As lead ambassador of Portland State’s Graduate Business Programs, I often speak with parents of small children who dream of going back to school to advance their careers, but aren’t sure if it’s the right time. I want to share my experience as an MBA candidate and parent of a toddler, list some of the challenges and opportunities to take into account, and offer some strategies for being a successful parent and student.
I graduated from The Portland MBA in 2019. When I started the program in the Fall of 2017, my son was 18 months old. I was working part-time for a small arts organization and had recently earned a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management and Public Administration. I decided that an MBA program would equip me with better business acumen, a broader network and earned-income strategies to create positive social and environmental impact in the Portland business community.
One week before classes started, my husband and I were freaking out. Was this really the right choice? Would I see my family for the next two years? Would the return be worth the huge financial and time investments? Keep in mind, we were living paycheck-to-paycheck and my son was still breastfeeding (a very draining and time-consuming activity, but one we felt was rewarding and an incredibly special bonding opportunity). What on earth was I thinking?
At orientation, I met other students with children. There were a few fathers with babies around the same age as mine. The only other mothers had teens or college-age children. During the course of the MBA program, several of my colleagues also became parents. My experience as a parent is just one of many, and therefore I don’t want to pretend to speak on behalf of all parents, each of whom face different challenges. There is a whole universe of different ways people restructure their careers and community to care for children. My experience is specific to parenting a toddler with a supportive partner who lives in the same household and was able to work a schedule that was staggered from mine.
There are a lot of challenges to pursuing a degree while you’re a parent. Here are some that I encountered:
Don’t underestimate the amount of attention your child needs. My perception of parenthood changed drastically after having my own child. It is near to impossible to comprehend the level of emotional and physical attachment a child has to a parent, and a parent to their child.
Your time management strategy may go out the window. My son went in and out of phases of “stranger danger” while I was in school. This created some interesting challenges and an overwhelming amount of guilt when I attempted to drop him off at someone’s house for childcare or a playdate, and he begged me to stay with a tear-stained face. With people who he was more comfortable with, he often calmed down a few minutes after I left. Occasionally, he cried the entire time I was gone. It wasn’t only my son who was volatile and unpredictable; sometimes plans for childcare fall through — people get sick, people are emotional, life happens.
You will probably be studying early childhood development on top of everything required for your degree. My son went through many milestones while I was in school. Over the course of two years, his personality blossomed, and he became a full-blown kid! I wanted to make sure I was supporting his development at every step of the way, so in-between class readings, I was keeping up-to-date on the most current research about child development and parenting techniques.
You’ll probably go through physical and mental shifts. Being a parent is mentally taxing and physically exhausting; there’s no way around that. If you’re a mom, you may be going through some physiological changes, as well. It was extremely challenging to prioritize self-care while juggling family, school and work.
There are also some great opportunities that arise while pursuing your MBA as a parent:
Your motivation is likely to increase. You are never as driven to be successful as when you’re fully responsible for another human life. I used that fire to persevere through the MBA program. When looking for jobs, I only applied for work that would compensate me at a level that would provide for myself and my family.
You have more scheduling flexibility: There will be a great deal of independent work for any graduate program, but it’s easier to schedule that work around a child’s routine than a full-time job. My husband worked four days per week and I worked three. This allowed us to stagger our schedules so that I was able to attend classes at night and also have time to meet with classmates for group projects. Since he worked on the weekends, I frequently asked family members to take our son for extended periods of time on a Saturday or Sunday so that I could have dedicated time to work on group projects or spend time alone on challenging assignments.
PSU has some great resources for parents. The Resource Center for Parents with Children was incredibly helpful during my time as an MBA candidate. Through them, I was able to choose between various on-campus childcare resources, access family study rooms, get free coffee, and learn about other external resources that may have otherwise been difficult to find.
