When Rebekah Dawes, 21, found out she was pregnant during her final year of University in Hertfordshire, she worried that her future hopes and dreams were in jeopardy. After reaching out to other student mums, she realised she could juggle mum life and unlife.
‘I had a plan’
When you think of university, you might think of all the partying that comes along with it, but things look a little different for those who don’t have the carefree university experience and who also have mouths to feed and children to raise at home. I never expected to find myself becoming one of them.
I had a plan, go to university, get a degree, get a good job, work for a few years and then maybe think about children but last year, I found myself sitting in my bathroom at 4.30 in the morning staring at a positive pregnancy test with no idea what to do.
A thousand thoughts went swirling around my head. Was I ready? Could I do this? How would I continue with my studies? I had worked so hard at university, and I had just finished my second year. I didn’t want to see all that hard work go to waste, but from the minute I saw that little plus on the pregnancy test, I knew I was keeping my baby.
Due the first week of going back to University
I was luckier than a lot of people as my mum was very supportive. Although I did send her blood pressure soaring when she first found out. I was, however, feeling quite scared. I contacted my university shortly after having a scan to see how far along in my pregnancy I was. I wanted to know if I would be able to continue my studies. The head of my department was very supportive, she sent me all manner of information and help I may need.
As my life continued, I got used to all the changes my body was going through during pregnancy. I went back to university after the summer and my first semester went more or less undisrupted. The run-up to Christmas was difficult as I was 8 months pregnant, trekking around the campus which got harder and harder as each week passed. I felt so much relief once I’d completed my first semester, but I knew the planning would be tough for the second semester as I was due the first week I was supposed to be going back to university.
As I approached my due date, the panic set in. Despite the lectures being very supportive and understanding of my situation, the nagging fear of not being able to finish my degree has never left the pit of my stomach. In search of some support and guidance, I started to look for other people who had been in similar situations.
Education for all
Thanks to new initiatives such as the Parents’ Learning allowance, students at university no longer feel they should conform to the stereotypes of university students, allowing many other groups to gain a higher education.
Chantal Petch was a 30-year-old single mother of two young children when she attended university to become a nurse.
“Mum guilt makes you feel bad that you have to leave your children, but at the same time, you are studying to benefit your children in the long run. It was a case of managing the studies and spending quality time with the children whenever possible. You just have to do your best.”
Like so many, Chantal was grateful to her mother who was able to help her out with childcare while she attended university.
“I had the most supportive Mum, who without, I would have struggled to complete my degree.”
“When you haven’t got children you can focus on yourself and your studies. However, when you are a parent, that is a full-time job in itself, and then completing a full-time nursing degree, makes it much harder. Despite that, I didn’t get to the stage where I wanted to give up.”
Chantal managed to complete her nursing degree while also balancing being a parent. And she’s not the only woman who has had to balance being a mother and a student at the same time.
Jenny Brennan, co-founder of Uplifted magazine, attended university when she had two children and then fell pregnant at the end of her second year at university.
“I had a lot of responsibility to them,” Jenny said, thinking about her children.
For Jenny, her university was a great support, and they were very understanding and flexible. To add to her experience, she also had to juggle the Covid pandemic, meaning her studies moved to online learning.
After months of having to write assignments once her children had gone to bed, things started to open up in the world. She soon gave birth to her baby and it wasn’t long until Jenny was back in lectures.
“My lecturers were amazing and they even allowed me to bring my baby in sometimes which helped when I had deadlines to meet.”
With very little spare time, Jenny’s social life was somewhat non-existent for a while, a very different life to most students.
“I didn’t engage in much outside of university. I wasn’t really able to benefit from the typical student things like going to clubs. Plus being 38, I was less inclined to anyway, so I would just turn up for my lectures, do what I had to do and go home. I didn’t really live the full university student experience.”
Jenny admits that there were times when she contemplated giving up on her studies.
“There were times when I would think ‘do I really need to be putting myself through this stress and is it all really worth it?’. I don’t like to be someone who starts something and doesn’t finish it, so the fact that I finished it and I got a 2:1 in the end just kind of shows that you’ve got to stick with these things.”
Charlene Day also managed to achieve her degree while being a mother of two boys.
"My graduation day was the proudest day of my life. I look back on my experience now, and think how on earth did I do it? But when you are determined and focused, anything is possible. Having a good support network around you is key. I used to envy the students who could leave the lecture hall at university at 3pm and then walk over to the library to complete their studies. My responsibilities were to whizz home quickly and collect my children from school.”
Despite her determination and drive, Charlene had contemplated giving up her studies at one point.
“I found studying during the second year extremely challenging. I wanted to quit and walk away as I truly felt 'if I’m struggling this year how on earth will I cope with my final year?' With support from my friends and encouragement from my husband, I got through it and I’m so glad I did! My graduation day was the proudest day of my life.”
Hopeful for the future
Chantal, Jenny and Charlene have really helped to alleviate some of my fears. They’ve given me the confidence to say to myself ‘I can do this’, and I hope that at the end of the year, I’m standing there in my cap and gown with my baby who one day will be able to see that his mum didn’t give up on her dreams.
I feel hopeful for the future and miles away from that terrified girl sitting in the bathroom in the early hours of the morning. I feel organised, I feel ready, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for me and my baby now.
Looking for support?
The UCAS website is very useful when looking at what support was out there. Their website shows that students applying to start courses in 2023 now have a new section of their applications to look at their individual circumstances in more depth which includes if they have parenting responsibilities. This allows student parents to have better access to the support they need, helping them to go back to or complete their studies.
There are also many different student-parent information pages for different Universities. For example, at Nottingham Trent University they have many helpful resources for student parents and carers.
Many other universities have pages much like this one where you can go to find how your own University can support you.