Warning: this post contains excess levels of mushiness. If you are allergic to mush, you should probably avoid. It’s nice mush though, promise. It also contains SB’s real name. Yes, I’m aware of it and it isn’t a typo – sometimes, calling her “SB” just doesn’t feel right.
In September 2012, I started my degree. I was fresh out of sixth form college; just turned eighteen, and ready for a new start. I hated my college and they hated me; the head of A Levels told me he had half a mind to contact the universities I’d applied to and tell them not to accept me; my English teacher told me I’d be lucky if I passed my A Levels – so I dropped his class and taught myself instead, returning only to sit the exam. I got an A, and he couldn’t look me in the eye on results day. I hated the area I came from; it was insular and cliquey and if your face didn’t fit, you were ostracised. Our faces had never fit – we’d moved to the area from the West Midlands a long time ago, my parents had no choice but to rely on benefits because of my dad’s illnesses and disabilities, and this made us different. Rural communities don’t like “different”, and they made it perfectly clear that they didn’t like us. No-one expected me to succeed – I was supposed to drop out; supposed to live on benefits and not aim for higher.
At university, nobody knew who I was, and I liked it that way. No-one knew my story, no-one knew my past, and I could start again, with people who wouldn’t judge me for my family or for my situation. I lived in halls, I carved out my independence, I made new friends and Daf; one of the few people outside my family who did believe in me, visited as often as possible. My first year was a whirlwind of new experiences, learning new things and meeting new people. I did well; I passed with a 2:1. Daf decided to come to uni too, and we planned to move in together with friends.
Then came a day in early September, when I’d been feeling a little bit sick, a little bit tummy achey and a little bit low, and I did a pregnancy test. Within seconds, the blue plus sign appeared. It didn’t just signal that I was pregnant – it signalled the end of everything I’d built up over the last year. Everyone would find out, and I’d no longer be Maddy, the girl who defied expectations to succeed – I’d be Maddy, the girl who dropped out of uni and had a baby at 19, just like we knew she would. I’d let everyone down – not least myself. My parents were devastated. I was just proving everyone right, they told me. After all I’d done to prove them wrong, I was throwing it away.
I moved away anyway, because I needed space. I went to speak to my lecturers, to tell them the bad news.
Only, they didn’t see it as bad news. By the time I left that meeting, I didn’t see it as bad news either. They helped me to see that it wasn’t the end of everything – it was the beginning of a challenge, but it was one that could be overcome. They didn’t beat around the bush; it would be hard – but they promised to support me and help me, and I left that meeting feeling positive about the pregnancy for the first time.
And support me they did. They offered extensions; they helped me to rearrange assessment dates around scans and appointments; they were totally discreet when I was dashing out of class to throw up at the peak of my morning sickness, they’d frequently ask how I was getting on and how I felt I was coping. At every step of the pregnancy, I had their complete support.
It was tough. God, there were so many times when I would go home and throw myself on the bed, sobbing my heart out and telling Daf that I was done; that I couldn’t do it anymore. Whenever I fell down, Daf picked me back up. He’d tell me that I could do it – that the choice was mine, but he knew what I was capable of. When I needed a push; he’d give me the loveliest, most gentle push you can imagine. When I needed someone to just hold me and tell me it would be okay, he was there every single time. He was balancing his own studying, his own fears and feelings about the pregnancy and his impending fatherhood, but he was always there for me.
When my parents came around to the idea of becoming grandparents in their early forties, they became my biggest cheerleaders. If I told them I was finding it tough, they’d tell me how proud they were of me. They’d encourage me to go easy on myself; to take a day off now and then – because an occasional day off was better than making myself ill and having to stop altogether. They’d look for ways to make it easier for me; and even if they couldn’t, they’d always take the time to tell me how well I was doing. They were never too busy to chat; never too preoccupied to encourage me.
My friends and classmates never stopped looking out for me. We laughed together when I had to squeeze my growing bump into a blouse to play an eleven-year-old schoolgirl. We celebrated together when the 20-week scan came back healthy. They made sure I played as hard as I worked; dragging me out to karaoke where I wound up singing ‘Like A Virgin’ at thirty five weeks pregnant. They cheered me on through my essays, and I did the same for them. If you need to see the definition of “teamwork”, look at my course during that year.
On the last day of the final performance of the year, SB entered the world. I’d stayed in university until three days before her birth, and I’d only missed the last three days because I was in hospital being induced. I’d made it to the end of the year; something I’d never thought imaginable. I wrote and submitted essays when she was two weeks old; typing them out with one finger while I held her in my arms, balancing the laptop on my knees. Daf kept me supplied with tea and chocolate and cake; he’d take SB off me to feed her so I could write; he’d make sure I went to bed at a reasonable time to help me recover. I finished that year with a very respectable 2:1.
