I might be a masochist…

masoch·ist n. A willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences.

Exactly one year ago last Monday I embarked on what most of my friends and relatives believe is a mad journey. At the age of 31, one happily married woman with two children returned to University.

I knew it would be a balancing act akin to that guy who rode a unicycle on a tight rope – without a harness – over Niagara Falls. Yet, most days I feel more like the lady who went over the falls in a rickety wooden barrel. (see the above photo of fellow masochist, Annie Taylor, who in 1901 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And yes, she and her cat survived. This gives me hope!)

I currently have a full course load, a six-year-old, a husband, a three-year-old, one ornery cat, kids’ karate classes, kids’ swimming classes, a part-time job, five loads of dirty laundry, three volunteer positions, dinner to cook, 241 pages of course readings, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago how I balance everything. I laughed at the notion of actually being able to balance all of this. There is no balancing. There is just an endless barrage of activities, reading, studying, writing, cooking, cleaning, and child rearing.

Like I said, I think I might be a masochist.

However, the sheer volume of schoolwork that my professors joyfully assign is not the primary source of stress in my return to school. Instead, it is scheduling. My schedule as much as I attempt to manage it, is always vulnerable to outside influences. If my child wakes up with the flu in the middle of the night, I am sure to miss my classes the next day. If my husband gets caught in traffic on his way home from work, I most definitely miss my evening classes. I have no control over these situations, yet they have an impact on me in a very real way. As a mature student with family responsibilities, I am an invisible minority.

Most of my professors don’t know how old I am or that I am married with children. They assume I am the age of my fellow classmates. I don’t like to announce my age, nor do I wish for preferential treatment. Yet, my situation presents challenges that only a student with children or perhaps one who cares for an aging or ill family member could understand.

The Family Care Office is a great resource on information about childcare options on and near campus. However, all daycare facilities in the immediate area of the university have waiting lists that are long and slow moving. My youngest attends a daycare in the suburbs because it was the only facility I could find that had space.

The Family Care Office also has a list of student babysitters, but I have had no luck in the year I have spent trying to contact someone from the list. The University offers a backup childcare service which operates out of various locations. The registration fee is $350 and registration must take place between November and January. This service allows you to use 15 visits between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. But this option doesn’t address the problem of evening classes and exams.

So what are the options for a determined student parent, like me?

Well, I have made a few friends who live on campus and they will occasionally watch my children when I’m in a real pickle. I have also brought my six-year-old to lectures with me on multiple occasions. His presence either went unnoticed or solicited oohs and giggles from my female classmates. One of my professors quite enjoys my son’s presence and is sure to ask him what he thinks about the lecture after class. A six-year-old’s take on structural linguistics is quite amusing!

Little tricks like these can help to decrease the number of classes you might have to miss. You have to be creative with the situations that life presents. A laptop, headphones, and a wireless connection is a great way to stream kid’s movies during a lecture and will enable you to take notes undisturbed by your chatty child.

My kid quite enjoys taking pretend notes during my lectures. I think it makes him feel grown-up, and it’s a unique experience for a child his age to be exposed to the university environment. Unfortunately, if your child is too young to bring to lectures, the reality is that unless you have a relative, babysitter, or friend that can take your child on short notice, you will be missing a lot of classes.

Issues like this are really unseen problems for student-parents. Organizations like Matsa (the mature students association) advocate for mature students who have responsibilities outside of school. Such organizations are trying to bring the issues of student-parents to the attention of not only the university, but also the student body. I recommend that if you are a student-parent that you join this organization, if for no other reason than camaraderie with other students who have children and outside responsibilities. It’s extremely therapeutic to find out that you are not the only person experiencing university while trying to parent. On January 31, Matsa will host a coffee hour and in February, they will hold a “befriending” event at Hart House. These are great opportunities for you to connect with other mature students. Details for the events will be available on Matsa’s website soon.

It’s a struggle to marry a family life with a student life, to be a good mother or good father and a good student. Yet, I find the rewards of doing so definitely outweigh the annoyance of scheduling. Soldier on my fellow student-parents. After all, a BA only takes 4 (or 5, or 10, or 15) years to complete!

-Lori

Photo by wikipedia user pobrien301, used under creative commons licence.