How I Balance Work/Study, Family, and Travel

Hey all, so I feel like the title of this post might be a little misleading/clickbaity. I’m not the most easygoing, flit-all-around-the-world-like-a-ray-of-sunshine type lady (well, these days, anyway). But I’ve been getting a few messages about what it’s like to try and make this work. So, I thought I’d write a post that really details my experience.

This post isn’t intended to teach you “how to do it all”. Instead, it’s a glimpse into my day-to-day which isn’t glamorous at all (I sit here with greasy hair, writing this as a short break from my Thesis, after a million cups of coffee). But I do want the big takeaway to be that you can hold down a career or go back to school, raise good kids, and see the world. It’s definitely doable with a bit of forward-planning, determination, and good old fashioned hustle vibes.

Going back to Uni after having kids

For context, I figure I should explain the uni thing first.

I started uni fresh out of school, but after changing degrees a couple of times, I just couldn’t find my rhythm. I was barely passing my classes and working three jobs to be able to pay rent and bills, which wasn’t leaving much time for study… and to be honest, I was bad at studying anyway. I’d mostly relied on my reasonable intelligence to get to uni and hadn’t properly learned how to study. Turns out, there’s quite an art to it! So, after flailing around for four years, I left and got myself a job as a travel agent, and I was able to turn that into a career.

The travel industry was always meant to be a bit of a stop-gap until I figured my shit out, but that’s not quite what happened. I always had a sense that I needed to do more, but what was this ‘more’? 

The travel job I had before going on my first lot of maternity leave was awesome. I had a fantastic manager and mentor, and my clients were just incredible. I was starting to feel a lot more settled and like I was making more of a difference. Booking footy trips to Bali really wasn’t my thing, but some of my clients had dreamed of destinations for 40 years, and I was the one to make their dream happen. That was a good feeling.

But when I had my first son, I realised something. I didn’t want him to grow up seeing me work in an industry that I was in because everything else fell through. I wanted him to see me as a passionate person who knew the world needed change and who tried to be the change. Because I wanted him to grow up to be willing to roll up his sleeves and agitate for change. So I sat the entrance exams, got accepted back into uni, and started again.

Graduation Day!

Where I’m at now

I’m currently studying my Honours year in Psychology. For those of you not familiar with the Australian system, the Honours year is an additional year of study by invitation; that is, if your grades are high enough, the university will offer you a place. During this year, more specialised course work is undertaken while also preparing a research Thesis (a dissertation). My Thesis is on perinatal mental health outcomes for women from Africa with a refugee background, and I’m hoping to continue this into a PhD next year.

Currently, I’m furiously writing up parts of my Thesis, lining up interviews to collect data, and preparing for exams. And the kicker: I’m working in a program helping new mums bond with their babies. It’s all quite intense and it feels like a huge juggle.

Parenting and university

The kids go to daycare/kindy three days a week, both at Montessori schools. This is when I get the majority of my work done. They absolutely love it, so I’m really lucky in that regard. I used to feel guilty, especially when they were really small, but I definitely don’t now. I see how much they learn from the different play experiences daycare provides – they get a lot out of their care that I couldn’t possibly provide. For my oldest kid, he has a specialist teacher who understands him and works with him so well; she’s so in tune to his strengths and helps him build confidence in areas he’s not so strong in. Watching them both flourish really takes the guilt away!

It wasn’t always like that. A couple of years ago, I gave birth two weeks before the uni semester started. Taking a newborn to class seems kind of weird-but-cute but let me tell you, it’s hard! And when I had someone look after him, I would get anxiety attacks from being too far away from him. I studied with bub on my boob, or in my lap, and I was very, very distracted.

Some weekends I have no choice but to study. This can be hard as it eats into family time, but it does give the boys a chance to spend quality time with their dad. They build LEGO, brew beer, work in the garden or in the shed, and do other stuff that I’m not really into. We also head up to the river quite often to see my in-laws; this gives the kids the chance to wear off some energy with their grandparents in an awesome outdoors environment.

A little while ago, I had my graduation for my undergraduate degree. The boys came along, and having them watch me graduate was the best feeling. My oldest told me he was proud of me – yes that’s a thing that actually happened! And for Mothers Day, he painted a picture of me and the caption started with “My mum’s fantastic because she went to university”. That’s a life-affirming moment right there.

Working travel into other plans

I think the biggest thing I’m working on at the moment is working travel into other parts of my life, rather than moving my life around to fit the travel in.

