School’s Out / Back to School

Today was my kids’ last day of school. I now have a fourth-grader, a first-grader and a pre-kinder kid. My baby-years are officially over. So what do I do to celebrate? Monday is MY first day back at college.

It’s odd to find myself again in a time of making big-decisions. We usually attribute (and I did too) those times to our younger years. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to major in? How will you chose a partner or spouse? I thought the Deciding Years were far behind me. Ha ha! Joke’s on me!

I had my 10-year marriage, my three kids, my second home. Sure, I never finished college, but I gave up my outside-the-home options when I got pregnant with my first child, and never really looked back. When I joined the church, my domestic aspirations were underscored in every Conference talk and Ensign article- and I felt righteous. I felt like a Mormon Woman. I conveniently ignored the council to get an education, as those years were clearly behind me. Ha ha! Joke’s on me!

Divorce. Divorce changes everything.

Today, I stand as the sole guardian of my three children, my houses are gone, my marriage is gone, and my title of Domestic Goddess is about as useful and shiny as a tinfoil crown. As I look around the brokedown palace, I suddenly find myself making decisions again. Big decisions. Not just what color to paint the kitchen, or when to put up raspberry jam for the summer. Decisions about what I want to be, who I want to be, how I’ll get us there, how I’ll support my family, and will I do it alone or with a new partner? Of course, I don’t get to answer all those questions- but even facing them at this intersection of life is a surprise.

The thing is, the only difference between me and most of my friends is the choices of our spouses. Many of the women I know made the same decisions I did- they gave up their career, never finished school- and if their husbands suddenly opted-out, they would stand right next to me on the same shaky ground. This is a scary truth of a woman who gives up her identity outside the home. It’s hard to look at.  This awareness has been brought into keen relief as I have seen some friends pointedly drift away. Most have stayed- but a few, I saw in their eyes, were too afraid to be my friend anymore. I don’t blame them.

It’s been eighteen years since I sat in a college class. Eighteen years- just about half my life. That means the kids I will be sitting next to were likely busy being born about the time I was in Professor Bruce’s American history lectures. Back then, the internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, you registered for your classes by standing in-line or waiting in a phone queue, and your only option for textbooks was the school bookstore. In gathering my assorted transcripts from various schools (because I was nothing at 19 if not flighty and inconsistent) I somehow amassed enough credits to get myself admitted to a real university. A great many of my classes transfered, lo these many years later, and I am entering with my minor complete, and a sizable chunk of required units. I was as surprised as the next guy. Maybe the joke’s not on me after all.

So Monday. Monday I will grab my backpack, my laptop, my books and my new University ID card and will head off to school. I’m going to be a teacher when I grow up. In two short years… As for the rest of it? Who knows what will happen. Life is so rad.


  1. Tracy, thanks for sharing your journey back to school with the rest of us. I’m really excited for you to have this experience. And please let us know how it goes.

    Here’s the thing. Common sense counts for a lot, especially in teaching, and you’ve got 18 years of extra credits on that score amassed. You can’t write it down anywhere on a transcript, but it will be a huge leg up for you.

  2. Karen, the University was actually quite liberal in granting credit for some of the work I’ve done. I had to write it up and present it officially, but I am not going to have to take beginning- or even intermediate- writing or speech classes. Now math is another story…

  3. Strong work, Tracy.

  4. The best thing my mother ever did for my schoolwork was to go to school herself as a “woman of a certain age” and graduate from law school the same week I graduated from high school. I saw how tied together education and work opportunities (and therefore life choices) are, and it made a big difference in my own choices re college, career and marriage.

    You’ll be awesome!

  5. LRC, yes. My children are going to see me work hard for something I want, and hopefully achieve some goals. I hope it matters to them, and effects changes for the better in their lives as well.

  6. It’s five years from now. I see a grateful mother who has come to discuss one of your students. She looks you in the eye and says, “Thank heavens, you became a teacher Ms. M. You have changed my daughters’s life! She just loves you!”

    Tracy, no matter what, you will be somewhere five years from now. You might as well be somewhere you want to be. You are going to be a brilliant student! Go for it.

