Parenting 102: Support Networks and Self-Care
We had a long-distance guest speaker at our February 27 meeting: Dr. Taniesha Burke, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz, joined us from Germany via Skype to talk about the importance of support networks and self-care for student parents. Dr. Burke has a ten-year-old son and was a student parent for the latter part of her Master’s program and throughout her PhD, so she spoke from personal experience when she urged us to ask for and accept help, and not to feel guilty about taking care of ourselves first.
As student parents, we juggle multiple roles and manage more responsibilities than “traditional” students. Yet despite the greater challenges we face, we tend to earn higher grades than traditional students, which shows just how dedicated we are to our studies. Unfortunately, student parents also tend to have higher rates of attrition – which suggests that we need much more help performing our elaborate juggling act. Creating a strong support network is critical to student parent success, and is in and of itself an essential act of self-care.
A good support network will include a wide variety of people, from faculty and staff at the university, to classmates and work colleagues, to childcare providers and our children’s teachers. But what if the support we need the most – that of family and close friends – is not forthcoming? Dr. Burke addressed a reality with which many of us are already familiar: “going back to school” can elicit less-than-positive reactions from those closest to us. While family and friends may initially express support for the idea, they don’t always behave in a way that actually supports our studies. This is especially true of partners, and many relationships end when one partner becomes a student – particularly if the student is a woman. If you’re a mother and a student, the odds are high that you are – or will become – single as you complete your studies. Don’t despair! Your academic persistence will pay dividends not only for you, but also for your kids. According to Dr. Burke, studies have shown that when parents – and especially mothers – finish university, there is a tremendous positive impact on their children’s academic futures.
Yet if romantic partners feel neglected under the pressure of student life, what impact does the day-to-day reality of student parenting have on children? One of the best ways to ensure that your children do not feel neglected because of your studies is also one of the best ways to lighten your own workload. You can – and I propose that you should – create a support network not only out of those who help you look after your children (relatives, friends, sitters, daycare workers, and teachers), but also out of your children themselves. As an active part of your support network, your children are less likely to feel neglected and resentful of your studies and more likely to give you the space and time that you need to succeed. Instead of something that drives your family apart, your studies become a glue that strengthens your bond. Ideally, this is the case with partners and families as well as with children, but if you can’t have it all, at least garner the support of your kids!
From a very young age, children understand when something is important to you, and they want to make you happy. Lulu is not quite four years old, but she knows that this “university” thing means a lot to me, and she wants to help. She feels proud of helping when she scans my books at the library checkout, or gives me twenty minutes of silence to finish a paragraph, or puts on her coat and boots in a hurry so we don’t miss the bus and I’m not late for class. She has age-appropriate family responsibilities (Dr. Burke affirmed that this is key), and while her “help” may not always be “helpful” (preschoolers can’t help but slow us down sometimes), psychologically she’s an ally, which means that she doesn’t feel neglected when I have to focus on my books instead of on her.
As Dr. Burke pointed out, modeling self-respect via self-care (which includes insisting on time and space for our studies) increases our children’s respect for us. Respectful children are, of course, better behaved. More importantly, they are highly likely to become self-respecting, self-caring adults who know how to create and sustain support networks of their own. Making our needs a priority is not selfish; it is one of the very best examples we can set for our children.