Its 9:00 p.m. A multitude of college students have finished their time-consuming assignments. In a moment of utter relief, they anxiously settle into recliners and turn on the television.
At the exact same time, Lisa Jackson tucks her two children into their beds so that she may finally begin her homework.
Every day, students complain about the amount of school and work they have to balance and often take for granted the luxuries that are presented to them, such as housing near campus and access to recreation facilities.
Yet, while most students spend their time with only themselves to care for, student parents have to make sure that their children are given enough attention while worrying about their own midterms.
“Student parents want to feel like and be treated like all the other students,” said Jackson, a Rackham student. “So far, graduate school has been doable, but it’s been extremely difficult. I honestly think that it’s designed for people without children.”
Student Parenthood Misconceptions
The belief that one must graduate from high school, go to college and then start a family may not be a realistic ideology, but the conviction is still ingrained in many people’s minds.
“Generally, it seems to me that the attitude has been that graduate school is not a good time to have a baby,” said Jayne London, coordinator of initiatives at the Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
London, a parent advocate for students with children, works closely with the Center for the Education of Women in order to relieve the hardships facing student groups that are marginalized.
“Students say it’s assumed that academics are the highest priority in college life, and that puts a lot of pressure on them to succeed. Things change when you have children.”
Misconceptions can make student parents feel inadequate in comparison to the students in their classes. In particular, women can feel the emotional burden of being judged by others.
“There is a special impact of the presumed criticisms of expecting women. They fear that certain professors are writing them off as less serious students because they are walking around pregnant,” London said.
Still, judgments are not only restricted to student mothers. Fathers also get a surprised reaction from the public, yet the reactions rarely seem to be negative.
“People are usually a little surprised to see a father running around with a young baby strapped to him, and that was kind of fun,” said David Fencsik, a Rackham student with a two-year-old daughter. “I suspect I get a little more leeway than a mother would.”
Jackson admits that she sometimes feels awkward around her childless peers and that she suffers from relentless self-criticism simply from regular class activities.
“If you can’t meet your presentation group at the library at 8:00, its hard admitting you can’t be there because you have kids. It’s a very isolating feeling,” Jackson said. “I have standards to uphold, and there’s a lot of pressure.”
The ticking clock of child-rearing
“A biggest drawback about being a parent and a student is that I never have as many hours in the day as I need,” said Jackson. “I would love to spend more time with my children and my dissertation.”
Rigid schoolwork schedules also hinder a student’s ability to give complete attention to his or her children, even when a parenting emergency occurs.
“You feel like a horrible person when your kids are sick and you can’t stay home with them because you have a midterm that you can’t miss,” said Jackson.
Although time constraints create difficulty, being both a student and a parent can teach one multi-tasking and organization skills.
“Having a baby requires a great deal of flexibility – from lack of sleep to a sudden illness requiring a day off – and grad school allows for this in a way that a full-time job does not,” said Fencsik.
On a larger scale, the length of time it takes to complete schooling is greatly affected by having children. Some students find that being a parent extends the duration of their education.
Suzanne Perkins-Hart, a Rackham student and mother of two, explained that women have to be mindful that they cannot wait too long to have kids.
“It takes longer and longer to complete your Ph.D. candidacy,” she said. “Some students need five to six years for their program, and depending on if they waited to come to school, they need to be mindful that their biological clock is ticking.”
While some students may adjust well to parenthood, others find that college can make their experiences more difficult. Rackham student Melanie Boyd who became pregnant and had twins during graduate school, noted specific inconveniences.
“There is no official maternity or paternity leave for graduate student instructors.,” said Boyd. “Although we are in school, it is also a job for us.”
The costs of child care
Getting your child into a University child care program is similar to registering for classes — there is competition to get into particular program and lengthy waitlists.
“Although University child care is something offered to student parents, in reality, it’s really hard for students to get off the waiting list,” explained London.
“We have 80 families and have an extensive waiting list,” said Judy Powers, Secretary Financial Clerk of the Family Housing Child Development Center. “But Family Housing residents, whom are mostly students, have first priority.”
Besides being difficult to get into, child care services are extremely expensive. And while the University provides financial assistance, child care can cost more than a year of in-state undergradaute education at the University.
“Currently, the University contributes $7500 for my child care, but it costs me $22,000 for the year,” said Perkins-Hart.
Boyd and her husband try to reduce the costs of child care by alternating the days they stay at home.
“My partner and I need to overlap our schedules, but our children are still in part-time day care,” she said. “It costs around $1100 a month, its more than my mortgage.”
The University could potentially give additional aid to students if there was a heightened awareness of the amount of student parents.
“The University doesn’t know how much time, funding and resources to devote to students with children because it is difficult to know how many there are,” said Jackson.
Fencsik said that some students will not be deterred from parenthood while in college, but he admits that it is beneficial for the University to help.
“It’s important for the University to help student parents, since you don’t want to discourage parents from furthering their education,” said Fencsik.