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!

League of Student Moms: Jen

My friend Jen is amazing. She's had quite an adventure over the past couple of years, including pursuing a nursing degree, founding a magnet school, and leaping into single parenthood. It's fitting to post this interview this week because I am thankful for her friendship and example. She's a hero of mine and recently she took a break to answer my questions about being a mom and student:

Tell us about yourself and your family:  I’m a new single mom of 3 kids—14 year old girl, 11 year old boy, 7 year old boy.  I started going back to school about 4 ½ years ago.  I started out with one class at a time and have been going full-time for 2 years.  I went through a divorce last year and managed to survive, stay in school, and even do well in school.  I think this is one of my proudest achievements.  

Favorite word? vapid

What led you to decide to go “back to school”?   I had been looking for my ideal career for 10 years after I stopped working to be home with my kids.  I have always loved medicine and hospitals and toyed with nursing one semester the first time around in college, but it didn’t seem to fit at the time.  When my youngest was 2, I came across a nursing program that seemed the ideal fit and it was like lightening struck.  I knew I needed to go to nursing school

What are you studying and where?  What topics in particular are your passions? Nursing at Westminster College in SLC.  I LOVE pediatrics and OB/Gyn.  These are my two passions.

What do you envision after you’re through being a student?  Finally working and being paid (I’ve been doing volunteer/non-paying work for 12 years…)

What’s a typical day for you?  Up at 6 am to get 14 year old up and off to school, get myself and my 2 boys out the door by 8:05 am.  Go to lecture or clinicals.  If it’s a clinical day, my day starts a little earlier.  Race home to be home when my kids walk in the door from school.  Everyone does homework, piano, etc. Try to fit in making dinner somewhere in there.  If it’s a sports event day for the 14 year old, drive to her meet or game sometimes up to 45 minutes away.  Get everyone in bed by 9 pm. 

How do you blend motherhood and studenthood, both on a practical level and a life-balance one ?  I try to get as much studying and homework done before my kids come home from school so that when I am with my kids, I am focused on being a mother.  I compartmentalize very well.  School usually stays at school, home is at home. 

What items or practices/habits could you not live without?  My purple calendar book, it keeps me on track of where I need to be and when.  My cell phone, I stay in touch with my kids and family thru text (have to admit sometimes during class)

Who are your real life heroes? Favorite heroes in fiction?  The women I have met along my journey who balance their education, careers, and their families.  Annie is one of them. My mom is another of my heroes.  She went back to get her master’s degree when I was in high school and she had 5 kids at home, had to commute 2 hours to the university where she was going to school, and she stuck with it and graduated the same year I graduated from college. I haven’t had time to read fiction for a while so…

What books are on your nightstand?

How to Forgive Others

A couple of Thomas Friedman books (The World is Flat)

What Happy Couples Do

Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories of Healing

Who comprises your support system?  My family, both immediate and extended, my neighbors, friends, and the other non-traditional students in my program. 

What inspires you, creatively, academically, spiritually or emotionally?  I love looking at the sky at night, watching the phases of the moon.  It sounds weird, but I find it calming. 

 If a prospective student who is also a mom contacted you and asked for advice, what would you say?  Try to stay balanced.  It’ll be hard and there will be periods where you can’t be balanced, but make sure you’re present for those important events in your children’s lives, and are there to listen at night when they need a listening ear.  And get sleep.  All nighters aren’t worth it when you’re older.

League of Student Moms: Bridget

For the next installment of the League of Student Moms, we're chatting with Bridget, a nurse who recently decided to return to school for graduate work in public health. I've known Bridget for quite a few years: about a year in person when we both lived in Massachusetts and several more long-distance years of keeping in touch via blogs, facebook, and twitter.  I've always admired her verve and enthusiasm and optimism, which comes through loud and clear in her interview:

Tell us about yourself and your family. I’ve been married 15 years and have three kids ages 10, 8 and 6. 

Favorite word? courageous

Least favorite word? lazy

What led you to decide to go “back to school”? How old were you?  Just this year! I’m 36 yrs old. Going to graduate school has always been a dream of mine. I decided one morning the time was now. My kids were old enough and I was looking for some other fulfillment. This was it!

What are you studying and where?  What topics in particular are your passions? I am pursing a masters degree in public health at Oregon Health and Sciences University. I am passionate about serving the underprivileged in society. I would love to do international work if those doors open up. 

What do you envision after you’re through being a student? Don’t know! Maybe this is why people think it’s a little odd I’m in school. I love the process. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the end result as I go along. [Editor's note: I have to admit that one of my least favorite questions, as a grad school mom, is "so what are ya going to do with that?" so I tried to phrase it a little differently here. I love Bridget's take on it, about loving the process and figuring it out as she goes along. I'm going to channel her the next time I'm asked]

What’s a typical day for you? Up between 5:30 and 6am. Read scriptures as a family, piano practicing, get kids off to school. Exercise. Read. Errands. All the usual mom stuff. I try to get school reading done at the start of the day when my brain is more fresh. As soon as the kids are home from school I forget (or at least try) about my own assignments and concentrate on helping them and getting them where they need to go.

