Paper Deadlines and Pacifiers: The Challenges of Being a Student-Parent

Being a parent is a challenging full-time job with no vacation, sick leave, pay, or benefits, and guaranteed night duties and extra shifts. Combined with the academic challenges of pursuing a university degree, the job becomes even more daunting. Despite all the hardships, the mom guilt, and the exam stress, the experience of being a student-parent is a rewarding one. Having a child has given my life a lot of meaning and purpose. Education is something that enriches my mind while parenthood is a selfless occupation that nourishes my soul.

This does not diminish the fact that there is immense strain associated with both roles. Parenting takes an unparalleled emotional toll. Being a new parent is hard and taking care of a fragile newborn is demanding, which is why I chose to take a break from my studies when my baby was born. I was mindful to only take on what I could handle. Taking time off was not only beneficial for my baby’s and my health, but also it gave me a chance to enjoy motherhood. There were times, though, when I wished I could have had academic conversations and not ones about nursery rhymes.

Preparing for university while taking care of my baby, I had to strategize according to my priorities. I was not ready to give my baby to a third party for care when he was so young. So, I decided to volunteer for the Halton Baby Friendly Initiative (HBFI), where I was able to take my toddler with me in the field. I also volunteered for Halton Breastfeeding Connection (HBC) and was able to support nursing mothers on the phone from the comfort of my home, again while taking care of my son. These years of volunteer experience helped me gain acceptance to a Master’s program at the University of Guelph. My first day of university was my son’s first day of kindergarten.

Getting everything done required careful time management and extensive multi-tasking. While attending classes online, I folded laundry and cooked food in the slow cooker. I scheduled absolutely everything, from cleaning to studying, to playtime with my son. I kept an eye on the clock at all times, trying to ensure that most of my domestic and academic tasks were finished while my son was in school.

After picking my son up from school in the afternoon, I would give him a few hours of uninterrupted quality time by completely blocking off my schedule to prevent combined study sessions or group project work with my classmates. This way, I was able to provide a much-needed nurturing environment for my son. I worked hard to ensure that I fostered good habits in my son from the beginning. It would have been easy to allow my son extended screen time when I was busy, or to feed him unhealthy, quick-to-prepare foods. But I knew that unlearning these habits would be harder and more stressful than establishing the routines that were important to me from the beginning. Today, I feel my perseverance has paid off. My son is thriving because of the love, discipline, structure, and routine that my partner and I have provided him. Here, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of the help, support, and coordination of my husband. We usually tag team parenting when I have exams or classes.

Asking for support is something that student-parents often forget to do. The absence of a concrete university policy for students who may face unexpected parenting challenges makes being a student-parent more difficult. I have had to rely on the kindness and compassion of my professors and have also made a habit of privately introducing myself as a student-parent to my teachers on the first day of every semester. I am very fortunate that my professors empathize with my situation and have given me great support. When my son was hospitalized due to illness, I was assured that I could give all my attention to my son and was given extensions for my assignments.  My TAs were also immensely helpful and helped me catch up with the work that I had missed. There was, however, constant guilt and increased stress on my part since everything in my life was thrown off balance.

As a student-parent, I have developed a resiliency that I did not know I had. For example, a few hours before I was to conduct an online workshop, both my son and I tested positive for COVID-19.  I had the mental fortitude not to panic and I weighed my options; my preparation was complete and my symptoms at the time were mild, so I decided that the show must go on and I conducted the workshop. This was the right decision to make, since later my health would not have allowed me to continue.

Because I am a student-parent, I no longer compare my academic trajectory to that of my colleagues without children. That is a futile exercise because of the unique set of challenges I face. I am extremely mindful of how much academic load I can carry while my son is young. I realize that I can choose to modify my career path as my son grows to become more independent. By taking things one semester at a time and one day at a time, I am almost finished my Master’s degree. Life is hard, but life is okay.

Written by Syeda Sidra Jamal, a student-parent at the University of Guelph

Key Words

Parenthood, Mother's Day, Education, Student