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Opinion | By the time you read this, we will already be dead

Juggling childcare and education during a pandemic is a herculean task, and universities are leaving student parents out to dry

A full-time mother and student cradles her child while she reflects on what it’s like to be a mother at university. A slide and a pencil point to the mother, and petals wither away from her. // Illustration by Tesla Kawakami

Maria Ugas is a junior at WWU, studying Law and Social Justice at Fairhaven College. She enjoys chai tea, long walks with her children, and working to defund the police state.

There are stale chips scattered across the sticky vinyl floors that I haven't bothered to mop in over a month. The cat walks by, leans down and sniffs them. She looks up at me and keeps walking; a look of disgust blankets her face. I've been wearing the same clothes for three, maybe four days; who's counting?

The worn-down iPad is blaring from my children’s room; the same YouTube channel they've been watching since the lockdowns started last March ("Thank you, Ryan's World!"). On a different day, I might sit down with them and play a game but it's finals week and my physical and emotional reserves are in the negative. I'll rest my eyes for a moment and let it be.

I've been up since 5 a.m. with my children's Zoom schooling, my own "Zoom university," meltdowns, wiping bottoms, phone calls, emails, readings, writing, cleaning; Now, I should be making dinner. I wonder if my children will be bothered if we eat cereal again.

I think about crying but I am too tired for that, too. A fellow student-parent once told me that she felt so tired that she could actually "feel her cells dying." It's moments like these where the words of that conversation plaster my mind.

This is being a student while parenting … in a pandemic: It's discombobulating, back-breaking, never-ending, raw – so, so raw – and now, a bit scary. OK. Correction: it's lie-in-bed-and-think-of-your-doom-every-other-night scary. 

Student caretakers are one of the most highly vulnerable groups of students in higher ed. A study by Generation Hope revealed that, “one in five undergraduate students – and one in four (26%) of community college students – is a parent and 40% of student parents feel isolated on campus.” Student parenting in the U.S. was egregious before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, it just seems shockingly reckless and neglectful with very few indicators of future improvement. 

We, as a society, must change the way we view and support caretakers, offer more sustainable support, and recognize the importance of protecting our most vulnerable students if we want a truly equitable learning experience, as well as a more compassionate and just world.

Andrew Kreighbaum from Inside Higher Ed said, "About half of undergraduate student parents left college without a degree within six years, compared to 32% of students without children." 

Kreighbaum also noted the group's demographics, "About half of those student parents are students of color, and half are more likely than their childless peers to have low incomes." 

These compounding issues are disastrous when considering how difficult it already was to finish college while being a low-income, POC and/or disabled student. Now, add a full or part-time job … and children … then add a yearlong pandemic. Grim? Yes, but some colleges seem to address these disparities better than others.

For instance, the community college I attended prior to my transfer to Western Washington University offered a more casual setting and compassionate student-parenting policy. When I had the issues finding childcare, professors and advisers were often willing to let my children attend alongside me — of course, and understandably, with cautions.

On one occasion, when I was experiencing troubles with child care, a close adviser offered to watch my children outside of the classroom while I took a statistics exam. Without these people and their support, I may never have finished my degree.

I was hoping and praying that a university could offer me something close to what I had in my community college. Unfortunately, my search has mostly come up empty.

You would be hard-pressed to find a university that has well-functioning support services for student parents (believe me, I've scoured), especially now that many child care facilities are closed due to states' pandemic regulations. My own search for a university with student-parent accessibility was disappointing , to say the least. 

What I found was: While the front pages of their websites were littered with photographs of "diverse" looking student bodies, it only took a quick Google search of demographics to learn that their student and faculty compositions don't reflect their marketing material. 

I'll confide with you here: before enrolling at Western, I thought I had found the exemption university.

After a brief visit to Fairhaven College (closed at the time due to the pandemic) and seeing the campus, I cried. I sat in the middle of campus and sobbed there, my friend holding me as tears streamed down my face. 

There was a child care center and play place in the center of campus! Very few times in my life have I felt a sense of belonging like I did in that moment.  I briefly surveyed the friendly-looking childcare center's website from my phone, accepted the offer, and moved my small family to Bellingham a month later.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long after that visit to find out that the child care center at Western was almost wholly inaccessible to me. 

A few faculty members, one who often taught classes with a child on her lap, along with another single-parent faculty member, explained to me that Western's child care center waitlist sometimes took years and is also more expensive than neighboring day care center programs. 

Their scholarship page currently states and has stated since last fall: "There are currently no scholarships available from the Child Development Center." Today, the scholarship page has been deleted all together. 

The Western Associated Students Child Development Center website’s front page bears the announcement: "We are currently at capacity for the Child Development Center."  Ouch.

