How to Earn a College Degree While Raising Eleven Kids and a Husband

by Mari Ylitalo

How to Earn a College Degree While Raising Eleven Kids and a Husband

“I’m not dumb. I just have a command of thoroughly useless information.”—Calvin in Calvin & Hobbes

Okay, folks, if you have eleven kids, you are probably not working on a college degree. And if you are going to college you probably aren’t raising eleven kids. But I’ve been doing the college-mom thing for a long time, since way back when I only had eight kids, so that makes me some kind of expert, and qualified to offer all kinds of advice should you ever find yourself in a similar predicament.


I can tell you what you need to do to earn that college degree while living with twelve other people whom you can’t evict for non-payment of rent, or for late-night jumping-on-the-bed parties, or for neglecting to help with chores. (Twelve? Didn’t I say I have eleven kids? Oh yes—I’m counting the husband, too. Technically, I am not really raising him, but I am trying to recondition his responses to stimuli like “The garbage needs to go out.”) Embarking on this journey is best done with a boat load (no, make that a fifteen-passenger van load) of courage, but one way or another you have to …


Just do it. Going to college and changing diapers don’t traditionally go hand-in-hand, and for good reason. Perhaps more mothers are attempting to combine the two since diapers have been made to go into the garbage can instead of the washing machine, but not because disposable diapers have turned child-raising into child’s play. Babies still need to be carried in utero for nine months, delivered obstetrically, fed, burped, cuddled, and nurtured thereafter for at least eighteen years, if not eighty. (If you’re lucky, you can turn your baby over to someone else to nurture at about the age of twenty-five, but if you wait to start your post-secondary education until your last child is married, you might need to use your Social Security checks to pay for tuition.) If you are thinking about going back to school while your kids are still at home, you need to close your eyes, plug your nose, and do a big fat cannonball into the nontraditional student pool. If you think about it too much, your teeth will start a-chattering so much you’ll chip your porcelain crowns, and you’ll never work up the nerve to even get your feet wet.


Let go. First you just do it and let go of the diving board. Then what? There are a lot of other things you have to let go of too, or you are going to drown. For example, sometimes I let the laundry go, which is why the clothes I wear to class might have baby snot on the collar or barbecue sauce down the front (that would be from the Rodeo Cheeseburger I ate on the way to school because I was too busy to make supper because I was finishing an assignment at the last-minute because I slept until noon because I was up all the previous night giving kids drinks of water or Tylenol for teething pain). Occasionally I let go of the housecleaning. If you visit my house, you will keep your shoes on so the socks you go home with are the same color as the ones you came with; otherwise, they might be transformed from white to strawberry-jam red or chocolate-milk brown or dirt black. (Hey, if you had come to my house before I started college you would have done the same thing; at least now I have an excuse.)


Establish a support system. This will not include your three-year-old or your fifteen-year-old, and maybe not even your forty-eight-year-old. (Oh yeah, that one is your spouse.) They don’t have your academic success at the head of their priority list. They want supper, and not PB&J again. Your support system might consist of fellow classmates, or instructors, or kind, sympathetic, encouraging friends who don’t realize that you are daft to be attempting this in the first place. They will cheer you on when all your family can say is, “We’re out of strawberry jam.” You need someone to turn to when you are afraid to make the initial plunge, someone who will push you back in when you try to climb out of the water and say, “I quit.” I do not mean to disparage your family; you need them, too, for hugs and kisses, if they’ll give you any after so many meals of legumes and berries smeared on bread. Just don’t expect them to be excited about your spending five hours on a Saturday night writing your latest English essay.


Get enough sleep. I advise you to snooze until noon, especially if you were up until two a.m. rubbing someone’s aching head or writing an essay on what you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (What I think about it is: if I haven’t had enough pillow time, I couldn’t care less about Maslow, or about love, esteem, or self-actualization. I will reach for my fullest human potential after I’ve had enough REM.) I would like to stress that I am not kidding about this. There is serious research that says that we are a sleep-deprived society, and that college students are typically the worst off. What do you think happens to someone who dozes off in the middle of the swimming pool, or behind the wheel on the way to English 101?


Eat well. This means lots of chocolate in addition to your regular meals. Try to include foods from all food groups. Carrot cake is a good all-purpose choice; my favorite recipe includes real carrots (your vegetable), eggs (protein), milk (calcium-rich dairy), and WHOLE GRAIN wheat flour. You can’t get much better than that, but if you want to throw in some fruit for dessert, add a little canned pineapple. Baking homemade carrot cake won’t always fit into your schedule, so keep that peanut butter and jam on hand, and as a last resort, you can stop at Burger King before class. I believe I mentioned that I eat the Rodeo Cheeseburger; if you choose to follow my example and eat while you drive, just be ready to make a stop in the restroom before you go to class so you can sponge the sauce off the front of your jacket. Regarding my earlier reference to chocolate: I try to keep a stash of candy bars in the house to grab on my way out the door; if you do this, you will want to hide them where no one else will look, like behind the dish soap or in the box of garbage bags.


Don’t overextend yourself. I mean, don’t over-overextend yourself. I know you are overextended already by all reasonable standards. Just don’t try to take twenty credit hours the first semester. Try twelve and if you are still sane when the semester ends, then you might decide you can handle 6 the second time around. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I can’t give you advice for what to do you if you are not sane after the first semester, because I haven’t had that experience, but my gut instinct is that maybe you should take a break. Which brings me to my next point.


Take a break. You need to find time to unwind once in a while. Hour-long showers are great, provided the hot water lasts, and as long as no serious crises arise while you’re at it. You may want to hang a sign on the bathroom door. (Feel free to copy this for your personal use.)




except in emergency

emergencies include broken bones, bleeding, fire, missing person

NOT emergencies: name-calling, spilled milk, lost toys, burned-out light bulbs,

friend wants to play, need clean socks, want a snack, no more strawberry jam,

 want to chat, can’t find the scissors, sibling won’t share



Keep your goals in sight. Remember that diploma awaiting in two years. (Four years? Eight years? Ten?) Picture semester break. (Just think—you’ll have four whole weeks to catch up on laundry!) Take it one step at a time—aim for finishing one assignment. Then, you’ve got a hot shower coming, and a piece of carrot cake, and the right to sit down and read something fun, which fits right in with my last recommendation:


Keep a sense of humor. Life may not seem very funny when someone is barfing all over your accounting text. Actually, it’s not funny when someone is barfing, period, and especially not when you are trying to pass college-level classes, so don’t expect to laugh just then. But when you can take a break, I suggest that you fill everyone’s tummy with your latest culinary specialty (I don’t need to mention that again, do I?), wipe the jam off your fingers, sit down with your baby on your lap, and read some Calvin & Hobbes. (If Calvin doesn’t make you giggle, pick something else that does.) You’ll relax, recharge, and with a bit of luck, you might find inspiration for your next English assignment.