Last September, I returned to graduate school twenty years after I first graduated from graduate school. As my daughters became increasingly self-sufficient over the last two years, I started exploring the question of what I would do next career-wise. One of the benefits of putting twenty years between degrees is that you get plenty of time to consider what you truly want to be when you grow up. The actual process of growing up—that messy, non-linear trajectory life tends to take that includes a few rollercoaster rides and lands you in places you never thought you’d land in – tends to point you in the right direction.
Once I managed to get in to grad school, the excitement of acceptance quickly gave way to the realities of becoming a “non-traditional” student. I was already concerned about the cost of the program, but once I reviewed the curriculum and realized I wouldn’t be able to work as many hours as I originally hoped, I realized my return to school would lead not just to a reduction in income, but also loss of our healthcare coverage. Financial worries were compounded by concerns of how would I find balance caring for my family, logging in hours at my paying job, and graduate school. Although at 11-and-a-half the girls are quite independent and self-driven, their needs are constantly shifting, and I worried that I would not be available enough as they navigate middle school and their afterschool activities.
About two years ago, after I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I promised myself I would stop finding excuses to pursue the career I loved. Acceptance letter in hand, I could have found one million reasons to talk myself out of returning to school instead of leaning in. In the past, that is exactly what I would have done – but this time, I decided to jump in, becoming part of the 4 % – the number of “non traditional,” over-40 MSW students at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
Within the first hour, I felt right at home in academia. It was as if my cells remembered how all of it worked, even if a near lifetime had passed since I had last been a student. The professors seem more like colleagues instead of intimidating figureheads, there is little or no performance anxiety, and my focus has shifted from grade-getting to learning. The subjects are extremely interesting, and I welcom the interminable number of articles, books and resources we are assigned. There are many good things about being an older student, especially in social work, where life experience can be an asset. Confidence, which I lacked in my twenties, is now something I can count on—not because I know more, but because I am now comfortable with not knowing and unafraid of asking.
But there are also big differences between my first and current graduate school experiences. Much has changed in the realms of academia, self-care and social pursuits in the last twenty years.
When I attended college in the pre-internet era college registration used to be a lengthy affair where one had to pore over printed class listings, assemble a class schedule and hope to make it into the college gym and to the right area in time to get the right classes. If you didn’t, you’d have to reassemble your entire schedule with a pencil and paper on the gym floor. When I registered for my first semester at the School of Social Work, I built a schedule online, and on registration day, pressed “register.” I was not kneeling on a gym floor and there was no pen or paper in sight.
Papers are a fact of life in graduate school. When I wrote papers and my thesis twenty years ago, I relied on piles of color-coded notecards holding various quotations and bibliographies. Imagine my delight as I discovered my notecards have been replaced by bibliography software like WorldCat and Zotero, which allow me to look up a book or article, export the bibliography, sort it by class, paper or subject and assemble a bibliography with the touch of a button. Amazing! Years ago, gathering resources for papers meant endless trips to the library to look for books and articles, hoping that the librarian would take pity on me and complete the photocopies I desperately needed in time. These days, with access permissions from the university, I can read just about any article from just about any database—all from my couch. I once carried enormous binders filled to the brim with notes for each class, but today all my notes are neatly organized in OneNote, where they are searchable and protected from any dogs that may be tempted to eat them (unless said dog eats the server where they are backed up). Technology makes this nerd teary-eyed with joy, I tell you.
Over the last semester, I have discovered it is possible to study just about anywhere – from the racetrack to soccer practice. I used to need consistent silence and a clean dorm room to study or relished sitting at the Cambridge library taking in the scent of tradition and pin-drop silence. I’ve since discovered I can write papers on the dining room table while being interrupted for various reasons, like having to break up a fight over someone calling someone else a “butt.” In fact, I didn’t know the depth of my ability to focus until I attempted to edit a paper about welfare policy while one of the kids played Hail to the Victors on the saxophone standing next to me while her sister yelled, “Moooom, make it stop!”
Like study time, weekends have also changed. Once upon a time, the weekend was a time to relax with friends, perhaps by taking a quick train ride to Bath, the Cottswolds or London. My weekends are now taken up by long drives to god-forsaken locations for soccer games, cleaning the guinea pig’s cage , and the 12 loads of laundry I’ve been neglecting (“I know your soccer uniform is dirty, just run faster and no one will smell you!”).
