When pee that wasn’t mine ran down my leg, I realized my college experience would be different this time—now with a baby in tow. It wasn’t the first time I brought my one-year-old to campus, but it’s safe to say it was the last for a while. Being covered in pee mid-transit to the library made me rethink pursuing higher education and how dire my literary needs were. It also made me think twice about properly putting on a diaper when rushing to leave the house!

College is an enormous commitment, in time and money, before factoring children into the equation. However, as someone who worked full time throughout their undergraduate studies, I figured getting my master’s in social work while working part-time and parenting a baby would be a breeze.

Related: College grad gives birth and receives diploma hours later during hospital ceremony 

I can now laugh at the ignorance of pre-baby-colored glasses. Profound transitions occur after a baby. Physical, mental and emotional changes abound, but perhaps none more than a shift in purpose. 

As a recovering people pleaser, I was shocked at how having a baby pushed me to go for what I truly wanted, including getting my master’s degree. Being a mom in college isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through my program, I have a few tips and words of encouragement for any moms interested in pursuing higher education or currently doing so. Here is my advice for moms going back to college.

Tips for moms pursuing higher education

1. Set realistic goals

You want to make sure these goals take your mental health into account. For overachievers (including myself), this may be the most significant hurdle to getting through school. Burnout is a problem for many, but even more so for anyone with high-performance expectations. 

Throwing yourself into too many commitments between work, school and kids is an expressway to burnout territory. So, prioritize your needs and your family’s and keep them as the guiding principle when setting goals. What has helped me maintain reasonable aspirations is envisioning if a friend told me everything they’re doing. What would my response be? If I’m concerned they’re taking on too much, it’s also too much for me. 

2. Identify barriers and supports

Self-awareness is critical in getting to graduation day since internal and external limitations look different for everyone. For example, you may be a procrastinator who works best in crunch time. You may only have one good friend to watch your child for brief periods. Navigate around the barriers and utilize the supports present in your situation. It will enable you to create the time and effort necessary to devote to school work. 

Also, explore the resources available to you on and off campus in your local community. You may be surprised by what you find. 

Related: New York proposes free childcare for community college students 

3. Develop pathways to your goals

This can be done by creating and following a plan that will set you up for success. Not to say it’s the magical cure-all for juggling many responsibilities, but it will help. There’s a reason for the saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Moms especially can understand the value of a well-made plan, especially since children never want to follow one!  

Even when nothing seems to go right, you’ll feel semi-prepared to deal with the pressure: whether that’s cranking out a paper with a rapidly approaching deadline or your baby deciding they will not be sleeping anywhere near their designated nap time. 

4. Maintain optimism and motivation

Thankfully, college programs have well-defined finish lines. Even so, the added stress of completing a degree may make you question if it’s all worth it. That’s when remembering why you started is vital in maintaining motivation. 

The life you’ll have post-graduation can also keep you going. Maybe you’d like greater work flexibility, a bigger paycheck or switching industries altogether. Whatever the reason, keeping it in mind through the struggles will help buffer the additional stress of completing school. 

When things get tough, envision the accomplishment of getting that degree. Visualization is a powerful tool when implementing change. Anytime motivation wavers, think about walking across that stage and getting your diploma. Think about the audience looking up at you and focus on those big eyes from your little one filled with awe. Sometimes it just takes a single moment we’d like to savor that keeps us pressing forward. 

5. Take it one day at a time

Any mom knows this is a building block of parenting. To manage stress, keeping struggles in perspective will give you the endurance of a Kentucky Derby racehorse—something moms already possess to survive the parenting journey!

So, to the moms with high hopes not just for their children but also themselves, know that you can do this. And the skills you gain will not only open new opportunities for you, but also show your baby they can do it too. 

And above all else, remember, with or without a diploma, you are already all the amazing things your baby thinks you are.

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