What my Son Thinks About His Mom Being a Student

By Heather Watts

It feels like I have been in graduate school for quite some time. I can remember crossing the stage at my commencement from Columbia University Teachers College back in 2014. I was graduating with my first master’s degree, in Literacy Instruction. I was four months pregnant, and with a growing baby in my belly, was filled with excitement, wondering what opportunities were ahead for us. 

Fast forward four years and that growing baby was now a growing toddler, and we found ourselves at yet another higher education institution as I was working toward my second master’s degree. We made some big changes to be at Harvard. We sold our house in New York State to move to Massachusetts for a one-year program, and my mom even moved with us to help care for my son, Nico. He was not of school age and daycare costs were outrageous; we were so grateful to have my mom living with us during this time. 

A collage of images of Heather Watts graduating from her first two degrees, and a final image of her and Nico playing in the leaves outside.

There’s something you should know about me – I love getting involved, in clubs, causes, work, everything. I’ve always had a tough time saying no to an opportunity as I want to be involved in impact work and love learning from team environments. During my time at Harvard, I was a full-time student, Equity & Inclusion Fellow, co-chair of an Indigenous student organization (shoutout to FIERCE!), worked as a Research Assistant, Social Media Manager, and Curriculum Designer. Like I said, I LOVE being involved and hadn’t learned a lot about the concept of overextending oneself. Something I constantly struggled with was this question: 

Am I a bad parent when I choose school instead family time? 

Illustration of two conversation bubbles overlapping

I have a feeling that a lot of you student-parents may ask yourself the same question. Below is a conversation between my six-year old son, Nico and I. For context, I am now a second-year PhD student at the University of Toronto – The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), still overextending myself, but at least, am aware of it! Baby steps. 

Me: What do you think about mommy being a student just like you? 

Nico: I like it. 

Me: Why? Tell me more. 

Nico: Because then you get to be a student at the same time as me. 

Me: Does it ever frustrate you when I have to do school work and I can’t play with you? 

Nico: Yes. 

Me: Tell me more. 

Nico: Sometimes I ask you and you have to do something else like your homework or on your computer.  

Me: How did you feel when we went to visit the Harvard campus? — graduation 

Nico: I liked it because it meant you could be happy and celebrate being at school for a really long time. 

Me: Do you ever wish mommy weren’t in school? 

Nico: Sometimes. 

Me: Tell me more (I received an eye roll after this one!) 

Nico: Because sometimes I wish you would have more time to play with me. 

Me: Do you know why I’m going to school? 

Nico: Because you wanna learn more. 

Me: Right. And I want to help teachers and schools do things better so they can make school a really great experience for all their students. 

Nico: Like little kids or big kids? 

Me: For all kids. What do you think about that? 

Nico: I think it’s good. People should be happy at school. 

Me: Do you think it’s a good use of mommy’s time to be going to school for something like that? 

Nico: Yes because then you get to learn more and help teachers be better. 

Me: What are ways that we can make sure we still have time to play and connect even though I have school? What are little things we could do? 

Nico: We could have singing parties in the car on the way to school and coming home from school. 

Me: Maybe we could write each other notes too? Like I could put notes in your lunch for you to read during the day? 

Nico: Ooh, I like that. Maybe I can sit in on your class sometimes. I like seeing the other kids (ha!) in your class and I like it when they see me. 

My takeaways from this exchange are as follows: 

  1. We are way harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be. I have carried around this student-parent guilt for a few years now, and my son actually admires that I am a student. 
  2. Perhaps we don’t give our kids enough credit and we assume they couldn’t ever understand what it is we are researching or going to school for. When we explain this, the concept of mom/dad/guardian going to school becomes alive and makes a lot more sense to them! 
  3. Our relationships with our children may not be traditional, and maybe that’s okay. I was so excited that the conversation turned to a brainstorm session on what we could do differently and how we could sneak those moments of love and care into our day. 

Release your guilt, fellow student-parents. You are incredible and your children are proud of you. 

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