How do you balance graduate school and raising a kid?
June 23, 2014 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I will be starting a highly ranked MBA program in August with a full ride. I already have one graduate degree, but this time I have an added degree of difficulty: I am now a mom. Does anyone have advice for balancing going back to school with the needs of a three year old?

I’ll be going to school full time and working 10 hours a week to keep a foothold in my current, growing company. Attending school full time is a requirement for me to go for free. On top of that, my scholarships come with high expectations for leadership, good grades, and technical expertise. I’m game for all of this due to the high potential for long-term payoff, but I want to set good boundaries between school time and family time because either one by itself has the potential to gobble up all my free time.

We’ve had a taste of what is coming up with me doing test-prep and school applications for two months this past winter. My spouse was extremely supportive and my daughter was able to cope with less time with me. Still, it is hard at times especially when my daughter wants my attention and I need to focus on my work. Last night I wanted to finish my accounting prep, but I stopped so that I could draw my daughter a treasure map. That's fine for now, but would probably be pretty stressful during finals week.

I’m going to have better resources starting in the fall, namely a quiet place to study outside of my house, but I know it’s going to hurt my heart a little to be together with my family less. I’m still going to be doing preschool pick-up and drop-off and the plan is to schedule one weekday afternoon and one weekend morning for my daughter and I to be together and to give my husband a break. Otherwise, I’m not sure how to draw the line where my work/school day ends and our family time begins.

Have you done something like this before? How did you maintain the balance between being goal-focused and meeting your family’s needs? Any advice on chores or splitting childcare? (I think my daughter would love to be raised by the iPad for the next two years, but we’re not going to do that.) What are some good ways to make sure that my husband feels loved and appreciated, especially because he is stepping up so much?

As it is, I'm going to be in for some early mornings and calling in every friend and family favor I have.
posted by Alison to Human Relations (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, it sucks. I hate to be blunt about it, but that's the truth of the matter. I am a few years in to a part-time doctoral program while working full-time. For reference, we have 1 year old and a 3 year old. Fortunately, it can be done. You just have to want to do it. You have to know that the time away now is the time you are investing in your/your family's future.

Here is what has helped so far. Schedule a regular time to do homework, every work day. Make sure it is someplace quiet and distraction free. You won't do anyone any favors by trying to mix your schoolwork with your family work. In the end, the quality of both will suffer. Plus your three year old will learn "Mommy is working on her schoolwork now, and then we get to play after!"

You have already scheduled time to be alone with your daughter. Now do the same thing with your husband. Make sure you guard that time, as there will always be something that wants to interfere. I find that the relationship with my partner is the easiest to forget, as we have so many other responsibilities.

Take care of yourself. Get some exercise. Eat well. Know that you still have to find time to relax and do things for you.

Last, and this may sound trite, but manage your time. Plan your semester the day you get your syllabus in order to take advantage of the study time you have scheduled. I doubt that needs to be said if you have been successful enough to get into a top ranked MBA program, but there it is just the same. When you are doing your schoolwork, do your schoolwork. When you are with your family, be with your family.

This is going to be hard. I still remember how difficult it was to receive the first picture my partner texted me. I was in class, they were out watching a parade, our daughter's first. But in the end, it will be worth it.

For what it is worth, here are some props from a random internet stranger for what you are about to do. I am not particularly intelligent or special in any way. If I can do it, you certainly can.
posted by Silvertree at 10:48 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Throw money at the problem if you have it - maid, take-out, babysitting etc.

I worked full-time, plus a PT job, looked after my three kids FT -because my husband was hospitialised several times for months at a time (and I was his only caregiver when he was home) while in grad school FT. I was broke and couldn't drop any of my commitments and had almost no family/friend support (compared to my needs).

Put your head down, grit your teeth, and just get through it. I regret I spent too much time with my kids instead of my school work (and I love my kids). The days were long but the years were short.
posted by saucysault at 10:48 AM on June 23, 2014

Best answer: I will say that I was not brave enough to do this myself, but I had a number of classmates in medical school and residency who had small children, and they all did OK. And I have a pretty busy job and my spouse takes on a lot of the childcare. Here are some of the common themes I noticed:

1) supportive spouses. This is probably the most important, and it sounds like you have one. Sounds like you've already figured out that making sure your spouse has time for himself will be important, and you can probably figure out chores once you know what your schedule is going to be like. If you can, outsourcing some cleaning or laundry may be worth it to preserve both your time for other things. I try really, really hard to make sure that I stay appreciative of my spouse and to not seem like I'm taking his time or availability for granted. If you can, you might consider doing things in what time you have available to help him on days when he's solo, e.g. prep-ahead foods on nights he's doing dinner by himself, etc.

2) disciplined scheduling: making yourself a reasonable schedule that includes both time for your kid and time studying, and then using those blocks of time for that purpose and not pushing work out till later. Personally, I find that it's all too easy to stay at work "just a little longer" to finish some necessary but non-emergency task and then I get home too late for my kid's bedtime. More recently, I've started trying hard to be home by 6:30 and then doing anything I didn't manage to do earlier by working remotely after my kid's 8:00 bedtime. I hate working from home so I find that I'm actually more productive during the day since I know I need to get stuff done. We are both a lot happier.

