Three things I wish I knew about being both a parent and a grad student at U of T

J. Sparks, Graduate Student, University of Toronto

If I had an opportunity to go back in time, I would have shared these three things with my former self about what to expect as a parent and as a student enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Toronto.

1) Hey, former self.  You’re not going to be the only graduate student on campus with family responsibilities.  At U of T, there are many students who are just like you.  U of T students have a range of family, academic and professional responsibilities.  And just like you, everyone is striving to balance it all (and the majority are successful too!)

I recall looking around at my classmates during the first few weeks of classes, thinking ‘Wow! How do they have it all together?’ ‘They are balancing school and life so well!’ 

I recall, that my first few days of class, were one of ‘those days’. You know ‘those days’ that you come to school and are amazed that you are physically there. 

Those days that happened after spending the night before studying/working late into the evening, and then preparing whatever you/your family needs for the next day, getting a little sleep and then waking up to a morning rushing around after kids, and then after getting everyone out the door, arriving at school ‘amazed’ that you made it to school relatively on-time and wearing a clean shirt! You know ‘those days’. We all have them.

Well, during the first few days of class, I didn’t know that many of my classmates were ‘amazed’ when they arrived at class too.  But after the first few weeks of classes and time spent getting to know my classmates, I came to realize that although they seemed ‘all together’, in fact often they were having ‘those days’ too.  In sharing our experiences, with one another, we all realized that we were not alone. We all had a range of family, work and academic responsibilities. We were all striving for balance in our busy lives.   

2) Oh, former self.  Silly you.  There will be no such thing as ‘perfection’ at home or at school while a grad student (or ever).  All of your ‘A’ papers in grad school will not be perfect papers, and not being the perfect spouse/parent/caregiver/employee all the time will be okay. So, embrace imperfection and relax.

As a new graduate student juggling a range of responsibilities, I often put additional stress on myself expecting perfection.  At the beginning of my grad school experience, I would often think, ‘My paper has to be perfect before I can submit it’, ‘I must be a grad student and the perfect parent, the perfect spouse’, and so on an so forth. 

Oh silly former self.  While it is totally normal to strive for success and to challenge yourself while in graduate school, in reality ‘perfect’ does not exist [and will never exist] at home, at work or at school.  

Eventually, as a seasoned grad student and parent, I came to realize what really matters in grad school (and in life) is doing the best you can, with the time you have.  It’s not about being perfect.  What really matters is making the most of all of your life experiences and enjoying being a graduate student, a valued employee and a member of a loving family – all at the same time. 

None of my ‘A’ papers in grad school were ‘perfect’.  Leaving my family with less than a perfectly tidy home, in order to make it to class on time did not make me a ‘bad’ parent/spouse/family member.  Everything was fine and everyone survived, imperfections and all. 

3)  Okay, former self.  I know your intention was to just enroll yourself in grad school, but here is the deal.  Even though you didn’t list your family members as fellow students on your application to U of T, they will be ‘grad students’ too. 

When I embarked upon graduate studies, I have to admit it was a Me thing. I applied for Me.  I wanted to follow My research passions. I wanted to learn new things. I wanted to experience grad school.  I thought it was going to be My thing. 

What I understand now, but I didn’t realize back then, was that as a student with family responsibilities, I would not be the only one who was learning while I pursued gradate studies.  Now nearing the end of my experience at U of T, what I realize is how much of a positive impact grad school has had on my entire family. 

My family members have definitely gotten a lot better at proof reading my papers over the years (hahaha).

All joking aside, my family members have actively participated in my grad school experience as my loving supporters. During grad school, we have all learned so much together. We have all benefited from my enrolment in graduate studies and will continue to benefit from the experience throughout our lives. 

Overall, if I had an opportunity to go back in time, what I really would share with my former self is that – being a parent and a graduate student won’t be easy.  Juggling family, work and academic responsibilities, I promise you, it will certainly be tough at times.  However, together, with the support of your family and the support of those within the U of T community, you can do it and you will be so very grateful that you did.