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What I Learned about Productivity by Earning a Law Degree and Ph.D. as a Single Working Mother

The Importance of Establishing Priorities and Engaging in Self-Care

My graduate students are often amazed when I tell them that I earned two doctorates as a single working mother – and I slept nine hours every night. No, I do not have superpowers. I’m not even a particularly high-energy person. I did get very good at prioritizing. And I learned some other important lessons along the way.

I share my experience with my graduate students and hope that I am showing them that they can earn their degrees too, regardless of their circumstances. I explain that my life in graduate school wasn’t always idyllic, and I felt overwhelmed occasionally; but I really enjoyed everything I did. I loved being a mom, my job as a high school teacher, the new people I was meeting, the new skills I was learning, and making it all work. And the lessons that I learned from this journey still resonate today:

· I knew myself well enough to know that I didn’t function without nine hours of sleep. Sometimes that meant that I didn’t get all of my homework done, especially in law school. But because I was rested, when professors called on me, I was usually able to provide a coherent answer.

· I benefited from perspective. Law school, especially, could be an intense environment. And I started law school as a single mother of a three-year-old. I quickly realized that I had an advantage because having a child provided me with perspective. Motherhood distracted me from academic pressures. If I didn’t know an answer in class, that was mildly embarrassing and not worth a second thought. If my child was sick, that was a problem worthy of my time and energy.

· I practiced mindfulness, even though at the time I didn’t know there was a word for it. So when I was taking my daughter for a walk, I wasn’t thinking about all of the work I had to do; I enjoyed our walk.

· I chose my friends carefully. My friends at work and school were people who didn’t take things too seriously and had great senses of humor.

· I stayed organized. The Summer before I went to law school, I actually wrote out the Fall checks for my car note and addressed the envelopes so that I just had to mail one of the envelopes at the beginning of each month. I also learned the benefits of having a daily to-do list. I had papers complete a day or two before they were due so that if something happened at work or with my child, I could still turn in my work on time. During one semester that was particularly busy, I made a master list of the components of every project that needed to be completed in order of priority. So as soon as I finished one assignment, I knew what project task I needed to focus on next.

· I exercised almost every day. My daily exercise was often a 20-minute walk. I kept tennis shoes in my car so that I could take a walk anywhere. (I still keep a pair in my office for that purpose.)

· I learned that balance is really about establishing priorities and making constant choices. For example, it was important for me to do well in school. It was also important for me to send my daughter to dancing school because she loved it so much. One semester, her dance class time conflicted with the hours of one of the courses I had to take. So I made the choice to leave class 15 minutes early each week so I could pick up my daughter from dancing school. Even though I made a B in that course, I am still really proud of that decision.

· I gave up my perfectionistic tendencies. I did my best, given my time limitations. And, I modeled for my high school students that making occasional mistakes is OK. We can even learn to find humor in our mishaps.

· I remained flexible so I could manage unexpected challenges. When my daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of five, that meant that I had to reallocate my time to give her the assistance she needed. So I figured out how to adjust my schedule accordingly.

· I asked family and friends for help, especially with childcare. I also hired great babysitters, when I could afford them.

· I didn’t buy into the extreme-parenting movement. My daughter needed love and attention, which I could give her. She didn’t need me to entertain her 24 hours a day. My daughter learned a lot by finding ways to entertain herself. And I believe she also learned a lot by modeling my behavior. Of course at night, I would be highlighting my textbooks; and she would crawl into bed next to me and highlight her Dr. Seuss books. So she didn’t learn the “no writing in books” lesson when she was three. She learned that lesson later.

· I kept minimal housekeeping standards and rarely cooked. Frozen dinners that could be quickly warmed in the microwave made great meals.

· I made time for my hobbies. Shopping and soap operas were my escapes.

· And I enjoyed a lot of coffee – good quality, strong coffee.

I look back fondly on my graduate school years. When I became a professor, I was surprised when I realized that my workload didn’t change significantly. Being a professor is somewhat like teaching all day and going to school at night – the workload is endless. But I find that the lessons I learned about productivity and balance help me manage the pressures of being a working academic mother. I still don’t cook. I don’t feel the need to keep my house spotless – it’s reasonably clean. I use the time management techniques I learned in school, such as planning projects by identifying their component parts, and writing out my daily to-do list in order of priorities. I still work out six days a week and sleep nine hours every night. And yes, I drink lots of coffee.

I figured out what works for me. I take good care of myself and live by my priorities. I choose to engage in work and leisure activities that are meaningful to me. Then, I enjoy the journey.

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