In many ways am a walking billboard for young Utah mother stereotypes. I met my husband in high school, we married when I was 20. I spend my days taking our two daughters, ages 2 and 4, to playdates with friends or storytime at the library. We frequently attend Sunday dinners and group birthday celebrations with our vast extended family.
However, in one way our family does not fit the typical mold; I started an Occupational Therapy Master’s program this fall and plan to be an equal income earner for our household. The journey to this moment wasn’t always easy. At times, I have felt like I was stumbling around in the dark, blindly trying to make decisions that will hopefully bring me closer to my career goals. But I made it here. Today I’m proud to stand as an example, not of a woman merely surviving school with a family, but as a mother embarking on an adventure toward lifelong learning for my children.
And so, for any women contemplating the benefits of college and a career, I’d like to shed a little light on this situation by sharing the three most important lessons I want my young daughters to learn from my experiences completing my education:
1. Balancing motherhood with another personal passion can be tough, but it’s also worth it!
For a time, I was a stay at home mother. I love my daughters deeply, but to prioritize motherhood I had put my other love, occupational therapy, on hold. Planning to return to school when my children entered school full-time, at first I was confident that my sacrifice to my family would yield the best outcomes for everyone. As time went on, however, the choice to stay home weighed heavily on me. I felt I was in stasis, watching my children grow and develop while I stagnated. Many women find total fulfillment in motherhood, and many aspire to it from a very young age. In my case, I had always wanted to be a mother AND have a career. How could I be a dynamic and engaging parent when I was denying a large part of myself? Ultimately, I had to make a change.
Although it was not possible financially for me to attend classes full time right away, I decided to take a part time job related to my field until I was able to enroll at Utah Valley University (UVU). My husband was very supportive. Taking small steps toward my goal allowed me to prioritize my family while still working toward my career aspirations. My outlook completely changed when I allowed myself space in my life for a career. Because I was happier, I was a better parent and a better partner to my husband. While I did not have as many hours each day with my family, our time together was filled with more laughter and interaction than when I was a stay at home mom. Life was not any easier, but I loved everything I was doing. When I looked closely at my personality, goals, and aspirations, I was able to come up with a balance between career and family that worked best for me.
While I knew attending school or working outside the home would fulfill my personal needs, I was very concerned that my family would suffer without a mother for 20-40 (or more) hours per week. Instead, I found we all thrived. My husband took on a much greater role as a caregiver to our children. He continues to take that responsibility very seriously, and he challenges himself daily to ensure that his time with the kids is enriching for everyone. Not every father has the opportunity to be as integral in the day-to-day experiences of his young children, and he is grateful for the chance to explore his own parenting style while I am away. My husband may never have discovered his skills as a nurturer if I had never given him the space to do so.
My children have also reaped many benefits from a parent attending full-time school outside the home. First and foremost, they have a mother who is happy and fulfilled. They have been able to forge bonds with other adults, especially their grandparents and families in our neighborhood, who have been willing and enthusiastic in helping our family achieve our goals by watching the girls while we are away. As a student, I am aware of many wonderful activities UVU opens to families. This year we attended Japanese Culture Night, Japanese Club socials, Chinese New Year, and Query: STEM Activities for Children 2-12 (presented by the Science Association of Women). This dynamic, enriching environment would not be possible for my daughters without a mother pursuing higher education.
3. Don’t underestimate the example of a college educated mother!
As a student parent, there have been times when my daughters have accompanied me to UVU campus. They love the large gleaming buildings, and adore the toys and beanbag chairs in the family study room at the library. There is a Foucault Pendulum we usually stop to see. My four year old wants to know every country represented in the Hall of Flags. During one visit, my older daughter asked, “Mommy, is this whole big place your school?”I answered “Yes, Sweetie! This is where mommy comes to study and learn how to do her grown-up job.” She smiled. “When I grow up, I am going to a big college like this one!” As I gave her a big hug, I replied “That’s exactly right. I know you will.”
When children see their mother complete a degree and pursue a career, that choice becomes valid and attainable. Daughters grow up planning to attend college and use their degree in the workforce. Adult sons look to the example of a working mother when choosing a spouse. If you want children to value education as adults, give them the best example to follow: their mother.
While each person’s situation is different, I have found motherhood and education to complement one another, working together to shape me into my best self. The career goals I set for myself have guided my family toward a life centered on knowledge, truth, and love. It is my sincere hope for more women in Utah to realize that education does not need to end when a student becomes a mother.
Whitney Smith Hutchings has been accepted into the University of Utah’s Master’s of Occupational Therapy Program for 2015. At UVU, she is a Vice President in the Pre-Occupational Therapy Club and the student parent liaison for Query, presented by the Science Association of Women. She enjoys learning something new each day with her husband, Craig, and two daughters.