When I made the decision to pursue my lifelong dream of applying for a PhD back in 2019, I was aware that this next phase of my life would be fraught with responsibilities and sacrifices, especially as a working mother.
I had read a lot about the hardships that come with ‘parenting while PhD-ing,’ and I felt prepared because my daughter, who was nine years old at the time, no longer needed me every hour of the day — or so I thought until COVID-19 hit and upended life as we knew it.
This was the beginning of the chapter of my life as a student parent that I call ‘the trampoline’: you’re treading an unstable terrain, experiencing ups that are instantly followed by downs, and the threat of breaking something is always looming.
Being a student parent during a pandemic and a lockdown that has extended over a year has been its own circle of hell, especially with the difficulties of raising children while being disconnected from your support network. The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has never been more relevant or pertinent than in the times of COVID-19. In this scenario, the university needs to embrace its role as the sage of the village, ready to offer assistance to the people who desperately need it.
Personally, the toughest period for my family was during the eight-week stretch between December 2020 and February 2021 when schools in Toronto were shut down. Online learning had my daughter depressed and deprived her of the joys of friendship and the outdoors. She was often sullen, sad, and unmotivated, which caused me a lot of emotional distress seeing her like that.
My husband and I were struggling with parental guilt over not always being available for her even while physically present in the same house. I’d frequently find myself abandoning schoolwork to spend more time with my child, which led to accumulated assignments and due dates that had to be met in stolen moments late at night or in the early morning.
So, has U of T risen up to the challenge of supporting student parents in their unique struggles? The answer is: the university can certainly do better. Many overworked students are not aware of any initiatives by U of T to support students with family responsibilities.
U of T boasts a Family Care Office that assists student parents with matters like housing and medical insurance and offers students with family responsibilities some strategies for success at school. A U of T spokesperson highlighted various grant resources offered by the university in a previous Varsity article.
But just as Jessica Elkiam, a fifth-year PhD student, highlighted in the article, “Child care subsidies and parental grants are available but finding those resources in the first place is difficult.” We cannot be supported by these resources if they aren’t properly advertised and easy to navigate.
Meanwhile, an Inside Higher Ed article from September reported on a study done by US-based nonprofit Generation Hope, which suggests that family support centres in universities need to ‘over-communicate’ with student parents to improve cognizance of services like counselling and advising. The study also recommends community building as an essential component of effective student support. These are accommodations that the university needs to urgently provide to a vulnerable population.
The tough reality of being a student parent during a pandemic is compounded for students who are supporting themselves financially or living off of general assistant or teaching assistant stipends. A layer of complexity is added when you are an immigrant, racialized, or Indigenous.
The playing field is not level for student parents living in financial uncertainty or having to share cramped living spaces with the other members of their families where they all live and work. The pandemic experience has certainly been brutal for students living in low-income neighbourhoods that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19.
Struggles are only exacerbated when students find themselves stuffed together in tiny condo apartments with their families or living in underserved neighbourhoods. Many of them are struggling with COVID-19 infections, COVID-19-induced furloughs and layoffs, abusive relationships, and are navigating different time zones to stay in touch with their families — all while taking care of their children and working toward a degree.
Another major fallout from families living in confinement for so long is the deterioration of children’s mental health: parents from all walks of life have found themselves struggling to cope with the incidence of volatile temper in children, in addition to depression, anxiety, and a slew of other mental health problems triggered by the mandatory physical isolation. Students with families have had to become therapists and counsellors to soothe traumatized children when their own mental health was also hanging on by a thread.
Our university has to show awareness of and empathy toward this student demographic that usually grins and bears it. Financial aid has to be made easily accessible; more effort has to be invested in helping student parents find each other and building a community of support, and the accommodations already in place need to be better advertised.
For student parents, the stakes are very high and academic failure is not an option. We need to be seen and heard. We can use all the support we can get.
Rana Haidar is a first-year curriculum, teaching, and learning graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.