Now, I want to be careful in my wording here because I don't want it to seem like I feel that I am entitled to support that was never guaranteed to me or that I have no right to, and I understand that the pandemic has presented more complications, but I will say that I believe that I — along with my fellow student caretakers — deserve an equal chance as our peers at completing our degrees. 

I don't believe we are currently being granted that and that’s particularly troubling, in view of the fact that caretaking students reside at an exceptionally vulnerable intersection in student demographics. The pandemic has only made this issue worse. 

Parenting and caretaking students are constantly overwhelmed, asking for extended deadlines, playing catch-up, and neglecting our own families to some degree, in order to 'make it work', and we aren't the only ones being ignored.

Recently, in an afternoon Zoom class on the history of higher education in America; I multitasked with my camera off and my mic muted. I was running around our apartment; my laptop carried overhead, pleading with my children to stop fighting, listening to my excited professor discuss ways in which we can all "think like Shakespeare!" I had my hand shoved up the rear-end of a raw chicken, seasoning it to be ready to throw into the oven, when I suddenly heard a door close and then … nothing … well, nothing but my professor.

My first thought was, "Thank you, God" and my second thought was, "I really hope they're not gluing their body parts together again like last week." 

At that moment, I had a choice to make: Do I check in on my disturbingly silent children or do I leave them be and deal with glued limbs 2.0 later? I took the silence as a gift, washed the chicken off my hands and turned my camera on to participate.

 A few minutes later, I heard the bathroom water running. "Oh good, they're cleaning their hands or whatever they dirtied up," I naively thought. 

Small giggles and then bigger laughs accompanied the sound of the streaming water; I shrugged it off, joined in on the conversation of Plato, "true thought" and the "midwifing of a notion" — I also questioned what Plato knew about midwifing, in Newstok’s “How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education.”

When class wrapped up, I closed my laptop and went to see what the giggling was about. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. Water, flooding the floor while the two perpetrators were taking turns spraying the newly installed bidet (did I mention that I was also potty training?) into each other's mouths.

My six-year-old, of course, with her hand on the spray nozzle, spraying directly at the eyes of my three-year-old, while she squinted (and took it like a real champ, I might add). I quietly cried and mentally added three more loads of laundry, two extra baths and three changes of outfits to the day's work.

 My assignment due that afternoon would have to wait. Sorry, excited professor. Sorry, Plato.

This story might seem cute and funny — and in retrospect it is — but at that moment, I was devastated. Instead of completing an assignment that I had planned and looked forward to, I spent the afternoon cleaning water from the floor, crying, filling laundry machines, and lathering my screaming children with disinfectant soap from head to toe. 

I was lucky that it wasn't worse. It is not uncommon we hear stories of single parents balancing too much and facing legal and sometimes fatal consequences; falling asleep at the wheel, forgetting about their sleeping children in the car, leaving stoves on; time-loss and sleep deprivation are the dangerous key features of being "time-poor."

Disparities in time, wealth, family structure, physical ability, and cultural capital only make things more arduous for some. 

"Single mothers who attend college full time spend nine hours a day on care and housework — two hours on active child care, six hours on supervisory care, and about two hours on housework,” said Pearl Stewart, a writer from Diverse Issues in Education. “Women college students without children spend under two hours each day on all of these activities combined." 

Being impoverished of time places these students at an automatic deficit, it also makes them more susceptible to penalties. If you're a caretaker in higher education, you know that these penalties are common and usually predictable; they naturally afflict anyone who is marginalized. 

These students are also privy to the fact that the most unpredictable and hellish hurdles that neglected groups in higher education face are the many — implicit and explicit — microaggressions from faculty, syllabi and bad policy. 

I was 32 years-old and seven months pregnant in a junior college philosophy class when I made my first academic "parent accessibility request." 

The seats in that particular lecture hall were made of hard, curved plastic: seemingly harmless at first glance. I had never thought of those kinds of seats as a barrier to my success or anyone else's.

I had grown up with full working mobility; I ran track and played tennis, golf and soccer. I could have sat on a cement block for a couple of hours in my prime, but at 32 and pregnant with sciatica, I could sit in one of those seats for about 40 minutes — tops —  before the bottom half of my body would go numb and I would either begin to faint or have muscle spasms, maybe both. I constantly shimmied around in my seat and frequently got up to use the bathroom, but I knew that wasn't sustainable.

The day that I decided to finally speak up was about two weeks into the quarter. That morning the professor shared with the large [mostly male] class that he had been asked by one of our peers about his limited office hours and if he could be flexible.

