Five years ago, my son Norrin was diagnosed with autism. He was diagnosed the May I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. That September, I started graduate school.
This is the first time in nearly ten years that I’m not trying to juggle being a working mom and college student.
People keep asking me how it feels to be finally finished after spending the last 20 years (yes, 20) in and out of college. Honestly, it feels like something is missing. Which is crazy because I still work full time, have a 7-year-old with autism, and freelance at night – I have plenty to keep me occupied.
And when people ask me how I managed to “do it all.” I usually shrug it off.
Being a college student and mother is a completely different experience. Moms don’t have the luxury of living the life of a student. Being a working mom in college requires a lot of juggling. (And usually opting to wash the dishes instead of read the assigned chapters). It made me think about the last 20 years and how I survived being a working mom and college student. Take a look at my 6 tips to balancing work, parenthood, and school:
1. Be realistic
This was probably the hardest lesson for me. It was tough seeing so many of my classmates graduate and move on while I was left behind. I had to constantly remind myself of our differences. My classmates didn’t have the responsibilities I had. I couldn’t take 3 or 4 classes at a time. I had to take one class a semester. That’s what I knew worked for me.
2. Know your priorities and know they will change
Being a working mom, wife and student wasn’t easy. It was impossible to give 100% to each of my responsibilities all of the time, so I really had to prioritize on a daily basis. I did what I could, when I could. Some nights, I had to skip class to stay late at work or to be with my family. Some weekends, I had to spend a day away from my husband and son to get schoolwork done.
3. Be honest and build a relationship with professors
All of my professors knew I had a young son with autism and that I worked full time during the day. If I had to miss a class for any reason, I emailed them. If I fell behind on readings or assignments, I reached out and asked for an extension. And when I found a relationship that was especially understanding, I registered for their classes again.
4. Plan ahead
I always had a plan. I was always thinking about the next semester. As soon as one semester was over, I was emailing the professors for next semester, inquiring about the syllabus and reading list. If I could purchase books over the break and get a head start, I felt more in control.
5. Know when you need to take a break
It took me 15 years to get my Bachelor’s Degree and another five for my Masters. But I took many, many breaks in between semesters. The constant juggling would become physically and emotionally exhausting. I knew when I was feeling burned out and I knew when I needed time to regroup. After taking a semester off, I’d return feeling refreshed and more motivated then before.
6. Have a support system
I couldn’t have made it through my college years without my support system: my parents, husband, son, and friends. There were so many times when I wanted to quit and give up – they encouraged me to keep going. And toward the end of the semester, when things got really hectic, I knew there were people (my mom and husband) who could help with laundry, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of Norrin. Yes, there were moments when I felt guilty and selfish. And during those moments, my support system reminded me that the time I spent away from Norrin was really all for him.
Earlier this month at a conference, wise Babble contributor, Jeanette Kaplun, said something during a panel discussion that resonated with me. She said, “I believe you can do it all. Just not all by yourself and not all at once.” That’s the attitude a parent needs to have when they make the decision to return to school.