Parenting and Grad School: Some Surprises

When I took the GRE, three weeks after I gave birth, my biggest concern wasn’t so much passing the test, as finding a place to pump breastmilk before I spent well over 3 hours in a room in front of a computer away from my son.

That’s the sort of surprise I’ve run into continually as I make my way through my part-time master’s program.

I thought finding time to study would be an issue, but between naps, bedtime at 7:30 pm, and babysitters, the real issue has been finding time to think coherently.

I wake up in the morning with my mommy pants on (that look suspiciously like sweatpants), make breakfast and read a half dozen Curious George books.  Then I get the kid set up with his train set, and sneak in a few paragraphs of my latest text book.  When he needs a snack, I stop underlining, and start making a peanut butter jelly sandwich.

After cooing through “The Wheels on the Bus” to send him off to nap, I switch into grad assistant gear at 1:30 and spend time collating, updating social media, and doing mailing list material.

While I’m making dinner, I’m planning how to respond to the latest case study post on the online discussion board.  When my son is brushing his teeth with daddy, I’m packing my school bag to get in a few hours of study and reading at the library – or I’m heading to class with peers who have just put in 8 hours at their jobs, a whole different environment.

It can be pretty difficult (for me) to transition between these different type of thinking and the differences in reacting to scholarly vs. juvenile literature.  In fact, the surprising thing I’ve learned is how to re-frame my mindset in order to get work done to switch between strategic thinking, planning, or simply being creative.  This act of switching gears, I think, could help me in the long run.

Unfortunately, another surprise is that it requires a tremendous amount of mental energy to switch between these types of thought.  I’ve learned it’s pretty necessary to take the first five to ten  minutes to identify the goals of the study session and how I’m going to achieve them.  It’s also necessary to identify time when some thoughts won’t be allowed to intrude, or I won’t allow myself to access certain materials (eg: facebook!). Since much of my work happens at home: the site of school, parenting, writing, relaxing, and work, It’s very easy (too easy!) to let boundaries blur into each other.  It takes a little lot of work to get those boundaries to the perfect state of impermeability.

If you’re a parent looking to start grad school, as well as stay home with your (young) children, I recommend recognizing that the mental effort involved is totally different than either working, or school sans offspring – BUT – It’s not the type of difficult you might be expecting.


The Power of 15 Minutes

“In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”
-from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  by TS Eliot.

I have often been put the question, by well meaning pastors, small group leaders, and teachers – Which do you spend the most time thinking about? The past, the present, the future?

My answer has always been the future.

I look forward to birthdays, summer, the next course to enroll in, books to be read, the completion of personal projects and trips to be taken.  I look forward to the time when breakfast will be done, and its time to drink coffee.  When my son and I stop reading books and start playing trucks.

So often, then, I bump up into these no-mans-land moments.  Maybe they are what some people call “the present.”  That point of transition where the crescendo of laughter at a water fight has died away, and the howling of the diaper change has yet to begin.  The uncanny silence when the last few murmurs of smallonetalkingtohimself has faded into naptime, and I can hear the tap of the keys on the computer, looking looking looking through the newsfeed for something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I take notes on what I want to do between 1pm and 3:30 pm.

And that moment.  That little moment right there, when I put the pen down – or sometimes, the moment when I’m just staring at the ceiling, lying on our couch (which needs to be vacuumed of the little cheerios I can feel in my back).

That moment is the most important.

In that moment, the beginning of the most important 15 minutes happens. 

I find myself here, at this crossroads a handful of times a day, asking myself the same questions.

The Persistence of Memory. Salvador Dali. From

Do I dive in to what I have been planning? – To read the next chapter of my textbook –  To start on the next task – the one I’ve been planning my day around, the grudging needling feeling that I should finish whatever to do list I started yesterday the day before or last month.

Do I succumb to the tiredness?  Tired of following plans!  Of being an adult! Of cleaning!  Of measuring my life in coffee spoons!

Do I escape – in the depressant of this season of life? – be it novels, or TV, or sleep or  (fill in your own latest “bad habit” or “guilty pleasure.”)