3) ruthless triage--by which, I mean knowing how much effort you need to put into something to get a result you're happy with. I don't mean half-assing things, but if you need 4 hours of studying to get a 90 on a test and 8 hours of studying to get 100, those 4 hours might be better spent somewhere else, like getting a key presentation from good to great, or on making a treasure map for your kid.

One MBA-program twist that I can't speak to is that my understanding is that the social/networking component of these programs is a big part of them. That is, there may be things that seem like fun optional social events that are actually important to your ability to develop a network of contacts. If that's going to be a big part of your program, you and your husband will need to figure out how to manage it without him feeling that you're going to a fun wine tasting and you feeling that you're going to a career development event.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:58 AM on June 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

When I did grad school, PT job and (single) parenting, the critical thing was full-time daycare on a schedule similar to what you'd have in place for a 40-hr/wk job. For me, work time was mostly 7:30-5:30, plus a few hours during the late evening and on weekends as needed during crunch time, just like most other working stiffs who work all day and have the occasional late evening at the office or pile of work to finish up after the kid(s) are in bed.

I don't know if you're working FT now, but you really do need to think of your work/school commitment as a full time non-parenting job. I think one of the mistakes that "trying to have it all" moms make is to take on FT non-parenting responsibilities without having a plan for FT childcare. They wind up cutting corners on their family and relationships, their physical and mental health, their sleep.

It's well and good that you want to make your husband feel appreciated (every parent needs to feel appreciated!) but I would be cautious about framing this in terms of him "stepping up" if what you're actually doing is just shifting the balance to where you are shouldering additional breadwinning responsibilities and he's shouldering additional domestic responsibilities. Beware the trap where if one parent is working a traditional outside-the-home job and the other parent also has full-time nonparent responsibilities (work, school) but a more flexible schedule or work environment, the "flexible" parent winds up shouldering all the little daytime parenting responsibilities (such as daycare pickup/dropoff, doctor's appointments, kid sick days, etc.) because they can and sacrificing more and more of their non-parenting leisure time in the evenings and on the weekend to pick up the slack.

As far as balancing chores and childcare and so on, here's what works for me: IMHO, the best measure of whether things are balanced and the partners are pulling their own weight is how much truly free, do-what-ever-you-want leisure time each partner has. Everything else is work, even if you enjoy it. The trick to avoiding resentment is to balance things so that you each have similar amounts of leisure time, and the rest of the responsibilities are divvied up in a logical and time-balanced manner where each partner gets a mix of their "preferred" tasks (if one of you likes to cook more than the other, it doesn't make sense to split that chore down the middle) and agrees to take on their share of crap tasks that no one likes to do.
posted by drlith at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

the eusive architeuthis is totally right, I would just add to the points made above:

1) Agreed that the social networking component of these programs is significant and possibly central to this experience. I would decide going in how much time you can commit to these on a regular basis and build them into your schedule- whether they are breakfasts with mentors or cocktail networking events or industry conferences or trivia night with your study group or happy hours, so that you have something of a structure on a weekly basis for your family to count on. Knowing you have set aside time for one early breakfast every two weeks etc is also good to help you maintain momentum in seeking out people to network / have informational interviews with since you've already set aside that time.

2) Agreed also on "ruthlessly triaging" above, with the addition: This might seem counter to you as a high achiever to be able to get into such a program into the first place, but your priority here is not getting good grades. In fact, forget grades. Your priority here is to learn the stuff you want to / need to learn. There is no difference between your getting a 100 on a test or a 90 or an 80 or a 70. No one looks at MBA grades ever and they are completely meaningless as a performance metric. Unless you are jostling for a ball-bustingly competitive finance job at one of the big firms, your grades will literally never ever come up in any conversation as soon as soon as they are released to you, it's like they evaporate into thin air. How well you want to perform in that particular rubric is up to you, but if I were you, I would prioritize learning the skills you are either the weakest in or acquiring the knowledge that will help you the most in your future career. Don't waste your time going that last hard mile for an A that no one will ever see.
posted by sestaaak at 11:38 AM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

With a good MBA you shouldn't have to work at your company ten hours a week. They should still want you back even if you work 0 hours a week, but get a good MBA (and if not, other companies will). 10 hours a week is just enough for you to not meaningfully contribute anything, while still taking up 15~ hours a week of time in work/commute/general-time, which is a lot. You could easily miss out on core networking/homework/child-time just to put in some hours at your job.

Unless there is some really top notch reason to stay, it's worth letting it go.
posted by jjmoney at 2:08 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thirding The Elusive Architeuthis. When my husband started his MBA program, he had a very academic approach all planned out. He swiftly learned that this was not going to be effective - going to the "social" stuff was the key to succeed (to his introverted dismay). The classwork itself wasn't particularly challenging, but there were a lot of semester-long group projects that involved coordinating schedules with classmates outside of class hours. And especially after Thursday night classes, his cohort tended to head out to the nearby bars - the whole "getting to know you so we can feel comfortable doing said group projects together" spiel.

