(This post is modified from a post on my personal blog: http://www.andrea-zellner.com)

Kids move fast. Now I do, too. Photo by Andrea Zellner

A few things about my grad school situation: I returned to school to pursue a doctorate after teaching High School English/Biology for a good number of years. I left my teaching job largely because I needed more flexibility after my twin boys were born.  The boys are three now, and  the most common question I get asked is how I manage school, work, and the kids. Here are some of the ways I try to go about “getting it all done” in hopes that it might help someone else.  Now I don’t do these things perfectly, but this is rather a general set of guidelines I try to follow in my quest to balance it all.

  • Sharpen your pencils before class: I like to make sure that I know my assets and that they are as well-tuned as possible. I work ahead whenever I have a free moment.  I know when my twins will play together so I can fire off an email and when they won’t. The Kindle is perfect for reading while cooking; the iPad even better. The idea here is that I map out when I can multitask and when I need to have a singular focus on the kids, housework, homework, or work-work and I plan accordingly. Why waste time when the kids are sleeping doing the laundry, when I can instead have them help me do it? Three-year olds love loading laundry into the washer.  Why try and send an email when they are crabby and just want to sit and read in my lap? I sit and read, naturally, and I don’t worry about it. Of course, flexibility is the watchword in all things, and I am sure to cut myself slack when it doesn’t go according to plan.
  • Do a Lit Review: At the end of this post, I have listed some useful articles I’ve read recently.  I habitually use waiting room time at appointments to beeline for the parenting magazines.  I will pull out my phone, bring up the Evernote app, and take pictures and notes of the articles I want to remember (or absent that, write them down with a pencil and paper). I have gotten more tips from this short activity than anywhere else. I have faith that I am not the first person to run out of craft activities for those long days when we are trapped inside due to the weather, and a well-run craft activity at my house means getting dinner done more easily or another chapter read. I never stop searching for ideas and hacks to make my life as a parent run more smoothly.  Not to mention that my kids do not need me involved in their every activity.  I don’t really care about Thomas the Train, and that’s okay.  They don’t seem to care about Multiple Regression either. We can still be together.
  • Find a guidance committee: I have filled my support system with friends with no kids, friends who are working moms, friends who are in grad school with families, friends who are single in grad school, etc. Without this diversity of friendships, I know I would be much worse off. My friends without kids will babysit in a pinch. My friends who are working moms are great for commiserating. My grad school friends are the best motivators. Overall, my friends out of school’s healthy skepticism that a PhD is a good idea keep me the most honest (and prevent me from ever attempting to pepper my conversations with jargon. Ewwww.)
  • Everything is a practicum: I really love the idea of the research practicum.  Here I get a chance to try out some little study, some tiny corner of my field with basically no risk. I can posit a theory that doesn’t pan out and it’s fine! Just as long as I learn something for the next round. I try to approach everything like this: I am going to try it, see what works, and, when it doesn’t work out, take it as a learning experience.  If you think about it, sustaining a healthy marriage and raising kids never really have that definitive dissertation-finishing moment to them–it is generally a serious of trials and errors and sometimes actually learning something that works.
  • Write something everyday: I find that there are three things I require for optimal daily happiness: writing, exercising, and eating. I don’t try to do any of these perfectly, but I try to do at least all three every day.  I read a ton of stuff while riding on the elliptical (with the GoodReader app on the iPad, I can even annotate while getting my heart rate up).  Writing every day can mean something important and school-like or just for fun.  Living the life of the mind means letting it roam free over the page, and writing for no reason at all is great way to get me ready for writing things that matter. Also, I know that I ALWAYS regret eating sugar and caffeine, so I try to make sure that everything I put into my body is nourishing.  If I am not nourished, no way can I be a good employee, partner, mother, or student.
  • Try not to panic: I am including this one because it is the one I fail at most often.  Sometimes, the toys scattered across the floor make me want to sit and weep. If I get lost driving in the car, I can have a full-blown freak out. I try not to panic in front of the kids, but I also know that seeing mommy deal with the full range of human emotions is one of the ways they will learn to deal with their own. I try never to look past the next thing on the to-do list and I create said lists when I am in the proper mental state.  Sometimes that means AFTER I do the dishes, sometimes not.

