The Good Grad School Life

Our five and a half years in graduate school have brought me to some of my lowest moments (months?), and my highest. We’ve been married for all of these years, we’ve had children for all of these years, and I’ve been a stay at home mom for all of these years. We’ve gotten fairly good at grad student life, but there are seasons that things are simply difficult. Once we have things “figured out,” something changes and throws everything off balance again. Life was pretty smooth for our first 2 years of phD work, but then we added a baby, and it was like how a surprise collision at the farmer’s market would go down. Two people collide, baskets fly dramatically into the air and all the contents get jumbled and bruised and broken. Your metaphorical feathers are ruffled, and you have to at once splutter apologies and scramble to salvage what you can of your life, er, I mean produce. Of course, adding a baby is hardly a tragic change, and for that we’re grateful. But it’s still a big change. A beautiful, wonderful, and completely miraculous one. Just look at that guy!

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When things get shuffled around, and I find myself losing my grip and pining for a different life free of demanding course work that occupies my husband’s hours, limited funds because no matter how generous your stipend, it’s still a stipend, and cramped apartment living, there are a few things of which I remind myself, and when I boil them down, they all tell me this one truth: we have it really really good.

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When I married Cody only a week after I finished undergrad, I knew that he was contemplating graduate school. Still, it was just a possibility. He wasn’t even sure what he would study if he applied. And so, although we lived on an exhaustingly tight budget because of the “what if” of graduate school, I think I had the expectation that our white-house-picket-fence days weren’t too far in the future. Masters programs are typically only 2 years, and then we’d plant ourselves somewhere, buy a house, and…. you can fill in the rest with your idea of the American Dream.

I can honestly say I’m glad my pre-packaged dreams didn’t become a reality. 

These years of tight budgets and small apartments have been so good, and full of some serious dream-honing. As it turns out, we’re happier when we choose things intentionally, not just because it’s what everyone else is doing. Graduate school has given us time to figure things out. Money makes things easier, doesn’t it? With enough money, you don’t have to labor over purchases or labor over what you send to Goodwill. Let me tell you, if I had known during that first month of graduate school that the kitchen rugs I purchased would still be the kitchen rugs we’re using nearly 6 years later, I woulda labored over that purchase for a lot longer! (It’s going to sound like a choir of angels in my head when I get new kitchen rugs)

But somehow, even when money is tight, we’ve found we still tend to over-consume. Our closets get filled up and start to overflow, making already small apartments feel oppressive. So the pull to upgrade the size of our space is really strong, because it’s very difficult to establish what our needs really are, and how much is reasonable to own or do without. I find myself looking around at friends, thirsty to know how much they possess, and how often they make purchases, or how much money they spend on groceries, because there are no rules to this game. We write our own, and therein lies the difficulty. It takes creativity, energy, and resourcefulness to create a home.

We have chosen to limit our space (even though it was a somewhat passive choice, doing grad school life), and have embarked on the mission to live well and happily within the confines of a small apartment. We have 2 generously sized closets, and a closet for our heating and cooling unit that conveniently has a little extra space to hold our vacuum, extra table boards, our toolbox, our highchair, and a few other household items. I count storage space in our square footage, and you should to,  because it’s still where your things reside, even if you’re not using them all the time. (Hello, pet peeve!)

Friends in Waco found our apartment for us, and our landlords are truly amazing, so we’re here and we love it. I’m not sure of our square footage, but I think it’s around 1100? In September 2015 I embarked on a great house purge. We had been in Waco for a full year, and I was in the first weeks of a pregnancy that would end in the loss of our baby, Aster Ephrem, at 12 weeks. During that time before the miscarriage I was feeling physically suffocated by our apartment. There was just too much in our space. With the vengeance only a pregnant woman can muster, I filled box after box, ruthlessly getting rid of anything with which I could reasonably part. I moved our things from our bedroom into the boys room, and the boys things into our old room. The complete swap, though a little insane, forced me to touch everything we owned.

For every minimalist, there’s a minimalist nay sayer. People are horrified if I share specifics of things I’ve parted with. “But you’re going to need that!” Believe me, I know that I might “need” something, but I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that if it does not fit in our apartment, it does not fit in our apartment. I’ll just have to make do. What are we so afraid of? A little discomfort is a good thing.

