Tips for studying while raising a family

Whether you want to change jobs, progress your career, get the qualification you always dreamt of, or simply keep your brain ticking over, studying is a great way to achieve this. There are so many courses, colleges and universities around now that are geared up to help people study around life. But, in reality, how on earth do you study while raising a family 24/7?? Lauren has just finished her degree in English Literature, the last (and toughest) year of which she studied with her one-year-old daughter. Here she shares her experience and tips for how to juggle study and parenting…

I quit full-time university at the age of 19 and just a few months into my degree, having decided to just jump straight onto the career ladder and work my way up instead. It was a good choice for me personally, but I was always bothered a little by the fact I didn’t finish the degree I started, so I enrolled to complete my English Literature degree with The Open University.

When I started studying second time around, I never dreamt in a million years it would see me through a full-on career, two house moves, getting married and setting up a business. Studying part-time while all this was going on was always hard (I never managed to completely get out of my old student habit of all-nighters spent essay writing in the run-up to a deadline!), but by far the hardest challenge was trying to study after having a baby. My brain was fried and I just couldn’t see how I would find the time to fit in hours of reading, note-taking and an essay every 3-4 weeks. It wasn’t just a case of doing an all-nighter and then surviving the next day on coffee, sugar and as few meetings at work as possible before heading to bed early to catch up; as a new mum there was no time to catch up, it was straight back into having to be on top form to look after my daughter. But working towards a qualification is doable, enjoyable (!), and so worth it!

There were tears along the way, and moments I sat staring at a blank screen thinking how silly I was to be attempting to do this. I also remember times when I’d be up at 5am with my little one having had a tricky night, to then get through the day, do dinner, bath-time, bedtime, head straight to my desk to study, down tools somewhere between midnight and 2am, head to bed, rest my head on the pillow exhausted and hear the cry down the baby monitor, get up, settle my little girl and head to bed somewhere around an hour later ready to do it all again the next day. Those were hard days and nights, but they were survivable and also taught me that I needed to get better at juggling! But the course was also really enjoyable and interesting, and I saved the module I was looking forward to most – Children’s Literature – until this last year, not knowing how apt it would be. It’s been absolutely fascinating to be able to study a subject so closely linked to raising children, and it means I’ll never see the books I choose and read my daughter in the same way again (Peter Rabbit as a representation of the restrictions of Victorian society, anyone?!)!

So, here are the things I learnt and also some tips from others on my course who were juggling study and family, too (thank you particularly to my fellow students, Janners and Elizabeth, for your tips!)…

Plan, plan, plan. Look at your course schedule, including assignment dates, and make sure you know what is coming up and needed by when. Planning is a massive help when time is so limited, and means there aren’t any surprises. On some courses, you can see the themes your essays will be on and this means you can start to flag useful material up as you come across it – invaluable in helping you as you study.

Download books to an electronic device such as an iPad or Kindle, so you can take them anywhere, read them during feeds (this was a godsend for me, it meant I could plough through my set books while I did naptime feeds, bedtime feeds and also nap drives in the car!), on the school run, while waiting for your children at classes etc. So many courses now offer materials online and this means you can study anywhere – perfect for parents!!

Loading books onto mobile devices means you can get through your materials anywhere.

Take thorough notes. When studying around family, you often have to grab time when you can. You are also more susceptible, I found, to forgetting stuff as you switch from role to role. So, take thorough notes and don’t rely on your memory. You will find these immensely helpful, especially for your exam or end of course assignment when materials read six months ago can feel like they were read six years ago!

Set realistic goals. Don’t try to cram in too much or push yourself too hard, setting realistic goals for each study session means you can cover what you need to and feel a sense of success that you have achieved what you needed. You are juggling A LOT, and can’t give everything 100%…and this is OK! This also applies to your results…you’re not an 18-year-old who can typically focus on their studies and not a lot else.

