Juggling college and the kids


There aren’t enough hours in the day for parents who pursue the mature student life, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

WITH THE CAO deadline looming on February 1st, parents all over the State are trying to concentrate the minds of Leaving Cert students on what and where they would like to study at third-level.

But some parents are filling in application forms for themselves – as mature students. College is no longer seen as a phase of life to put behind you when you are in your early 20s.

Apart from the full-time courses offered by the higher education institutes (HEIs) covered by the CAO, there are numerous part-time and evening courses available through classroom attendance and distance learning.

The adult learning sector has never been more flexible or accessible, whether you want to enhance your career, embark on a new one or follow a passion. But it can be a real challenge when you have young children to care for.

Four parents, currently pursuing third-level study, explain how and why they do it.

Jenny McElroy (32) lives with her fiance, Paul McBride, and their 15-month-old daughter Amy in Bettystown, Co Meath. She works a four-day week with Electric Ireland (formerly the ESB) in Santry, north Dublin, and is studying part-time for a degree in business studies run by the Institute of Public Administration at Dundalk Institute of Technology in Co Louth.

Returning to college when her daughter was just three and a half weeks old was a real test of McElroy’s commitment to further education. She had become pregnant during her first year of the part-time course, but was keen to continue after giving birth at the beginning of September, 2010.

“It was a big decision to go back when she was so young, but I felt if I didn’t go back – I missed the first week I think – I would never have gone back.”

McElroy is the first to say she could not have done it without the support of her fiance and extended family – especially after her maternity leave finished last August.

“It was a new chapter to learn how to juggle because for my first year of college, I only had work but was pregnant; the second year I wasn’t at work, was just a parent; and this year now I have all three: I have work, Amy and college.

“I am finding it tougher,” she says. “It took a while to get all the logistics in place.”

Her weekly schedule is an impressive mix of hard work and family co-operation, with Amy’s grannies, both of whom live in Dundalk, taking turns, week on week off, to help with childcare.

On Monday morning, whichever granny is “on” arrives in Bettystown to collect Amy and bring her back to Dundalk, about 45 minutes away, while McElroy drives her 40-minute commute to Santry.

She finishes work at 5pm and has to be in Dundalk for the first of her twice-weekly lectures at 6.30pm.

Three hours later, she goes to stay the night in the home of the granny who has Amy. McElroy sees her daughter the following morning before heading to work.

On Tuesday evening, McElroy and her fiance return to Bettystown after work and a granny drops Amy home. As Paul works most weekends, he often has Wednesday and Thursday off and can care for Amy then.

That means McElroy can return home after her second night at college on Wednesday. She usually spends Friday, Saturday and Sunday at home, but every fifth weekend has to attend college.

McElroy mostly studies at the weekends after Amy has gone to bed. “I try to get two to three hours in on one of the evenings just to catch up.” Coming up to assignments and exams, she will try to squeeze study every night into what is a gruelling schedule.

“You can get lazy, but then it all gets on top of you,” she says. “On Wednesday evenings after work, it is tough to drive the hour to Dundalk, sit for three hours and then drive home again and you will be exhausted on the Thursday, but you really have to push yourself.”

The course can be done by distance learning, but she says she would not have the discipline to do it remotely.

Her social life is the main casualty. “I have sacrificed all my nights out. The socialising we do is during the day, with Amy.”

McElroy looks both to the past and the future for motivation to stick at it. She always regretted not continuing her childcare studies to degree level, instead opting to travel after gaining a diploma when she was 19.

Now in a completely different field of work, she believes a degree could help her progress from her current status as team leader. “I have gone as far as I could go. I don’t think I could get a manager’s job without a degree.”

Kathy Endersen (42) lives in Shankill, Co Dublin, with her husband, Laurence, and their three children, Sarah (11), Laurence (8) and Louise (7). She is studying at UCD for a degree in health and performance science.

Having given up a full-time accountant’s job in 2002 when her first child was two, Endersen tried part-time study four years and two more children later, “to see if I could use my head again and manage with the kids”.

She is now in the second year of a full-time degree course, which involves 16 hours of lectures a week in UCD, “but they expect you to work 40 hours a week”.

All her children are finished school by 2.30pm and a childminder comes into their house three afternoons a week.

Having had their mum at home for some years, do the children resent her absence? “No, they actually resent me coming home early!” she replies with a laugh. “They love the minder.”

She tries to go straight into UCD every day after dropping the children at school, either for scheduled lectures or to study in the library. There is a breakfast club at the school, which means the children can be dropped in at 8am the mornings she has 9am lectures.

“The three afternoons I have a minder, I would try to stay in UCD and study until 5pm. The other two afternoons I give over to the kids – it is very hard to study when they are here.”

She works after they have gone to bed if she has to and during exam weeks before Christmas she got up at 6am for last-minute study.

“I only get an hour, but it does make a difference if you get a run at it. You have got to get in the zone.”

She finds she can become quite preoccupied with her studies, especially around exams. “The kids are talking to me in the car and I try to act interested and ask them a question and they say, ‘I just told you that mum’.”

