Being a Student Parent: The Juggling Act


 

By: Sophie Jeffery, Editor

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Original art by Benjamin Richter

On my drive to McKendree, I’m distracted by both Karen and Georgia from My Favorite Murder talking about Ruth Thalia* and the to-do list that is constantly running through my head, so when the van in front of me comes to a dead stop at the railroad tracks just inside Lebanon, I have to stop short to avoid hitting it. Something tumbles forward from between my kids’ captain’s chairs in the middle of the van.  “Please don’t be a lunchbox, please don’t be a lunchbox,” I whisper to myself. At the stop sign, I take a quick peek and there it is: my son Beckett’s blue lunchbox settled upside-down behind the center console. Crap.

I flip around in the McDonald’s parking lot and head all the way back to Mascoutah, mentally attempting to readjust my schedule along the way. I do not have class until 10 a.m. today, but this extra 30 minutes in the car is going to eat into my homework time. Not to mention parking…ugh. I will be lucky to find a parking spot at all by the time I get to campus.  

I pull up to my son’s school, leave the van running, and head inside. The secretary smiles and asks, “Who forgot their lunch today?” I tell her my son’s name, and she says it has been a busy morning so far: three other kids forgot their lunches, and another parent just brought in a child’s backpack. It is good to know I’m not the only one retracing my steps this morning.  

On my way back to Lebanon, I turn off the podcast so I can re-strategize. I’ll have to finish writing my response paper between classes instead of this morning; I should have just enough time to finish it. Once I find somewhere to park, I’ll just go to PAC and do my reading for 20th Century Lit. I am kicking myself for watching Netflix with my husband last night instead of just writing this paper, but I could feel how desperate we both were for some time together. We are both so busy that sometimes we just let life wrap us up in our own separate cocoons of responsibility, forgetting that we have a partner in all this. This is why I usually do my homework at school; we both have a running to-do list in our heads that does not always include time with each other, so if I use my free time during the day wisely, I can make sure it does.     

I sometimes feel like there are two versions of me: there is Home Sophie and School Sophie, and they do not mix well. It is much easier when I keep those roles as separate as possible. Home Sophie is far too easily distracted by everything from the perpetually messy kitchen to my daughter’s English homework to whatever my husband and I can scrape together last-minute for dinner, while School Sophie is all about getting stuff done. Home Sophie is always pulled in a hundred different directions, while School Sophie is usually just focused on her classes and/or work. Home Sophie is riddled with guilt over the way things have drastically changed over the last year and a half, while School Sophie is just thrilled to be finally finishing up her degree.  

I am certainly not alone in this struggle. As The Atlantic reports, a 2014 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that “4.8 million college students were parents of dependent children in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available—that’s about 26 percent of all college undergraduates.” McKendree currently has 1,450 undergraduate students on campus.  While the fact book does not list the number of student parents here at McKendree, if the statistics prove true for our small university, there are approximately 377 student parents here at McKendree. That’s a lot of Bearcats raising little baby Bearcats!  

I reached out to Student Services to inquire about services for this growing population of student parents. Child care, health insurance, paying tuition, providing healthy meals for your family, finding time to work and study and still raise your children…these are all issues the average student parent has to address. Kristin Stevens, administrative assistant for Student Affairs, explained that while McKendree does not have any student parent specific programs, parents can take advantage of many of the other programs available, such as Counseling Services, Health Services, Career Services, and, of course, the Student Success and Advising Center.  

“One support service we do have for parents that many may not be aware of, however, is the feeding room in Holman Library for mothers needing a space to breastfeed [or pump],” Stevens added. While this is a great benefit for nursing mothers, I have to wonder…should McKendree do more to support its student parents? Even something as simple as registering for classes causes a problem for me, as I am not only trying to fit my classes into my own schedule but my husband’s and kids’ too. I actually had to change my minor because I couldn’t make the early-morning or late-afternoon/evening classes for the professional writing and rhetoric courses work with my kids’ school drop-off/pick-up times.  

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I adjusted, though, as I am sure many of the other student parents have had to do over the course of their education.  “Make it work,” is quickly becoming my motto (thank you Tim Gunn), and has gotten me through a lot of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  

Ultimately, I’ve found the key to making this all work is accepting my limitations. I have to free myself from the guilt of saying no. I say no to friends, professional opportunities, and even elaborate birthday parties for my kids.  

In the past I’d spend weeks making decorations, planning games, hunting down on-theme items for goodie bags. I’ve learned that in order to maintain my sanity, I have to scale back. I let go of my need for perfection and ask for help, and get the kids involved. My daughter, Piper, for example, made all the hanging candles for her Harry Potter party last year out of toilet paper rolls, paint, pipe cleaners, and fishing line.  

I leave the entertainment up to the venue; instead of parties at our home or the park, we hold them at the bowling alley or Vetta Sports. It’s still important to me that they have a great birthday party with their friends, but I can only do so much, and a minimally stressed mom is a better birthday gift to my kids than a Pinterest-worthy birthday party.  

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My daughter Piper and I do our homework together on a regular basis, here at Balance Coffee & Tea in Belleville.

I’ve also had to redefine quality time. In the past, quality time with the kids meant going to Michaels for craft supplies and spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon being creative. It meant a family trip to the zoo followed by lunch or dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Quality time was time-consuming, always, and I just don’t have that much free time anymore.

Instead, I found ways to include my husband and kids into my busy schedule more. My daughter and I often do our homework together, for example. We pop popcorn and spread out over the dining room table, or we head to Balance Coffee & Tea and sip hazelnut hot chocolate and cappuccinos while we work. My son and I go grocery shopping together; he’s a great little helper and he loves trying all the samples at Sam’s Club. My husband and I signed up for a monthly date-night subscription box, where each month we get a package that has everything we need for an at-home date night, no planning or babysitter necessary.  

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Beckett’s favorite thing about grocery shopping is the samples!

We still do fun things as a family, but I make sure they are spread out far enough so that I am not thinking about all the work I have to do while we’re out having fun. The balance is key. My kids realize we can’t do something huge every weekend, and in some ways, that makes those fun adventures even more special. I also appreciate summer vacation WAY more now than I ever did before!  

When it comes down to it, being a parent and a fulltime college student is difficult, but not impossible. It is important to remember this is a season in your life; things will not always be as hectic as they are now. Hang in there, make it work, just try your best…all the usual motivational clichés apply. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, either. My professors at McKendree have all jumped at the chance to help me out whenever I need it. They understand the struggle, and they want us to succeed as much as we do! And if you see a fellow student parent on campus, give them a little smile, a high five, or buy them a coffee. Odds are they need it.

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A family outing to pick pumpkins last fall at Braeutigam Orchards.

 

*Episode 37 of My Favorite Murder.  She was murdered after appearing on a game show in Peru where you answer questions on camera while hooked up to a lie detector test.  It was a good one!