In social work, we are constantly encouraged to make time for self-care. Like many of my 4-percent parent peers, finding time for anything other than school and family is challenging. My current self-care includes activities like dealing with unwanted facial hair and spending extra time hiding from my kids in the bathroom while reading Vanity Fair. My fellow 4-percenter classmates’ goals over the semester break include finding the time to color their roots or clean their houses after doing minimal housekeeping over the previous four months. I recently ran into a fellow MSW “non-traditional student” at the grocery store after finals and she looked ecstatic as she confessed her plans for the holiday break: dusting her house.
Most of my self-care comes in the form of exercise. But while my previous grad school workouts included rowing down the River Cam watching the fog lift peacefully and attending mid-morning exercise classes, these days my workouts consist of 5 a.m., 30-minute yoga sessions in the basement (could my hamstrings be any tighter? Did I just fall asleep meditating?) or a 30-minute treadmill workout (with a 20-minute warm-up walk).
Speaking of weekends and self care, this may be a good place to mention that alcohol does not go over as well when you’re 40 as it did when you were 20. I once enjoyed a pint or two at the Eagle on a Wednesday and made it to class the next day without issue. These days, I can wake up feeling hung over because I ate too many nacho cheese chips and the rice krispie treats I make “for the kids.” Sometimes I even feel hung over after eating kale the previous night. Going out for “a few drinks” on a Wednesday is not really an option, especially if I want to function at my field placement the next day. Sigh.
My social pursuits, in general, have changed. The many social offerings of college tend to take a back seat to things like having dinner with the family or soccer practice. And if said social offerings happen after about 10 p.m. (wait – make that 9 p.m.), they probably won’t happen because there is a 99% probability that I will be asleep by then. I admire the endless energy of my current classmates as they plan their post-class weekend escapades. The last time my husband and I drove to Detroit for a concert, we were grateful that our band was opening because it meant we could make it home by 11. Lame, I know…but the alternative (see kale hangover, above) is not worth it.
I had reservations about what it would be like to be back in school with students who are half my age, probably because Millenials have been much-maligned by the media. However, I have been nothing but impressed by my classmates. I happen to be surrounded by dozens of the most impressive young people out there and have loved getting to know my fellow MSWs, most of whom are fresh out of undergrad. They are intelligent, thoughtful and incredibly tolerant of my mom-isms.
Now that my first semester is under wraps, I can sit back and consider the experience. Overall, the feeling of knowing that I am in the right field, moving toward the kind of work I have always wanted to do has been pretty great. Yes, the workload is constant and it leaves me no free time, but the reading, thinking, writing and practical therapeutic learning are nothing short of joyous. But just as I loved the intellectual experience of being back at grad school, I also felt intense guilt over what I perceived as neglect of my family. I was at my daughters’ school a total of three times this year, and I have yet to volunteer for lunch duty. I’ve had to say “no” a couple of times when my girls have wanted me to quiz them because I had a big paper due the next day. I’ve also missed a goal while applying for a research grant during a soccer game. Sometimes I wondered if my husband felt like he was living with a grad school roommate instead of a wife. I am pretty sure he didn’t enjoy being woken up by my tip-toeing around the house at 5:30 am on weekends as I attempted to do all the reading for the week before the kids woke up. He’s probably had just about enough of my social justice, inequality and white fragility musings. Finding balance between the four of us has not been easy, and it continues to be an ever-changing effort where we grow, figure out where we could do better, and grow again.
I’m starting to realize that flexibility might just be the single most important thing when it comes to being present for my family while attending grad school. A snow day, for example, meant I had to juggle my two kids and 6 hours worth of classes. My husband took the girls in the morning, and I brought them to school with me for the afternoon. The girls hung out in the study area, chatting with fellow students until my professor suggested I bring them in to class. The prof turned out to be a kid whisperer, assigning them jobs and integrating them into class discussions, and the day turned out to be a wonderful experience my girls and I shared. One day during finals week we sat down to a terrible dinner consisting of potstickers, frozen pizza (don’t worry, I baked it first) and chocolate-covered Oreos. After spending the last decade fretting over cooking balanced meals for the girls and making family dinners together technology-free and non-negotiable, this occasion where we all had laptops on the table and were working away on our homework while we ate a questionable meal reinforced that changes would have to happen, but we would be just fine.
After my daughter V came to class with me on the snow day, she again reminded me that attitude had a lot to do with navigating life. “College is easy, Mom,” she said; “all you guys have to do is talk about feelings and write papers. You don’t need to worry about it.” I think the kid knows what she’s talking about.