Families, Children & Marriage

Surviving your spouse’s graduate program

Staying occupied with my camera

A pit sank in my stomach as we leaned our heads together to pray there in the laundry room before he left to catch his flight.  It was my husband’s first trip to the partially residential PhD program he was starting, and we were half-terrified / half-thrilled over his new pursuits.  We’d decided that he’d travel to complete his PhD while continuing to work full time.  Our reasons were sound: we didn’t want to be buried under debt, I could continue pursuing a career that I loved, and we had family in state to help with our young children.

But all the rational thinking in the world didn’t remove the tears that poured that morning.  The change on which we were embarking was an overwhelming prospect to consider, and in that moment, we let the fear slide down our cheeks.  Then we took a deep breath and dove in.

It was an intense four years with raising toddlers and juggling careers and hubby both working and doing his PhD full time, a scenario that more and more couples are facing due to the rising costs of education.  Quitting work to pursue education is mostly a choice for the elite or the single, and many graduate schools are adapting program models to survive in light of this reality.

When pursuing further education becomes a reality for a married couple, a variety of emotions are bound to set in:

  • Excitement over pursuing dreams.
  • Apprehension about how it will all play out.
  • Gratefulness for the opportunity.
  • Fear of failure.

Regardless of the emotions, the only way out is through, and because pouting isn’t productive on *most* days, I quickly looked for ways to develop some coping mechanisms.  Here are a few that helped me get through:

Develop a hobby.  I quickly realized that if I was happy and enjoying myself while hubby was off studying, we’d all be happier campers.  I took advantage of the ‘extra time’ I had access to and taught myself photography.  I took up writing again and read the whole Harry Potter series for the first time.

Take on a challenge.  Doing a PhD is hard, and doing one on top of full time work even harder, so I decided it might help me to also take on my own challenge to better empathize with hubby.  I’m either crazy or stupid, because I signed up for a half-marathon having never run a mile let alone a race.  It was hard, but the focus, discipline and intensity of it helped me burn off energy that I may have otherwise used to resent my husband’s absence.  (I might note, however, that I did NOT view cleaning my house in the same light.  I hate cleaning, so we hired a student to clean so as to keep that resentment in check.)

Find healthy ways to cope.  While it’s easier to mope about life’s less-than-ideal circumstances, on my better days I was able to use my alone time to embrace life-giving choices like reaching out to invite a friend over for coffee, spending time with a good book, or working on a hobby.  When I felt whole and content, I was much more likely to support hubby’s hard work rather than resent it.

Look for silver linings.  While we’d all have preferred to have hubby around, one of the silver linings in his absence was having one less will to navigate.  We all have opinions in my house, and sometimes this fact makes planning a challenge.  With one less opinion to consider, the kiddos and I could stop the park on a whim or explore a new place to our heart’s content.

Embrace the moment.  Hubby was way more fond of the toddler years than me, and also had a few more pounds of parental patience than me, so he often cushioned a lot of parental trauma for me.  With him not around as much, I was forced to face my lack.  Toddlers can’t be left alone, and learning to respond to them patiently really matured me as a mother.

The good news is that we made it through, and are happily recovering!

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