I was standing in my kitchen when my little boy — aged four — looked up at me with his big blue eyes and asked, “Mommy, what does that mean… the thing you just said?”
“Oh,” I replied, “I said I’m going back to school to get my bachelor’s degree.”
He called to his sister, who was in the living room, “Did you hear that, Katelyn? Mom’s getting her spatulas degree!”
It was 2013, and I was newly divorced, working two part time jobs. It was pure hell. My first job was a nonprofit director and my second was as a server at a local restaurant. I had earned my Associates degree in business administration a few years before, and I had quite a bit of experience, but I needed to finish my formal education.
When I made the decision to go back to school, my friend Mary was one of my biggest supporters. I had so much hesitation about going back to school, about taking on more debt, and about my career prospects afterward, but Mary said, “Just do one thing at a time. Your hard work will pay off in the end.”
It wasn’t easy to fill out the application, the financial aid paperwork, and get it all coordinated, but the admission folks at Thomas Edison State University were super helpful. I must have called them sixteen times. “Is this right? Did I do this right? I don’t understand how this works… can you explain it?” They walked me through everything, and more importantly, they didn’t make me feel like an idiot.
I decided to take online classes, knowing that a) I have a tough time sitting in a classroom and b) as a mother, my time is at a premium. “Don’t worry,” someone told me, “You’ll get your money’s worth. Online classes are more difficult than classroom based learning.” Oh, great.
When I finally enrolled in my first two classes to begin in April 2013, I was psyched to begin. I was only 60 credits away from earning my bachelor’s degree. That meant sweating through only 20 three-credit courses… which didn’t seem too difficult.
But right before I began my first two classes, the dread I remembered from high school washed over me. Assignments. Due dates. Exams. MATH. Oh my God, what am I doing? I don’t have time for this!
I pressed on anyway.
The kids were as supportive as they could be. “I’m doing my homework,” I’d tell them, cooped up in my bedroom with my tiny Asus clamshell ebook in my lap, books and papers spread out across my bed. My daughter would take her brother in the living room and put on a movie while I hammered away at my keyboard. Inevitably, screaming would commence from the living room; someone was in someone else’s personal space or someone was eating the other person’s raisins. I’d sigh, get up, separate them, and get back to work.
A few times I waited until the kids went to bed to do my homework and discussion questions, but that became a problem. You see, I am a gold medal champion sleeper — I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. Boring books + homework + soft, squishy bed = regularly missed midnight homework deadlines.
There’s also a huge amount of guilt that goes along with being a working mother and full time student. I hated having to ignore my kids. I hated missing that time with them. We were all in the same apartment, of course, but they were zoned out watching TV or playing games while I was zoned out trying to find the right word after already working six hours writing grants and marketing materials for my struggling nonprofit. I never had any time or money to do anything special with them.
The guilt was pretty bad, though. Even now, I can remember the feeling when my daughter would say, “Mom, we watched a movie. We’re bored. Will you play with us?” Oftentimes, I had to say, “No, baby girl, I have to get this paper done.” It was like sticking a knife into my own heart and twisting it. I don’t want to do homework. I want to spend time with my kids.
Sometimes I was so stressed out on days when I had examinations or final papers due. I had friends who would take the kids for a few hours so I could do my exam on my own, but sometimes they couldn’t. Sometimes I just had to give them a bag of Doritos and shut my bedroom door. I can’t tell recall how many times the online proctors freaked out because the kids would pop in while I was in the middle of an exam. I wanted to scream at the proctor: “Do you really think they’re giving me the answers to a test on the pillars of leadership? Really?”
Eventually, I was able to manage my work a little better to fit in more breaks so that I could take the kids for walks to the library or around the corner to the playground. It was a relief to get away from my computer and breathe fresh air. I scheduled my exams on days the kids were with their father and did everything I could to clear my schedule when the kids were with me. When I wasn’t working on homework, the kids and I would make art or build couch cushion forts. It wasn’t a Disney vacation, but at least I was spending time with them.
I finished my bachelor’s degree with Thomas Edison State University three years later, in March 2016. I had already begun planning to pursue my master’s degree. About 12% of Delawareans have their master’s degree, and I wanted to be part of that number. I needed to make up for lost time. I was able to get my alma mater and my next school, Wilmington University, to hustle on the paperwork so I could begin my master’s program just two months after I finished my bachelor’s degree.
By that time, we had moved to a townhouse and in with Mr. Fussypants. My master’s program required fewer exams, thank goodness, but I was expected to do a much more substantial amount of writing. Two ten-page papers a week minimum. The kids were not thrilled I would be continuing to ignore them half the time they were with me, but they made the most of it. I was grateful to have Mr. Fussypants on hand to keep them distracted if I needed it. He also brought me sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches. Those sandwiches [and the kindness and patience that came along with them] sustained me — body and soul.
Whereas with my bachelor’s degree I had taken a few breaks between classes, I did no such thing with the master’s degree. I didn’t want to lose my momentum or give myself any time to get lazy. I also didn’t want to work on this degree for the rest of my life. So I decided to take accelerated classes with no breaks, other than standard school holidays.
A few months into my master’s classes, I realized how much more difficult the classes were. Like… really difficult. At that point, I was employed as a writer, so I knew how to fill space on a page when I needed to. I am an excellent bullshitter. But in master’s classes, the teachers were like bullshit detectors. They smelled it out and called it out, and I couldn’t get away with the same level of writing that I had relied upon for my bachelor’s degree. Ten pages could not be filled with fluff; it had to be well researched, well organized content.