How do you blend motherhood and studenthood, both on a practical level and a life-balance one? Don’t have too much advice here as I have only one week of graduate school under my belt so far! I’d say just being organized with my time. Write everything down. Try to stick to it but not get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan.

Who are your real life heroes? Helen Keller. She had every reason to lead a life of low expectations but she worked hard and achieved great things.

What books are on your nightstand?  How to Read a Paper: the basics of evidence based medicine, Epidemiology, Evidence based practice in public health. Flu Epidemic 1918-1919

Have you had a time when your home and student lives collided? not yet.

Who comprises your support system? family and a few close friends. Mostly my husband. Yeah. 99% husband. He’s the greatest.

What inspires you, creatively, academically, spiritually or emotionally?  Surrounding myself by inspiring people. Reading about them. 

If a prospective student who is also a mom contacted you and asked for advice, what would you say? One thing. You can do it!

The League of Student+Moms

I love hearing about other student moms. I want to know what fuels their days, why they went back to school, what the school~family blend looks like for them. I'm inspired to hear about others' triumphs and challenges and comforted to know I'm not alone. To that end, I'm starting a periodic feature here on Student+Mom: an interview series of other grad school moms, a virtual support network I am lovingly calling The League of Student+Moms (isn't there something superheroic about that?).

First up, Sarah Jones. I've never met her but I'd sure like to! (I keep telling her we should be neighbors. That's not creepy, is it?) I love her blog Unhistoric Acts and you will, too. Meet Sarah:

Tell me about yourself and your family: I’m a 39-year-old mother of four. I’m a wife of 20 years! My family and I live in Cypress, Texas, just outside of Houston. In most respects we are living an idyllic suburban existence, although from time to time my husband and I daydream of a loft in Manhattan. Currently I’m a PhD student in English literature at Texas A&M University. This means that I divide my time between my academic life and nurturing, shuttling, and negotiating with and for my kids.  It’s fun and exhausting. Did I mention exhausting?

Favorite word? I have a ton of favorite words, and I’m rather fickle. My favorite word changes almost daily. However, today, my favorite word is oddy knocky. I just read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, where he creates an alternate teen dialect/slang language. ‘Oddy knocky’ means ‘by myself,” as in “I have to complete this interview on my oddy knocky.” Try it. You’ll like it.

Least favorite word? Plethora. This is a word that high school English teachers impress upon students as a “smart” word. Oh, and they use it. And use it. Now, every time I read the word ‘plethora’ in a student paper I want to stick a screwdriver in my ear. It’s an okay word, but there is no need to use it 27 times in one paper. Really. 

What led you to decide to go “back to school”? How old were you? Seriously, I wanted to go back to school almost as soon as I graduated with my undergrad degree. My dream career has always been to be a professor of English, but I was unsure about how I would negotiate family along with a lengthy education. I felt my husband and I should start a family, and, silly me, I didn’t think I could have babies AND go to grad school. I was slightly (meaning majorly) conflicted about my role as a woman and as a wife and as a mother. However, when I was 32 I pulled myself together and my husband and I pieced together a diabolical plan. We sold our house, moved our family, and he worked on his MBA while I did my Masters in English. It was the best two years ever! After we both graduated (and desperately needed a steady income again) we moved to Houston, and I worked on getting our family settled. Then I had to go through the entire process again (finding a program, figuring out a schedule for my kids, applying). I started my PhD program when I was 36. No, I was not given a senior citizen’s discount.

What are you studying and where?  What topics in particular are your passions?I’m currently in my fourth year of the PhD program in English literature at Texas A&M University. My area of specialty is the Contemporary British Anglophone novel. My passion definitely lies in feminist studies, particularly identity theory, and thus…I’m writing my dissertation on Contemporary Feminine Identity in the Neo-Victorian Novel, which has a lot to say on the tension between domestic and feminist concerns. 

What do you envision after you’re through being a student? Huh? Will that ever happen? No. Seriously. It will happen. Right? RIGHT?

THE plan is to get a tenure-track professorship. My first choice would be to teach at BYU, but if BYU won’t have me, then I am currently nurturing the idea of moving to Maine. I want to teach literature, raise goats, knit, and be an all-around good, liberal hippy. And if that doesn’t work out, then I plan to milk a post-doctoral fellowship for as along as I can. 

What’s a typical day for you? I teach seminary from 6:00-6:50 AM. Say what? I come home, pack my nine-year-old’s lunch and send him out the door to school with his dad. I answer e-mail and play on the computer for as long as I can let myself, and then I pull out the books and either read (for my exams) or write (for my dissertation) until the kids get home at 2:45. Then I do the kid thing (drive carpool, attend soccer practice, run to the store for last minute project materials, make dinner, tell everyone to brush their teeth multiple times). This semester I’m only teaching on Wednesdays, so on those days I drive 70 miles to College Station, hold office hours, teach my class, drive home, and possibly act very grumpy to my cute family.

