You Can Thrive as a Family in Graduate School

We have been a graduate school family for 5 years now, and are about to begin our sixth. Each year we get better at it, and we finally feel like we're over the hump and are beginning to thrive in this weird world of graduate student adulthood. We already had our first child when we began this journey, and I fell pregnant with our second during my husband's first semester of graduate school at Duke Divinity. Now we eagerly await the arrival of our third just as Cody begins his 6th year of graduate school, and 3rd in his doctoral program. We've had epic adventures, with kids by our side, and have seen our family grow and mature not in spite of graduate school, but in part because of graduate school. We are grateful for the restrictions it has placed on us, and for the ways that we've had to work hard at living well and intentionally where we are placed. This is how we do it.

Have a schedule / Have something set for at least 1 week out. Things will happen to interrupt your plan on occasion, but you'll have far fewer miscommunication fiascos when you both know what to expect for the coming week. Tip: if you are the stay-at-home parent, do not try to "do it all." It's a job that does not sleep (sometimes literally!), and it's absurd to think that you don't need some solo time. Work that into your schedule. It may be just a couple hours once a week, but it is absolutely necessary for the health of yourself as an individual and as a family. Find what works for you and your spouse. We intentionally schedule time for me to write or simply have some silence, while Cody enjoys important time with our sons. We prioritize not just our marital relationship, but the relationship between Cody and our kids as we make our schedule. I'll share more on what this looks like later.

Keep on task / Whether you keep a bullet journal or have an app like Todoist. Make sure you both have some way to keep track of tasks that need accomplished. There are some things I think of that need to be done that only Cody can take care of. Knowing that when I text him about it he'll plug it into his tasks and get to it at some point that week has been really healthy for our marriage. He does the same for me, and we actually get things done. Bills are paid, errands are run, household tasks are accomplished, and all without nagging and frustration. The book Do More Better has been transformative for us as we seek to be more productive, mission-minded Christians. It's small, to-the-point, and is written from a Christian perspective. In it, Tim Challies breaks down the why and the how of productivity, and succinctly argues for the importance of productivity in order for us to glorify God, and bless others, with our time and talents. We got our first copy from the library, but ended up purchasing a copy so that we can have it on hand for quick reference. We do not buy unnecessary books, so this should tell you how much we love it.

Connect while you move / This is a powerful relational tip. Instead of going out to eat for a date, find a sport or exercise that you both love as a couple. Couples who exercise together report more satisfaction with their relationship and a stronger emotional connection. Last December I started running with Cody. I had to give it up this Spring, but am excited to start up again after I recover from pregnancy. To be honest, running is not my exercise of choice, but the benefit of time spent with Cody is well worth it. Even if we don't talk while we run, we feel connected and in sync after exercise together. When you're having family time, see how you can make that time full of movement, as well. We like to go on hikes with the kids, or let them run with us and then ride in the stroller when they get tired. This summer we've enjoyed going swimming almost daily at our local YMCA.

Dates / I'm not going to say what you think I'm going to say. Cody and I are not great about going on dates. We just never have, and it's something we're trying to think about to see if we need to change something to make our marriage stronger. However, as I said above, connecting through movement has been really important for us even though it looks a bit untraditional. We also love having date nights in. In fact, our anniversary tradition is to spend the anniversary money my parents send us on indulgent food (like Brie and shrimp!), and make a picnic after the boys are in bed. Time spent alone with your spouse is important, and I think we can all agree on that. Find what works for you, even if it's a bit different than what is expected.

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Exercise solo, too / Having time to decompress individually is extremely important. Cody runs (much faster and longer than when I'm along!), and I do Barre.

A study by family therapist Michele Scheinkman revealed that among graduate students, a loss of perspective is required in order to maintain passion for his or her field of study. Sheinkman states that this loss of perspective is at least perceived as necessary for success in graduate school. This is exactly the reason we prioritize physical exercise for Cody. It is something that lifts his mind and body out of the posture of study and the pressure of academic achievement. Perhaps a loss of perspective will help a graduate student succeed at graduate school, but it is the last thing you want if you plan to succeed in your marriage, or as a parent, or as a friend or member of your community. 

Eat simply / I very rarely use recipes. A typical meal for us might be baked potatoes, green beans, and fish. During the cooler months I make a lot of soups, as well. Simple, no hassle, nourishing. If I'm shopping by myself at the end of the month, I might mentally add the cost of each item so that I am aware of how much my total basket will cost. This helps tremendously with resisting impulse purchases. Our current favorite meal is crockpot chicken tacos, which I throw together in the morning (literally just chicken breasts, salsa, chili powder, cumin, and salt), and pair with fresh tortillas, avocado, lettuce, and cheese.

