thing or two.  (Since he could talk, I have answered honestly, and in as much detail as was appropriate, every question he asked me. I've been told I'll spoil his imagination! Baloney.)

And here's the best part: School-aged children can also start helping around the house, not only because they should anyway, but because you have enlisted them in your campaign! The family is going to benefit from your degree. They can contribute to you getting it done, whether it's by loading the dishwasher or playing quietly on Saturday mornings. You can all earn that degree together.

Adolescence: Tween intelligence and attitudes bring a whole new level of give-and-take into your relationship with your children. Children this age need to be reminded that you are spending so much time on your schoolwork because it will make you better. If it makes you better, it makes the whole family better.  With their growing sense of self, they should be able to understand why they don't always come first. Raising independent kids is important if you plan to have an intense career life and to have a life of the mind. And they will thank you for it. My son still proudly tells people what I do (though bragging wouldn't be cute from a 12-year-old), even if he can't remember exactly what I study.

Teens: If you are in grad school with teens, you probably have not been in grad school their whole life. They may have to get used to it. I don't have a teen (yet) so I can't comment. I will be done before then. :P  But what I have said about balance, independence, and team effort still applies.

2010: Holding my Bachelor's degree,
while 7 months pregnant with kid #2.
There is a myth that children will resent parents for "neglecting" them for other pursuits. It's nonsense, and those moms I overheard were just perpetuating it. Doing what you need to do for yourself, and fitting that in with your family life is not neglect. It's balance. Your busy and interesting life will complement your child's own busy and interesting life. It will certainly not detract or distract from it.

So, if the university parent meet-ups and attempts to befriend non-student parents haven't worked out, turn to those who already know you, and whom you already have a lot in common with. You can't lay all of your problems on them, and you can't make them your confidantes.  But you can draw from their endless energy, contribute to their own lifelong learning, and go in as a family team to kick this degree's butt.  You will all come out very different from most of the people you know. But that is not a bad thing. This journey enriches all of our lives, and paves the way for our children's future successes.

Finally, a word about the advantages of doing grad school with kids. Many of us can point to our little imps as the impetus for doing school in the first place. And what made us want to do it for ourselves is that having kids makes us want to be the best people we can be!  I didn't really go "back to school" until my son was 9 months old. After five years of undergrad, three for an MA, and four more of PhD-ing... well, he's 12 now and he's never seen me do anything else. To stop now would be to abandon a goal as old as my first best creation (him). While, again, we can't rest our goals and fears on their little shoulders, we can certainly look to them as a major source of inspiration, a cornerstone that child-free grad students do not have the benefit of building upon.


  1. academic conferences alertApril 14, 2017 at 3:52 AM

    Good post, very well written. Like you thought process and you have made your point pretty well. Thank you for the lovely post

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  3. Thank you for sharing this informative article with us. I love the way you are thinking and explaining your idea. It’s a way for our children's future successes