By Amanda Chaulk
I have a friend I have made because our husbands work together and our sons were born 10 days apart. We bonded over baby booties and waddled into each other’s baby showers. She has been great to share stories with on the stresses of motherhood and rearing active boys. For the last two years, I have sat in awe as she took multiple classes each semester to accelerate the completion of her bachelor’s degree.
While I whined about not sleeping and trying to work my day job, she was doing that as well as taking tests, completing papers and studying for art history (by far, her least favorite). Not that she didn’t have some complaints, but she was far busier than me.
When I thought about going back to school, my friend was as a positive role model and showed me it possible to further my education as a working parent. I felt that I could at least take a course if she could complete her entire degree. But I have learned a few things since that innocent, “if she can, I can” impetus. Namely, there were a things I wish I had figured out sooner.
Adult Learners Need to Embrace Flow
This past semester, I was coincidentally reading Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenthood. She describes what psychologists refer to as “flow,” which she calls a state of being where we are “so fortified by our own sense of agency, of mastery, that we lose all sense of our surroundings.”
My student life is squeezed into the moments in between every other responsibility, namely my son’s schedule. It turns out that my sense of mastery of statistics cannot be willed into being at 9 p.m. or the hour of naptime on weekends. Unlike previous classes, that allowed me to put down and pick up the content, statistics mastery required more dedicated chunks of my attention to achieve a flow. I had to switch gears from study plans that were filling up my in-between times, to creating breaks in my work week with vacation days and recruiting my partner to parent solo on weekend days while I took my tests.
How I processed the information for each class I have taken has made a difference in how I have achieved success. Understanding the concept of flow has forced me to create different strategies for different classes and content. Knowing myself, I can make better plans on how to fit everything in.
I feel a bit like Sheryl Sandberg saying this, given what an enormous privilege I have, but my partner makes all the difference in my ability to “do it all.” Not that I didn’t check in with him in advance of signing up for each of these classes, but I did not offer full disclosure on what that was going to look like for him. I simply didn’t know. He works a different shift than I do, so we don’t often get weekend days off together. Little did either of us realize that when we did finally have the same day off during the week, we still wouldn’t be together since I would be studying or taking the exam online at my office.
Gratefully, we have taken these things in stride for the benefits my education provide us. But the short term losses are still real despite the long-term gains. I wish I had known earlier that taking courses would take up the already limited time we spend together. Then I would have been more purposeful about planning date nights or an end-of-the-semester family trip. I owe him and just saying thanks doesn’t always feel sufficient.
Support Systems Matter
Universities are great big places designed with a lot of helpful resources. Even small schools have writing centers and tutors. If you are like me, who even works within the system, you might not realize everything available to students to help you succeed. It took one really bad night at the dining room table over challenging homework to make me finally ask for help. And there was a lot to be had. The department had teaching assistants’ office hours. There were tutors. The instructor was available by Skype and had walk-in office hours. She responded to emails within 24 hours and gave us her cell phone number in case of emergencies (that night at my dinner table would have qualified if I’d had the courage to call her). My classmates posted comments on our online classroom website. My coworkers who had taken the class before me had tips.
The need for help then became more activities to fit into my schedule, but it was worth the effort to reach out. Succeeding in my class did not have to be measured by my ability alone to struggle with the content. I consulted the tutors and made a buddy in class who was also taking the class for work. If only I had used the resources available to me sooner, I would have saved myself some stress… And damage to that dining room table.
Better Luck Next Time
Having had these experiences, I can also see other things I will do in the future. I plan to find a person in my life to be my “accountability partner.” Someone who can be the gym buddy for my education, be it a coworker who relies on what I learn to impact our projects or a classmate with whom I study. That person will count on me to participate in my learning so I will have added incentive to do the work. I am going to find out my friends’ strengths in editing, understanding calculus or making presentations.
If I can enlist others to review my work, my submissions will be stronger for it and I can spread that assistance out among my network. My boss has been an ally, so I will make sure to keep her in the loop on my progress so she can feel rewarded for supporting my efforts.
Balance is a tricky thing to define generically. What looks like balance for me may not be the same for everyone who attempts to go to school while working. My housekeeping has definitely suffered in this process, but I’m grateful that no one in my house cares that much. The overachiever in me wants to truly understand each homework assignment and not do just enough to get a decent grade, but maybe balance is letting a few assignments be “good enough” for more time cleaning those dishes/children/clothing.
For whatever it is worth, I have learned to assess the course content for my ability to reach “flow,” know to plan for quality time with my family since it won’t be quantity time and will ask for help and use the resources available to me. These things I’ve learned.