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March 15, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Schooling the parents

What it’s like to juggle parenthood with a tertiary education

“Now the thing about having a baby—and I can’t be the first person to have noticed this—is that thereafter you have it.”—Jean Kerr

So the bomb has dropped. That which your parents so patiently warned you about has occurred. You’re a student with a sprog. Or maybe you’re thinking about becoming one. Or maybe you’ve just had your impending parenthood dropped in your lap. Or maybe you’re just looking for something to read about that utterly un-affects you. But to the parents and parents-to-be out there—kia ora. Welcome to the club. There’s more of us out there than you think.

Let me tell you, you have a whole lot to look forward to.

The Singularity: The moment where everything changes, nothing will ever be the same again

So you just found out you are going to be a parent. Maybe you got a phone call. Maybe it was a discovery via a Juno-esque dearth of pregnancy tests. The writing is now on the wall. Your future is shaping up in front of your eyes. The bad news is it’s hard work. You will very intimately understand why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. Your entire focus will shift.

Nicky, a father of two (Rebecca 3 years old and Ashleigh 9 months), muses, “It’s a change in focus. We used to be quite selfish and now, it’s not a selfish thing anymore. It’s for other people, you’re living for other people, making money for other people, for the kids.”

Speaking as a new parent myself (my daughter is at time of writing 9 weeks old) this is unarguably true. I was, and in fairness most students are, enormously selfish. You study the subjects you want to better your chances of following the career that best suits you. You choose your tutes to fit your lifestyle and fit your essay and assignments around your calendar as you see fit. It’s not a bad thing.

A child throws out this entire dynamic.

Suddenly you have antenatal classes to attend. Never in your life have you imagined packing in three lectures and a tute and then heading to a room full of glowing mid-30s couples who stare at you like you and your partner are exhibits in a travelling circus while discussing the pros and cons of caesareans. It can be taken as gospel that there is no experience like being judged in hushed voices and being stared at pointedly every time the instructor talks about drugs or drinking. But at the same time antenatal classes are important because they introduce you to other couples in a similar situation to yourself.

“We had all these single friends and now we have all these friends with kids,” says Nicky.

“That’s quite a big change, you end up talking about kids instead of drinking. It’s kinda weird.”

At the same time as a student parent your schedule is, in a lot of ways, freer than working parents. You aren’t locked into the 9-to-5 schedule five days a week. You can arrange your classes and tutes so that you can be a much more active part of your child’s life. Which is awesome. Admittedly for the first few months the father isn’t going to have much input into the raising of the child. You’ll spend a lot of time changing nappies and making dinner and cups of tea. I spend a lot of my days off baking and helping with housework.

Speaking of housework, there is an enormous paradigm shift around the house. No longer can stacks of dishes stand idle being hastily rinsed when it’s absolutely necessary.

Eve* is the partner of a student parent and is currently a stay-at-home mother: “I gave up my career and a portion of my social life to spend most of my time at home cleaning dishes and clothes. I had no ‘home life’ before.

“Adam* is a lot better mentally and emotionally as a student than as a full-time worker, which makes a huge difference to me. I have a much happier student dad than I ever would have had in a working dad.”

So if the bun is baking it’s probably time to start exercising those domestic muscles. Because you both need to pitch in. It is difficult to quantify the experience of being a parent who isn’t one. This isn’t a trite way to fob off the offspring-less rubber-neckers who will infest your life.

“The trouble with learning to parent on the job is that your child is the teacher.”—Robert Brault

If you are really lucky you will have surrounded yourself with people who love children and are completely understanding of the new life you have brought into the world. But the truth of the matter is that you won’t know if you have until they have been introduced into the crucible your life is about to become. The one thing you can generally count on is that, once they have gotten over the initial shock, your family will be an inestimable resource.

“It starts with the in-laws, we never saw them before and they only live ten minutes away. Now we see them, almost every day… Before it was once a year. So it’s changed quite a lot. Really they are there for the kids but they support us too, mow the lawn and things,” says Nicky.

“Our wider family was a bit critical initially because Adam didn’t go out and get a job, which the father is widely expected to do,” says Eve.

“Once we were firm in what we were doing, we found a lot of support from people who’d done it, or known others to do it. Our families are now a lot more supportive, and maybe more than they would be otherwise, because they know how stretched our time and money is by taking this path.”

So look forward to spending time with your extended family. It’s really not such a trial when you can offload your child on them to calm and comfort and change them when you have been up doing it for the last 14 hours. But if you can’t count on your family then what can you count on really?

I will admit here and now that I have never been as grateful to anyone as I have been to the people who assumed the mantle of childcarers in my house. It is absolutely the gift that keeps on giving. There is no more precious gift, that anyone can give, than their time. Anyone who is willing to give some of theirs to help with your child should be gratefully accepted. You will appreciate it when it happens.

In the end, and this is the hardest but also easiest part of being a parent, the only people who really matter any more are your child, and your partner. Your life will never be the same. It is a trite affectation that nothing worth doing is easy. It fits being a student parent like it was made for it. It is incredibly hard work. But at the end of the day the feeling you will have when you cross the stage and receive your long awaited, and hard earned accreditation will be one of the best feelings you ever have. You can be a student and a parent. And it is worth the slog.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”—Friedrich Nietzsche


*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

This is the first part of Josh’s feature series on what it’s like to be a parent at university. If you think you might have something to contribute, flick him an email, josh@salient.org.nz.

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