How to Balance It All - A Dad’s Perspective

By: Francisco Martinez

When I tell people I’m an international graduate student at Columbia University people usually say something polite, like “nice!” or “awesome!”. Then, I tell them I moved here with my wife and three kids and suddenly they widen their eyes as I seem to magically transform from regular guy into some kind of weird unrelatable human being. “How you do it?” they ask. “Insert dad joke here” I think to myself. Then I politely respond: “with the support of my wife, and a detailed schedule of study groups, due dates and exams, so I don't forget any assignment." It may sound simple, but it sure doesn't feel easy. 

As a Chilean Navy guy, I'm used to being away from home, serving my country at sea. My wife covers me at home, a difficult task when the house is full of kids. Between work, school, illness, and the demands of daily life, my wife has become a verifiable "super mother." Without her, my family could not have gotten to where we are today: balancing my studies, the kids’ school, and our time as a family.

To get here, we managed little by little, step by step, with a healthy dose of optimism and humility. We didn’t tell the kids about the move until a couple of days before our flight to New York. We thought that they might get anxious, and we didn't want them to tell everybody about it because of the risk of sounding like show-offs. When we arrived in the US through Atlanta, we had 2 hours until our connecting flight to New York City, and we spent just as long waiting to get through immigration. Like in the movies, we had to run to the departure gate, with 3 kids and 5 suitcases, only to see our plane speeding down the runway. Damn! Luckily, there was another flight ready to depart, so we only had to show our puss-in-boots-sad-face to the next flight’s attendant. Two hours later, we were in New York City.

As a middle-class Chilean family, we came with enough money to pay the rent and sustain ourselves for the two years at SIPA, but we have to find creative ways to save more while keeping our boat afloat. My wife’s ability to find places to buy cheap food amazes me. The best delis and grocery stores - from The Dollar Tree, Los Vecinos, Duane Reade, to Costco - she has them all mapped out. In an effort to save money - and lose weight - we walk almost everywhere. Our older son goes to school at 77th Street and Columbus Ave. We live at 112st and Broadway. So every morning (schedule permitting) we board the subway together, and then I return walking from his school to SIPA. Yeah, a whole 2.2 miles. At first it seemed impossible. It was too far, too rainy, too hot or too snowy…you know, the usual excuses. But I eventually embraced my morning walks, recognizing they offered precious time, just for me. I listen to the news, music, or some new podcast, and arrive fresh for class. I live five blocks from SIPA, but it takes me 1.5 hours to get there after I leave home… In the afternoon I pick up my son from school. On our walks home we both tell each other how our day was, what interesting thing happened or just talk about superhero movies...well my son talks and I listen. He is by far more knowledgeable than me on that topic. On special occasions we stop at Trader Joe's or a deli to buy his beloved "Takis" (horrible in my opinion).  

All in all, to accomplish this dream of studying at Columbia University, first we, as a family, had to believe that we could make it. If others could do it, why not us? Personally, it’s hard not to become bogged down by the university. Classes, office hours, retreats, conferences, happy hours: it all piles on to the daily-life activities like shopping for goods, walking with my kids to the park, laundry, and taking care of the kids while my wife learns English. In addition, as a family, we have vacations and weekends filled with football (or soccer as it is called in the US). The two older ones are on different teams and play in different tournaments. And of course we want to be tourists in our own new city. Every single weekend, my wife prepares a schedule to go and see something new. When we arrived, everything was new, and we were very excited. We wanted to see it all. Now, with one year left, it’s a countdown. From now on, we’ll be seeing everything for the last time: 4th of July, Christmas trees, free concerts in Central Park, different parades in 5th Ave.

With so much to do, it’s hard to concentrate on all those assigned readings and also my family. Above all, I want my kids to succeed at school and my wife to be happy. But we have to balance family time. So, like everything in life, we have to face trade-offs. We couldn’t have done it without working together as a family. Each person needed to row in the same direction, and that’s where a parent’s leadership is needed. Now one year in, my experience as a student and as a father has been very positive. My family has helped me to succeed academically, and together, we have been enjoying our time in the city.