Returning to School with Young Children: You Can Do This (if you want to)

by Anna Bergevin

I finished my undergraduate work before I was married and had children. It was a wonderful experience – hard work, but simpler than my graduate work in that I was not trying to balance the demands of school with the needs of a spouse and child. I thought, like many of my peers, that I would wait to pursue graduate work until my children were all in school full time. And then, I changed my mind, and returned to school when my daughter was 2 years old. And it was a wild, crazy, and rewarding ride. I graduated just a few weeks ago.

Many friends have commented, “I don’t know how you do it,” or remark that they wish they could go back to school, but feel it is impossible with small children. Returning to school while in the throes of young motherhood isn’t for everyone, but it’s more doable than you might think. You can do it.

Going back to school, at this time in my life, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Here are some components that I found essential that I’d advise any young mother to consider when returning to school.

1. Be organized.

Organization will go a long way to help you make the most of your time – and your time is strapped as a mother in school (who may also potentially be working). Organization was crucial for me and in order to communicate with my husband about tasks needed to keep the household running and caring for our daughter. For me, organization means using Google calendar religiously, utilizing a favorite to-do app that syncs between my desktop and phone (this one), and regularly planning out my days and weeks on my own and in concert with my husband. Organization also lessened the the potential negative impact of a busy schedule on my daughter – she did best when things were regular, scheduled, and predictable.

2. Schedule child-free time.

Child-free time can mean a lot of things depending on your circumstances. For me, it meant utilizing on-campus part- time child care in addition to relying on my spouse to be an involved parent.

Your circumstances may dictate very different arrangements, but I think the key is having structured, scheduled time that you will not actively be on call as a mother so you can focus on your school work – not relying solely on nap times, late nights, or frantic last minute calls to friends/family to cover so you can get things done. I studied during all those times, but they weren’t my only source of child-free productive time.

3. Accept help.

If you are reading this website, you are an “Aspiring Mormon Woman.” Self-sufficient, hard-working, determined women sometimes have a hard time asking for or even accepting offered help. As mothers, we often want to babysit trade–hey, can you watch my child for 2 hours and I’ll watch yours tomorrow? But as a student with compressed time, this type of arrangement can be harder to do. So sometimes, all you can give in return is a “Thank you, it means so much.” While I was in school, sweet visiting teachers sometimes offered to bring meals during stressful times, and friends would offer to watch my daughter for a few hours so I could get things done. It is tempting to say, “Oh no, I’m okay.” But there were times when I was not okay, and I gratefully accepted the offers. Let your friends and family serve you. And pay it forward when you can, even if it isn’t for a few months or years.

4. Know your resources and utilize them.

Do your research at your school – what kind of resources do they have to support you as a student, but also as a parent? My university, for example, offered free child care during finals. FREE. I took advantage every semester. I know that students with lower incomes also qualify for subsidized or free childcare through federal grants. And the counseling center has individual and group counseling for added support. During a challenging time, I saw a counselor for just 2 visits and it really helped me get through a rough patch to just talk out some issues.

5. Practice saying no.

This is good advice for anyone, but particularly when you are busy in school. I missed many mothers’ group play dates, fun ward activities, and other opportunities because I had class or needed to focus on my homework. There are many good things in this world we want to be a part of, but choosing to attend school when you have a family means you have already filled a large portion of your time. Say no graciously, and realize there will come a time again when you have time to attend Enrichment regularly and join the other moms on a zoo outing.

6. Communicate.

People can be more understanding and generous than you think. At one point in my first semester my daughter had an unexpected surgery, and I was in the hospital for a week caring for a recovering 2 year old. Professors at my school understood and I was able to finish out the semester with good grades. I communicated and avoided letting the chaos in my family life turn into a crisis in my school life.

Additionally, I went to an internship interview and they said, “Oh you don’t work, so your schedule is wide open.” And I confessed, “Actually I have a young child. I can find child care to come in one day a week. Maybe I could also do some work remotely.” They gave that internship position to another student and then called me and said they’d like me to do some research for them that I could do on my own time from home or the library. It was a fantastic opportunity – I was happy to gain the experience, they were happy with my quality of work, and it was really flexible, making it easier to arrange the child-free time to complete the work. This opportunity never would have come my way if I had not been open about my situation.

7. You can do this.

You really can. If you want it, if you pray about it and feel like Heavenly Father supports your decision, there is a way to make it work. For the first two years of my daughter’s life, I felt so sad about postponing graduate school, but felt guilty about the prospect of putting her in child care so I could pursue my dreams. I felt scared to pray about going back to graduate school, afraid my Heavenly Father would say no, but I did it anyway. I applied, prayed about it, and went back and I feel great peace that this was the right path for my family and me. It was hard, exhausting, and difficult – for all three of us in my family –but at the end of the road I have a master’s degree, a great job I love, and a happy four year old who loves her school and comes running with a big smile on her face when I come to pick her up.

