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Making it Work: Balancing Mom Life and Student Life

October 9, 2023
Jeanne Chang MS, RN, CNOR
Image Credit: Jeanne Chang MS, RN, CNOR

Higher education isn’t for me – or at least, that’s what I thought growing up. Funnily enough, I ended up acquiring multiple degrees, viewing each one as a necessary evil to advance my career. It made sense, and it was always an easy decision to go back to school; except when my daughter was born.

The nursing field always promotes higher education, and I drank the Kool Aid. In the back of my mind, I knew one day I would go back to school for my master’s degree. I wasn’t in a rush and was adamant that I wouldn’t go back to school until I was certain of my concentration because I knew I would not do well – unless I was passionate about what I was studying. I eventually found a field that sparked the passion that justified returning to school. I was excited to start my new journey and as luck would have it, I found out I was pregnant. In hindsight, I’m sure I could have gone back to school during my pregnancy – but at the time, I was scared of the unknown and decided to put my career on hold.

Fast forward to about two months after the birth of my daughter; I started to reconsider going back to school. During my maternity leave, I tested the waters and decided to study for my certification exam. Passing the exam gave me the confidence I was lacking and I started discussions with my partner about pursuing my master's degree. I expressed my concerns about abandoning my daughter, my life and adding a financial burden to our lives. My partner is always supportive with my career goals and is always confident in my ability to perform my best at work - he’s my biggest cheerleader and fan. This was no different and during one of our discussions about pursuing my masters degree, I asked how we would survive as a family and he confidently said, “We’ll make it work.” Those words haunted us for the next three years.

Being a mom while pursuing this degree truly added a layer of complexity that I never anticipated. Whenever I hear a mom friend going back to school, my heart aches for her because I know how hard the journey will be. The difficulties don’t just lay in the day-to-day logistics but also in maintaining your most treasured relationships. Guilty and tired are the two words I would use to describe the journey. I felt guilty not spending enough time with my daughter, my partner, my family and friends. I felt guilty not being my usual 100% at my job because my brain was stretched in all different directions. I felt guilty ordering lunch when I should have saved money to pay back my student loans. I felt guilty being too tired to stay up with my daughter. People always spoke about being overly tired during the newborn phase but I found my daughter’s toddler phase to be incredibly tiresome, and it felt like it was never going to end. During this time I was still working 12 hour shifts and there were times where I came home and took a nap after dinner and thought to myself, “who naps at 9pm?”. I had a brief break from this endless cycle right before my last semester, due to Covid. Everything stopped and classes went virtual for a few months. Although Covid was devastating for so many, I finally had a moment to breathe and enjoy my time with my family. I treasured this time as I knew school would pick up again. My last semester came and went. Pretty soon my daughter and I were both wearing graduation caps. She was celebrating her first year of school, Pre-K, as I was celebrating my last year of school (I have no intention of pursuing another degree).

As I’m approaching almost two years since my last day of class, I cannot be prouder that I completed this journey. I always say this is the hardest degree I’ve ever worked for - not because of the coursework but because I had to find my way of balancing work and life. When people ask how I managed to do it all, I do offer some guidance but with a disclaimer that what may work for me may not work for them as everyone’s personal lives are so different. I also caution them that it will be hard and there will be many times where you may question yourself – but in the end, you will make it to the other side. The following are some ways that helped me survive one of the most difficult journeys of my life.

Outsource (when you can).

Growing up, I spent every Sunday helping my parents clean the house. I never considered cleaning services…until I went back for my master’s. I was drowning in schoolwork and a messy, dirty house. My partner finally suggested that we hire a cleaning person and since I pulled the trigger, I never looked back. Every cleaning session feels like a luxurious gift to myself. There were also times when I could not keep up with the grocery shopping and we were constantly ordering takeout. Pretty soon, my partner was whipping up meals from every meal service available (Home Chef, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh). By year two of my master’s program, I learned how to incorporate cooking back into my life. This was especially important as cooking is therapy for me, but I still struggled with grocery shopping so I started subscribing to Misfits Market, an organic produce delivery service. I now use Imperfect Foods, a similar service, as my schoolwork has been replaced by attending my daughter’s many extracurricular activities. With that said, each of these services quickly added to our monthly expenses and I tried to find a balance; there were some months that we would live in a messier home to space out the cleaning sessions. Some months, we went on grocery dates instead of using our food subscription boxes. 

Make time for relationships – with yourself, partner, family, and friends.

This may sound a bit cliché, but these relationships were the key to maintaining my mental health. I made it a priority to carve out time for each person in my life, especially myself. It might not have been every day, but periodically I would check in with each of my treasured family members and friends. I also tried to do it strategically. For example, I would try to set up group dinners so that I could catch up with several friends at once. I would go on weekly visits to see my grandpa with my mom and grandma so I could spend time with them together. I would go grocery shopping with my partner alone and have lunch or dinner to make it feel like a date. I made sure to have dates with my daughter, too, so she would know how special she was to me. It may sound tiring, but I always felt energized after spending time with my family and friends. Keep in mind though, that if you’ve been neglecting your relationship with yourself, you shouldn’t hesitate to decline a social invitation so that you can have that rare and treasured alone time. 

Accept help.

When it comes to carving out time for yourself, it often requires support from family members and friends. Over the years, I learned that this is the key to surviving motherhood, regardless of my student status. At first, I felt guilty that I could not do it all on my own (cook, clean, work, and parent), but I realized that in denying the support offered to me, I was ruining my relationship with myself. Now when my mother offers to babysit, I am likely to accept and take the time to do something for myself. It could be running an errand, catching up with my favorite show or making my favorite meal that my daughter hates so that I can also fill my cup before I pour.

Find your source of energy.

School drained me physically and mentally. During one of my annual physical exams, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. This motivated me to limit my main energy source: coffee. I wanted to find other sources of energy which led me to Peloton. I had a hard time fitting in trips to the gym and work out classes, but Peloton introduced me to home workouts and a new source of physical and mental energy; even short, 20-minute workouts gave me an energy boost. It’s important to note that everyone is different and exercise may not give you the energy you need to survive a semester, so the key is to explore and experiment with different options and see what works for you.

I will always look back to the journey of pursuing my master’s degree with the utmost respect as I recall the blood, sweat and tears I put into achieving what felt like the impossible: finishing school. I never sugarcoat this journey as it put a tremendous strain on my relationships and I missed out on many important moments; but now that it is over, it feels like a very short time in my life and at times I almost forget how long it felt. Higher education is not for everyone, and I would not recommend it to anyone who is not 100% committed to the program. In the end, my partner was right - we did make it work (with the help of the tips mentioned above) - and I’m glad I made the decision to go back to school as it has opened many doors for my career. Most importantly, it allowed me to show my daughter that there will be hard times in life but once you get through those times, it will give you the strength to do anything!

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