I’ve talked quite a lot about the start of a new university year recently, with my Top Ten Tips for Student Parents, because it’s a big event for any student (or their parents – lots of mums out there with empty nest syndrome at the moment, I’m sure), but particularly so for a student parent. The new academic year means new challenges, new adjustments to make and often, a new hurdle to cross.
This year has been strange for me. I didn’t really have a summer – I went straight from university into full-time work – but as soon as I finished work, everyone else was heading back to school and university, as their summer holidays came to an end. It feels wrong not to be going back with them. I was on campus the other day to record an interview in their radio studio, and seeing the students heading to Freshers’ Fair; hearing them talk about enrolment and modules and what they’ve got going on this year, set off little pangs of envy in me.
Maybe I’m looking at it through rose tinted glasses? I know there were challenges, and there were so many times when I thought I couldn’t do it, but I wish I’d taken a few moments to sit back and enjoy it all. I wish I’d taken more pictures, joined more societies, been to more events. The fact that I missed out on these is nothing to do with having a child, and all because I was apathetic. I felt like three years was an eternity; university would last forever. Now I’m in the real world, and I’m counting down the weeks until I can go and do my PGCE next year, just to spend a short time back in a university atmosphere.
The point of this post wasn’t for me to ramble on and on about my university regrets. Instead, it’s to send a message to all the student parents out there – whether you’re a mum, a dad, a step-parent, an adoptive parent, a birth parent, a grandparent, a mum-of-eight or a mum-to-be, a full-time student or a part-time student and everyone in between…
You rock. You really do. You’ll probably shrug it off, like I did whenever someone told me how great I was doing, and say ‘It’s nothing’. In your mind, it’s just a case of balancing studying and parenting. No biggie.
But it is a biggie. You’re not just balancing a few lectures with a few hours of playtime in the evening. You’re balancing writing assignments with making sure your child’s science project is in their bag and ready to go. You’re balancing revising for an exam with endless episodes of Peppa Pig. You’re balancing the pressure to join in the student lifestyle with the endless requests for stories. You’re balancing the fun of the occasional night out with the guilt of feeling that you don’t spend enough time with your child. You’re balancing field trips and placements with packed lunches and swimming money.
There’s no ‘just’ about it. Being a student parent is a juggling act, and it’s not an easy one either. You’re doing awesome, though.
I may know some of you. I probably don’t know an awful lot of you. I can tell you now, without a shadow of a doubt, that if you are a student parent, that you are amazing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re studying Astrophysics at the Super Advanced Technological University Of Science (yeah, sorry, my mind drew a blank there) or a distance-learning course; you’re doing great. You’re learning. You’re broadening your horizons and expanding your knowledge. With that, your child’s horizons will be broadened too, and they will benefit from the knowledge you are gaining.
It gets tough. I’m never going to lie and pretend it’s a breeze. Sometimes the only way you can get through a night of essay writing is one of those supermarket cartons of Starbucks Espresso – even if, like me, you loathe coffee – and loud music blasting through your headphones, and even then you’ll wonder what the hell you’re doing, and why you ever thought this was a good idea. Sometimes you’ll sit in a lecture and realise that actually, you’d rather be sitting on the sofa cuddling with your baby right now.
Some of you have extra obstacles than I did. Some of you are single parents. Some of you have two or three children – older children, not babies and toddlers with their relatively uncomplicated lives. Some of you have children with additional needs. You don’t let it stop you. You continue to study, and continue to parent, and I am in awe of you all – you are true inspirations.
Keep on keeping on, student parents. There are two instances in my life where I have felt indescribably proud of myself. The first was giving birth to SB – no feeling has ever beaten that. The second was holding that letter in my hands, the one that told me I had a first-class degree. I hope that the third is coming at the end of October; the moment I walk across that stage in my cap and gown and graduate. It takes work, dedication, sheer bloody-minded stubbornness at times, but it is so worth it for that long-term gain, the pride you will feel, and the example you are setting to your child or children.
Practical support for student parents isn’t too difficult to come across in most universities. Emotional support? That can really vary. Some universities, like mine, are great. Others? Not so much. Sometimes, we just need that push. That little bit of motivation; the cheerleader in our mind, waving her pompoms and shouting “You can do it!”. Because you can. You can do it, and you will do it, and that achievement will be something you will never forget.
So if you’re a student parent, feeling nervous or scared or even dreading the new academic year, it’s normal. We’ve all been there. It’s easy to feel like you’re alone, especially when your university doesn’t have many student parents. You’re not alone. Chances are, there are more student parents at your university than you think, and they’re all in exactly the same boat. Find each other, support each other, encourage and motivate each other. Share your struggles and your stresses; vent about dirty nappies and teenage strops and packed lunches and whatever else is getting in your way – and then grit your teeth, push through and get that grade; the one you know you deserve.
You can do it. Keep telling yourself that you can do it. If you lose confidence or doubt yourself, say it until you’re blue in the face; you can do it. Be proud of what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I think that each and every one of you – whoever you’re a parent to, however old you are, whatever course you’re doing – is absolutely amazing.