Barn's burnt down
I can see the Moon.
~ Mizuta Masahide

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Single Parenting Through Law School: Some Thoughts on How to Make It "Work" - Part One #MSULawSM

I really should be reading for Secured Transactions....or sleeping. But this Lean In meme hit my feed and it resonated with me enough to give me a second wind.

I am in my last semester of law school, and it actually looks like I will graduate.  This was not a guaranteed outcome, and not for lack of intelligence or an unwillingness to do the work, but because every step of the way has felt like a Tough Mudder slog through the viscous muck of uncertainties and preschool hijinx.

Three years ago, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't watch (and still haven't seen) The Paper Chase. I didn't read 1L of a Year. Because I knew that none of those stories would bear much resemblance to mine.

I started law school as a 38 year old, former college administrator and lecturer,  and single parent to a 2 1/2 year old.

When the meme above crossed my feed tonight, I embraced it because it reflects the cornerstone of how I have "done" law school and made the experience work for me and my family.

Because I remember that it was around this time, three years ago, that I began to think in earnest about whether law school (even with a full tuition scholarship) would be part of my life's journey, I thought I'd take a moment and share some thoughts and experiences that may be relevant to other single parents contemplating a comparable journey.
  • Put your family first
Law school is weird. It's like high school + professional school + a high stakes Winner-Takes-All poker tournament. It takes up an obscene amount of time and energy (especially during the first year), which I found to be more hectic than working full time. And at first, I really sucked at managing it because I had convinced myself that I would only ever amount to anything by pursuing the same load and as many as possible of the same activities as my classmates. That didn't work for my sanity, my grades or my dear daughter, who really struggled during our first year.

So after I lost my scholarship for a year because I fell short by 0.03 grade points in 1L, I did some serious soul searching. Participating in the ReInvent Law Lab and studying abroad in London (joined by my daughter and mother) convinced me that there was still some work that I want to do both in and with law. But I decided that how I went about my studies would reflect how I plan to live my life. 

I set my priorities and family came first. While I knew I had to work hard to regain my scholarship (which I did), that work would have to be in a manner that respected my primary responsibility to my daughter. Motherhood is not just the hardest job I've ever had; it's also the source of great joy.

Then something strange happened: the more time I allotted for my daughter (including making most Saturdays OUR days), the happier I was, the more efficient I became and my grades significantly improved (I made the Dean's List!).

Granted, this prioritization came at a "loss." I didn't serve on law review or any other journal (which is fine with me because The Bluebook truly is the 7th Circle of Hell). While I did serve as a student attorney in the Urban Ag law clinic for three terms, I did not clerk or otherwise work outside of school (except on my entrepreneurial interests). Moot Court, the Trial Practice Institute and even the Arbitration, Negotiation and Mediation competitions all passed me by. Instead, the bulk of my professional development was through ReInvent Law and the related suite of courses, workshops and events. Instead of taking the shotgun approach to law school, I had to use a much more targeted strategy that forced me to take ownership over the "unique course" I wish to set for myself professionally and personally.

Figuring out the work/life balance cannot wait until after graduation. It must be a fundamental part to one's law school success plan. And that means learning when and how to say "No," and figuring out where you will invest your "Yes."
  • Ask for what you need: Institutional Resources 
Law school will train you to "think like a lawyer," but when it comes to being successful as a single parent in law school, you need to master the art of advocating like a lawyer, for yourself and your family. 

Even before you send in the enrollment deposit, figure out which staff and administrators are aware of and sensitive to the challenges student parents (especially single parents) face. At MSU Law we have a wonderful Diversity Coordinator, Mary Ferguson, who has been incredibly supportive for student parents, including providing Finals Childcare for our kiddos. Ask the Admissions people if they know of other current or admitted students who are parents and ask to be put in touch with them. One of my closest friends found me through Admissions, and now both our daughters and we have become dear friends.

Addendum: Don't forget to look beyond the law school's institutional resources to determine if the broader university has resources that can help you succeed as a student parent. MSU has a Family Resource Center that serves as a wonderful compendium of all the university and community resources available to support student parents (the FRC Resource Guide for Students with Children (pdf) is bookmarked on my computer). I joined the student organization, Student Parents on a Mission (SPOM) through which we have enjoyed discounted & free family-friendly events and activities. I have shamelessly taken advantage of the free subscription to, the five free days of emergency child care, the Finals Childcare provided by The People's Church across the street from the university (and which I learned about from SPOM),  and even the discounted Sick Child in-home care when missing class would have meant running afoul of the ABA attendance requirements (don't get me started on those). And I have applied for and received the Council of Graduate Students' Child Care Grant every semester for which I have applied, which has helped make it possible for me to enroll my daughter in a Montessori school.

Once you are enrolled, your interactions with your professors will be tantamount. My professors (many of whom have children who attend the same school as my daughter) have been understanding when I have had to bring my daughter to class, miss a class or even come in late (True Story: during 1L, my daughter fell asleep in the car on the way to my school & by the time we arrived she was starting to snore. I carried her into class late, laid her on a blanket in the back of the class, and she sawed logs audibly for the duration of class. Yet the professors were very understanding). It is on me to let the professors know my situation in advance, if possible, and ASK them if they mind the accommodation I need, when I need it.

Okay, the second wind is all but gone, so I will sign off here. 

Part Two will come soon(ish) because school reading, four job applications and a coworking business proposal, my daughter's social calendar (a sleepover one night and a birthday party), a day trip to Frankenmuth with another #lawschoolmom and her kids, the next #WritingWeekend story, and oh yeah...classes all need to be done this week. 

Part Two will cover:
  1. Ask for what you need: Peer Community
  2. Self-Care: Do It.
  3. Set your child up for her own success
    1. with her own emotions
    2. school as co-parent
Single parenting through law school is a humbling exercise in logistics, project management, occasional outsourcing, and LOTS of design thinking. BUT it is also workable if you are true to your family, your values and your dreams (personal, familial and professional).

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