My sons crawled through multi-colored tunnels, tossed tokens in the least-played machines that spit out the most tickets, and raced each other back to our cluttered table where I sat with a cup full of tokens, a half-eaten pizza, and an open art history textbook in front of me. My goal for the next hour was simple: study for a final exam while a life-sized mouse in a purple t-shirt – along with his mismatched band – entertained my sons.

Two months before I relied on a costumed character and his robotic animal friends to babysit my children, and a few years after both of my sons were in grade school full time, I had decided to go back to school to earn an interior design degree.

The problem with my plan wasn’t where to take classes, but when. Like most working moms, work-from-home moms, and any mom with a pulse, finding extra hours in the day was as easy as locating the hottest toy of the season two days before Christmas: nearly impossible. Realizing I would never find the perfect time to take classes, I drove to the college near my home and signed up for the fall semester. 

The night before my first class, my eager boys couldn’t wait to present me with a gift bag overflowing with school supplies and the book “Interior Design for Dummies.” I loved the items they picked out with their dad, and wondered if there was a book called “Going Back to School for Dummies.”

The next morning as I sat in the parking lot across from my school, the introvert in me came out stronger than an off-key karaoke version of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I finally understood how my youngest son felt when his teacher pried him out of my car during his first few months of preschool. He later blamed his daily struggle on not knowing what to expect. Considering the last time I was in school, thongs were what you wore on your feet, not under your jeans, I also didn’t know what to expect. But I was going to have to be the one to force myself out of the car.

I looked forward to class each morning, a thought that would have sent my 19-year-old college-freshman-self into shock. As I learned skills and strategies from adults, not cartoons or puppets, I craved daily interaction with people who knew me as “Lisa,” not as “the mom of a second-grader and a fourth-grader.”

Instead of discussing sleep schedules, the ridiculous amount of homework our kids had, and how grateful we were that our children had outgrown “Dora the Explorer,” my classmates and I shared reviews of new movies and met for lunch at places that didn’t include a drive-through.

During the first two semesters, my “mom guilt” set in like the quickly spreading strain of flu I hoped my kids wouldn’t get. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t squelch my thoughts about whether or not being in school four days a week would affect my time with my sons and if my relationship with them would suffer.

My concerns couldn’t have been more unfounded.

Instead of driving a wedge between my sons and me, our shared, full-time student status brought us closer. Every day after school, my younger son and I tackled our homework at the kitchen table. When I needed to fulfill my math credit – the basic Math001 class I took in college didn’t count – my older son, a math whiz, was my personal tutor. His willingness to explain simple algebra concepts not only contributed to my earning an A, it also kept my ego in check. There’s nothing more humbling than your child saying, “Let me explain it a different way, mom.”

On graduation day, two-and-a-half years later, I gathered with my classmates in the long hallway of the civic center and found my place in line. As we entered the auditorium wearing faux-silk (non-design students call it polyester) black caps and gowns, I scanned the crowd for my sons.

After a minute I spotted them on their feet, cheering, clapping, and waving. The long hours, the anguish I felt at not spending more time cooking stellar meals, and my frequent requests for them to please go to sleep so I could start my homework, came down to that moment.

Next spring I’ll be the one in the stands waving, cheering, and no doubt crying, as my older son graduates from college.

When I look back, no longer through sleep-deprived eyes, I realize that returning to school was more overwhelming and challenging than I had expected. Yet it is still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I invested in myself during a time when I had minimal energy to spare between carpool, after-school activities, and my small business.

Had I not taken classes, I wouldn’t have acquired the skills and experiences that have helped me expand my business and eventually transition to another business. Also, it was more constructive and healthier for my sons to have a mom who focused on something other than her kids (helicopter parent, anyone?), a side benefit they still appreciate. 

A friend with young children recently called to ask whether or not she should pursue the degree she started before she had children. Without hesitating, I asked her what she was waiting for and offered to give her any help I could with her kids.

I also offered to give her the bag of tokens I still had tucked in the back of my kitchen drawer.