Before Christmas, I helped Seb and Bruno sort through their toys and put things they didn’t love any more into a giveaway box. It was the first successful toy purge we’ve done with the boys present. Later I shared with Cody some of the things we were parting with, and told him that I felt bad about some of it. It wasn’t that it was all bad, or useless or poorly made, it was that we didn’t have the physical space for it any more. As it is, one of our two generously sized closets is mostly used for toys. We are limited, and denying that limitation is foolish. I’m just not okay feeling like our stuff owns me, and when I’m cramming it into closets and it’s pouring out of every nook, cranny, and seam, it’s too much.

The reality that haunts me is that if I can’t fit our things into this apartment we live in now, how will I fit our things into a house? It might feel spacious for a little while, but we’ll fill it, of that I’m sure. If we don’t bash our habits of needless consumption now, when will we? 

Some day I’m willing to bet we’ll have more space, and that will be grand, but I’m not going to wait to feel at home in our space until that day. I recently shared on Instagram that I feel like I’ve just had a breakthrough about how to take care of our space and make it feel like the home we crave. I hope to share more about the specifics of that soon, but I’m still making notes and trying to put into words the shift that I’ve made.

Do I always like being the wife of a graduate student? No, not at all. But the lifestyle has been one that has forced me to take a good hard look at my assumptions, my habits, and my expectations.

These years have given me a deeper understanding of my dreams, our dreams as a family, and how life is always always always limiting. If you’re waiting for something to change in order to live happily with your income or your square footage, you’ll always be waiting. We’re learning how things don’t satisfy. We’re learning how families used to live happily in a 700 sq. ft. house. They still do.

We’re learning that we love our life right now, as it is. We have one eye on the future, as is inevitable, but we’re not chasing it down. When longing for the next thing enters my heart, it’s my signal that I need to push up my sleeves and get to work on the here and now. Sometimes that means a good deep clean in the kitchen, or a time out with coffee, or intentionally pursuing a friend. It almost always means clearing something out to make space for something I value more. I’m done believing the lie, or living like I believe the lie, that I’ll be happier someday away from these crummy carpets, bed with no frame, and garish plaid couch.

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It should be noted that I actually love this couch, just not the upholstery. 😉

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8 thoughts on “The Good Grad School Life

  1. Love this post so much. Happiness, as you know, isn’t found in square footage or possessions, but in our families and the memories we make.

    And your words: “When longing for the next thing enters my heart, it’s my signal that I need to push up my sleeves and get to work on the here and now.” Wow.

    I needed that reminder today, so thank you.

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  2. Thanks, Mary! Your thoughts are encouraging. We BOUGHT a 906 sq. ft. house last May because it’s what we could afford and fits our needs just fine. We decided it wiser (at this time) to buy, rather than keep renting. We have a huge yard, which is wonderful, but the living space is small and it’s been a gradual adjustment. There is still a lot I need to do, I think, before I feel comfortable in this space. I’m one to deeply value space, the quality of space, and my ability to feel completely at home (and at rest) in that space. It’s challenging. Some of the things you’ve mentioned are lifelong lessons to learn and keep learning. I look forward to more thoughts on how you’ve achieved greater peace in your space!

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    • I so admire your choice to purchase such a small house! I go back and forth between wanting to have a very small dwelling, and then wanting a huge one so that we can host large gatherings. But maybe people can still host large gatherings in a small space? I’m constantly working on this little conundrum. Have you found hosting to be particularly challenging in your small home? I’d love to know what your experience has been in this regard! I want to reject the idea that you can’t host well with a small space, but then I can never quite convince myself.

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  3. Pingback: Some things for your pause. | The Art in Life

  4. I found this article from The Art In Life, and as I was looking at your pictures, I noticed the same Waco poster as the one in my bedroom. Then I quickly scanned until I found evidence that you, too, live in good ole Waco, TX. So fun! Really wise words. I’m getting married soon and will be moving in to my fiance’s 3 bedroom duplex, and even between the two of us, sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough space. Clearly this is a skewed perspective, and I’m working bit by bit to eliminate all the things we don’t truly love so that we can have a home that we do.

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    • Oh dear, is it really possible I neglected to respond to your kind message? So sorry! How fun that you found me through Hannah! We went to college together, and she is so so talented! I’m constantly flattered when she shares my writing. 🙂 And how fun that you’re also in Waco! Sometimes I feel like our apartment is actually shrinking b/c I keep downsizing but we’re still cramped. Ha! I hope you don’t find your fiance’s apartment to be of the ever-shrinking variety. 😉 Thanks for stopping by and saying hello! XO

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