Family, Self

How To Survive College While Married With Children

mom graduating

About five years ago, just after enrolling in graduate school, I read that—for married women—attending graduate school is sometimes the fast road to divorce.


More than two years after finishing my degree, my husband and I are still together—it's been 22 years now—and the D word was only uttered once, in the pitch of (a stupid) battle.

Still, our marriage, and our family, took some hits during those stressful two years while I was overwhelmed with constant deadlines, a towering reading list, a competitive graduate school atmosphere, and anxiety over finances and future job prospects. Our already busy lives teetered into an unsteady juggle to keep our home life, marital relationship and child-rearing in balance. I'm hardly an expert, but I think I learned a few things that might be helpful to other moms who may be contemplating, or just embarking on, a return to academia.

1. Forget gender roles and your usual M.O. Swap chores and responsibilities in a way that makes sense given your new time constraints, regardless of what you and your spouse may have done in the past.

2. Opt out. Learn to say NO to anything that will suck up your time and not serve your goals. I said no to volunteering, work colleagues and even my mother. We all survived and, afterwards, I was able to pick up where I left off. How Yes And No Helped Me Simplify My Life

3. Remember that your education will benefit everyone. If guilt creeps in—about how much time and/or money you are spending on graduate school—remind yourself that an advanced degree, and the example of Mom furthering her education, is a smart move for the entire family. If you're personally happier... if one day you're able to earn more... your spouse and your kids reap those rewards, too.

4. Involve your spouse and kids. My one son mapped out every car trip I took to a far-off conference, campus or meet-up with fellow students. The other liked to set up shop at the card table next to my desk, so that we could do our homework together. My husband happily dragged the boys out for hours on weekends when I needed to hibernate at my desk.

5. Remember who you are. You'll be surrounded by classmates whose lives or status are different from your own. I recall being jealous of classmates who were single, or childless, or retired, or who had spouses also engaged in academic pursuits. It helped to look further and notice others who were juggling full-time jobs, more than two kids and unsupportive spouse.

6. Get help. If you can afford it, pay for childcare, house cleaning, and anything else that will free up your schedule. I couldn't afford any of that, but I learned to ask for and accept help from friends and relatives. I asked a lot, way more than I was used to asking. You know what? I don't think it made anyone think any less of me. People actually want to help others.

7. Schedule couple time. Yep, that old saw about keeping the romantic spark alive in your marriage. We stupidly ignored this advice early on in our parenting days, and when I noticed that grad school was causing us to drift again, we decided that date night was an essential expense, in both time and money. Does Parenthood Mean You're Grounded?

8. Balance is overrated. Achieving something difficult and worthwhile may mean going at it full tilt, and jettisoning other areas of your life. It's okay. It's not forever. Life will go on; accept the craziness. Small things will continue to go wrong. Your husband's company picnic will conflict with your mentor conference. A kid will spike a fever the week you must revise your research paper. Big things may happen, too. My father died during my first semester. When I needed to edit my final thesis, my mother had a heart attack. Yes, I took a break from schoolwork, but only a short one. I reminded myself that derailing my progress would not serve anyone. At those times, the other things on this list got me through. Plus massive amounts of dark chocolate, tissues, a husband who kept saying, "I'll handle that," and two sons who told people, "Mom can't talk now, she's doing homework." How To Find Balance In This Modern World

9. Have Bring Your Family to School Day. If they are old enough, bring your kids—and your spouse, too—to campus. Introduce them around and let them see where you go, who you talk to, how the energy makes you light up.

10. Finally, celebrate. Brag along the way when you score a good grade or get a thumbs-up from a tough professor and, once you complete your degree, throw a party, even if it's only for you, your kids and your husband. You'll all deserve it.