Anna is a researcher and self-proclaimed policy geek. She recently completed her Master of Public Policy from the University of Utah with a certificate in Demography and received her BA in Political Science from Brigham Young University. She currently works as a Research Associate at the Center for Public Policy and Administration. When not reading, talking or writing about policy, she enjoys cooking, spending time with her family, and reading the latest pick for her book club. You can also find her geeking out over crazy talented acapella groups, well-written television, and really impressive data visualizations. Anna is married to her software engineer husband, Joe, and they are raising their beautiful and hilarious daughter, Everly.

7 Comments on “Returning to School with Young Children: You Can Do This (if you want to)

  1. Congratulations on graduating and finding a great job!!! It’s good to hear that members of your ward were a support system for you while you were in school. Heavenly Father doesn’t have one plan that is the same for all of us…it’s wonderful that we can receive answers and revelation to know is right for our own self and family.

  2. My response to this is becoming a post in its own right. (Not sure if you are interested in a post about why I got my AA, but then followed the advice from many professional journalists, editors and producers, to wait to finish my degree, when I was ready to commit to the travel and unpredictable hours that come with being the newest reporter/researcher/editor.)

    For now I will just say how wonderful and refreshing it is to read and internalized, your perspectives on partnering/parenting/studying/serving, and accepting help from others. I had a few wonderful women in our ward who helped out and didn’t judge. In fact, when we got a childcare grant from the college, we were able to hire one of them as a nanny for about 2/3 of the time one of both of us were in class, which also meant some of the no-kid study time.

    I was really grateful for their support, especially because it was not universal. Many people knew about the miscarriages and fertility issues during the 5 years before my oldest was born. The twins on the other hand, just happened, but many ward members were not discreet in their skepticism. I gave up trying to explain to ward members that I infertility means constant surprises. When some kept probing, I told them the truth, never had a period in between the 2 pregnancies, but we were thrilled to have them come, even though the timing wasn’t carefully chosen by us. For a few who would not drop it, I just would say that to understand, I would need to start at tge beginning. Usually describing one miscarriage, and then asking them why they hadn’t been interested in talking with me then, got the point across. Still I was amazed at how many people, women and men, thought I would want, or at least tolerate, a critique of my life and reproductive choices, or actually the lack of them.

    I thinks it’s something that is pretty weird, because during my pregnancy I doubt they would have suggested an abortion. Following their birth it is even more strange to me, since I don’t think that getting rid of children who are eternally sealed to you, is something that would be kosher. When those 2 possibilities go away, it just becomes good ol’ shaming.

    I’m a full time student, 2nd semester back in school. While my kids are older now, I do think that more young mom’s especially those feeling stifled staying at home, should consider careers that fit their interests and the required time commitments, and if they need more schooling to have the job they want, to at least consider the possibility.

  3. Julia

    Women on women shaming can be so hurtful. I can definitely relate to that. I’m glad that some women have been supportive. Good luck finishing your degree and moving forward in your career with that added boost. It’s not easy, but can be really rewarding.


  4. Thank you for sharing your story, Anna. I’m so impressed not only by your drive to grow and skill at making it happen, but also at the great maturity expressed throughout this post. Your ability to balance your own needs with those of your loved ones is a special thing. Truly loving doesn’t mean masochistic self-sacrifice; it means giving all we *can*–with a clear understanding that the reality our own limitations in no way reduces the depth of our love. In fact, it can make our love more powerful and whole. Congratulations on your graduation!

  5. We would love to have a post from you on any of the topics you touched on! Thanks for sbaring your experience.

  6. I think it is also important to be flexible about what it means to go back to school. I finished my master’s degree one year ago, just two months shy of my 20-year high school reunion, fulfilling a dream I had carried for many years. I looked at many programs to return to school in and ultimately chose my degree because it was offered on-line. Except for an orientation and graduation, I never stepped foot on campus in two years. Asynchronous education was perfect for me. I was able to maintain a part-time job, parent my three kids and work in a primary presidency at the same time. Going back to school after having kids might not look like the idyllic getting-a-degree you once imagined, but opening yourself up to a variety of possibilities can certainly make it attainable. Thanks for your encouraging, positive post!

  7. Thank you for posting this! I am about to start graduate school and I am very nervous (and excited) about it. I have two kids – a two year old and a baby – and am glad to know that someone out there has done it before. I know it will be hard, but it’s also gonna be awesome.

    When I decided to go back to school, I was really nervous to tell my family members and friends who I thought would be judgmental, but thankfully they have been a lot more supportive than I anticipated. I am so thankful I live in a time when it is starting to be socially acceptable for me to follow my dreams!

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