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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Single Parenting Through Law School: Some Thoughts on How to Make it "Work" - Part Two #lawschoolmom #MSULawSM

In my last post, I focused on two key aspects that have helped me survive and find my stride in law school, as a single parent to a preschooler:
  1. Putting family first, and
  2. Fully using the resources for student parents provided by my law school and the university community.
When I left off, I promised to address three more points:
  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
  • Ask for what you need: Peer Community
But for the grace, patience and generosity of the friends I have made in law school, I would never have made it this far. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the image below would have become my perpetual appearance (rather than an occasional reality), with only the size of my child and bag changing over time:

 (Image Credit: Melissa Garden Streblow)

In spring 2012, I flew with my daughter to Preview Weekend (which was a reasonable decision despite the fact that she had just turned two years old) because a woman in the alumni office (who was good friends with a Washington state alumnus I had met) was willing to host a playdate between my daughter and her five year old daughter so that I could focus on deciding if I would attend MSU Law. That is not a run on sentence. It was, however, the beginning of a wonderful friendship and my orientation to asking near strangers for help. 

Since then, my peer network has expanded and is largely comprised of other parents (married and single), with whom I have frequently arranged playdate and sleepover exchanges, and family-friendly study dates (basically: we study for as long as the kids can play together nicely or without extended eerie silence). None of us are particularly gunnerish because we know all too well how hard it is to avoid embodying the above image without the added gunning madness. But we all respect the work that we do and our families who need us to get it done. 

My student parent network has been largely informal and ad hoc, but if you find that your law school has a critical mass of student parents, then you might consider working with the law school to create a student parent association (perhaps as part of the Diversity office). You might even decide to set up a formal child care co-op, like the good legal eaglet you are.

However, I would caution you against developing a peer network with only other student parents. Kid-friendly people who do not have children are helpful for your personal sanity and for helping your children learn to interact with adults who are not their teachers/babysitters or family. When I realized that my finances required that I find a shared living arrangement to help me save up for post-3L bar exam and relocation expenses, I decided to rent a house with two guys from my section. They are good, decent men who are respectful and kind toward my daughter and me. I never ask them to babysit and my daughter knows how to respect their spaces (well, except for the roommate who introduced her to Mario Kart...sucker :) ). We knew each other for two years before choosing to live together, and my only regret is that we didn't figure out that we live well together even sooner.

For some people - particularly single mothers - our arrangement would raise red flags, as they would prefer to co-house with another parent, or at least with other housemates of the same gender. If you fall into this camp, then you might look into a service like Co-Abode (co-housing matching for single mothers), or consider establishing your own co-housing arrangement (here are some great resources from

Regardless of the approach you take, you'll want to have some sort of roommate agreement, from the more informal, but recognized, division of labor (e.g. in our house, the guys deal with the garbage, recycling & rent-exchange maintenance on the property, while I try to wrangle the kid sprawl and keep the kitchen clean due to the amount of cooking I do), to a more formal agreement (e.g. the customizable roommate agreement templates by Shake Law).

While figuring out your childcare and child-friendly network, and maybe even a co-housing arrangement, don't forget your social needs.

You will need friends.


Friends with whom you can talk about your stuff, issues, goals, frustrations, dreams.... Some of these friends will be other parents, but it is both allowed and NECESSARY for you to talk to them about something other than your kids, your homework or the Lego Movie (unless you dig deep into the film's brilliant subtext). Even if you cannot afford to go out very often because the babysitter costs $10+ an hour, allow yourself to go out at least once a month and be creative (but reasonable) in meeting your parenting obligations. Last Friday night, I joined some friends and fell in love with an amazing restaurant, (revolver). I could go because my daughter had a sleepover at a friend's house; in a few weeks it will be my turn to host a sleepover in return. 
  • Self-Care: Do It.
Say it loud and say it proud:"Self care is not selfish!"

Everyone and their second cousin's mail carrier will have an opinion about your decision to go to law school as a single parent. That nattering chorus of ne'er-say-wells can provoke overwhelming guilt in the single parent. Or maybe that was just me. Figuring out how to manage the guilt, required that I figure out how to take care of myself.