Ironically, considering the course subject, the main thing that suffers is her personal fitness.

“I am walking the dog, play a bit of tennis and am out and about with the kids on the bikes, but unfortunately I am not training.” In recent years she has played a lot of tennis, running and completed triathlons.

What is “fantastic”, she says, is the way the course is divided into 12-week semesters and the big element of continuous assessment – when she was sitting the pre-Christmas exams they were for only 50 per cent of her marks.

“That does take the pressure off. Because I have dependants, anything can happen with them.”

Her husband, Lar, works long days in financial investment, so the lion’s share of running the household falls to her. But, with a passionate interest in what she is studying, she is glad to be doing the course.

“It is expanding my knowledge, using my brain and it is good to be up and out in the world,” she says.

Although, as this is her second degree, there is a big financial commitment of having to pay annual fees of €7,000-plus.

She hopes she is a good role model for the children – “what I would hope to pass on is that education is a life thing”. But most people, she adds, “think I’m mad!”

Fergal O’Donovan (39) is director of technical operations with the pharmaceutical company MSD in Brinny, Co Cork. He lives in Ballinhassig with his wife, Martina, and their three children, Jack (8), Faye (7) and Charlie (4), and is studying for a masters in biotechnology online with the Institute of Technology in Sligo.

A few months ago when O’Donovan was in the US for his work, he logged on for the latest lecture in his course, which was delivered live from Singapore, and it was all through Sligo IT.

It is an example of how flexible distance learning is and how well-suited to a busy man such as O’Donovan, who works full-time and has three young children. However, he says it can all be a struggle at times.

“Something has to give. Since I started the education, work hasn’t suffered, the education hasn’t suffered, I put in the hours, but the family has.”

The support of his wife, Martina, a stay-at-home mother, is what makes it possible.

The course takes about 10-15 hours a week, which means there are three or four nights he does not see the children before they go to bed because he does the course work in the office before leaving.

He has had to fine-tune his time management. At first he would try to do course work whenever he had a free minute at home but then he heard the children saying, “Dad is always studying”. So now, at weekends, he will do four hours on Saturday morning and then stop.

“I find that much better. Everybody knows to leave Dad alone until 12 o’clock and then it’s a free for all.”

He also stresses that since the college work comes in blocks of 11 weeks, he is not living his life to that degree of intensity all year round.

“You stop wasting time; I just don’t watch telly anymore and I am up every Saturday morning at seven, whereas before I might have slept in.”

Upskilling like this is, he believes, essential for his job, and he is delighted with the option he chose to pursue because it is very “industry friendly”. He can relate much of his project work to the day job.

“It is working well. I am delighted I have done it. I feel my confidence really has grown in the role and I do feel the day job has benefited from it.”

Sarah McKevitt (22) has a two-year-old son, Kiernan, and lives with her mother and three siblings in Darndale, Dublin. She is studying journalism full-time at Rathmines College, Dublin.

For the first year and a half of parenthood, McKevitt felt stuck in the house and unable to do anything, other than care for her baby son.

The eldest of four children, she shares a bedroom in the family home in Darndale with her sister, while Kiernan sleeps in with her two brothers.

A turning point in McKevitt’s life was doing a course on careers and personal development with One Family, a national organisation for one-parent families.

Although keen to go to college, she did not know what she wanted to study and this course helped her make up her mind.

“I love writing,” she explains. “I hadn’t really thought about it as a career since I left school and just did it in my spare time.”

Through the One Family course, she was able to shadow a journalism student at Rathmines College. “I really like the feel of Rathmines and the atmosphere, which is why I chose that college.”

Kiernan goes to a community creche near their home from 9am to 5pm every weekday and if McKevitt has to leave the house earlier to get the bus across the city to Rathmines, her mother will drop him in.

Although she attends college Tuesday to Friday, she still puts Kiernan into the creche on Mondays so she can study at home or work on assignments.

The rest of the week she can study in the evenings after he has gone to bed at 7.30pm or 8pm – “he loves his sleep”, she says thankfully.

Deadlines for assignments in the run-up to Christmas meant a lot of late nights, but she always faces a 6am start with Kiernan the next day.

“It’s exhausting trying to juggle, but it has to be done and I’m not going to start complaining. A couple of years of hard work will make the difference.”

McKevitt hopes to get paid work after completing the higher diploma course, preferably in a newspaper, although she knows jobs are few and far between.

“I just have to wait, work hard and hopefully make myself stand out and get a job, if all’s going well.”

Conscious of being a role model, not just for her son but also her siblings, she believes it shows “we can do what we want to do. If I can do it with a child, they can do it,” she adds, “no excuses for them.”

Useful websites

Cao.ie: entry criteria for mature students are not the same as for school leavers, but they still need to apply to HEIs through the Central Applications Office.

Bluebrick.ie: offers information and advice on flexible learning opportunities for “non-traditional” learners.

Qualifax.ie: look for its online Mature Student Directory.

Maturestudents.ie: information and advice from the network of mature student officers in the HEIs.