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Universities help student parents juggle their duties

Studying with notepad - universities help student parents juggle their dutiesAs Nikki Fleming dashes up the steps, clutching last night’s homework, she checks her watch to be sure she’s not late for her next class. After grabbing a sandwich from the cafeteria, she slides into a desk at the back of the room, opens her notebook and unwraps her sandwich. It’s her third class of the day, she’s been up since 6:00 a.m., and didn’t have time for breakfast. But she won’t get much relief when she gets home. Fleming is no regular student – she’s a 38-year-old mother of two.

When Fleming decided it was time to pursue her long-term dream of becoming a special education assistant, she knew she could complete the two-year college program. What worried her was her ability to juggle the dual stresses of school and parenting. Fleming knew that her two children, aged 11 and 17, were self-reliant enough to manage after school if she had a class that ran late, but what about being able to spend quality time with them, help them with homework, and still find time for her own assignments? 

Going to post-secondary school has its own challenges – but add children to the mix and things can get pretty tough. Though staying organized is Fleming’s strongest defense against stress, despite her best intentions, she often finds herself having to stay up after the children are in bed to complete her assignments. “I’ve pulled a couple of midnighters and all day Sunday just doing homework,” she says. It’s been financially stressful, too, having to rely on one income. “My hubby helps out a lot, cooking and cleaning,” says Fleming, who notes that her biggest stress is quality control. “I worry about the kids getting things done properly, like brushing their teeth in the morning – I have to leave before them,” she says. Fleming relies on her agenda to keep her organized, and plans special family evenings like Friday night “movie and pizza” to spend quality stress-free time together. When she feels really stressed, what does she do? “I’ve just gone to my room and closed the door a few times – mom’s not in the building!” she laughs. “Or I bake or go to the gym – that relaxes me.”

Without the support of a partner, single parent students carry an even heavier burden of stress. Celia Muc, of Port Coquitlam, B.C., knows only too well. She became a single parent shortly before returning to school. “There was a little naiveté on my part,” she says of her earlier expectations. “I thought I would just go to school while they were in school, and everything would work out,” says the 40-year-old mother of two sons, 7 and 9. “I had no idea the quantity of homework we would be asked to do. It’s so stressful.” Like Fleming, Muc best defense is staying organized. “I have a humungous calendar on my fridge that we write everything on. The kids take part in it too, so they know my schedule, and know when we can find time to do fun things.” She breaks her assignments down into smaller projects to lighten her load. “I do the easier projects first,” she says. For releasing stress Muc makes time to participate in can-can dancing, or goes on the computer. “I’m a computer nerd,” she admits.

At the University of British Columbia, two student moms developed a Student Parents Guide, listing helpful resources like information on housing, schools, financial aid, child care, counseling, multi-cultural services and activities for children. They also organized a group called Student Parents on Campus for socialization and community building amongst student parents.

Like UBC, many universities are now developing support networks for student parents. The University of Toronto’s Family Care Office helps combat stress by offering free counseling for time management and study skills, discussion groups, and funding for temporary childcare to allow parents to attend extra-curricular activities.

Rebecca Shields, Executive Director of The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests the following tips for student moms:                                     

  • Plan ahead with your children. Children are more likely to stick to a plan that they helped to formulate.
  • Focus on what is going well and remember to celebrate everyday successes.
  • Take time to relax and pamper yourself, even if it’s only 5 minutes of meditation a day.
  • If you continue to feel overwhelmed, remember you are not alone – there are community resources to help you. Talk to your family doctor.
  • For more tips and information visit www.strongestfamiliesbc.ca and www.heretohelp.bc.ca.

According to recent research, Fleming and Muc can relax and not feel guilty. Studies show that being a student mom is actually beneficial for children in the long run – children who see their parents studying do better academically themselves.

a man carrying two children

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