Lynn Ruane: Being a parent and a student feels like an impossible feat
Colleges could help by extending creche facilities and clubs could run family events
The hardest things as a parent and student are the inconvenience of sick children, school holidays and accidents. Photograph: Getty Images
Being a parent is difficult, but being a parent and a student often feels like an impossible feat. I spent my first few years in Trinity College as a parent who attends college. This, to me, is different from being a student who embraces themselves in college life and all it has to offer.
We are all aware of the issues that face student parents – such as affordable childcare and constraints on time and money, although I’ve found that the everyday things end up being the hardest things when it comes to returning to education as a mother: the inconvenience of sick children, school holidays and accidents. I would often feel frustration because of the continuous conflict between motherly duty and mandatory classes and deadlines.
When I would hear one of my daughters say “Mam I don’t feel well”, I would flitter between concern as their mother and anger that they are sick today of all days, as if they chose to be unwell on the day of an exam. The ambition to do well as a student has often gotten in the way of being a caring mother and vice versa – as giving your children and their needs your undivided attention is difficult when you have conditioned yourself to be split in two: a student and a mother. I have often convinced my daughter that she is fine – it’s just a cold – and gone to college, only to find myself sitting with a sickening pang of guilt that I might be choosing research methods over the needs of an unwell child. So, I would make my excuses and head home. This would usually result in nothing ever having my full attention.
I often feel hard done by as a mother. Mothers are most often the ones expected to stay at home and care for their sick children. Whether they are students or working, this is usually accepted as a mother’s responsibility. Being a mother comes with a list of reasons why you won’t be able to attend college on a given day: parent-teacher meetings, illness, school closures and special events such as communions and confirmations.
There are times when parents must be absent due to a child’s illness, and there is nothing colleges can do about that – but there are many ways a college can begin to address the disconnect between its parent population and the student experience.
The solution isn’t that complicated. I believe universities can begin to address this by being more family friendly and for more accessible nurseries in the colleges that do have them (such as Trinity). Most creches don’t have a one-day drop-in option, or options for taking children when they’re on their school holidays. Trinity’s childcare facility does not cater for children beyond four-and-a-half years old. This means that, as a student parent in Trinity, your options are minimal.
Childcare for any student parent is a huge barrier for access to education. If both the State and universities put the resources and structures in place for student parents over time, you would see a drop in child poverty. It is in society’s best interest to support and empower parents through education.
And, separate to the issue of childcare is the student experience. The life of a student outside the classroom is often more beneficial to their learning than actual course content.
Societies, events and extra-curricular activities play a vital role in minimising the numbers of parents who drop out of education before completion. Engaging in these activities for me as a parent has been almost impossible. You cannot, as a parent, justify leaving your child for longer periods so you can take part in your favourite sport or an exciting event that a society is hosting. So you forgo that social aspect of college life and your educational journey becomes very isolated and lonely. And that’s actually how I would best describe the first three years of my degree: lonely.
This detachment from student life increases the chances of you dropping out because you’re missing out on that human need to belong to something. Student community is definitely something I now belong to and that journey is no longer lonely. But that transition from just being a parent who is in education to actually being a student has been difficult. If societies and sports clubs within universities were to acknowledge the family situation of the student-parent population and were to each dedicate at least one event a year to families, then that would assist the integration of parents into the college community.
Improving the future of your children, exploring who you are as a person, and learning how it is that you see the world will always triumph over the conflict you feel of juggling a million things. Five years on into my education, I can honestly say that it has been invaluable for me and my daughters – and our lives are all the better for it.
The journey has only begun and the road feels less lonely.
Lynn Ruane – President of Trinity College Students’ Union, Mother of two and long time community worker and activist.