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Returning to School: The Balancing Act

Juggling job and family is tough enough. Yet there's a sizable group of moms and dads trying to balance yet another demand: college.

More than one-fifth of all undergraduates are parents, according to recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics. Of these moms and dads, approximately 75 percent hold down a job  -- with more than half of them logging over 35 hours a week.

"Going to school on top of being a parent and worker can be quite stressful," says Marsha Padwa, a psychology instructor at the Harvard Medical School who conducts seminars on work-family balance for parents in the Boston area.

Strategies to help at home and in the classroom:

"Don't hold yourself to the same standards you might have if you didn't have kids," says Padwa. "Your time and energy are limited."

Andrea Bain, of Port Washington, NY  -- a compliance administrator at a financial-services firm, mother of 2 1/2-year-old Julia, and a part-time accounting student at Nassau Community College  -- has learned to rethink her academic expectations. "Before I became a parent, I spent all of my time in the library, trying to get A's," she says. "Now, I keep my grade point average up, but I also make sure not to cut into my time with Julia. Sometimes that means that I've gotten a B. It's a compromise."

"You may be tempted to do your homework while the kids are around, but you won't be able to do either justice," says Padwa. If your spouse isn't available to watch the kids, get a sitter. Or see if your college runs a daycare center for students' children.

Be up front about what you need, whether it's two hours without interruption or your husband to come home an hour earlier twice a week so you can get to class on time. And let your family know that they should speak up too: If they're starved for your attention, for example, you'll want to know.

Don't forget that your education benefits the whole family. For starters, you're a role model: Just by watching you, a child as young as 5 can learn the value of concentrating on a problem. Melissa Berger, of North Hollywood, CA  -- a full-time analyst with an insurance company; a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, getting her B.A. in interdisciplinary studies and comparative literature; and the mother of 5-year-old Joseph  -- loves school. "College has made me open to new ideas, kept me intellectually stimulated, and made me upwardly mobile," she says. "And that's all great for my family."