Or can I, as I’ve learned and I’m learning – in these pangs of growing up – to simply take fifteen minutes – to breathe – to sort through the bubbling pot of emotions, and move on.  To do what needs to be done, or to undo what was already done.

The power of 15 minutes – which path do I take?  The path of productivity?  The path of escape?

And are there… is there… any other choice?

Best Toys for Curious Toddlers

If the work of the toddler is play, that it’s important that there are plenty of toys to play with.  And though you can play with anything, in my mind, there is certainly a hierarchy of toys.

For example:

The All Day Toy – that we play with every day, bring to the park, and don’t leave home without!

Green Toys Recycling Truck

Natural Toys – Including the sticks on the ground, and the pudding box, and rice in a tupperware container (when I’ve got the patience for cleaning)

The basic idea of a sensory bucket – via

The Last Minute Toy – Which is the toy you bought as you were running errands and something caught your eye across the store, and what the heck, it was only a buck anyway but it turns out he really likes it. Yes, from Target.

The Go to Book – We read this every day.

The Crafty Mommy Toy – which I generally covet on Pinterest, but when it comes to spending three hours tracking down all the details, or making the pieces I find I have less interest in.  (We’re saving paper towel tubes for this and other cool things)

And what I recently realized is a category all of it’s own – The Surprise Toy.

On Saturday on the way home from an Essex County Trails and Sails event I saw a sign for an Estate Sale two blocks away.

I couldn’t resist (mainly because we’ve often marvelled at the triple story open back porch on the rear side of the house, and the semi-dilapidated appearance.  And… contrary to popular opinion “Estate Sale” is actually the English language’s most beautiful phrase.)

And it indeed was the quintessential estate sale, goods gathered and saved for the past century;  much that was not in good condition.  There were dresses from the late thirties and forties, humble crockery, steamer trunks, molding books on Cold War era politics and much much more.

But we only had a few minutes before the napping hour was upon us, so the run through was tremendously brief. We left with four books and a $5 buck bag of boxes because I love small dainty things.

If was only after the nap that I realized that 20 small boxes are the best toys for a toddler, either a boy or girl!  So much fine motor activity involved in taking lids off and replacing them, opening and closing hinges, hiding smaller boxes in larger boxes.  I highly recommend starting your own collection of small boxes.

(not the happiest face… but only because he is getting in molars.)

And I look forward to doing plenty of sorting activities – by shape (circle, square, rectangle) and material (plastic, metal, wood) and by opening method (hinge, twist, and slide)

Like this post?  Consider Reading: Making a Container Garden

PS:  That small metal box with the writing claims to be pre- 1900s (or at least the contents were patented then and can be found in much better condition on this site.)

Being a Grad School Parent

So, now I’m a graduate student and a stay-at-home-mom with a near-15 month old.

How did this happen?!

I’ve been trying this role and idea on for about 12 months, and it’s been one tiny toe into the giant lake of academia each month.  I’ve written a little bit about my mixed feelings about college at all here.  I’m also fairly certain that I told some of my college friends to talk some sense into me if I ever tried to go to grad school.  None of them have turned up yet though with a well thought out argument or a swift kick to the head. I’m not yet sure they won’t.

I decided to look into graduate school March 2011 when I was six months pregnant and contemplating the options of being a stay at home mother, returning to work at my current occupation, or well, something else.  I chose something else.  I took my GRE exam a mere six weeks after giving birth.  Yes, I did all my studying as I struggled through nights where I didn’t string together more than three hours of sleep in a row.  Thank God that’s over.

I made the decision to apply thinking about the flexibility of staying home and balancing study during naps.  It’s also easy for me to make the choice to see friends during the day, and study at night.  Something that full time graduate students, or full time career/students don’t always have the option for.  It’s important to me that I don’t sacrifice friendships (which I just wrote about last week) for a life of studying!  I also had the hope of returning to work when my son is ready for pre-school in a new and exciting career. In short, it seemed like good timing.

I got accepted in the MS of Industrial Organizational Psychology program in November of 2011.  I took my first class this spring, and it wasn’t difficult – in fact, I’m fairly certain it was deceptively light on the readings.  I took my second class in the summer – six weeks of statistics, about 20 hours of work per week.  That was more what I imagined as I balanced study during naptime, church commitments, and the excitement of starting a new blog with my friends.