I know that sounds counterintuitive. But if we do not take care of ourselves, by listening to and respecting our bodies, minds and souls, then we will not be effective parents. Admittedly, when I was trudging through 1L, I did not always make time to exercise, eat well, pray or even sleep. Thus I am not surprised that I packed on an additional ten or fifteen pounds, began losing my hair in clumps, required a prescription bite guard because I was grinding my teeth at night, and kind of went through a spiritual crisis.  Good times.

I don't recommend it.

When I returned from study abroad in London, I realized that something had to change: Me.

I had to love, value and care for myself and the gift of my one life as much as I love, value and care for the gift of my daughter. So I downloaded and used the Couch 2 5k app and began cooking and gardening again (two therapeutic pillars). I began walking to school while listening to my power playlist (don't judge, it works) and going to the YMCA (it has a great student rate on the family membership, and they have a sauna - my third therapeutic pillar). Inspired by Pope Francis and my own spiritual yearning, I even returned to Mass and began to dust off the old prayer life (my fourth pillar). My journey continues in fits and starts (e.g. bacon regularly conspires with Michigan winters to be my undoing), but I have a better grasp on what I need to do to maintain a certain degree of centered wellness.

To manage single parenting through law school, you will need to do the same. So take the time to figure out who you are in your silent place, when you finally sit down, breathe deeply and exhale a soul-cleansing breath. Whoever you are in that moment is the person you need to nurture, not just for success in law school (however you end up defining that success), but for success as a parent with the capacity to love and guide your child(ren) through the law school journey. With any luck, your law school will have some resources to help you (e.g. MSU Law runs a weekly Wellness in Practice meditation and the MSU Council of Graduate Students runs a variety of wellness programs). Regardless, it is on you to take care of yourself so that you can help your child(ren) not just survive law school with you but maybe even thrive.

  • Set your child up for her own success
If you do not already have a routine for checking in with your child in a substantive, on his/her level kind of way, start one. Without a doubt, the variable triggers and stressors of law school will occasionally derail even the best routine, but you have to have one first before it can be derailed.

Furthermore, avoid trying to tweak your kiddo's routines to better accommodate your study and class schedule. There were a few really interesting classes I wanted to take during 2L, but they met at night, after my daughter's bedtime. The few times during 1L when I'd had a babysitter take over the bedtime routine for me so that I could attend a late night study session had all been quite difficult for my daughter. So once I began taking electives in 2L, I knew that was not going to be an option. The two times that I took an evening class (5:45 start time), I made sure to enroll my daughter in a fun class of her choosing at the YMCA. By the time she was done with her class, my class was over and I could meet her and the babysitter at the Y.

But the reality is, kids will be kids. There will be tantrums. They will be frustrated and confused by the amount of attention you pay to those massive books they are not allowed to touch or "decorate." You'll want to address their frustrations before your laptop "accidentally" falls to the floor (thankfully, mine "accidentally" fell onto a patch of floor that was well padded by a pile of clean, unfolded laundry). 

In those moments of child sabotage, the hardest thing to admit is that the saboteur may be right - not in her action, but in her feelings. I'm not a family counselor or therapist, but I can attest to the value of taking a deep breath in those moments, coming down to my daughter's level and trying to validate her feelings first. Eventually we discuss strategies for helping her convey her frustrations without being destructive. I do not always respond with such grace, but I have gotten better at it, and best of all, my daughter has become pretty good at advocating for herself and calling me out when I need to "chill" and take a "mommy time out."

Finally, we have been fortunate in that the school that my daughter attends has been very understanding of our situation. In some ways, the teachers and staff there have been like a co-parent who does not take point on the big decisions but is always supportive. I do not have the time to volunteer as much as they would like parents to volunteer, but I have never been subject to any shaming and my daughter is always treated with respect and warmth by the staff and teachers, and the other families with whom we have become friends. 

Admittedly, there is little in this last section that is unique to single parenting in law school. Rather, it's all just part of the reality of parenting. However, to help you and your child(ren) get through law school in one piece, you may need to cultivate a heightened awareness of how the unique stressors of law school impact you and your family and preemptively take steps to mitigate them. 

If your law school or the residential community in which you will live do not have the resources to help you succeed, and if you do not have the time to develop those resources, then perhaps you are not at the right school or in the right community. 

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