Overcoming mom guilt when going back to college

Going back to college is no easy feat – and it's even more intimidating when you're a parent. We talked to moms who went back to school about overcoming the most common fears of heading back to college.

January 12, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Overcoming mom guilt when going back to college

Moms, we get it: Going back to school while in the thick of parenting can be really hard. But, mothers who have already done it say everything is going to be okay — really.

When you're a mom, choosing to prioritize your own future can feel like a zero-sum game for your kids. It's tempting to think that choosing to invest in yourself means choosing not to invest in them.

You may worry: Are my children going to get what they need? Will I miss out on their important moments? Will all their memories of me include the glow of a laptop on my face?

Mom guilt aside, returning to school later in life comes with its own anxieties: Will I remember how to study? Will I be the oldest person in my class? How do I balance all of my responsibilities? Is this even going to pay off?

It's totally normal to ask yourself these questions. But don't let guilt or fear stop you from moving forward. Instead, start by considering the research:

More than 1 in 5 college students are parents. 70% of those parents are mothers. Student parents have higher GPAs than students without children. A mother's education level influences her children's academic outcomes on many different levels. It's also associated with better child outcomes overall. One Harvard study revealed that women raised by working mothers do better in the workplace (pulling 23% more earnings). At the same time, men raised by working moms contribute more at home.

IWPR Report: Parents In College By the Numbers

The data is clear: More and more moms are going back to school to improve their career prospects and support their families — and as a result, their kids are better off.

But of course, the numbers aren't all rosy.

Every parent will face unique obstacles that make going back to college a challenge. We spoke to moms from all walks of life who are in school right now or went back while still having kids in the house. They discuss their biggest fears and offer some hard-won advice.

I'm worried about missing time with my kids that I won't get back.

Michelle Keldgord went back to school for a dental assistant program when her youngest was only a year old. "The hardest part was leaving my baby with family members for several hours. I felt like I was missing out on her growing up," she said. "I really felt that mom guilt because I wasn't there to soak up every single moment with my child."

Keldgord had always wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom, but she realized she needed to find a way to provide for her kids. And she wanted to show them what she was capable of. "They saw me push through the difficult times, and I think that will continue to benefit them as they approach their teen years," she said.

Tip: Go easy on yourself

"Looking back, it was kind of ridiculous to place all that guilt on myself," said Keldgord. "When I was done with school, I had all the time in the world to spend with my baby. I didn't need to add the extra stress on myself."

I'm worried the kids won't get what they need while I'm focused on school.

Carmel Young went back to school and then had two kids, back-to-back. "I worry every day about not being able to give our two kids, our puppy — even my husband — the attention they deserve. There is nothing worse than not being able to help your kid with homework because you have to do your own," said Young. "It's a gut-wrenching feeling. But that doesn't actually happen very often."

Tip: Talk to the kids

Don't underestimate what the kids are capable of, said Young. If you make a point to communicate at every stage of your educational journey, they will adjust.

"As long as you are transparent about what you are trying to accomplish and you don't blindside them, they will understand. Remember: This isn't just for your benefit, but for the benefit of your entire family's future as well," she said.

According to one study, student mothers do in fact spend less time overall with their children. But they still spend the same amount of time in developmentally rich activities — like reading with their kids — as mothers who aren't students do.

Most kids even get a small academic boost from having a mom in school.

I'm afraid I won't remember how to study.

Kristin Bate was a teacher before she left the classroom to stay at home with her three boys, who are now nine, seven, and three. She went back for a master's degree this year in special education with a certification as a diagnostician, inspired by her experience homeschooling her eldest, who has ADHD and dyslexia.

"I'm so excited to do this work," she says. "I have a huge heart for it. But at the same time, going back to school at this stage of life has been really intimidating. It's been sixteen years since I was in college!"

It's normal to wonder if you've forgotten how to be a student, she said. You certainly won't be the student you were in your teens and twenties when the only person you had to take care of was yourself.