This fall, I’m taking two classes (yes, it’s part time) and completing 10 work study hours per week.  As I’m sitting down this week counting up the hours of my time I’ve committed to school and other projects, drafting out nights to study, and nights to relax, and compiling a list of questions to ask potential babysitters, I decided to google “grad school parenting” to find out what others suggest and recommend.

How Common is This?

This article for example says there aren’t that many doctoral student mothers.  I don’t quite fit into this category anyway, since I’m not intending to complete a doctorate. (But, well, that’s what I said about a Masters Degree too, so we’ll see about that. Eventually.) In my anecdotal experience I know two other stay at home student-mothers.  I’ve heard from several middle aged women that that was the route they chose. I also really enjoyed the comments in response to this article about how one person handled the balance.

How do you do it?

I’m interested to know this as it relates to me, but also, how it relates to any intellectual who is also a parent.  A lot of grad school (or any job) is finding someone to care for the children, and getting a good idea of how much time it takes you to do a project then being sure you’re ready at that time to tackle the project.

However, particularly with intellectual and artistic projects (writing, composing, studying all come to mind) there’s a little something else that goes into the mix. Call it creativity, insight, or real learning if you want.  How do you get that if so much your day is the taken up in the same fifteen phrases, the liturgy of parenting (as this blogger puts it)?  I feel as though I often spend so much of my best “thinking hours” enjoying the simplicity of the park and taking care of activities of daily living.

When it comes time to study at night my brain is exhausted. I want it to be different, but it often isn’t.  That’s what I’m looking for as I balance parenting and grad school – the intersection between integrating and compartmentalizing my different roles in life – allowing real thought to happen amidst some of the more mindless aspects of parenting.

Do you experience difficulty being creative after caring for a small child, or turning out your “best work” no matter what that might be.  What are your thoughts on this?

A toast: to the romantics among us

I am often blown away by the beauty that romantic people see in the world and their inner eyes for capturing the emotions of love and remembrance.  I am trying to see the world a bit more like that this summer.

I like to glimpse a little bit through their eyes what they see, and I’m glad for the vision they share.  Reading Gilead by Marilyn Robinson I felt summer breezes, hot days in Kansas, the heaviness and delight of shared communion, and the depth of love for one’s children.  I find myself reading letters by another bloggers – sweet epistles to not-yet-physically-conceived children.  I see what other mothers write and create for their already existing children –  clothes with bows (or bow ties), and elaborate picture albums and monthly letters.  (These sorts of things are my guilty pleasure, I admit it.)

As beautiful as those things are, and of course, I could go on with many many examples from literature and the interwebs, I don’t see the world like that most days, and I have a hard time quelling laughter at the idea that anyone but the writer of such novellas could care quite so much – those letters are for you, dear bloggers, you know that –  right?  Surely you know from the grown up men in your own life, that your sons will consider such letters a footnote in their world? (At best.)  If we women are lucky, our own sons won’t dismiss us as overly nostalgic and hopelessly weak.

I am not the only somewhat cynical one to think this, I’m sure.

The cheeky snarky part of me realizes it is far better to write an open letter to my future daughter-in-law – should I be so fortunate – and if people even get married in thirty years. Because who knows at what age that may happen.

Furthermore, I have been thinking that my daughter-in-law is likely to care more about what I say, and how I act, and what I might think than my son will, when that time comes too.  And certainly more about all these baby pictures.

Of course, I plan now (oh do I plan) heaps and heaps for what I might teach my son – values like honesty, kindness, and simplicity.  Lessons like how to do laundry, sweep floors, and cook vegetables.  All that planning and action will lead up to the point though, where he can operate in a world without me.

But oh, unknown daughter-in-law, I have got you already, and got you forever!  I’m going to lose my son to you, but you will get me in return.  You’ll be feeling the impact of all these lessons forever (long after the son has internalized them) and you’ll be the one asking “Is this an okay outfit to meet your parents in” to my charming and suave young offspring.