You’ll find a supportive network. It was much easier to ask for help with childcare while I was a student because I had important work to get done! Everyone in my family was supportive and willing to help out. Their support and pride for my efforts helped fuel my willingness to ask for help. When my personal network was unavailable, the community I joined at PSU was supportive and accommodating. If I had to bring my son and move a group study session to the family room (which is full of books and toys), I was met with understanding and flexibility.
Strategies for Success
I learned a lot of valuable lessons about parenting while pursuing The Portland MBA that have guided me since graduation:
Create clear and consistent boundaries with your child and your support network. By year two, we had established weekly drop-off days with each of the grandparents. Candidly, I occasionally needed to freak out a little bit —mostly to my husband—in order to get the time I needed to complete an assignment.
Exercise time management on your assignments. Analysis paralysis will destroy any hope of enjoying time with your family if you let it go on too long. Establish a personal method for getting something cranked out no matter what kind of mental blocks you have. My personal hacks are listening to upbeat music in a language I don’t understand, and starting with an outline and getting something on the page. If I was working on a complex financial model, I’d set up my template and start listing assumptions.
Get comfortable with being tired. My son’s sleep schedule changed a lot over the course of the program. Even though he eventually started sleeping through the night, it took a while to fully adjust. We also started nighttime potty training while I was still in school, which brought on a new kind of sleep interruption. It was hard to stay engaged in class when I was exhausted. I cascaded my caffeine intake throughout the day and tried to stop telling people I was tired every time someone asked “How are you?”
Get comfortable with imperfection. I wasn’t able to complete every reading in preparation for class, and I wasn’t able to turn in a perfect assignment every time, despite my best efforts. I even had to ask for extensions on assignments from time to time. You can only accomplish what you have the capacity to do and that is different for everyone and their situation.
Engage in physically demanding play with your little one when you can. Time is incredibly valuable. Exercise is an easy item to knock down to the bottom rung on a long list of priorities, but it’s important to balance all the time you’re spending sitting and studying with physical activity. It’s likely that your child has plenty of energy, so consider engaging in some physically demanding activity while you’re spending time with them. When you take them to the park, climb the jungle gym with them, chase them around, or do a few chin-ups on the monkey bars. Many kids love yoga, and I found it to be one of the most restorative and balancing things I did for myself while dealing with the stress of grad school. My son and I learned to do some really fun acro yoga tricks during a Baby Circus class at Echo Theater Company. If you can’t find a family yoga class locally, there are many resources online. If you wear out your little one(s) enough, their nap time might last a little longer, which will give you more time to study!
Prioritize school events that will add the most value to developing your network and career. PSU offers a myriad of opportunities to engage with other students and the local business community. I chose to pursue two while I was a student: Social impact and career management. I joined the B Impact student group, consulting with small companies that wanted to become B-certified. I also attended career management workshops that I thought were relevant to my career goals and personal development needs.
Attend a program with in-person classes and a cohort model. Many people think attending school online makes it easier to balance studies with work and family. For me, an in-person program offered stronger connections with faculty and peers. I also found it was easier to draw the boundary between home and school by attending a program on campus. The Portland MBA offers a cohort model, so students begin and end the program with their peers. This format created built-in accountability from my cohort and professors. Developing relationships with my classmates also strengthened my support network. I had people rooting for me from all directions.
Now that I have graduated from the MBA program, I face new challenges and opportunities as a woman in the workforce with a small child. However, I am enjoying the increased time I have to spend with my family, and I’m taking advantage of the additional income I’m able to bring in.
To those who are considering whether or not to start school while you have a child at home, it can be a rewarding and transformational experience, but you will certainly face challenges along the way. My family and I have emerged from the experience stronger and ready to take whatever life throws at us.
Rachel Shelton is Lead Ambassador for Portland State’s Graduate Business Programs and Operations Associate for the Women’s Venture Capital Fund. She earned her MBA from PSU in 2019, and is passionate about helping businesses make positive social and environmental impacts.