We had the summer together, and then it was decision time. Did I go back part time, and spend as much time with SB as possible? Did I take a year out, and graduate with the class below me? Or did I try and push through; putting SB into nursery and forcing my way through to graduate with my friends; with the class I started university with?
I went for option three. SB went into nursery, and I swallowed down my feelings of guilt to push through and work. Daf helped to keep the guilt at bay. My friends helped to take my mind off how much I missed her. The lecturers were always happy to offer extensions on essays, making sure I was coping okay, always asking after SB. I felt completely supported, and without that support, I wouldn’t have made it past the first day.
The Christmas show was tough. The showcase was tougher. Toughest of all was my dissertation; a piece that was written and rehearsed late into the nights after SB had gone to bed, much like the rest of my coursework. Sometimes, I had to disappear into the bedroom to work, watching her little face crumple as she wanted to spend time with her mummy. I couldn’t have felt worse at those times, but I knew it was necessary. By this point, people were calling me ‘inspirational’, telling me I was ‘superwoman’. I wasn’t doing it for any of that praise, and I certainly didn’t feel I deserved it. My reasons were entirely selfish, actually – I was spending so much time away from SB, having to see that same little sad expression so many times, that I was adamant I was going to have something to show for it.
The results came through the post, and even as I opened the letter, I didn’t know if I would have passed or not. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something wrong; in my sleep-deprived state I’d forgotten to write an essay, or missed an assessment, or else forgotten some other vital part of something. The letter would begin with “We regret to inform you”, or some other meaningless platitude that meant “Try again next time”.
“The Assessment Board confirmed that you have achieved Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Theatre, Television and Performance. Classification: 1st”.
The girl who wasn’t even supposed to get into university; who supposedly threw it all away when she got pregnant at 19, is graduating with a first class degree. I was bursting with pride for myself, thrilled for my friends, who all did brilliantly, and more than anything, so thankful that those hours spent away from my precious baby girl wouldn’t be for nothing. I could make her proud.
And now, here we are. It’s the day of my graduation. The day I hardly dared to dream about; the day I certainly didn’t think I’d see until next year at the earliest, and it’s here. Today, I will graduate with my friends; the friends I met on my first day of university three years ago, who I drank with during the first year, who covered my Facebook wall in messages of congratulations in second year, who became a massive extended family to my daughter in third year.
Will I be proud of myself, up there on that stage? You bet. Will I see myself as the inspiration people have told me I am? No.
The real inspirations; the people who inspire me to do better and try harder and push myself so that I can be as thoughtless and caring and supportive as them, are the people to whom I owe this degree.
My classmates are inspirational; the people who stuck by me even though my entire world was changing, who kept me grounded as my bump grew and I tried to figure out how I could be a student and a mum at the same time. They reminded me that, pregnant or not, I was still a student, and could still enjoy the student life.
The lecturers on the Theatre, Television and Performance course at Glyndwr University are inspirational, because they didn’t flinch when I told them I was pregnant; they didn’t berate me for the extra paperwork I caused – they reassured me and encouraged me, and have supported me through every step of the process, both academically and emotionally.
My parents are inspirational, because they forced themselves to put aside their shock and concern and worries, to support me through the pregnancy, and constantly reminded me that in order to succeed, I needed to be kind to myself too. During the tough times, when I couldn’t be kind to myself, they were doubly kind to me, to make up for it.
Daf is inspirational, because he never once complained when I spent all night on my laptop instead of coming to bed. He never told me to stop whining when I had one of my many nervous breakdowns over essays. He never once told me “You’re right, you should drop out” or “You can’t do this”. He made sure I slept and ate and knew that I had his support at every twist and turn.
My biggest inspiration doesn’t even know yet that she inspires me. My daughter, my little speed bump, my beautiful Celyn, who makes me want to better myself constantly, so that I can be the mum she deserves. Every essay, every assessment, every time I felt like I couldn’t carry on, I just thought about the example I want to set for her. I want her to know that she can do anything she puts her mind to. I want her to see the power of determination, and what can be achieved when people come together and support each other.
When I cross that stage today, I won’t be thinking about how great I’ve done, or how proud I am of myself. I’ll be thinking of how grateful I am to these amazing, incredible people; how lucky I am to have them in my life, and how inspirational they are – not just to me, but to everyone. They are everything friends, lecturers, parents and partners should be. If people see me as an inspiration, I am honoured – but I am only this person because the community around me; the people I will now always consider to be family, have made it possible.
Two years ago, I told my parents that this pregnancy wasn’t a stop sign, it was a speed bump in the road. Little did I know at the time that it was less speed bump and more unexpected-diversion-onto-a-rollercoaster (but SB is a much better nickname than UDOAR), but today, I can finally say that I’m over the speed bump. The road ahead may not be plain sailing, and there will undoubtedly be more speed bumps to come, but if my time at university has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, the speed bumps in the road are what make us want to push ourselves, to aim higher, and to know that anything is possible.