League of Student Moms: Jessica

In a stroke of forever luck, I met Jessica on the first day of doctoral student orientation and immediately wanted to get to know her. Besides the fact that she was one of the only other mothers in the PhD program, I could immediately sense her warmth, smarts, and sense of humor. It was like finding your new best friend on the first day of camp!  

Jess inspires me. She's a psychotherapist who has worked with children and families, childcare programs, and school systems for over 15 years. She's devoted her studies and career to understanding and promoting resilience and infant/early childhood mental health, particularly in cases of child maltreatment. Besides all of the above, she is a wise, true, and insightful friend so naturally I wanted to share her insights here:

Tell us about yourself and your family:  I am a 40-year-old mother of two: a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. My husband and I have been married for 17 years and we live in a suburban Massachusetts.

Favorite word? Nuance

Least favorite word? Dissertation (kidding, I think)

What led you to decide to go “back to school”? How old were you?  I had always dreamed about getting a doctorate, but I wanted to wait until both my children were in public school to begin so that I wouldn’t miss those early years with them, although I continued to work part-time until then.  I was a child and family psychotherapist and mental health consultant (MSW) in early education and care before that time, but eventually thought I would teach in higher education.

What are you studying and where?  What topics in particular are your passions? I am currently an advanced doctoral student in developmental psychology at Tufts University.  I study and teach resilience through the lifespan, that is, I am interested in how many people manage to live positive, satisfying lives in the face of adversity or trauma.

What do you envision after you’re through being a student?  Hopefully this student will become the teacher, although also remain a student for life!

What’s a typical day for you?  I think that part of the challenge of the student-mother lifestyle is the lack of anything “typical”, since I have spent time doing many different things (coursework, teaching, research, etc.).  However, there’s also some good flexibility in that, which means I can present at a professional conference one day and chaperone a school field trip another. 

These days, a “typical” schedule is: get up at 5:30, wake up, get my kids off to school, deal with e-mails while they are getting dressed, developing a lecture for my class or teaching my class, working out in my basement, going to a meeting related to my research, running data analyses for my dissertation, carpooling to one of my kids’ activities, grabbing some food at the market, trying to get some sort of dinner on the table, hanging out with the family, grading papers or doing some other sort of work in the evening, crashing in front of the tv, and, if I still have the energy, trying to read more than 5 pages in a book before I fall asleep.  Repeat.

How do you blend motherhood and studenthood, both on a practical level and a life-balance one? The one thing I have learned is that the balance is an ongoing process that demands flexibility, rather than simply being a puzzle that can be solved.  Every few months I have to shift a bit—whether it’s finding time to go out to dinner with friends, getting a babysitter to spend time with my husband, giving up a piece of work in order to spend more time with the kids, or deciding to spend extra time working on something important for a period of time. 

As I get older I am realizing more and more that this is the life that I have and that, if I don’t find a way to create balance (including time for connecting with friends and relaxing), life will just pass me by.  I am always thinking, “I’ll just get through this one period and then I’ll attend to X, Y, or Z”, but that can be a neverending pursuit, especially for a type-A personality. 

One thing I continue to struggle with is whether to do a sprint or a marathon.  In other words, do I work really hard to finish this degree so that I can get back to spending more time with the family, or do I go at a more leisurely pace with the degree so that I can spend more time with them in an ongoing way?  I answer this question differently depending on what day you ask me, but the answer probably lies somewhere in between the two.

What items or practices/habits could you not live without?  I don’t think I could live without the practice of trying to “live in the moment.”  It’s important to me that when I’m with the kids, I’m really with them, when I’m out with my husband, I’m focused on really being present, and when I’m working, I can give myself to the work fully.  It’s not that I achieve this sort of Zen all of the time, but I can live with my choices better when I am able to accomplish this goal at least some of the time.

Who are your real life heroes? Favorite heroes in fiction?  Maya Angelou is a real hero of mine—she’s been through such adversity in her life and yet is not bitter.  She is warm and open, yet an inspiring social activist. Jeanette Walls, who wrote The Glass Castle, is another woman who has really impressed me by triumphing over a very difficult childhood by finding success and life satisfaction.

I don’t tend to connect to fictional characters very often—I’m a true lover of non-fiction! 

What books are on your nightstand?  What books are not on my nightstand?!  Seriously, I have four piles stacked about 8-10 books high.  My appetite for good books is completely inconsistent with the time I have to read them, so I just keep collecting.  I am currently reading From Homeless to Harvard, a memoir about resilience—go figure!  But, I also have Jeanette Wall’s second book, Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood, and Lit by Mary Karr beckoning me. 

I won’t even get started on the books and articles for my dissertation that are sitting on my desk—can’t wait to dive into Understanding Child Maltreatment and Applied Linear Statistical Models?

Have you had a time when your home and student lives collided?  When don’t they collide?  I didn’t get the memo.

Who comprises your support system?  I really need time with the people I love in order to survive this crazy balance.  I suppose it’s one of the ways I’m willing to “spoil” myself.  We have a babysitter every other Saturday so that my husband and I can go out alone or with friends.  I have lunch or dinner with at least one friend or relative every week, and our family spends time together on the weekend. 

It makes for a busy schedule and I often have an initial sense of regret that I made plans and can’t just fall down on the couch, but I always feel more grounded and enlivened after sitting down for a chat.

What inspires you, creatively, academically, spiritually or emotionally?  I am inspired by so many things every day that my problem is usually finding a way to limit myself to more manageable aspirations.  I am not an especially spiritual person, but I believe in the power of positive relationships, so I suppose this is a common underlying theme in what inspires me—whether its doing work that benefits more than just me, connecting with people I love, or cooking for others.  And, on the less profound side, I am a very happy camper when I have a little time to just get silly with my family.

If a prospective student who is also a mom contacted you and asked for advice, what would you say?  I’m not sure there’s a universal piece of advice I would give, since I think so much of what makes for the right balance is specific to the needs of any particular individual and family.  For me, the best advice would have been to know ahead of time that I wouldn’t get the balance right all of the time, but that this doesn’t mean that I have failed or irreparably damaged my children.  Rebalancing is what it’s all about and if I can forgive myself for my mistakes and shortcomings, the work of shifting in a better direction seems to go more smoothly.  Believe me, I am still working on it!

Thanks, Jess!