  7. I have substituted on occastion for our local high school- that was part of what made me decided to finish up and get my MA in Special Ed. I love teaching. LOVE it. I think that will help make me good at it. Thanks SteveP.

  8. Best of luck back in school, Tracy. Thank you for sharing your story with us. You rock!

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks for this, Tracy. I am excited and happy for you. Will be great to read the continuing saga of your Adventures In Academic Motherhood.

    As for those who are “too afraid to be my friend anymore”….well…’re clearly are more Christ-like than me because my first thought was considerably less charitable than “I don’t blame them.” (Understatement of the week!)

  10. It’s really fun to go back to school after being away from it. It’ll mean much more to you than it does to your much-younger classmates.

  11. Natalie says:

    Tracy, I’m excited for you.

  12. Stephanie says:

    The thing is, the only difference between me and most of my friends is the choices of our spouses. Many of the women I know made the same decisions I did- they gave up their career, never finished school- and if their husbands suddenly opted-out, they would stand right next to me on the same shaky ground. This is a scary truth of a woman who gives up her identity outside the home.

    This is so, so true. I have been thinking about this a lot with regard to the marriage age discussions we’ve had on the bloggernaccle recently. Men and women have disproportionate amounts of risk in marrying and living the “plan”. If a SAHM divorces her husband, it is devastating emotionally (and many other ways), but he still has his job to go to. In a lot of ways, his life can continue “as normal”. (I am not trying to minimize the pains or effects of divorce, just trying to make a point.) If a working husband divorces his SAHM wife, it is devastating emotionally (and many other ways) AND her life is turned upside down. The way she spends her time dramatically changes – and she usually carries much more responsibility.

    And, like you said, a lot of that hinges on the choices made by her husband. There is a lot of vulnerability in being a SAHM.

    Good luck to you, TracyM!

  13. I suspect you will find that your peers in education will be much more like you than you expect: teaching is a VERY popular second career, including for women who have been home for the preceding decade or two.

    You ought not downplay your abilities–I suspect you are much better equipped than many women in my ward.

    Certainly I have been in a less precarious situation in my new singlehood for having the education to be employable. Although I felt pretty strongly about women having skills and options before my husband left, I have since become even more radical: I think that women should only have as many children as they can afford to care for themselves.

    It is fine and dandy to pop out 6 kiddies in a decade while you are a SAHM, but what happens when you can no longer depend on your husband’s income? Few LDS women I know could approximate the lifestyle their husband’s make for them, which may sound petty, but when you are in a situation where your kid’s life has turned upside down, it will kill you to tell your daughter that not only are you moving across town, but you also can’t afford dance lessons and she needs to forget about joining her friends for the band trip. Frankly, most women I know, family included, would be moving back in with their parents. If you want a big family, make sure you have the resources, including mental and educational, to support it by yourself, because you just can’t count on anyone absolutely, as much as you’d like to.

    OK, that was a downer. Sorry. Go Tracy! I love school; I wish I was starting classes again on Monday, too!

  14. ESO, no- it’s true. I had a good career once upon a time, and made good money. It was a calculated risk when I gave that up, and now, ten+ years after having let it go, I cannot go back. The river has kept moving, and I haven’t been on it.

    I think this is why I understand the fear I see in some of my friends’ eyes. I represent something too real, too close, and it’s easier to ignore it, pretend it isn’t possible. They have given up the same things I did, in many cases. I only have one friend who would be perfectly fine should something happen to her marriage. All the rest? Same boat as I find myself.

    I don’t want to villainize men- not only will most of them never do what happened to me, but a great many of those who might find themselves divorced will still try and be decent fathers and providers for their children. But it doesn’t minimize the precarious financial situation a woman with several children will be in when suddenly her income becomes only child-support, and whatever job she can get doesn’t even cover daycare. Reality is the pits.

