April 12 2010
Sleepless In Law School
Sleepless in Law School: Tips for Managing Life and Class as a New Parent.
Like every other law student in history, I’ll (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to use contractions in this type of writing, but if it weren’t for contractions (pun intended), I wouldn’t even be qualified to write this article, now would I?) never forget the rite of passage that is the first round of final exams. My experience, however, ended a little differently than most. We finished our Con Law final December 17th and headed straight for the local well. Even though I spent the day (and much of the night) celebrating the end of finals, I woke up out of habit at 7 a.m. the next day. I left to take the dog to the vet and at the request of my wife I picked up “a test” on my way home. Unlike the long, drawn out wait before receiving the results of my final exams, this one came immediately. I was going to be a dad. Suddenly, the relief of the end of finals turned into an overwhelming sense of excitement (and by “excitement” I mean “Holy crap, I barely lived through this semester. How can I possibly do this with a baby depending on me?!?!?!?!”). Well, here I am, finishing my second year of law school, and as far as I can tell, I’m still alive, my wife still loves me, and we have a happy family focused on a healthy, beautiful little girl. I’m certainly no expert on parenthood, but I have learned a few things about how to navigate law school while raising a child for the first time.
At our first ultrasound, Molly and I learned that Maya was due August 23. Panic set in about three steps out of the OB’s office when I realized that the due date was conveniently the day before fall classes were scheduled to start. Two steps later, I knew that I had to do everything possible during the summer to prepare for Maya’s (and my professors’) arrival. We spent the summer preparing a nursery, registering for showers, and taking parenting classes. The more we did before Maya was born, the less stressful life would be after her arrival. Obviously the timing of our pregnancy will be different than others, but preparing ahead of time will be invaluable regardless of when your baby is due.
The smartest thing I’ve done while in law school was taking a summer class before Maya was born. Doing so allowed me to take a lighter load during the fall semester of my second year. In turn, I was able to work as a law clerk and participate in moot court, law review, and on campus interviews while still keeping up with class preparation (speaking of interviews, having a baby is an interview gold mine! I’d like to think that I got second interviews because of stellar grades and a winning personality (arguably, I have neither), but in reality, I’m sure it was the talk of my brand new baby that helped me stand out from the other candidates).
I also made sure to set expectations for everyone around me. As the due date came closer, I emailed all of my professors to warn them that I might either have to miss a few classes or leave abruptly in the middle of a lecture. Surprisingly, every one of my professors was very accommodating. “Family comes first, do what you need to do” was the typical response. I ended up only having to miss one class but I’m sure the fact that I didn’t get cold called for the first month was not a coincidence. On top of communicating with my professors, I also made sure to explain just how busy I expected to be to my friends and family. While it seems obvious that law school and new babies don’t really mix well, some people just don’t seem to get it and need to be told ahead of time that if they don’t see you for a while, it’s nothing personal and you’ll make time for them when you can.
Learn to say “Yes”
During our child birth prep class, the teacher said something that made the first few weeks of parenthood much easier. “No one comes in your front door without bringing dinner,” she said. Like most law students, I’m fairly certain I’m a superhero who needs help from no one. However, babies have a way of showing you that you don’t have all the answers and that you need help from everyone who offers it. Accepting these small gestures of help took avoidable stress out of our lives and made each day much easier. The less stress we had, the more time I could focus on learning how to be a dad and preparing for class.
Before having Maya, we always swore that we wouldn’t let a baby commandeer our lives. During the pregnancy, our parents and many of our friends offered to babysit once Maya was born so we could get some time away. I’m not sure that any of them expected new parents to accept the offer, but once Maya was a few weeks old we were happy to do so. During the week, I spend most of my waking time in, or preparing for, class. Accepting offers for babysitting allows Molly and I to get some time to ourselves and maintain some sense of a normal adult relationship.
Learn to say “No”
During my 1L year, I participated in every activity that would add a line to my resume. After Maya was born, I had to change my mindset. I was offered a position on a moot court board and was approached to run for the executive board of my law review. I was honored to receive each of these invitations but declined both. I knew that each of these positions would require hours of hard work and dedication. While I would have previously jumped at these opportunities, I realized that my family life and the quality of the work I would have done for these groups would suffer. This was not a compromise I was willing to make on either account. I still participate in a number of activities at school, but I have to be sure to keep them at a reasonable amount. By doing so, I’m left with a manageable amount of school work while still having plenty of time to play husband and dad.
