When I asked my eldest if he saw a down side to my studying, he sweetly said that “it keeps you away from time with your kids, but … if you’re helping hundreds of thousands of people, I suppose it’s okay.” Wow! So…if I’m not helping hundreds of thousands of people (and I hasten to state that I am, unfortunately, not), I should stop studying and focus on my kids?!
It’s so hard to get that balance right. But I wouldn’t be effective as a student or a mom if I didn’t take time for all the other stuff.
My husband and I had an unwritten prenuptial agreement: we would take turns as stay-at-home parent. Some friends predicted failure, but we are now in round three, and after five years of work in New York City, I’m back at home. This time, I don’t have to contend with breastfeeding or playgroups: I’m 48 and my sons are 12, 11, and 9. Everybody is in school: surely a recipe for chaos! But I’ve made it halfway through the school year and we all seem to be thriving. I asked myself how we have (so far) avoided an implosion.
Having a partner
By far the most important variable in my kids-and-school equation is my husband Craig. He supports my goals 100% and is a completely hands-on dad. And even though I’m the stay-at-home parent for now, because Craig was in my shoes for five years, he can easily step in for me if need be. Playdates, doctor appointments, cooking, shopping, homework, laundry—he’s been there. While I am full of respect for those who must or choose to go it alone, or who choose other paths, I know that for me this is a good way.
I started my year by writing up a schedule to ensure I’d complete my required four courses by June exams. I followed the school’s recommendations on ordering of the courses, as well as the ordering of the sessions within them, and noted down dates on which each assignment was to be completed. This was harder than it sounds—it took a while to learn how to negotiate the system, put together resources from various sources, and decipher terms unfamiliar to me. But the investment has paid back many-fold. In the maelstrom that is my kids’ school year, my schedule is an anchor.
There’s basically me, the laundry and them. The “me” stuff includes my studies and my work as a research assistant, but also looking after my body and my spirit. If I don’t get enough sleep, trade veggies for chips too often, or skip my exercises, my mood plummets. I’m a less efficient student and a way less kind mom and partner. I try to feed my spirit too—it’s not a waste of time to spend an hour reading a great book or even daydreaming.
Then there’s the laundry—no mean task with three boys. And the grocery shopping, the cooking, paying bills, and so on. If this stuff doesn’t get done, our family starts to stumble, and things that were just “important” become “urgent”.
Last but not least—there’s “them”. It’s not enough to make sure I’m healthy in mind and body, and the family machine is well-oiled. The kids need direct and frequent infusions of “mom”. There’s just no substitute for reading aloud every night.
So, paradoxically, the more deliberately I try to care for the other areas in my life—me, the laundry and them—the more I have real time, mental space, and the spiritual wherewithal for my studies.
Having a retreat
That said, there’s nothing like a protected area to help you focus. Last fall I bought a secondhand desk and put it in our rarely-used guestroom. I stuck some favorite photographs and poems on the walls, plugged in my computer, and told the kids to Stay Out. A closed door is a beautiful thing!
Working in bursts
Thankfully, our school has designed the Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) sessions to be digestible in very short segments. When I started out, I worried I’d have to complete full sessions before my kids came home from school. Not so. I pull up the day’s session on my screen in the morning and get through it bit by bit—say, in between boiling the spaghetti and draining it. Readings are easy to accommodate while I wait through my kids’ piano lessons and doctor appointments. The crucial tool I use to collect these fragments of knowledge is an old-fashioned notebook—I copy down everything CAL teaches me.
Letting it be known…
The kids have less of my attention and they are definitely aware of the financial pinch that comes from having mom in school. After having a supportive partner, I think next most important is making sure my kids know why I’m putting our family through this. I wasn’t sure they do, so for this post I asked them.
My 9-year-old admitted he wasn’t sure what exactly I’m studying. “You’re studying, well, what’s it called, trying to get, I can’t remember what it’s called, what’s the job you’re trying to get, well, you’re studying math. I really don’t know what you’re studying.” Whoops! I need to work on that. But my 11-year-old said, “You’re studying the thing of stillbirth…” and my eldest explained, “You’re studying about stillbirth and neonatal death, before-someone’s born-death, basically, and I think you’re studying birth rates or stillbirth rates or things related to that.” Score!
Yes, but is it worth their “mom time” for me to study? My eldest had the best understanding of the why: “Because you feel strongly about it and you had a stillborn son and also that you feel that not enough people study it.”
But it was my middle son who laid down the gauntlet. Why am I studying? “To help people so they won’t lose their children.”
My kids set my bar higher than I would ever dare. All I can do is reach.
Susannah is studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) through the University of London International Programmes.