  15. Molly Bennion says:

    Fantastic, Tracy. There were a few “older” women in my law school class; at first they were frightened to be back with those of us fairly fresh from college, afraid they were a bit rusty. They soon realized they had forgotten little and they boasted useful maturity, additional skills from past careers and life knowledge. To a woman, they were stars. You will be too.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    I started back to school in April, Tracy. It had been 22 years for me. Thing is, with many people having few good choices but going back to school, I was far from the only 40 something there. The young people have been very good to me, as well. No stares or snickers. The world is changing, and some of them even know it. It’s all been a very very good experience for me.

    I hadn’t opened a math book in 27 years. Somehow tested into intermediate algebra … and, much to my surprise, love it and did well. Math was a total mystery to me when I was younger, but it’s like my brain has gelled, or something.

    As to men and women who think that if only you’d made this or that choice and everything would be fine – that’s an illusion bred of too much money and good fortune. Most of their illusions will be cured by life, death will get the ones that remain. That fear they’ve got that keeps them from being able to look you square – there is good reason for that fear. ~

  17. Maybe update us after you have been to class?
    I went back (4 kids and 12 years later) just last fall and finished my third semester back this past Thursday. I have two more to go!!! My husband is supportive because he knows I’ve always wanted to finish and I hadn’t had the chance.
    My grades are actually a lot better than they were before. I learned what people were talking about when they said that you have better focus when you’re a mom in school. I found out that my kids take just enough time to leave me with precious hours to study and I make the most of it. They’re also my biggest cheerleaders. Your heart will melt the first time your children pray for you to get “all A+s on your tests”!
    You will not be afraid to speak out when you don’t understand – the teacher is more like a peer.
    You will not have to giggle and flip your hair over your shoulder when the cute t.a. walks by.
    You already know that you learn better when you are helping others and not add to the competitive tension in a hard class but be a lifeline to others who just need to feel like they are in it together with someone who wishes them well.
    I know I’m looking forward to being done, but I do sometimes wonder if I will like working as much as I’m enjoying qualifying for the job!
    Best of luck to you. You’ll do great!

  18. Karen M. says:

    I started school again in January, after 10 years away. (During which time I popped out only 5 kids, not 6, so I should be totally fine if we lose my husband’s income, right?) Although I did finish my bachelor’s the first time around, it took being out of school and experiencing more of life for me to figure out what I’m actually interested in being “when I grow up”.

    I have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it’s been to get back into everything again, including math. And I’ve found that there are many benefits to being an older student, as others have mentioned. Good luck, I hope it will be a great experience for you!

  19. living in zion says:

    Gosh, all this good news about going to school as a oldster makes it sound very appealing. I hope others experiences hold true for you too, Tracy.

  20. living in zion says:

    When my husband and I were engaged, Ezra Taft Benson gave a talk telling wives to stay at home and nurture the children. He challenged those already in the workforce to come home. It was 1987.
    I remember the controversy well because in our singles ward the Bishop’s wife worked full-time and they had little children at home. We all wondered if she was going to “heed the words of the prophet”.
    The engaged couples in our ward had a big discussion during Sunday School about what the prophet said. Rob declared I would stay home when we had kids. Little did he know he was sealing his fate by that statement. He ended up working full time and going to school full time for 8 years to get a bachelor’s degree because I needed to be at home. It was ridicuously hard.
    I look back now, 23 years later and I wonder why we didn’t just do what everyone else in married student housing was doing. The wife went to work, the husband took tons of classes, the kids went to daycare with the one sister in the complex willing to babysit 52 children at a time and everyone had food stamps, WIC and Medicaid. They all got done in 3 years and got on with life. It took us 8 years, 3 kids and we still have one student loan we are paying on.
    We had friends graduate from medical school in the time we got Rob’s bachelor’s degree.
    The funniest part is I did end up going back to school before the kids were grown and I did go to work because we couldn’t make it on just his income.
    I was SO glad years later when Pres. Hinckley told my teenage daughters in conference to get an education and keep their job skills up. You just never know.

  21. I too think you will be ok, Tracy M. When I was in grad school, the mid-life students were highly respected and not thought of as weird at all. It’s pretty common these days whether re-entering the workforce, or doing a big career change. Programs are often designed for a certain demographic’s maturity and motivation levels, and that gives you a big advantage.

