Two years ago, as a single mom who worked full time, I decided to go back to school for my master’s in business administration. When I enrolled in the program and logged into my first class, I had a moment’s doubt. Had I taken on too much? Would my relationship with my son suffer?
Last week — after I propped my diploma up on the mantel and announced that we were getting ice cream to celebrate — I knew without a doubt that this had been the right choice for both my career and my family.
Everyone is aware of the career benefits of having a bachelor’s or master’s degree — increased earning potential, less risk for unemployment and less risk of long-term unemployment. But if you’re a single parent, you may worry about how going back to school will affect your kids. It’s important to realize, however, that your decision can have a positive impact on them. Below are three benefits you’re likely to see if you do decide to take the plunge.
“Mommy, I don’t want to do my homework,” my son often groans. Sound familiar? I found that the simple act of sitting next to him and doing our homework together not only cut back on those arguments, it served as clear demonstration to him that academics matter.
Elizabeth Douglas started her bachelor’s degree as a single parent when she had a 1-year old, and her master’s when that child was 17 and her second child was 12. In addition to getting her degrees for her career, she wanted her kids to know that education was important and that they could set a goal and achieve it. They saw her struggling with homework, which she feels showed them that she was dedicated. “It set a good example for focus and meeting expectations.” This example proved important when her eldest son struggled to finish high school.
As a parent in school, you’re also modeling perseverance, the importance of setting goals and achieving them and the value of making sacrifices to pursue your dreams. Above all, you’re demonstrating that goals are within their grasp. As Susan Warfield, program director of the Student Parent Help Center at the University of Minnesota, noted, “you’re showing that it’s not an unapproachable dream.”
If your schedule is anything like mine, it’s already a little chaotic. Self-discipline is hard, and planning ahead isn’t at the top of the “fun things to do on a Sunday night” list. But if you decide to go back to school, whether it’s full- or part-time, mastering your schedule is a must. You will have to build study times and time to write papers and work on projects into your schedule.
Warfield recommends lining up all child care and day care before starting classes to optimize your chances for success. She also advises getting your child into a routine before starting your classes and preparing them for the change. Let them know that you’re going back to school and why. This can be your first opportunity to model the importance of education. Explain how the daily routine will change, but also give them something to look forward to. An ice cream date every two weeks or a big night out when you reach the halfway mark in your program. Celebrate your accomplishments and teach your child to celebrate theirs.
Douglas offered up planned time and activities to her teenage sons when pursuing her master’s degree. They didn’t always take her up on them, but the offer itself let them know they were important to her.
Emerging from a divorce or a breakup, your self-esteem may have been shaken or bruised. If you became a single mom at a young age, you may have felt judged by society at large and those around you. While she had a lot of career-related reasons for getting her master’s, Douglas confesses, “Internally, I wanted to prove to myself and others that I was an intelligent person, and socially this is proven by degrees and credentials.”
As for me, my ex often threw his advanced degree in my face during arguments about money, as if his MBA wiped out my 10 years of experience as an accountant. His words stayed with me; I found myself speaking up less in meetings at work, and when my boss asked me a question, I’d want to double-check my answer.
Getting a bachelor’s, master's or doctoral degree is a major confidence boost. Enrolling in a degree program involves a lot of choices. What to study? Which class to take next? Which major to pick? Each choice you make builds the confidence to make the next; each class you finish builds your self-esteem, and each milestone you reach is a reminder that you are a confident, capable person. In talking with the children of past students Warfield says that many of them will comment that even if they resented the time their parent was in school, as they got older, they had a huge amount of admiration for what they were able to accomplish.
There are many options out there for working adults to go back to school, whether it’s an online program like I completed, evening or weekend classes or a hybrid program in which some classes are taken online and some are in a classroom. Colleges and universities are actively making it possible for adult parents to get their degrees. So if you’ve thought about it and worrying about the possible effect on your children is holding you back, don’t let that stand in your way anymore. You can do it, and your children will ultimately benefit. As Douglas points out, “What a great thing to show your kids — that you can be a mom, daughter, student, worker, friend and independent woman all at once.”
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