When I moved to Pullman, WA, for my husband’s graduate program, I wasn’t too worried. I'd lived in small towns before and knew that there would be both good and bad to exploring life in a city aimed at college students. Two and a half years later, I'm very well acquainted with both parts. The population is right around 30,000 – and that’s counting about 26,000 students. And it's isolated. Spokane, Washington is our nearest city, and that’s still less than 100,000 population. There are weird local things that I don't understand. My husband was once seriously scolded for asking where a woman picked her huckleberries. As a mom living in a college town, it's definitely taken some getting used to, to say the least.
My friends in Phoenix (where we lived before Pullman) have asked me to describe the small town I now call home. At best, Pullman just a farming town that is best known for being the home of Washington State University, and what that boils down to is the fact that there are farms and pot shops within a 10-mile radius. (Yep.) And did I mention that the biggest event of the year in town is the National Lentil Festival? Just let that sink in.
I can joke about Pullman all day long, but it has everything we need (and TBH, I guess I don’t need Target), and it's quickly charmed me. My husband’s graduate department is a good fit, there are plenty of little kids for my son to play with, and the weather is a mild four seasons. That said, mothering in a college down isn't without its own struggles.
Here's what it's like, straight from a woman who knows firsthand:
I Know The School Schedule Better Than The Students
I thought I left the days of checking the University’s schedule behind when I graduated. But I was so wrong. I could ignore it, but then I'd go shopping at the seemingly innocuous time on a Wednesday and a whole horde of students will be doing their shopping too because it's Reading Day.
Or if I’m driving across town and take the route through campus at 4:10 p.m. instead of 3:50 p.m. it'll take twice as long because classes just got out. It might sound ridiculous, but whenever students travel in groups around town things slow down because the students move at their own unhurried pace. And I have a kid, which means I'm already operating on another human's schedule. Life in a college town means I'm award of thousands of other kids' schedules too.
I Miss The Students When They're Gone
Within hours of the last final, our town becomes a shadow of its former self. The only people left behind are some grad students and the locals. It would be my very favorite time of year if it wasn’t for a few things: Summer means endless construction. When the students leave, that’s when the city rips up streets and tears down buildings (all in preparation for the next school year). There are less people driving the roads, so it makes sense to do the work then. But when my drive that usually takes seven minutes is doubled or tripled because of construction-created bottlenecks, I can't help but get irritated.
Summer also means that stores have really random hours. Want to go grab dinner at our favorite pizza place? Nope, it’s 4:30 p.m. and they closed an hour ago. In the summer, the only places open later than 9 p.m. are McDonald's and Taco Bell (and sometimes those options just don't cut it).
Because I'm in the business of taking care of a toddler, my life requires tons of flexibility. If my son didn't nap that day and we have to go for a late dinner, guess who strolls right up to the drive-thru?
Everyone Is Always Super Busy
I’ve met so many nice people in town and built little friendships with some of them. The hardest part is actually seeing them regularly because they're all so busy. But "busy" means something a little different in Pullman. All of the other mothers I’ve met are either grad students themselves, work, or their partner is a grad student and works. Sometimes both are grad students.
This means the schedules and workloads are crazy, and when there is some precious free time, it’s family time. I don’t fault anyone for this at all because I do it too. My husband works long hours and when he's home, I’d rather spend time with him and my son than go out with my friends.
That said, it hasn't made scheduling playdates or even kid-free outings that easy.
We're Really Good At Saying Goodbye
Now that I have made friends, I get to anticipate saying goodbye to them in six months to two years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone, hit it off with her, and then found out that she's moving in six months because her Master's program (or her partner's Ph.D program) is almost completed.
Within our grad school friends group, a few people leave each year. And the longer we’re here, the harder it will be to say goodbye. The first few people who left we barely knew, but now that we’ve been here two-and-half years, we’ve been able to form friendships. I dread saying goodbye. And I dread having to tell my son that his friends are leaving and no, they won't be back soon.
The upside is that, since so many of us in Pullman are far away from family, the friendships have a different tone and although some of them are brief, they're still worthwhile.
Sometimes I Feel Really, Really Old
Every Friday and Saturday night (and sometimes Thursday night too), I can hear music booming from College Hill. It’s a faint but ever present reminder that those kids are having a damn good time and I’m cleaning up the living room because nighttime is the only time I can clean without my son pulling everything out immediately.
The undergrad lifestyle is so carefree and fun-oriented feels so foreign to me now that it makes me feel like I’m 900 years old. I long for the days when all I had to care about was homework and not falling asleep in class and the next fun thing I wanted to do. Then I go for a morning walk and see the kids straggling home in yesterday’s clothes and don’t feel quite so envious anymore.
I Don't Exactly Fit In
When I graduated with my Bachelor's degree, I was done. "Goodbye, college, see you again never," was my motto. I loved my undergrad, but I was burnt out and ready to move on when it came time to wear the cap and gown. Now that I live in a town where the vast majority of people are students sometimes I feel wistful and wish I was in some Master’s degree program, just so I could be part of the gang.
I don’t have crappy professors to complain about, department gossip to dish out, or a never-ending pile of homework to do. Oh wait, never mind, I don’t wish I was a student.
Instead: I have a human. So, guess we're even?
We're Suddenly Sports Fans
OK, a bit of honesty: I've never experienced college football till I moved to this town. It’s not college football, it’s COLLEGE FOOTBALL. The Washington State Cougars aren’t always the best, but their fans are insanely devoted. My husband and I go to games when our undergrad alma mater Arizona State is in town and root against the Cougs. (Shh. Tell no one.)
On those occasions, I look around and think that it'd be fun to be a Cougs fan. Pullman is so small that the football team is pretty much all there is for entertainment, so people embrace it, whether or not they’re students. It's a cool part of the town, but since I'm not a big fan, it's also really annoying. People flock back into town for each home game and start tailgating on Thursday for a Saturday game, and the town effectively shuts down.
Oh! Make sure to buy beer before the game because the Coug fan's motto is “Win or lose, we still booze.”
Being Young Is Awesome
Even though I'm well beyond my college years, I'm happy to call Pullman home. Life is always moving around us, and no matter what's going on, it's still an incredibly fun and cool place to raise a kid.
My Son Is Always Surrounded By New People
And everyone thinks he's so cute (because he is), and they're always constantly excited to see him. Every day he has the chance to make a few friend or meet someone who'll teach him something new about the world. It's pretty awesome.
Nothing Is Ever The Same
And no, that's not a new Drake song. When we get up every morning, it's like the year has started over completely from scratch. I remember my college years and feeling so free, like anything could happen on any given day. Turns out that life in a college town, even then you're not in college anymore, is very much the same.
Images: Courtesy of Devin Kate Pope (1), Giphy (10)