Parents' guide to going back to school

Changing careers after you have kids can feel like a leap of faith, but it can also bring long-term rewards

Photo by Roberto Caruso

Pamela Findling had a great job as a computer network administrator at the University of British Columbia. But a few years into her career, she had a baby, and babies have a way of reminding us of what we’d wanted to be when we grew up. During her mat leave with her son, Jaxon, she found her thoughts returning to her lifelong dream of becoming a writer.

“Why should I stay at a job just because it’s safe?” she asked herself. “How can I tell my son to follow his dreams when I’m not following my own?” She went back to work at UBC, but began exploring writing courses.

Six months later, she quit and enrolled in a two-year professional writing program. “I loved every minute of it,” says Findling, 34, now a freelance writer and editor living in a suburb of Vancouver. Maybe she’s overstating that a bit: There were also sleepless nights, endless assignments and lots of juggling the daycare drop-off and pickup with her husband. (She even suffered a bout of stress-related hives all over her legs.) “It was stressful at times, for sure,” she says. “But I don’t have any doubt in my mind – it was definitely worth it.”

For many women, having children can be like pushing a reset button. Maybe it’s all that time on the couch feeding the baby, wondering whether you like who you’ve become. As the mat-leave months slip away, moms may start to re-evaluate their careers: If work is going to take away from precious time with your child, then that job had better be fulfilling. And for mothers who take a break from their careers for several years, this kind of question can come up later, when the kids are finally all in school: Is it time to go back to work? If so, what work?

As with any big life transition, there are challenges and bumps along the road to getting a fresh education and a new job. We gathered real-world advice from women who’ve switched careers post-baby – and survived to tell us what they learned.

Next: Real-world advice on finances and flexible education options >
Finding flexible education options

Saiema Naik began considering a return to work after three years at home with daughter, Imaan, and son, Nazeem. She knew she wanted a job where she could work evenings and weekends to avoid putting her kids in daycare. She also knew she wanted to help new Canadians – a field she’d worked in previously – and decided on teaching English as a second language. She spent 18 months getting certified through an online course at the University of Saskatchewan, theorizing that studying at home with two small children would be easy. It wasn’t: She had to complete three courses every three months. Her coping strategies included working on her assignments in the afternoon while her kids played pots-and-pans orchestra in the kitchen or busied themselves with clay and crayons. “To be honest,” Naik says, “I don’t really remember how I did it, I just did it. I was determined.”

It helped that her husband, Ridwaan, a teacher, was holding down the fort at home with household chores like dishes and laundry. “If it weren’t for him, there’s no way I could have done it.”

Naik graduated in 2008 and began working soon after as a Language Instruction to Newcomers to Canada (LINC) teacher. “It’s the most rewarding job. My students love coming to class,” she says. “I’m so glad I chose the career I did.”

Figuring out your finances

The lure of more rewarding work and better pay motivated Deborah McGuire to begin a Master of Social Work program last fall. McGuire had been at home raising her two sons, ages eight and three, with some part-time work at a non-profit parenting support centre. Like Naik, she wanted to study from home, so she enrolled in a two-year program at the University of Victoria, which allows students to do most of their coursework online with two 10-day stints on campus at the beginning of each year. But money was still a concern.

Financial advisers will tell you to plan your return to school by saving money, either in an old-fashioned bank account or through a tax-free savings account. If that’s not an option, every college and university has an office devoted to helping students access loans, grants and scholarships. McGuire was able to get an educational grant that covered her tuition, but not the travel to Victoria. Without her part-time salary, their household budget was already feeling pinched, so she and her husband cut corners by planting a vegetable garden, buying second-hand clothes, ordering bulk meat from their rural neighbours and cooking at home more.

Adults returning to school can also consider borrowing up to $10,000 per year from their RRSPs (but no more than $20,000 in four years) with no penalty under the federal government’s Lifelong Learning Plan. (For more information go to canlearn.ca.)

Next: How to deal with the mommy guilt >
Dealing with mommy guilt

When McGuire’s eight-year-old son got his first-ever detention at school for rough-housing, she felt like her decision to go back to school had upended the family balance. “You blame yourself: Is he acting up because of me? You immediately feel guilty,” she says. “But no. I told myself: He’s a kid. He’ll mess up sometimes. That’s normal.”

According to Karen Begemann, a career counsellor who runs Work Matters Consulting in Vancouver, mommy guilt is also a normal part of the process. Moms often think they must commit 100 percent to family, and struggle with feelings of self-blame and betrayal. She suggests explaining upfront to children and spouses how you will become very busy for a set amount of time, but that you will still manage to find time for them.

“The earlier those conversations happen, the better,” Begemann says. “Don’t turn stress inward, into guilt. Turn it outward into action.” When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a step back, get a sitter and go on a date with your spouse, she says. For children, she suggests scheduling a regular playdate or event to look forward to (even just once a week), so they can enjoy your undivided time. It’s quality, not quantity, that matters.
Besides, if mom is happy and learning, the kids will notice, she says. “Kids pick up on that. They are barometers for the emotional climate at home.” Begemann recommends doing your school work alongside your children, so homework becomes family time, while still crossing off tasks from the nightly to-do list.

Having completed her first term, McGuire reports feeling proud of herself – with a new-found sense of inspiration. “I underestimated the amount of stimulation I’d experience from going back to school,” says McGuire. “I’m changing and questioning a lot, beginning this massive transformation. But my role at home stays the same – I’m still a mom and wife.”

Choosing a new career path? Here are 5 tips for a successful career transition >