Sarah's workspace at home

How do you blend motherhood and studenthood, both on a practical level and a life-balance one? Most of the time I find it a fairly good and interesting blend. The two roles seem to complement each other. For instance, when I’m writing a paper, nothing sounds more fun than cooking a big dinner or crafting with my girls or even organizing the pantry. And conversely, after a full day of taxi driving, I can’t wait to get home, pull out my books, and read some literary theory.

Practically speaking, I couldn’t be a student without a lot of cooperation from my kids and husband. I have found that this is good for everyone. The kids are forced to see me as a genuine person with hopes, frustrations, deadlines…just like them. As you might imagine, the practical part of attending to classes and assignments doesn’t always work as planned (like last Wednesday for example), but for the most part we make it work. 

From a life-balance perspective, I generally think I’m striking a fantastic balance until BOOM, I realize that I’m really not. There are times when a perfect balance just isn’t possible, when I have to work every second of every day, and when I find that I’m performing poorly in just about every area of my life. Those days I feel sorry for myself for an hour or two, then I pick myself up and keep on keeping on. Things generally work themselves out from there. 

Who are your real life heroes? Favorite heroes in fiction? My real life heroes are those women who have managed to carve out an intellectual life for themselves despite social constraints, family obligations, and a limitless list of difficulties. My thesis chair for my Masters degree was such a woman. She raised her boys as a single mom while working towards tenure. I’m equally inspired by a number of female theorists who have had the intellect and insight to theorize on the positioning of women in our culture. Many of these women (like Simone de Bouvoir, or Nancy Chodorow, or Cora Kaplan, to name only a few) have dedicated their entire lives to this cause. And really, honestly, I’m inspired by the everyday women around me who work tirelessly to give to their families and their community.

As for my fictional heroes, I’m inspired by the heroines of George Eliot, but ultimately disappointed by their prescribed Victorian outcomes. I love the women of Margaret Atwood, particularly in The Robber’s Bride. Her characters aren’t always strong, and dauntless, or leave me awestruck, but they are real and engaged with contemporary matters that are important to women.

What books are on your nightstand? Well, I’m in the last few weeks before my big examinations, so my nightstand is definitely theory heavy. Right now I’m working on Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and  Joan W. Scott, and The Politics of Postmodernism by Linda Hutcheon. In my real life, I read a lot of contemporary British fiction like Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid.

Have you had a time when your home and student lives collided? Collision is my middle name. This semester, for instance, every one of my 13-year-old daughter’s cross country meets are on Wednesday afternoons – the only day I teach. Awesome. Several years ago, before my own kids were old enough to babysit, time management became very tricky. My husband and I had to time our schedules down to the last minute to make sure one of us was home with the kids. That was sticky. And yucky. Now I have three babysitters and one driver. Still, nothing really substitutes for mom. This means less physical collision but more emotional crashes. Lovely. 

Who comprises your support system? My husband is my primary support system. He’s always been very willing to adjust his schedule to accommodate my school needs. This doesn’t mean he always CAN adjust his schedule, but he has a great attitude about my schooling. For instance, on Wednesday afternoons he gets home at 3:00 so he can pick up my son from the elementary school. Then he handles the afternoon activities and dinner. It’s nice, really. I also have a number of neighbors who are willing to trade carpooling to help me out. They have been a lifesaver on a number of occasions.

What inspires you, creatively, academically, spiritually or emotionally? Creatively and emotionally I’d have to say I’m inspired by a number of the blogs I read daily. Seriously. I love peeking into the lives of others, catching a glimpse of their talents, struggles and triumphs, and then applying what I’ve learned in my own life. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, I tune into my favorite blogs and realize that I need to get kicking.

Speaking spiritually, I’m teaching a religious class this year that has given me some much-needed perspective. The other night I was cratering. I was tired, over-stressed, and still needed to prepare for my religious class. To say the least, I had a bad attitude. But my preparations led me to a video on Emma Smith, and immediately I felt a turn-around inside of me. Thanks Emma.

If a prospective student who is also a mom contacted you and asked for advice, what would you say? My advice would really depend on the type of program she was interested in. You must be completely committed to the process. I recently had a friend express interest in doing graduate work in English, but when I questioned her further, she wasn’t sure that she really wanted to be an English professor. My advice to her was this, “If this isn’t your fondest dream, if you are not willing to devote every spare minute to this pursuit, then you will never make it through.” I know that sounds harsh, but it’s a demanding program that doesn’t cater to commuters, or moms, or last minute sick kids. With that said, I do believe this was the very best choice for me. I believe that the work is accessible to anyone willing to put in the hours. I wouldn’t choose anything else, but I wanted this with every part of me…and really…it’s taken every part of me to see me through. 

Thanks, Sarah! I swiped some photos from your blog, okay?