  22. Tracy it will be awesome, except for the time crunch. You’ll do so well.

    My grades are so much better now than the first time around. I actually want to learn, and enjoy it. It makes all the difference.

    I’m enjoying studying with my kids, I am a good example to them. Just last week I studied History of Psych while one daughter studied her states and capitals and the other daughter studied for her English and History finals. We had fun and enjoyed each other’s company as we hit the books.

  23. Echoing many others, Tracy, I think you will do wonderfully well. My own experience: I never went “back” to school; I just stayed in school forever the first time through. My impression was consistently that people who had been out and lived and came back were much more focused than those who hadn’t. (Basically what JustMe said.)

    I am not going to have to take beginning- or even intermediate- writing or speech classes.

    Well that certainly makes sense! I haven’t heard you speechify, but I can’t imagine anyone who’s read your writing thinking you aren’t an excellent writer.

  24. Stephanie (#12):

    Men and women have disproportionate amounts of risk in marrying and living the “plan”.

    Thank you for saying this so succinctly! I had kind of vaguely had this thought before too, but never so clearly put together. So thanks for putting your finger right on it!

    I think a real argument can be made for your “radical” solution to this problem, ESO.

  25. I’ll take Ziff’s endorsement any day. Of course Tracy is exactly right that most men would not intentionally leave their kids high and dry. But it happens to the most well-intentioned too: untimely death with a lack of life insurance, disability, job-loss, chronic illness that drains all savings, etc etc. I am just saying you cannot count on having what you currently have forever.

    Tracy–another thing that occurred to me: a significant number of adults who go into special education have children with special needs, so you might have a nice new support group there. I am great friends with my grad school cohort–they are a great addition to my life. Enjoy.

  26. Tracy, I think your story should be added to the YW lesson manual.

    When I was in high school my dad lost his job and was unemployed for two years. My mom had a BA, but after 17 years out of the work force, it wasn’t worth any more than a HS diploma in the job market where we lived. After seeing my parents go through that, I swore to myself I’d never be in the position of total financial dependence on my husband.

    And I haven’t been. My husband and I bring in about the same amount of money, and his career is flexible enough that we don’t need to put our kids in 50 hours of daycare a week. BUT. Our lifestyle is hard in its own way – I miss being at home more, we don’t have much time together as a whole family, and I’m socially alienated from other women at church. That said, I’d still choose my life over financial insecurity.

    I think when women have children in their early/mid twenties, they really are between a rock and a hard place because even if they are highly educated, they haven’t had time to get the work experience they need to be valuable in the job market. Leaving your babies with a sitter is hard, and knowing you can’t do it all is hard, too. The women I know who seem best off have waited until they’re more in their 30s before having kids. They get their education and work experience in, and sometimes have made themselves so valuable in the workplace that they can work part-time after having children (and good part-time work is very hard to find, IMO). Some quit working entirely, but they’ve already built up a good resume, so going back to work in 5-10 years isn’t so hard.

    So I’d suggest an alternate radical plan: Don’t have kids until you have a resume you can really fall back on. Very non-Mormon, but very practical.

  27. Karen M. says:

    I completely understand where everyone’s “radical” ideas are coming from, but I want to defend those of us who’ve made the decision to have many children while young (and leave education for later). Most decisions in life carry some risks. People who get married and have children while young are not necessarily any more naive than their career building peers, but have decided that the possibility of being poor is acceptable. I just don’t think you can make blanket statements about what other people’s decisions should be.

  28. Karen, you are correct in that no one can make a blanket statement about what’s right for someone else. That’s not what I was trying to do- and I don’t think any of the commenters were really saying that either, but I can see how you feel.

    There is a difference between being poor as a couple and being destitute as a suddenly-single mother. Usually being poor as a couple is because of choices opting towards future goals you and your spouse have set. Being poor as a single mother is about being left without that very support you both sacrificed to achieve.

