My very first class in graduate school was taught by a retired professor emeritus who came back to teach the introductory one-week required course in our program. She had a multitude of accomplishments in her field, but none that intrigued me as much as her declaration that she has five children, four of whom were born while she worked towards her Ph.D. As a mother of three, ages 9, 7, and 3, I was astounded. I went up to her during a break, introduced myself and asked for some words of wisdom as I begin my journey in higher education as a mother of young children. Her response to me was simple: “Get a B.”
I have been waiting a decade to pursue this degree and my biggest question mark was how I was going to be able to balance home life with my studies. I had been a stay-at-home mom after my first child was born, but always knew that I wanted to return to school at some point. That point came this year when my youngest child began preschool, which meant that I had 10-15 hours weekly for homework. My degree program will take a little more than two years, a timeframe that also lands him in Kindergarten by the time I graduate. I had it all planned out perfectly and yet I was still anxious about how it was going to all play out.
As a stay-at-home mom, I had plenty of time on my hands and not always enough activities to fill it. While I had always enjoyed cooking and baking, I upped the ante while my children were small. Homemade baby food, teething biscuits, sandwich bread, baguettes, granola bars, cookies, cakes, and soups were made from scratch in my kitchen. I took pride in my cooking and it kept me sane during what seemed like endless days of tantrums, diaper changes, potty training, cleaning up, and cuddles. I was also able to grocery shop and run other errands around the children’s naps. If the children got sick, it did not affect me outside of having to add "nurse" to my many other roles. It was a time of hard work, drudgery, and a lot of sacrifice but worth every moment.
My first few weeks of grad school were overwhelming. The 10-15 hours were eaten up before I knew it and chores had not been done, errands had not been run, my Bible was sitting unopened, and I was finding it difficult to get regular exercise. But I was exhausted! Cooking dinner was pretty much the last thing that I wanted to do, much less bake bread or cookies. And while I was never an immaculate housekeeper, any cleaning really fell off of the radar.
I realized that I had set a high bar for myself and created expectations that I did not know if I could fulfill now that I was in school and taking classes in the evenings. In truth, I was grappling with the question, “How can I have it all?” — the question that plagues modern motherhood like no other. My question to my professor was trying to figure out exactly that — how I could pull off grad school and motherhood and be not just proficient, but excel at both? Initially I was disappointed with her answer. I wanted a silver bullet, the one or two things that someone who was an exemplar in her field could impart to me to help me understand how I can be successful. Getting a "B" was not quite what I had in mind.
The reality is that it was me who was placing these unreasonable burdens upon myself. My children certainly were not demanding me to make everything from scratch (though they sometimes lament missing a certain cookie or dinner that was a staple in the past), nor was my husband complaining that the house was a mess. It was my own set of expectations that demanded a clean house, fully stocked kitchen, and meals from Julia Child on top of putting in the work to get top marks in grad school. Thankfully, I quickly discovered the impossibility of this line of thinking. I have also realized that there are things that I can do in order to lighten my load both mentally and physically:
- Let my husband and the kids help. I’m not a one-woman show.
- Freezer cooking. Before I started Grad School, I though freezer cooking was a great idea, but never seemed to find the time to do it since it wasn’t a priority. I now see freezer cooking as a necessity for our family. It allows me to cook and not rely on processed food while giving me its convenience.
- Make sure that I don’t neglect myself. I make sure that I am reading a book that I enjoy (albeit slowly), exercising regularly, and reading a devotional most days of the week.
- Be kind to myself. My stream of consciousness has had to be reprogrammed from always thinking that I should be doing more to say “I am doing the best that I can.” That’s all that I ask of my kids, so it’s going to be all that I will require of myself as well.
I’ve only just completed my first semester and I’m sure there will be plenty of times that I will not give myself grace, will not exercise as much as I would like, and will rely on processed food. However, in those times I will try to remember my professor’s sage advice: be okay with the B.