Consume intentionally / This is where we talk about money, one of the most stressful aspects to graduate school life. I didn't make a dime during our first 4 years of graduate school, and it was rough. We didn't receive any government aid, and mostly lived off of savings and the work Cody would do during the semester and over the summers. Last Fall I began nannying part time, and this helped our finances a great deal. That job is about to come to an end, but there will be new work for me. It's really great if the stay-at-home parent can have some source of income, but if not, you can still make it work. I am actually very grateful for those 4 years when our finances were really tight. It meant I had to learn a few things, like

1. No impulse purchases (I'm looking at you, Target)

2. No eating out, basically ever (this has changed a bit for us in the last year, but this was our motto for 4 years and we survived!)

3. Budgets are a lifesaver, not something that holds us back, but something that shoots us forward into possibility and opportunity. We love love love You Need A Budget (YNAB), which is free for students! The greatest thing about YNAB is the app. Everytime Cody or I make a purchase, we immediately enter it into our budget so we don't have to wonder later what exactly we bought and what category it needs to come out of. The app also allows you to see precisely how much money you have in each category so you are less likely to overspend. We have set aside a bit of time every Friday night to update our budget and discuss purchases. A lot of this is mindless work, so we might watch a TV show for part of the time, which makes it a bit more fun.

4. Stop window-shopping, which only breeds covetousness and discontentment, and work to make what you have awesome and organized. Take some time off from shopping and dreaming of "someday." One way I do this is by going to places like Target as seldom as possible. There's always something I didn't know existed but that I suddenly, inexplicably, must have. The first step, which I typically adhere to, is not to buy it, but then I'm left with a perfect-table-runner shaped hole in my heart, and I just don't have time or energy for that. I'm guessing you don't either. If you want change, novelty, a fresh home, then take everything out of your closet, and item by item put it back in, or don't. Stay on task with laundry instead of letting it pile up and mar the appearance of your home and cause frustration. Vacuum more often so your carpets don't look like they need a new rug to look nice. Wipe down your kitchen every night before bed. Make what you have the best it can possibly be, and you'll be feeling pretty fine about your home, your possessions, and all that you accomplished in a day. Maybe you're in a season of life where keeping your home clean or tidy is just not happening. If that's the case, give yourself grace, and let that be even more of a reminder that you definitely do not have time for window-shopping (or the upkeep it takes to maintain care of more items filling your home). Don't give in to the lie that gilding your home with new things will magically make it more peaceful, more full of love, or more a place of hospitality. 

Take a Sabbath / Cody has worked only a couple Sundays during his 5 years in graduate school. I know, I can hardly believe it myself. And it wasn't even for the whole day, since we still went to church on those mornings. Typically, our Sabbath looks like a 24 hour time off, and Cody usually starts at sundown on Saturday and will begin work again at sundown on Sunday. This means he and I typically get at least that one night a week to hang out after the boys go to bed. On Sunday this means he is free to play with the boys, or we will go somewhere as a family in the afternoon after church. School will infiltrate every area of your life, and if you do not push back and create boundaries, it will negatively affect your relationships and your health. Any graduate school program will try to fill every cranny of your life, so you have to be on your guard and set boundaries.

Embrace non-traditional roles / You know what, sometimes, it just doesn't make sense for me to fill the typical "female" roles in our home. And since I am home most of the day, I do a lot of taking out the trash, and will occasionally take our car to the mechanic or work on our budget (the jobs that might typically fall to my husband). Taking care of our children is one thing Cody and I share. We do this partially because this is my vocation as a stay-at-home mom, and I need a break every now and then. But also because my children need a father who is present and who shows them how to be thoughtful, sensitive, funny, wise, and present men and fathers. No one can teach this to our sons better than Cody, so why would we deprive them of that? Year round, this looks like Cody roughhousing with the boys a bit when he comes home in the evening (which turns out to be wildly important for our kids), helping them get ready for bed, and reading them a bedtime story. During the summer, Cody will take them to a park, the zoo, or children's museum, or simply play around the house while I work for a couple hours. This has been so good for them, that I think this Fall we'll build in some daytime hours a few days a week for Cody to do something with the boys, and then I'll be responsible for bedtime on those days so Cody can start his evening studies a little earlier. Whenever possible, Cody does the grocery shopping. He spends less money, and I find going to the grocery store to be only one step above receiving a Dementor's kiss.

Work together and have respect / If one of you is a stay-at-home parent, and the other is a graduate student, this means that your schedules are mostly self-made. This can get messy, so you have to tread lightly and work hard at working together. Perhaps the spouse works full-time and kids haven't entered the picture. Regardless of your specific situation, one of the most important elements to your relationship as a graduate student couple is respect. If you do not respect your spouse's academic work, he/she will pick up on this quickly, and it will damage your relationship. If you do not respect your spouse's work as a stay-at-home parent or think sitting at a desk 40 hours a weeks shuffling papers sounds like a vacation, he/she will pick up on this quickly, and it will damage your relationship. Your work is different, but both are valuable and necessary for your family. When you work hard at these together and value each other's unique contribution, you will have laid the most crucial foundation for your marriage.

As a couple, we feel passionate about this topic, and believe that families can actually thrive in graduate school. Would you consider sharing this post with any couples you might know who are in graduate school or considering entering? We hope this is a great resource for you and them.