Education News Unleashed

Young Mothers At University: ‘I Breastfed At 5am While Writing Essays’

At the age of 19, I started attending university with my newborn baby who was only 12 weeks old at the time. While my peers were busy making friends and acquaintances, I was preoccupied with breastfeeding my child and worrying about how expensive diapers were. Life as an Oxford student and mother was nothing I had ever expected, and it was made worse by the fact that one of my fellow students thought my "baby" was a play doll. While it is no longer uncommon for pregnant women to receive scholarships or for mothers to pursue a higher education, student parents are still largely ignored and forgotten.

I tried to juggle a full academic schedule with taking care of my daughter while she was at nursery school. The experience was exhausting, and I found myself breastfeeding my daughter at 5 am while trying to finish my essays. Although my tutors were kind, the university as an institution did not deem motherhood as an expectation for its students. In 2016 alone, more than seven hundred Oxford students had children while studying, but they are still not visible to the university administration.

Ash Mohanaprakas also had difficulty reconciling motherhood and her undergraduate degree after discovering that she was pregnant. She felt "constantly lonely" as she tried to balance her studies while being a mother. Her own mother, who had been proud of her accomplishments until then, started asking her to hide when gossiping neighbors came over. Mohanaprakas was struggling to make ends meet and receive childcare support from student finance and the university hardship fund, since such programs regarded childcare as a planned event. Such a view undermines many types of people, including single parents without a partner’s income, students with unexpected pregnancies, and those who cannot afford childcare, from gaining access to an education that they rightfully earned. Mohanaprakas could only afford two days of childcare per week for her son, which allowed her to attend tutorials but required her to look after him and write her essays at night.

While the university has a £5,000 fund for helping returning carers, students who need similar support are often neglected. Anna Sarkissian, a mother who returned to her DPhil in anthropology at Oxford when her daughter was four months old, struggled to find a place for nursing and working. She had to pump milk in a communal toilet while trying not to touch anything while hearing people bang on the door outside. It took a while for her department to find her a small office, which was helpful, but it was only through pushing that she could get everything she needed to complete her degree. As student parents, she and others were already overtaxed and mostly trying to survive.

Sixty percent of student parents have considered leaving their course, with that number rising to 65% for single parents. Parents rarely have the opportunity to study on weekday evenings or weekends, when child care centers are typically closed, which means they have less time to complete academic tasks than other students. The lifestyle is incredibly tiring, and new parents can lose an average of 50 nights of sleep during the first year of their child’s life. Nevertheless, society still views parenthood as a private matter that should not impede academic work.

Sarkissian worries that other researchers perceive motherhood as a shallow or frivolous thing, and this perception tends to hurt women in academia. Mothers are usually doubted about their level of commitment once they have children. Sarkissian rushed to wash her breast pump in the department’s kitchen if it needed cleaning and avoided colleagues since she feared they would think she was distracted or not working hard enough. There is still a stigma attached to breastfeeding, which is viewed by many as a private activity that does not belong in the workplace.

Student parents face a variety of financial difficulties as well. Sarkissian finds that UK childcare fees exceed £12,000 a year, making them almost unaffordable even with the university’s discounted rate. So her family is considering returning to their native country, Canada, where they could afford to live and receive subsidized childcare.

"I couldn’t do this degree if I didn’t have a spouse supporting me," Sarkissian said. "My ability to complete my degree is entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to take time off work and look after our child during the day."

Qassim feels unsupported when it comes to affordable childcare. She recalls having to ask her neighbors to look after her kids during school holidays while she attended classes, which made her feel awful. She explains that while someone suggested establishing a childcare camp in her college, she was the only student who required it. Qassim believes that funding can be instrumental in supporting single parents, but most of it does not cater to children’s needs. She also points out that there’s a common assumption that having kids is one’s sole responsibility.

Although Qassim does compliment her department for being "great," as the professors went out of their way to lend her books and make changes to her class schedule, she feels that universities need to start identifying student parents as a minority. She emphasizes that several students with children may not have thought of applying as they believe it to be impossible. She wants to spread awareness and encourage them that it is attainable, albeit not easy.

Similarly, Mohanaprakas, who completed her graduation in 2014, wants to inspire women in her shoes that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to despite the challenges. As seen through the determination displayed by student parents, having a child does not hinder academic success. However, it should not be entirely on individuals to prove that their children will not disrupt the system. The onus is on institutions to enhance accessibility and inclusivity.

Student parents possess admirable qualities, making them ideal candidates for higher education. Balancing a degree with the demanding job of being a parent requires unwavering dedication and persistence. Studying for both her and her daughter’s future, Qassim is even more motivated now to succeed.