Student parents – or more aptly, parents who are students – are prevalent in today’s society, in which more and more people are pursuing college degrees or returning to school to finish degrees begun earlier.
For some students, the decision to become a parent is consciously made. For others, parenthood is a surprise. Whatever the case, both roles require a great deal of time, sacrifice and responsibility. Successfully executing both roles simultaneously could be considered a superhuman feat.
College is portrayed as a time of license and experimentation. The only scheduled activities are class and work. This may or may not hold true for everyone, but it certainly isn’t the case for parents who are seeking degrees.
Days are hectic for Autumn Slate, a single parent of a 6-year-old son and graduate anthropology student
“I get up at 6 a.m., and Julian goes to school about 20 minutes away from the house,” she said. “I get up, get dressed and get him ready. I have to have him at school by 7:45 or 8. I have class at 9 or I have the class that I TA at 9:30, so I have to be back (in Tampa). Then I work all day, and depending on the day, then maybe I have to pick him up at 1:30 p.m. and I go home at 6 p.m. But after making dinner and getting him to bed around 10, usually, I still stay up for two to four more hours.”
According to Amanda Haller, mother of three and a senior majoring in religious studies, her day begins at 8:30 a.m. or 9 with dressing babies and doesn’t end until 2 the following morning.
“I don’t have normal days,” Slate said. “I made myself this schedule on Excel that was gonna help me sort of fit everything in and get me eight hours of sleep, and that fell apart immediately because something always, always happens; something always goes wrong.”
Due to work or childcare needs, homework usually gets relegated to the bottom of the priority list or doesn’t get done at all. “Usually I don’t do it – but if I need to, I wait until they are asleep,” Haller said.
For Slate, homework is a late-night activity.
“(I do homework) at 2 in the morning, but not very well; I kind of just rush through everything,” she said. “I have this Wednesday night thing that happens that I hate. I just don’t sleep on Wednesday nights ’cause I have to get my work done. So Friday or Saturday nights I try to sleep as much as possible.”
Often, academics take a backseat to more pressing day-to-day family issues.
“Today, my husband has the stomach flu, so in between everything else, I have had to change his buckets and get him Gatorade and crackers – not to mention calling doctors,” Haller said. “I could easily get A’s single, but with children I settle for B’s and C’s,” she said.
For those considering graduate school or already in graduate school, the combined demands of parenthood, graduate-level coursework and work-related responsibilities can be stressful.
“In undergrad, it was hard enough. I worked really, really hard to do well – but in grad school, I’m not sure it’s possible,” Slate said.
Conflicts crop up often. Feelings of frustration and guilt are common.
“It’s affected my academic skills and my parenting skills. The guilt is terrible,” Slate said.
USF and instructor policies aren’t tailored to the needs of student parents. Classmates and fellow students aren’t always empathetic.
“I took this sociology class in undergrad and there was a woman who always had her son in class with her,” Slate said. “I guess her childcare was unreliable because she brought him so often. And the other students in the class complained about it, so the teacher asked her if she wouldn’t bring him anymore.
“But I thought – and of course, I was already a single mom, so I was biased – he wasn’t disruptive; he was like a child, and he would whisper to her every once and a while – maybe it’s because I have a child and I can tune it out. People talk in class all the time. I thought they were being mean-spirited,” Slate said.
Those who are not yet parents may have a difficult time understanding the particulars of childcare arrangements and the frisson of anxiety parents experience at the thought of bringing their children to class with them. Skipping class isn’t preferable, but it happens.
“My children are more important than your class. I am trying to do this to get a higher paying job. You don’t have to give me points for showing up because my heart is at home, not with you,” Haller said.
At times, it seems an explanation is necessary, whether it be to professors, classmates or children.
“I would like to explain my lack of time. As much as I wanna be a superwoman, I can’t. There are just only so many hours in a day for a mother,” Slate said. “I regret not being able to be there for my son as much as other moms who work only 40 hours a week. Because I definitely don’t have that.”
The general consensus seems to be that more could be done to create a supportive environment for students who have children. Things such as parking for pregnant students, cheaper student housing and alternative attendance options were mentioned.
“There needs to be a holistic center that would cover health care, mental health care, financial processes, childcare, social networking – everything,” Slate said.
“I brought my 3-year-old to class and was told she had to leave,” Haller said. “In the fall I had a nursing infant and could only get one professor to allow me to bring her. She wouldn’t take a bottle, so I was forced to stop nursing her earlier than I wanted.
“I couldn’t even get help from the student disabilities office when I was supposed to be on bed rest, ” she said.
Due to the relative novelty of students being parents concurrently, traditional academia is slowly changing. In the mean time, many students are left scrambling for alternatives that enable them to be successful as parents and students.
“I don’t think academia supports student parents,” said Jamae Morris, a graduate anthropology student and mother of one.
“Last semester someone told me, ‘If you’re a single mom, you cannot get a Ph.D.’ I know this is not true because we have a single mom in our department who is getting a Ph.D. right now,” Slate said.
The tendency to become overwhelmed is not uncommon. Quitting often seems to be an alluring option.
“I do (want to quit) right now, as a matter of fact,” Slate said. “People say I’m doing the right thing for my future, but I’m concerned about now. I mean, he’s only gonna be little once, and I’m missing it.”
In spite of the sacrifices and challenges that come with the territory of being a student parent, the experience is worth it.
“I could have never imagined being a parent until I became a parent. That’s the kind of experience it is. Completely stressful, but it’s wonderful because you get to have this experience that other people don’t have,” Morris said.
Despite ideas about delaying life in favor of perfect timing, having children while in college doesn’t have to be a catastrophic prospect.
“I am so happy to have my children now,” Haller said. “They are going through it all with me, and I wouldn’t change anything on their behalf. My children are my best buddies.”