Change your inefficient habits
Before fatherhood, I’d start each study session with about thirty minutes of wasted time. I’d check email, read articles about sports, and check Facebook to update myself on who was “enjoying the beautiful weather” or “looking forward to the weekend.” After Maya was born I realized that every minute I wasted reading those riveting status updates was a minute that I could have been spending playing with my daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I still check my email and Facebook accounts, I just do it less.
Another way that I try to use my time efficiently is to (I can’t believe I’m about to give this novel and invaluable advice away for free…) PAY ATTENTION IN CLASS! I know, it’s a pretty crazy concept, but it actually helps me learn to listen to what the professor and my classmates have to say. I often look around the room and see more laptop screens displaying chat messages and status updates than I do class notes. I figure that if I’m going to be in class, I might as well try to learn something (and I’m not talking about what Johnny had for dinner last night even though it was “sooooo good”). I don’t mean to bash Facebook, I love it just as much as the next guy. However, the more I learn in class, the less time I have to spend out of class learning the material and the more time I have to enjoy my family.
Learn to laugh at your parental shortcomings (and trust me, there will be some)
Caring for an infant is like no other experience you will ever have. Like all new experiences, mistakes will be made along the way. If you don’t learn to laugh at the small ones, the pressures of law school and responsibilities of parenthood may become overwhelming.
When Maya was only a few weeks old, she would nap in my arms. I figured this would be a great opportunity to get some studying done for class so I got my casebook and my blue highlighter out and started to read. I always struggled with falling asleep while reading dry case law, but now I was up with the baby multiple times throughout the night. I didn’t stand a chance. A few minutes later, we were both out cold. I was always afraid of falling asleep while holding her out of fear that I might drop her. Turns out I should have been afraid of falling asleep with the cap off my highlighter and accidently making random blue lines on my baby’s face. I went to sleep with a perfect, beautiful little girl and woke up holding something that resembled one of the natives from Avatar.
After Molly went back to work, I was responsible for taking Maya to and from daycare. The first day I took her, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I got her out of bed, changed her diaper, fed her, and picked out an outfit. As I was putting her clothes on, I noticed that her top didn’t seem to fit right and there were buttons on the front. I shrugged it off, sang her a song about the funny buttons on her shirt, and took her to daycare. When I returned to pick her up, I asked her caretaker if she liked Maya’s outfit and proudly pointed out that daddy picked it out himself. “Yeah, it’s really cute,” she said, “except you put it on backwards.” My bid for “Dad of the Year” was over and it was only January 4th.
As law students we’re often accustomed to being right and doing everything at a high level. Save that for the classroom. At home, let yourself make stupid mistakes, learn from them, and more importantly, laugh at them. I love telling people these stories because they are a great escape from the pressures of performance at school and they remind me that it’s okay to mess up every once in awhile.
Mickey Mouse Club House
Put in on the TV. It’s like crack for babies. You can thank me later. That’s all there is to say about that.
Take time each day to make your baby laugh
Maya started laughing about three months after she was born and her timing could not have been better. I was beginning to feel the effects of reading cases, going to class, and working, all on limited sleep. I came home from class exhausted and was starting to think that maybe I wasn’t really a super hero after all. I tickled her belly and she smiled at me and laughed for the first time. It was one of the happiest moments of my life and it helped me realize that all of the hard work and sleepless nights were well worth it. I’ve made sure to play with her and make her laugh every day since then. Sure, it makes her happy and it’s a great bonding moment, but it’s also great way for me to stay motivated to do it all over the next day. While I’ve come to realize that I’m not a super hero who can handle anything and everything, her smile and laughter convinces me that she thinks I am, and in the end that’s really all that matters.
So after all this, I’m not sure that I’ve really given any magic tools that will help you navigate law school while parenting a new baby. Really, it’s just about managing time even more wisely than you did before and making sure that the relationships that are important to you stay that way. Everyone has their own recipe for success in law school, and this remains true for parenting. Good luck, have fun, and take plenty of time to enjoy your new addition. I hate cliches but babies really do have a way of growing up really fast.