Tip: Embrace the difference

"It's so different. I'm more motivated now, more mature," said Bate. "But at the same time, I'm pulled in a thousand different directions. I have to learn how to sit down and dedicate myself to not doing housework. Sometimes, my kids need me at four in the morning when I've just gone to bed at midnight after a study session."

One helpful tactic is to carve up the hours of the day for dedicated tasks. "Have scheduled times for everything. I don't study during the day at all. When my husband gets home, we try to spend a little time together. We make dinner and put the kids to bed. I take a walk. And when I know everyone's needs are taken care of, I sit down to do my own work at night. That way, I can focus on what I need to do."

I honestly have no idea how to get it all done.

When Shannon Forest-Reeves went back to college in 2009, online education wasn't really an option yet. She had one child in school, one in daycare, and a newborn. Her husband was also in school, and they couldn't afford the extra childcare.

"We went to the same campus. We would literally pass the baby off between classes, like a football. My mother was a university secretary, and sometimes when our schedules overlapped, we'd have to leave the baby with her," said Forrest-Reeves.

"I look back on those impossible days, and I don't know how we survived. We were on food stamps. We had to take loans out just to live on. Everything was tight: our time, our attention, our money."

Tip: Put one foot in front of the other

But Forrest-Reeves says all the chaos and stress was worth it. She and her husband both ended up with master's degrees and can now give their three girls a stable life. When COVID-19 hit, she was suddenly in charge of schooling her high schooler and middle schooler. She felt like her education gave her the confidence to do a great job.

"At the end of the day, getting through school as a mom means putting one foot in front of the other. It won't be easy, it won't be glamorous, but you will be so proud of yourself. And the kids are watching: They are learning that really cool things can happen when you devote yourself to working hard for something you want."

Eleven practical tips for moms headed back to school from moms who have done it and survived

Many moms recommend waiting until your children are old enough to go to pre-k or kindergarten. Others studied while their infants slept or even took them along to classes. Do what will work best for your family and your schedule. Online programs make continuing education possible for parents who need flexible schedules. It's good to find out: How flexible are due dates? Will I have to attend class in person? How understanding is the faculty? How many classes can I handle at once? How long do I want to be in school? The last thing you need is more school debt than your future salary can pay off. Look at job placement data, research salaries, and speak with program alumni to make sure you have realistic expectations for your future career outcomes. Plan out your assignments and family responsibilities ahead of time — schedules, to-do lists, Google Sheets, you name it — so nothing falls through the cracks. This is a time to make your needs clear and ask for help. No one can do it all. See where your partner, family, or friends can pick up some slack. You've chosen to do something challenging and enriching; it will require reserves of energy you didn't know you had. Accept that it won't be easy, but you've got what it takes to succeed. Single moms, in particular, say that the idea of balancing everything is unrealistic. You'll be doing homework late at night; your house will be a mess; you will probably cry sometimes. But they also say the sleepless nights are temporary, and the accomplishment and future financial security are worth the sacrifice. No matter how busy you get, the folks in your house will still expect to eat like, three whole times a day. Student moms swear by weekend cooking and frozen crockpot meals. Older kids can learn to cook simple meals. Your partner — if you have one — can step up, too. Whether you're going back to school full-time or part-time, treat it like a job. You have an allotted amount of time to study each day; you have to show up and make it happen. It can be hard to focus on homework when you're sitting in a messy house, you've got a work shift coming up, and your kid needs you to sign some paperwork from school. One mom recommends setting a timer: 20 minutes to focus exclusively on your schoolwork, 15 minutes to attend to random tasks, 10 minutes to zone out (or whatever else your mind needs to do). Repeat. Don't expect to do everything perfectly. Do your best with the time you have; it doesn't have to be pretty. It just has to be finished. You can do this!

If the timing feels right to go back to school or pursue a new career, but you aren't sure where to start, check out Lantern's Careers Interests Quiz to discover what path might be best for you.