This meant that I had to bust my ass — so to speak — in ways I never had to do before.
My kids and Mr. Fussypants were patient, but I literally spent every Sunday — from dusk to dawn — in front of the computer. During finals week, I worked all day Saturday and all day Sunday. When the kids would come in to say hello, I would freak out. One day the kids and Mr. Fussypants interrupted me like eight times and I completely blew up. I would feel so bad after freaking out on them that I would cry. The guilt was horrible. I knew this situation was temporary, but it felt like it would never end.
My math classes were particularly difficult because I had real emotional trauma from algebra classes in middle school and high school. (It’s a long, sordid story that is too much to tell here.) When I began to work through problems at my desk, I felt the same old sense of being overwhelmed and confused. I burst into tears. When I finally got myself under control, I called my professor and then I cried some more. “I’m not usually like this,” I told her, “But apparently I have some serious shit to deal with.” She was very patient with me. My daughter found me crying, and asked what was wrong. I said, “Math is very hard for your Mommy.” She gave me a hug and a kiss. In the end, I earned the most hard-won D in history. And damn it, I am proud of that D, simply because it wasn’t an F.
Later, I was working on my thesis project when our family went on vacation for a week to Knoebels in central Pennsylvania, one of my favorite places in the whole world. The kids and Mr. Fussypants spent hours riding rides in the park while I sat at a picnic table highlighting printouts of academic articles. They had a great time. I was so bummed. In the evenings they were too loud for me to get any work done in the hotel room. So I woke at 5 a.m. and sat in the hotel lobby organizing the elements of my thesis as my family slept. It was pure hell. Thankfully, there was fresh-brewed coffee.
There were plenty of times during the final year that I was just at my breaking point. I would never quit — but it was just so much work. So I planned ahead and split up the work for my final project so that I didn’t have to do all of the work in one fell swoop. It took time to talk to people in the field that worked all over our state, read academic journal articles, build my thesis arguments, and write. Every time I went back to look at the “final” draft I’d find something else to fix or another point I wanted to make. I had two mentors — one at Wilmington University and one at my job. I had to meet with both a few times to get help with remaining focus. It was absolutely nuts trying to fit those meetings into my schedule while also having to pick up kids from school and take them to taekwondo or whatever. I felt bad for my car.
In July 2017, with no fanfare, I submitted my thesis, and it was all over. I couldn’t believe I had finished the courses for my master’s degree. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace coupled with a feeling I can only describe as being let off a leash to run wild and free.
Just over a month later, I came home from work to find my certificate on my front step. I felt a surge of pride as I pulled it out of the envelope. It was a little bit bent on one corner, but I didn’t care. I had my daughter take a photo of me with it right then and there.
It had taken me five years of work, but I had done it. I had earned my Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership and my Master of Science in Management (MSM) in Health Care Administration.
In January 2018, I attended my master’s degree ceremony. My kids, Mary, her husband Tom, and Mr. Fussypants all attended. Seats in the main auditorium were limited, so Mary took the kids and seated them at the back while her husband and Mr. Fussypants sat in an adjoining room. Mary kept the kids busy drawing, doing little crafty things, and so on. They were good as gold.
When I crossed the stage to receive my degree and they announced my name, I heard my two children call out in unison, “Yay, Mommy!” At that moment, I realized Mary had been right: all the hard work had been worth it. Just to hear that. Those two tiny little voices did it for me. I cry every time I think about it.
Yes, the kids had to keep themselves occupied for quite a lot of time. Yes, I was mentally drained most of the time and not really “present” when I was with them. No, it was not ideal for them to get yelled at for coming in to say hello. No, I was not the most pleasant person in the house. But yes, I do appreciate their sacrifice… and I tell them how much their support meant to me.
A little while after my master’s graduation, my 11-year-old daughter said to me, “Mom, I’m going to college right after high school, because it’s way too hard to get your degree when you’ve got two kids.” I was gobsmacked. We all learned something important from this experience, I thought later.
If you are a mother who wishes to go back to school, I want you to know YOU CAN DO IT.
You’ll find ways to focus when you think you just can’t. Learning to focus in spite of the distractions is part of the whole experience.
You’ll have to make sure your kids are safe and give them snacks and make them sit on the couch and be quiet while you work.
Sometimes you’ll have to stay up super late and wake up super early.
You’ll try to be nice despite feeling like your head is going to explode.
You’ll eat right and drink lots of water to keep the old noggin joggin’.
You’ll step away from your work from time to time to get a breather — and you’ll find that you’re able to do more when you return.
You’ll find ways to get things done despite having limited time, energy, and funds.
But you can do it.
Not long ago, I overheard my friend Mary telling another woman who felt she couldn’t finish her education, “Look, you’ve got no kids. Yeah, you travel, but that’s not a big deal. Esther got her bachelor’s and master’s degree with two kids and a full time job.” She used my experience to show this other woman that yes, she could do it. And no, being “busy” is not an excuse.
But you can do it. Because I did it. And I’m nowhere near as smart or organized as most people.
And in the end, as my friend Mary says, It will be worth it.
Good luck to you.
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA is an independent writer and artist living in Dover, Delaware. Visit https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/.