The head-to-toe khaki-donned professor's answer was this, "I am a very busy man. I am the only professor in the philosophy department at this school, which also makes me the dean of the department. Suffice to say, if you cannot make any of the office hours I have posted or if you have an issue with any part of this class, I'm afraid you're out of luck."

I should have taken that as a signal that he would not have been receptive to my accessibility request, but regardless, I had to ask. If I didn't, I could hurt myself or worse, my baby. 

My large, wobbly frame, slowly teetering from side to side like pregnant women's bodies do, approached him after class and sheepishly asked if there were any chairs available that were more comfortable to sit in the following day.

The professor looked at me in what is hard to describe as anything but confusion and slight disgust. 

I'll never forget: he laughed uncomfortably, appeared as if he was thinking for a long moment, and said, "Why don't you bring one of those bouncy balls that pregnant women like so much? You know, like those yoga ones?" 

I wish that I could say that I had some wonderful retort but at that exact moment, I had nothing. Nothing but a truck-sized lump of embarrassment in my throat, a seven-pound [constantly hungry] fetus in my womb, and absolutely no chance of passing the class.

I learned that day that the most adversarial barriers I would come to face as a mother in college weren't always going to be financial or even academic in nature; but rather, they were going to be huge roadblocks set up at inconspicuous place markers, inlaid into complex foundations which had been padded down by centuries of well-established social issues and norms.

Roadblocks bearing the titles, "NO child care!"…" NO nursing rooms!"…"INACCESSIBLE classrooms!"…"Professors with NO understanding and empathy!"…"Racially monolithic and exclusive curricula!" 

I dropped that class; I forgot about philosophy classes at that college, and I completed my associates degree with a 3.6 GPA.

You see? That's the thing about student parents; we aren't a feeble bunch. We are here because we want to be here and we know that if we are given the chance, we can do it —  and we know it will make our families and ourselves better off for it.

"Student parents tend to have higher GPAs than their peers" according to Clare Wladis for The Hechinger Report

Yes, you read that right, despite our high dropout rates, we — student parents — earn, on average, higher GPAs than our peers.

So, if student parents make better students — why are universities not investing in them and treating them in a manner that reflects this statistic?

Not one of us is equipped to be going through higher education alone. Students who are without children or caretaking duties, students with caretaking duties; none of us should have to do this alone. 

Some families are lucky in this time to be part of a ‘pod’ with grandparents, relatives, neighbors or friends. For those families, it is much easier to keep up with academics because of the sharing of loads. Some families, however, are more alone now than they've ever been. It's support, understanding and assistance that makes all the difference in student outcomes.

In an interview with Terry Gross, writer Janny Scott details Barack Obama's reminiscing of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a young student in her first semester of college who was caught off guard with a surprise pregnancy. It would take her a few extra years to complete her degree, but with the support of her family, she was able to earn her degree from the University of Hawaii and become a renowned anthropologist.

She would go on to not only raise a future president but also create systems of microeconomics that would help underdeveloped countries establish programs for needy families. 

We must ask ourselves: what is someone like Ann Dunham's contribution to society worth?

So many of us had parents who struggled to care for us and if they were lucky, found supportive people, jobs, and resources that made theirs (and your) life easier. It is community support that offers opportunity to individuals and families; and it only furthers social progress.  

What our world constantly fails to recognize is that parents don't just raise children. They raise earth's citizens and create societies; most of the time quietly and without pay. 

We, parents, feed the minds that build infrastructure and create economies, we nurture inner wellness and we spark imagination … if we are supported. There is a power that caretakers harness that we refuse to let be stripped from our hands through the violent, individualistic culture which deems parent's work as "non-work," and which also, coincidentally, never sleeps.

We, as a society and as a student body, must act now to craft compassionate systems which support parents and caretakers in helping ensure their success. 

We must change policy which further denigrates and limits student caretakers' possibilities. We have to remain flexible, keep classrooms accessible, and stay in constant communication with our fellow caretaking peers to ensure they do not get left behind. 

Instead of asking students with caring responsibilities to advocate pro bono, we must offer them paid positions for the work they do to better student equity and access. These measures and so many more might give student caretakers a fighting chance at completing their degrees.

Caretaking students (and faculty) need change; we needed it yesterday. As a collective, we need to be honest with ourselves about who our policies support and who they don't: Who we believe should have access to knowledge, power and longer life expectancy; and who we don't. 

How we treat mothers, fathers, and caretakers in higher education doesn't just have an immediate impact on those few, it has a resounding rippling effect on the planet and humanity, at large.

So, if you see a student mother, father or caretaker struggling: please, reach out and ask if there is anything you can do to help them. 

Even the smallest extension of care has such a limitless impact; and you won't just be helping student parents, you'll be helping families, communities, the planet and future generations to come.

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Maria Ugas


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