Mother knows best: Schools.com sanity guide for student-moms

student mom

Almost any woman with a mini-van can pull off being a soccer mom without much help, but being a student mom can be truly overwhelming. The demands on your time are epic - you run a household, care for your children, perhaps hold down a job - all big tasks, even with the help of a partner or relatives. Adding a course load and study time to your "to-do list" can be daunting.

But if you're considering going to school, or just recently enrolled, don't let the fear of failure hold you back. You're definitely not alone.

Colleen O'Neill Conlan, a mother and wife who lives on an island off the coast of Maine, recently dug her car out of two feet of snow, drove to the ferry, and then boated over to the mainland and drove an hour to her first on-campus class.

The round-trip commute takes longer than five hours. That's just one reason why, for the past five years, she's been taking courses online as a distance learner and earning her English degree. This month she's graduating from the University of Maine Augusta.

On the West Coast, the author of the blog, A Good (Enough) Woman, is a wife, PhD student, and full-time community college English instructor "who tries to be good (enough) at all of these things without buying into the superwoman/supermom phenomenon that pervades our lives and our culture." She recently holed up in a hotel room by the sea to hunker down and chip away at her dissertation.

April McCaffery became a paralegal while raising two daughters as a single mom, and Carolyn, a guest writer at Mandy Walker's Since My Divorce blog, also a single mother, is currently in a nursing program, and was just elected president of the student nursing association. Another guest blogger at Walker's blog, Julia, is wrapping up an accelerated master's and principal's certification program.

So, what's the secret to keeping your sanity on the path to scholarly success?

A strong support system, is key, said, McCaffery, the writer of the It's All About Balance blog. "I would take classes two nights a week and sometimes on Saturdays, and my daughters would be with my parents. It was of great comfort to me to know that my girls were with loved ones so I could focus on my classes."

Sometimes it means crafting realistic goals and not letting setbacks, such as sick days or your child's illness, well, set you back. The Good (Enough) Woman student mom blogger writes:

"I am mostly recovered from last week's illness. Could have been a cold, could have been strep. Daughter was diagnosed with strep today…

"But on another note, I have an idea for how to try to get more dissertation stuff done. I think I should plan to read one chapter or article per week, typing up good notes so what I read won't be lost out of my head six weeks later. I'm sure that this goal sounds ridiculously modest to most of you, but when I consider that this is week ten of the semester, and I have read mostly nothing so far this term, and I've forgotten most of what I have read, the plan actually seems rather ambitious. Of course, I will still be trying to meet various writing deadlines, but I'm realizing that it's the reading that is so unwieldy and time consuming."

For Conlan, it meant being open to distance learning, taking courses online, and classes via video-conferencing and interactive TV, and being at peace with her pace - after six years, she graduates in May.

For Julia, it was the opposite in terms of timing. She writes, "A master's program usually takes two-and-a-half years and a principal's license usually takes two years, but this program smashes them together in one year. It's one crazy year, but I felt that it was the best way to do it with the kids rather than to drag this along forever."

McCaffery, now that she's a graduate, reflects on her accomplishments. "It took about three years, but it was so worth it," she said. "I was better able to provide for my family when I received my promotion, and I think my daughters understand on a deeper level what an education means, having lived through mine, and that they were there to see me graduate. The sacrifices now seem small in hindsight for what we gained."

And sacrifices there will be.

"The first summer, I had class that went from 8-4:30 every day and I literally had five or six hours of homework every single night. It was the most intense thing I've ever done," writes Julia. "So I only had about half an hour free each day for my kids and I would let them choose how we spent it. Were we just cuddling and talking or would we have dinner or would we do something together? They would pick the half hour and what they wanted to do and we made that really special, but it was all I had."

But with these tips, culled and paraphrased from matriculating mothers' blogs, parenting support sites, such as FinancialHelpSingleMother.com, and educational forum posts, you can learn how to multi-task your way to becoming a Dean's List diva.

  1. Make nap time your friend. If your kids are young enough to take naps, you're in luck. Dive into homework at the first sign of your baby nodding off. Though it can be very tempting to use that quiet time as downtime for yourself, an easier schedule in the long run will be your payoff.
  2. Make "multi-task" your middle name. If your kids are old enough to have homework of their own, balance helping them with your own study time. "We would all do homework together, and I would finish mine after they went to bed," McCaffery said.
  3. Make the most of mornings. Rather than stay up late at night to study, wake up an hour or two earlier every day. You will have the same quiet time, and you won't be tired and rundown by the events of the day.
  4. Make time to make it happen. As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "I have a three-year-old and a kindergartner," writes one student mom and forum member at AllNurses.com. "Studying is tough when they are around! I sit outside in our yard with a book when they play."
  5. Make the kids help. OK, so "make" may be a strong word here, but if your kids are old enough to help around the house, now is the time to step up their responsibilities for chores by lending a helping hand.
  6. Make a room your own. If you have a dedicated place to study, you might find you have better focus. Set up a small desk in the corner of the bedroom or commandeer the end of the dining room table. Tell the kids your workspace is off-limits, and stick to it.
  7. Make school a habit. No matter where you go, have a book or study notes in hand. Record lectures and listen to them in the car. Quiz yourself while waiting for the pasta water to boil. Read that study guide at the doctor's office while waiting for your name to be called. Every little bit of study time adds up.
  8. Make a list and check it thrice. Plan the next day before you go to bed. The last thing you need is a rush to pack lunches, sign homework, organize soccer practice schedules and handle last-minute surprises first thing in the morning. Use lists to help stay organized. Not every day will be smooth sailing, but with a little planning and forethought, many of them can be.
  9. Make time for the family. Maybe you don't have the time to sit down and watch that favorite television show every night, but you can still find the time to take your children to a movie on Saturday. Keep up cherished rituals, such as reading bedtime stories or eating dinner together at the kitchen table. This reminds kids that no matter how busy you are, they are still your number-one priority.
  10. Make room for help. Even the most capable mom sometimes needs a hand. "You will be a working, studying mom. That's literally three jobs. You will need some help now and then and so will your children. Having someone you can trust like your parents to be there for the children and for you when you're in a bind can help put your mind at ease," writes blogger Alexis Bonari, at Walker's site, which provides support for divorced moms going back to school.

Think you can't handle one more minute of the pressure? When you need inspiration, read the latest posts from these five fantastic student moms:

  • A Good (Enough) Woman: This wife, mother, full-time English teacher and PhD student somehow balances everything life throws at her. From sick days to laundry to her sure-and-steady approach to a monster thesis, she projects an inspiring confidence.
  • Mom, Wife, Student, Nurse Ahhh!: This mother of three approaches her blog with a sense of humor, but doesn't sugar-coat the tough times. When you're having one of those days and need to both commiserate and laugh with someone who has been there, this is the place to go.
  • Student Mum: Teenagers and Victorian literature usually don't mix, but for this blogger, they are key elements of her life. Reading her day-to-day musings can suck you in and leave you feeling inspired that you can do this crazy student mom thing in the first place.
  • Going the Distance…Three Credits at a Time: Colleen O'Neill Conlan is in the home stretch of her English degree from the University of Maine, and it's all through distance learning. A blog filled with intelligent writing, beautiful photographs and inspirational tales of her educational experience, this one deserves to be bookmarked in your browser.
  • Mom and Law Student? This matter-of-fact blog focuses on the victories, struggles and occasional tough moments of a woman trying to juggle the trials of law school with the responsibilities of home and family life.