This is insane, I thought, wincing as I made my way up the stairs to take a final exam for my degree. My stitches were still fresh from my emergency C-section a few days before. As a 21-year-old college senior, I was a new mommy struggling with the biggest challenge of my life thus far—how would I balance school and motherhood?
Thousands of women nationwide face that challenge and nearly half of Black women in college are raising children, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. I aced that exam and went on to graduate with a 3.7 GPA.
Three years later, I decided to get my master's degree, with a son, a husband and a full-time job at a nonprofit foundation added to the mix. The pace was relentless. I spent days running from work to school to home and back again. I took advice from other student–parents, like Jasmine Johnson, who made it through medical school with two kids. She's now a resident at the University of North Carolina. "Needing help is not a sign of weakness," Johnson reminded me.
If you're back in school, here's how to make your semester smooth:
Know your rights.
Advocacy organizations like the National Women's Law Center work to educate students and administrators on policies such as Title IX—a federal mandate that, among other things, tells schools they must excuse a pregnancy-related absence, such as a doctor's appointment or recovery from childbirth. Had I known, I would have been recuperating from surgery instead of struggling in that stairwell.
While you're a student–parent, your head will be swimming with details. Save yourself headaches and write everything down. Scope out "busy weeks" from the syllabus and mark them in your calendar. The free app Wunderlist helped me track my to-dos and deadlines.
Get a solid child care plan.
Inevitably, the day care will be closed on the day you have a big presentation, or your babysitter will be sick during finals. Accept this fact now: You need a backup babysitter for your backup babysitter.
Be proactive with professors.
"Student–parents don't want instructors to think they're using their kids as an excuse," says Traci Lewis, director of Access, The Ohio State University's single-parent program. "But if students give professors a heads-up, they're more likely to be supportive." She's right—I had to miss class due to a sick child and lost participation points. Later, I asked my professor if I could do an additional presentation for extra credit. He respected my hustle and agreed. I finished that class with an A.
Schedule mental health breaks.
One grueling semester, I found myself overwhelmed and crying in the shower. To cope, I began celebrating "Sunday Fundays" as a regular break from the grind, where I'd go thrift shopping or to the movies by myself. I encourage all moms in school to have at least two hobbies on standby as a stress reliever.
Study when you can.
I kept textbooks in the car so I could study in the school pickup line. Other times, I've done my homework alongside my children at the kitchen table. They understood we were in this together.
Date your kids.
As you schedule your class projects and exams, plan for trips with the kids to the zoo or family movie nights. Spending time with your loved ones will help you focus on what's important.
Tara Pringle Jefferson is the founder of theyoung mommylife.com, a community for young mothers, and the author of The Good Life:Pep Talks for Stressed Solopreneurs.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now!