Pop a notepad and pen in your bag (or use your phone!). Sometimes, essay ideas can come to you anywhere and being able to jot them down when they come means they won’t slide out of your head when you get to your desk later that day, week, whenever. Also keep this notepad by the side of your bed, so you can get any ideas out that might hit you overnight rather than risk either a) forgetting them by morning, or b) not being able to sleep because you can’t switch off – brain-dumping frees your brain to rest.

When the family kitchen table becomes the post-it-laden desk.

Connect with fellow students. Studying with The Open University, students on my modules were all over the country but we all connected via Facebook groups we set up for each course. These were our places for support, tears and laughs and were a lifeline for many of us when times were hard, and particularly prevented us from feeling alone or isolated. If there isn’t something similar for your course, set it up!

Look after yourself. There will be times when you are sleep deprived and just have to study. There have been nights when I was on deadline for an essay and I closed my laptop for the night at midnight or 1am, only to hear my little one wake and, rather than going to bed, it was straight into her room to put my parent hat back on. Dealing with night wakes, early mornings and study in the mix can be bloody hard. Check out our post on self-care for mums and this post on dealing with sleep deprivation, eating well and healthily (rather than sugar and caffeine!) are seriously important.

Get help to make time for study. Whether this is a few hours at the weekend, or during the week, enlist help of your other half, family and friends – or even professionals like a childminder or nursery – just so you can have a few daytime hours to hit the books. Head out to a coffee shop and treat yourself to a big cuppa and some space to get your head down, or go to a local park or drive somewhere in your car to sit and study (there were a few people on my last course that did this regularly to get some uninterruptable time with their books). It’s amazing what you can achieve in a few focused hours free from interruptions! A fellow student and mum also said use Netflix and CBeebies to occupy your little one for a while, and don’t feel guilty about that. Whatever works for you and your children, I wholeheartedly say, go with it; it’s not forever.

Start early or study late. Inevitably, there will be times when you just have to suck-it-up and work late into the night or get up super early to get some time studying. For me, late nights worked better, but for others, getting up at 4am (!) was what worked for them. The Open University’s Brainwave app has five activities that show you when you are at your most productive.

It’s OK to pause studying if you need to. One of my fellow students said this, when your children need you, be there, study can wait and you will likely have a tutor that will understand and help you with deadlines etc. There will be times when things might be particularly difficult and it will feel impossible to “do it all”, but you will get through it! Check out our post on the Wonder Weeks app which shows when babies and toddlers go through developmental leaps that can affect sleep and also make their behaviour increasingly challenging and exhausting, for example, this can help you to see what might be going on if your child is having a particularly challenging time and help you to feel OK about putting your study on-hold for a few hours or days to give those cuddles etc.

Don’t be afraid to cry. I have had many nights sat at a blank page and blinking cursor, feeling like I’d hit a wall and couldn’t possibly write the next essay, and crying saying to my husband “I can’t do this, I just can’t.”. We’re all human and it’s OK to cry! And sometimes it can be what triggers the mush brain to clear for long enough to write coherent words…this has happened for me and fellow students on many occasions and resulted in good marks!

Celebrate the successes. Balancing study and family is no mean feat. When you get an essay in, celebrate. When you get a good grade, take a moment to smile and think “yeah, I did that!”. And, if your course has a graduation or presentation at the end, make sure you go to it and take your family…you did this together and should feel proud.

Celebrate the successes. This was the minute after hitting send on my final ever assignment!

As for me, my results are due in a couple of weeks and I graduate later this year. The sense of achievement (and relief) at completing this degree are immense and I would recommend studying to anyone that either wants to keep their brain active, have something to work towards or study for professional reasons. It is hard work but totally doable and empowering.

I hope these tips help, and please feel free to add any of your own tips, experiences or ask any questions in the comments below.

Lauren, The Mother Side xx

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More information on studying
I studied with The Open University and found it to be flexible; it is hard work and a serious undertaking, but if you want to progress or change careers, it certainly enables people with lives, families and jobs to study around all of these commitments. There are also free course providers such as Futurelearn, which do bite-size courses (around three hours a week for six weeks) that are studied solely online and cover interesting and useful subjects from forensics and creative writing to management and leadership. They now also do certificates so you can add the courses to your CV.

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