If your B-school has a group for students with kids, take advantage of it. For most of your classmates, especially since you're going to a full-time program rather than a part-time one, school will be their *only* priority; many of them will find it difficult to grok that your schedule is less flexible than theirs simply by dint of having a spouse and a kid, let alone the additional part-time job.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:49 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh! And I forgot before the edit window closed, but your school may also have a social group for spouses and children of students, which is worth looking into. It helps them to get to know others in the same situation and find support that way. Mommy may have to study, but Daddy and Kiddo can head over to the Spouses and Kids Barbecue and play with other kids whose parents go to school, too!
posted by Pandora Kouti at 3:11 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We don't have kids, but my husband is currently in a professional MBA program at one of the top schools, and until I graduated a few weeks ago, we were both in grad school at the same time. We had a very, very rocky time that first semester.

If you are in a top program, you will need to maintain a certain grade point average in order to not drop onto academic probation. My husband has a hard science degree and some of his classmates are brilliant, but he's still had a couple of classes where half the class couldn't finish the final exam, because it was that challenging, and that long. I think in these top programs, it's no different from a top medical, engineering or law program - picking the right study group and study friends will have a huge impact on your success. You will simply not be able to do all the work, all the time, so sometimes you will need to work with people who do 1/5, you do 1/5, etc., and then you compile and discuss the final piece together, all double-checking the work.

Adding onto Pandora Kouti's comment, a lot of the single or younger students will not understand that you have other commitments or priorities...we were surprised that this was the case in professional programs, which usually include people working full time who are older and generally more mature than full-time MBA students. Some of the younger, single guys will call for a team meeting at the last minute, contact him late at night, etc. Know how you'll roll with these kinds of requests from classmates, and once you peg which guy (it's always been guys so far in the last three semesters) is prone to doing that, try to anticipate and blunt their interruptions or last-minute disorganization on group projects.

As I see it, the earlier you get the bull by the horn, the better. Not everyone is going to be compassionate about you having kids, but that doesn't mean you can't say, without referencing your family, "I need to get my share of this project done by next Tuesday, so you need to get me your edits no later than Friday night". It's not their business that on Wednesday your daughter has a play date and you have a date with your husband on the following Friday.

The social stuff is absolutely crucial, but what you'll need to do is find "your people" as soon as possible - friends who also have kids, people who are on the same wavelength overall in terms of priorities. Then you can more easily make distinctions between the social events that can be skipped, and those that are crucial. For instance, my husband does go to networking events at least every other week, but he skipped the booze cruise invitation he just got. On a foreign trip, he was one of only a few people who decided to take a museum trip - and ended up getting great face time with one of his professors. Know what you want to get out of the program and then bend your schedule to maximize it.

One other thing I want to add - you mention having a prior degree. Be prepared for some of your classmates, even some who are startlingly bright, to be simply awful writers, as compared to many of the people attracted to academic grad programs. Budget extra time if you're assigned to a team with someone who can't write.
posted by mitschlag at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to provide some perspective on the "No one looks at MBA grades ever" comment. That is not entirely true. Most companies don't care, but big companies that have MBA-specific jobs (like big-name consulting gigs) will request a transcript.
posted by radioamy at 4:48 PM on June 23, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you so much for the advice about socializing, clubs, and networking. I've been burying my head in the sand about that and it will help if we set expectations from the beginning. I'll try to include my husband when I can.

Also, the comment on finding good teams is spot-on. Thanks, mitschlag.

Just some clarifications:

- Unfortunately, good grades are part of the stipulations for me to keep my scholarships.
- I am very lucky in that I can do almost all of my work tasks remotely. My company is also located just off campus if I need to come in. I helped to build this company and I'm reluctant to leave it, but I'm willing to quit if I need to since this is the one place where I really have slack. Fortunately, I also have a ton of vacation time stored up and will be burning it as needed the first few months.
- Preschool already covers full-time working hours and we have an extended day option for if we need it. The preschool is also thankfully close to campus. Still, having full time childcare is great advice.
- My husband is already over his 50% share of housework and childcare. I worry a little about burnout for him due to some heavy work responsibilities, but he is generally amazing and should be showered with riches.
posted by Alison at 6:00 PM on June 23, 2014

I suggest starting out by estimating how many hours you need to do all the stuff you need to do in an "average" week. So out of 168 hours, 10 will be spent working, x will be spent studying, y will be spent sleeping, z will be spent on household tasks, etc.

Then map these hours out. Keep in mind that one hour of focused studying (at the library perhaps) can be more productive than two hours of distracted work. Consider starting your studying before your daughter wakes up. The goal is to be finished with (individual) studying by dinner time. (Obviously, group work is a different scenario).

While momma studies on Saturday mornings, dad takes kiddo out of the house for some father-daughter bonding time. Dad and kid return with a brunch that is enjoyed by the entire family.
posted by oceano at 9:38 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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