student with a baby
FEELINGS

Young mum stories: a student with a baby

Sorcha McManigan is a 23-year-old journalist, blogger and mum to 3-year-old Ema. She writes about all things parenting in college on her blog, and you can find her on social media on her instagram page. 

In the midst of celebrating the end of my first year summer exams and with a job for three months in Paris awaiting, I had missed my period. Putting it down to stress, I took a pregnancy test as a joke. Most people when they see the words ‘Pregnant 4-6 weeks’ they jump up and down with joy. For me it was a little bit of a train wreck, cue the non stop vomiting from the shock and a five hour stint in hospital on drips, just to make sure the reality of it really kicked in.

My pregnancy wasn’t celebrated, I didn’t have a baby shower or 4-D scans, but I did have the endless support of my family, friends, and the staff and nurses in Dublin Institute of Technology. I was determined to continue my BA in Journalism with French and entering my first semester of my second year was relatively easy. I was five months pregnant, very neat and nobody seemed to notice. I chose not to hide my pregnancy and told my French class and as time past, the rest of my year began to speculate as my belly grew. The curiosity didn’t bother me as much as the morning sickness.

Within my first month of going back to college I had mastered a new morning routine, which consisted of getting a lift into town, immediately getting out of the car, vomiting behind it, saying goodbye and walking up to college, every single morning!

A contagious disease

My third trimester had firmly transformed my neat figure into a waddling, whale like pregnant woman, with my own age group becoming my harshest critics. At 19 and pregnant in college, at times I felt like I had a contagious disease, particularly in my experience with young men who didn’t know me. They would blatantly talk about me as if I didn’t have feelings or I wasn’t sitting two feet away. In hindsight they’ve been forgiven, their comments were down to fear and inexperience but back then, it made me feel even more secluded and isolated from my peers.

student with a baby

Despite some negativity, I always had my family and two really close friends who lifted my spirits, always had my back and spoilt me throughout my pregnancy. Other people surprised me with their kindness, older people would give a nod or smile of encouragement, my college class thoughtfully gave me a parting gift for my daughter and the lecturers, counsellors and nurses in D.I.T were a constant backbone of support.

A dramatic exit

Never one to go out without a dramatic exit, I managed to get myself hospitalised for five days just before the start of my Christmas exams and combined it with falling down stairs nine months pregnant and cutting my knee open on the morning of my French exam. Two weeks later, with a bandaged knee and exams completed, my daughter Ema was born.

Through the happiness and the woes, my family and a small group of friends were always there. College was tough whilst being pregnant but it was worth it. It allowed me to focus on something outside of myself, I wasn’t at home everyday thinking about how my life was going to change. I was now hungry to do well because my education was no longer something I took for granted. It was now something I knew could help me in avoiding the poverty trap that is a very real problem for a lot of single young parents in Ireland.

“The adjustment hit me hard”

In my daughter’s first year, I went from a carefree teenager to a stay at home mum. It was the toughest job I’ve ever done and the adjustment hit me hard. I mourned my old life, I felt like I couldn’t relate to anybody my own age and I had lost a piece of my identity. My family were my rock and my good friends stuck by my side with words of encouragement. I fought a huge fight against post-natal depression and anxiety, but managed to come out on top with a beautiful little girl beside me. Ten months rolled around and it was time to go back to college.

The hardest part about going to college with a child isn’t the child. It’s juggling the finances of crèche, buses and books, studying and spending quality time with her. Calendars and planners become your best friend as you learn to amp up those organisational and time management skills. Anyone who is thinking about going back to college should get to grips with financial relief available for parents and in particular for creches in your respective college, as it will differ for each establishment.

student with a baby

Ireland offers very little help when you’re doing a level eight degree, crèche will be your biggest bill every month. Smart spending, saving and budgeting will be a crucial element, it will be filled with bringing your own leftover lunch boxes and your own coffee into college every morning and only buying yourself and your child clothes, toys and other luxuries when completely necessary.

I count myself lucky that my mum had agreed to help me out with babysitting on weekends and the odd time during the week, but only on the condition that I didn’t miss a single class. My grades rocketed from the 40s in first year to the 60s and 70s and I am graduating with a First Class Honours degree this November. The reason for my success was deciding not to allow anything to hold me back from doing what I wanted to do before I was pregnant.

A student with a baby

One of those aims was going on Erasmus in my third year, I needed an average of over 60% across my grades and I got it. In fact I was the only person in my French class who decided to go on Erasmus. I was fortunate that my daughter is half French and I had the support of family over there too.

Crèche was wonderfully cheap and though I had to make other sacrifices and sometimes wondered why I chose to make my life more difficult by moving to another country for six months and being the only foreign student and even more shockingly to the French, a student with a baby, I got everything out of it that I originally wanted from an Erasmus, an amazing life changing experience.

Pregnancy takes a toll on you

Pregnancy and being a parent can take a toll on both your physical and mental health.

Lifting weights was a key component for keeping me focused on my goals, re-motivated me not to give up and gave me some headspace. Not only was it good for my mental health but it also knocked off a couple of baby pounds, which gave me a much-needed boost of confidence. Taking time for myself has been a really important factor for my parenting and I continue to see a counsellor every week. I don’t think I would have come this far without that combination of support.

Regret?

One of my biggest regrets was not enjoying my pregnancy enough. Society will stigmatise you no matter what you do differently in life, you’re young and pregnant you haven’t done anything wrong. Take time to come to terms with all the new emotions but fundamentally keep in mind, it’s your body, your life and your choice. Believe in yourself, ignore ignorant comments and remember, regardless of anyone’s age, being a parent for the first time is an unbelievable challenge and nobody knows what they’re doing, despite them rambling on about pregnancy yoga, birth classes and massages. Everyone still ends up with sleepless nights, nasty nappies and unwashed hair.

student with a baby

Though we may be a minority, I have met other young mothers in college who are doing what you could be doing. You will need to be committed, dedicated and work harder than everyone else in the room but you have a motivation they don’t. You will have those days when you come home exhausted to a bouncy toddler demanding your time and attention. It will feel like your day is starting all over again and at times you’ll be on the verge of tears but remember your achievements are twice as advantageous. In the moments when you aren’t studying or doing projects, do enjoy quality time with your little one without any guilt.

Parenting and being a student isn’t always finger paintings and straight A’s, it’s more like soggy cornflake stains and aggressively power walking with a buggy at 8:45am through Camden Street. Though it’s far from perfect or ideal, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My three year old has taught me so much about life, unconditional love and family. If you’re young and interested in going to college, I would urge you to find your network of support and the right information, it can provide you with the tools to invest in an education and most importantly, in yourself.

More like this:

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My pregnancy diary
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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

A
In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.

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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.