For example, I’m currently working on my PhD proposal. My research area takes quite a global perspective so it’s natural that I will have to travel quite a bit. In the next few years Canada, Burma, China, Ghana and Czech Republic are all on the cards as places I may need to be travelling to as part of my research or for conferences. Quite a lot of domestic travel is also expected.

Rather than leaving the kids behind every time, our plan is to incorporate some family time into some of these trips. For example, we have friends in Portland, so we’re hoping to take a road trip for a week or two as a family after I finish up with my research in Vancouver. My husband and I will each have four weeks of leave, and we intend to use it.

Keeping travel realistic

I think one of the stumbling blocks to travel, especially families, is affordability. And hell, I’m a full-time student, I get that! But sometimes I see people not travelling at all because their one dream destination seems impossible.

But hold up.

Travel does not mean “go to the other side of the world”. Travel is about getting out and having new experiences. It doesn’t matter if your an hour away or a continent away from home. 

Last year, we travelled with the kids to Malaysia and Singapore. These two countries are super-close to Australia. But they were the easiest for us to get to with kids and they offered so much for all of us. We tried new foods, we met new people with different points of view, we saw things we’d never seen at home and we worked together as a family through all the different hassles and inconveniences you get when travelling. 

This year, knowing it was such a big year for me with uni, we understood an international trip was off the table. Instead, we decided to put more effort into seeing our home state (vast as it is) and more of our country. In South Australia, we’ve explored the Riverland, the Yorke Peninsula, and the Limestone Coast. At Christmas, we’ll be road-tripping from Adelaide to Yeppoon, on Queensland’s central coast. This is a two-day drive each way, but with kids we’ll likely end up making it a three-day drive. Yeah, crazy I know. But the kids will see rural Australia, something they haven’t seen a great deal of so far. And that’s important.

Having a routine

Routine can be boring but our kids thrive on it; and when it seems impossible to come up for air, having a routine allows everyone to run on auto-pilot. I’d love to inject some more spontaneity soon, but for now, the routine is keeping us afloat. 

But there’s a security in it, too. My husband is a better cook than me, and he enjoys it much more than me, so knowing I’ll come home to a sorted dinner makes me able to focus more on my work. And he can too, knowing there will always be a clean shirt in his wardrobe for the next day. 

The kids know that on Mondays and Fridays, I’m theirs. I don’t work, I just give them my love and attention and they can be secure in that. We might not do much, and there’ll be chores to do, but we can go to the library or the park or whatever makes them happy. On Fridays, they often like to laze around after three full-on days at school, and I very much welcome that too!

Prioritising and managing expectations

While I think most of us buy into the “super-mum” mentality at one point or other, it’s important to remember that time and resources (physical, financial, and emotional) are finite.

Lately, I’ve been putting three things on my to do list each day – and no more. So as an example, that might be 1) do the laundry; 2) edit Thesis introduction; 3) book car hire for the next trip. That’s it. Sure, I might get some other stuff done, but those tasks are a bonus.

My house is not in the state I would like it to be. My friends are getting sick of me saying “sure, pop over, but the house is disgusting”. But I acknowledge that there’s just no way I can get to it all right now, and being able to make that honest acknowledgement has reduced a lot of stress for me. (Side note: having friends who tell me they don’t care every time I tell them about the state of the house really helps too!)

Sometimes, I just have to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to do that right now”. Or even, “That doesn’t work into our budget right now”. Being honest about these things has been really liberating, and surprisingly beneficial for interpersonal relationships too. Showing people where my limits and managing the expectations people may have of me gives others the encouragement to do the same, and helps people understand that if I say no to something, it isn’t personal.

Funny how honesty makes things so much easier!

Asking for help

A huge thing I’ve learned over the past few years is how to ask for help. It’s not something I’ve ever really been good at but sometimes you just can’t do it on your own. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive husband who’s there to lend a hand when I ask; our extended family has also been amazing. 

Something else that has been key for me so far is a beautiful group of friends who are always there to provide encouragement when I need it. I’ve noticed a lot that the practicalities of this life are usually taken care of; it’s the emotional toll that is harder to cope with. I have an amazing set of friends who are always willing to help each other, provide honest feedback, and ply each other with coffee. It really, really helps.

My Top Tips For Juggling Work/Study, Parenting, and Travel

So there you have it. If this was too long and rambly for you, here’s a TL/DR for you:
– Know where you want to go (SET GOALS!)
– Building a routine into your life makes it much easier
– Be realistic about your travel expectations: this might not be the time to go on that round-the-world voyage or Antarctic expedition
– Don’t overcommit yourself or put too many things on your to-do list
– Learn to ask for help from friends and family, and be honest with them about what’s happening in your life

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