Above all, cultivating a sense of compassion for myself, my colleagues, and really anyone I come across is essential. I can cut myself some slack. This is not an easy road for anyone, and we are all trying our best. At the end of the day, if this grad school thing doesn’t work out, I still have my work and my family: I get to hedge my bets while trying something I love.  I remain my only judge and I let myself know when I am judging too harshly.   While I don’t always do this well, I always attempt to find that place of good enough.  Would I like to be perfect? Sure.  But good enough seems to be the place of sanity for me.

Any other tips/tricks to add? Please leave them in the comments.

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10 Responses to Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc

  1. Susannah says:

    Thank you for this as I had a panic attack just last night about how I will get it all done. Some days pursuing a PhD with two little kids makes perfect sense and other days I constantly question myself.

    Of course the question I get the most is when will I finish as if it is a checkbox to complete on a form. I realized last night that I need to create a flexible schedule with realistic deadlines that won’t tax me or my emotional health. In my mind, I want it to move quickly, but in the day-to-day I have 2-4 hours at the most to devote to my studies while fellow grad students have 8-9 hours a day to devote to reading. So that is the reality for me.

    Thanks again and good luck!

    • Susannah,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. As for the panic attack, I might be having one right now ;) It is hard to maintain compassion and flexibility, and I think it’s fine to panic, too. I just try not to panic for too long! I love the idea of the “realistic” deadlines for ourselves, rather comparing what we could get done sans children. We do what we can do, right? Thanks for the comments!

  2. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Great article! I really appreciate your flexibility and common sense approach. Recognizing that you have only so many hours, you can’t be perfect, and then prioritizing is really key to this whole process. Even those of us without small children at home still have jobs, husbands, and college age kids wanting our time. You have to recognize you are only human and sometimes let that study time move down the list and spend family time instead.

    I also like your tips on making the most of the time that you DO have to squeeze in reading and other activities. My favorite story about that was the time I took a portable DVD player, a Statistics DVD, and my workbook and studied while I pushed a flatbed cart around Sam’s Club with my husband. He was happy just to have me with him and I was able to get the studying done I needed to do so I wasn’t stressing over the class. It was all good in the end.

    But I’ve also had those panic attacks where I want to hyperventilate and wonder “how am I ever going to get this paper finished??!!” Somehow, it still works. Like you, I’ve learned to be compassionate to myself and stop being such a perfectionist. It is a much healthier attitude.

    Best wishes.

    • Best wishes to you, too, Stephanie. I love seeing these comments because the common experience we are all having reveals that none of us are alone in this. I think I feel isolated sometimes when all I’m doing is reading/writing and then doing child care. That’s when the panic really sets in. Knowing we have these shared experiences makes it less isolating and gives me hope. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Julie Platt says:

    Super-useful as always, Andrea! Although I’m not a parent, your advice is helpful for anyone struggling to balance life and school.

    • Julie, you are certainly a key member of “the network which keeps me sane,” so I appreciate the comments. I don’t for a second believe parents have a corner on the stress market: we all have our life/work/school balance issues. I’m glad if I was helpful in even the smallest of ways :)

  4. Danielle Helzer says:

    Andrea–
    Thanks for the article—as I near the end of my Master’s program and think more about next steps in my career, I need to hear that it is possible to go to school, work, parent, be a wife, etc. Keep the tips coming :)

  5. […] want to expand the idea of ‘hacking’ to all aspects of grad life. Posts discuss topics such as raising kids in grad school, how to propose a digital dissertation to your committee, how to volunteer in grad school, the […]

  6. cory.owen says:

    I loved this article! While I don’t have children, I definitely think that we can all learn how to juggle the different of our lives along with the school obligations.

  7. Fawn says:

    This advice also applies to mothers who are finishing their undergrad at a rigorous college. I’m 30 (and a single mom) working on finishing my bachelor’s at one of the seven sisters. I manage the house, am constantly on call for my 9 year old, and have to worry about my Latin exams and 80 page senior thesis. I do plan on going to grad school, and I’m so used to managing chaos at this point that I’m pretty sure I can handle it.
    One really positive thing about my son seeing me go to school is his honest appreciation for me and education. We study together, he sees all the amazingly strong women at my college working at things they love, and he is intensely curious about the world. He is very supportive, and we spend a lot of time together. He also knows that he is not the center of the universe and that I am a multidimensional human being with my own interests and passions.

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