    Simply put, in our traditional setup, the woman stays home with the kids while the man goes to grad/law/dental/etc. school. She has some children, and puts her own career/educational aspirations on hold. Then, when a few years have passed, she has several young children, no job skills, and her husband has an advanced degree. This is all well and good if he honors his promises and covenants. IF he doesn’t though, she’s in more than a poor boat. The risk is exponentially higher for what the woman gives up in the traditional situation.

    I don’t think this is really about the decision to be poor. In my case, it’s a calculated gamble that I lost.

  29. Naismith says:

    “Simply put, in our traditional setup, the woman stays home with the kids while the man goes to grad/law/dental/etc. school. She has some children, and puts her own career/educational aspirations on hold. Then, when a few years have passed, she has several young children, no job skills, and her husband has an advanced degree.”

    I am not sure this is entirely accurate. As noted in the (wonderful) original essay, our church leaders have also counseled women to get an education and be prepared to earn a living should that arise. When I went to BYU in the 70s, they stressed this a lot, in talk after talk. Marilyn Arnold said that every BYU coed considering dropping out after marriage should be in a room with a recently divorced sister.

    As a result of that advice, as a mom at home I ruthlessly made some decisions about how to spend my volunteer time in a way that would give me references later to apply for jobs, and took distance learning classes and did other things like that. A lot of moms at home take just enough CE classes to keep their certifications current during those years; my own mother was an RN until her 70s, even though she hadn’t been employed in decades.

    Tracy, you’re such a good writer and that will help a lot in all you do in academia.

    Also, keep in mind that while the challenges of single motherhood are profound, you really do have a lot of advantages over married women. Once you graduate, you can go wherever you need/want for your job, unlike those of us who trail spouses and have to make a career wherever we end up. Also, I have needed to spend a lot of time every week doing wifely stuff like entertaining visiting scientists, accompanying on visits for his church calling, editing his manuscripts, etc. You’ll be spared that, at least.

  30. Karen M. says:

    Tracy, I didn’t think that the OP was making blanket statements at all. I think women should be aware that they may need to take full financial responsibility for their familes at some point, and should have at least some plan in place to deal with that need should it arise. I’m also aware that, as tradition has it, men often have the upper hand financially when a marriage does not work out. I don’t dispute those things at all. These are the two statements that made me bristle a bit:
    “I think that women should only have as many children as they can afford to care for themselves.” from ESO
    ” Don’t have kids until you have a resume you can really fall back on.” from Emily U.
    I see how their logic lead them to these conclusions, but I still think telling people when and how many children they should have is a big no-no. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but the phrasing here leaves little wiggle room for other decisions being right for anyone else.

  31. Karen M. says:

    Oh, and I don’t expect either ESO or Emily U. to change their opinions based on what I’ve said either. I’m sure they’ve put a lot of thought into them. I’m just saying that I disagree.

  32. I have noticed that sometimes doing what God wants you to do leaves you vulnerable in some areas…perhaps the vulnerability is intended at times. I’m absolutely in favor of education, though I only have a Bachelors. I think young women should take their education seriously and intentionally plan for a career. I don’t think that shoudl take precedence over what God wants you to do…though it may well take precedence over what culture, or family or friends want you to do.

  33. Karen M., I’ve really enjoyed your thoughtful comments. I think this exchange really gets to the heart of a primary problem that feminists have. On the one hand, in my mind, a true feminist would respect the choices of all women, recognizing that women are smart and strong enough to make the best decisions for themselves. On the other hand, we see in the world so many women like Tracy who are really struggling with a life problem that in part is because of her gender (i.e. moms have the babies, and often when marriages break up, moms inherit the child rearing responsibility.) As advocates for other women, the natural reaction is to share the hard lessons we’ve learned from our own lives, or lives of our loved ones: i.e., get an education, make sure your earning ability stays current, etc. etc.
    Ultimately, I think the best we can do as advocates for other women is make sure educational opportunities exist, make sure that women understand the importance of education, trust women to make the best choices for themselves, and make sure that women can get the help they need when unexpected tragedies in life put them in the same kind of situation that Tracy finds herself in.

  34. Karen M. says:

    Thanks, Karen H. You said it better than I did.

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