My wife graduated from college last week. She went to school part-time for five years while raising three kids (including having a baby during that time) while I worked two jobs.
During those five years, I often came home late to find her in sweatpants, hunched over a keyboard, eyes bloodshot, our children asleep on the sofa, a movie on the TV. College turned her into a night owl and an early riser. It caused her to burn the candle at both ends, to lock herself in a room while I was home so she could focus. It made her seek out any crevices in our busy lives so she could finish her homework.
Mel gave birth to our youngest daughter, Aspen, near the end of spring term. I suggested that she take the term off, but she refused, insisting that she could keep up with her classes, despite her scheduled C-section. That whole term felt like a ticking time bomb.
She struggled each day and each night to get ahead in her classes so that she could give birth to our daughter. She communicated this to her professors, and they all understood. And once the day came, she wasn’t ahead. She was a little behind in class, actually because kids, pregnancy, and all that got in the way.
In the hospital, as I held our sleeping daughter, Mel sat propped up in bed, a laptop just below her stitches, commenting on discussion boards and working on term papers, her face a mix of pain killers and determination. I was in college when we had our other two children, and I recall standing in the hospital, cradling our son in my left arm like a football, bouncing up and down to soothe him, while holding an open textbook in my right hand.
I remember feeling really dedicated to my education in that moment, and the fact is, I was. But at the same time, the day before I didn’t have a 6-pound baby cut from my abdomen and several months of recovery ahead of me. So what I’m trying to say is, while I did show dedication the day after my son was born, it was nowhere near the dedication that my wife showed after she had our third daughter.
It was, without a doubt, hardcore.
But the real show of her dedication came a month later when she had to ask her professors for an incomplete so that she could finish her spring term classes over the summer. Mel had the softest, saddest, face when she had to make that request, and I could see in her eyes a look of failure.
And while I could see that her request for an extension was completely justified, she obviously felt that she was strong enough for that entire child-birthing thing to not get in the way of her education. I helped her write the emails to her professors, explaining the situation, and she actually said, “I hope they understand.”
Naturally they did — outstandingly so. One even commended her on her strength and dedication to her education.
In the two years after having our youngest, I remember trying to get our toddler, Aspen, to calm down for a nap. She was a booger-y mess, and Mel came home from class and took the child. Aspen buried her blonde head into Mel’s shoulder and let out the most relieved whimper, as though my wife were a cool glass of water. Mel held her on her hip for some time, swaying side to side, soothing our daughter with one hand while working on a term paper with the other. Her ability to multitask was remarkable.
At least once a term, Mel would crack, usually around midterms, and she’d tell me she was going to quit. “I just want to be a mom,” she said. I was always drawn to the “just a mom” part, as if being only a mom was such a simpler task. But the fact is, being a mom is a mix of a million jobs packaged into one title, and the fact that she was taking it on while handling school was, without a doubt, inspiring. She often fretted about how much time she was taking away from her family, her children. It was then that my job went from father and husband to cheerleader.
“You are doing awesome,” I said. “You got this. How can I help?”
And while I asked how I could help in a way that showed long-term change and commitment to duties around the home, usually she just needed me to pack a lunch, or do some other day-to-day thing that wasn’t really a big deal for me to do, but had clearly become the straw that broke the camel’s back during midterms.
And when I think about that, and compare it to her studying the day after having our daughter, I realize just how hard she was struggling in that moment.
When Mel attended commencement, our 6-year-old daughter placed the tassel on Mel’s cap. And while I’m not sure if Norah understood the significance of her mother’s accomplishment, I have a strong feeling that someday I’m going to show Norah that photo and remind her of how hard her mother worked for that cap and gown, and how much it meant to Mel for Norah to see her walk across the stage and collect her diploma.
And you know what, the thing is, while I’ve been watching and observing my wife work so hard over the past few years, I have to sit back and remember that motherhood is universal. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there were 3.4 million student mothers in 2014.
And to all 3.4 million of you, I am in awe.
And the people around you should be too. You are showing a dedication to family and your future in a way that is beyond my scope to understand. What Mel accomplished is what all of you are going through, and it’s inspirational. You are champions. You are hardcore. I want you to know that.