You’ll be hearing me say “Well, that’s not the way I would have done it” and dissecting that for days on end.  I hope that we can teach each other different methods for cooking and cleaning and researching and working and worshipping and have the grace to disagree amicably.

Daughter-in-law – we are going to have a good time together.  Forever.

Our Worst Parenting Mistake Yet

I just found out about the swaggering “humblebrag” on Monday, but NPR says it was nearly 2011’s word-of-the-year. For those of you who are also off the bandwagon of pop-culture (like myself), a humblebrag is an attempt to flaunt some achievement of yours in self-deprecating terms.

For example, a riff of this goes like –  “Oh no! I’m so embarrassed that Time  Magazine misspelled my name in their cover story about my solution to the Palestinian-Israeli debate.”  For plenty more true examples (and I hate to point this out, but also misinterpretations of the definition) you can head to Twitter.

Which leads me in to my post for the day.

Our 1-year-child can’t drink from the bottle himself yet, because we’re always cuddling him as he drinks.  This is definitely our worst parenting mistake so far.

An informal survey of one other friend  laid my fears to rest –  this is something other new parents do too. Truth be told, of course – if this is our worst mistake yet – we’re probably doing a really good job.  (That’s the brag part.)

Why isn’t this thing working?

PS. In case you think I’m serious about any of this – the worry or the “this is a mistake” mentality – I’m not.  But he really can’t drink from a bottle yet.  Time to teach an important lesson in motor skills mommy.

Parenting Didn’t Change Me

I bet you’ve been in a conversation before, you know the type, with an older adult who is attempting to give you the wisdom of their years.  You nod agreeably as they pontificate, murmur a little assent here and there. Suddenly a little rock is launched into the conversational windshield.  You get a phrase like one of these:

“This is the most important decision of your life” (to the newly engaged). “Your college degree will be the best thing you ever buy” (to the graduating senior).   “Parenting will really change you” (to the sleep deprived new parent).

It’s kind of like they just stuck out their tongue and said “NaNaNa – I know better than you do what your life is like!”

You pretend to agree.

Maybe you don’t even think about that phrase again.  But I do.  Man, I think about these types of phrases for the next couple days, weeks, sometimes months.  I guess you could say they’re my pet peeve.

Why do these types of phrases bother me so much?  Well, like all pet peeves, it’s sort of irrational how much it bothers me.  Because I know the person telling the story just wants to give both their own opinion and experience even if it’s a little dramatic.

Most of all, I hate that the person telling me this type of thing knows something I don’t know.  Are they right?  Is getting married the most important decision I will ever make again?  Was my college degree the best thing I’ll ever buy?  And that last one – am I really changed by being a parent?

As to this last one, I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I walk on the cobblestones to and from the Salem Public Library.  One mile there and one mile back, every single week since last July.

So far I’ve decided I’m not really changed.  Thank God.  It really would have been tragic if I began to like heavy metal, lost my sense of humor, and watched TV five hours a day.  Mostly, I’ve realized parenting has changed a lot the process of my life, and less of the content.  The biggest single change I’ve had to make is to pursue deeper.  I used to pride myself on being what I called a “generalist.”  I had an idea that I was good at a lot of things and I could spend energy on taking part in fifteen (or whatever) activities every week.   No longer.  I’ve simply got less intellectual focus hours in the day and I’ve got less friendship hours.  I have to remind myself these things are not “good” or “bad” they simply are.

Having a family didn’t change who I was, it simply meant I had to look at my priorities.  I had to decide that some priorities were good, but they weren’t the most important.  That’s what changed my process, or the way I live life. Not everyone has to have a baby to realize they want to spend more time doing the things they love instead of things they just like, but I did. While those things I haven’t spent much time on in the past year I would like to be doing more of (movies, restaurants, soccer, café time with friends), I wouldn’t want those at the expense of some of the other valuable things I’ve gotten (like good family memories, and deep time spend in study). And who knows, there will probably be time to balance the things I love and like again in a new way later in life.

But, even having pondered the depths of that trite little phrase “Parenting will change you” and found a small nugget of truth – Don’t say it to me.  I still hate it.