When Worlds Collide: A tale of parenting and an optimistic undergraduate

I am pleased to welcome guest blogger Jess Thompson to anthropod. In this post Jess shares her experiences of being a parent and university student, adding to our conversation about carework at university.

I wouldn’t say I’m a typical young woman at the mere age of 22; I threw myself into the world of academia at 18 years old like most my age, but I’d already moved to and worked in London for five months after leaving high school. After 2 ½ years at Victoria University I got on a plane and didn’t look back, ventured to Samoa, and volunteered on a development assignment before returning to finish my final papers for my degree this year. En-route, things took a sharp turn with the arrival of my son (Moo) 8 ½ months ago. Three papers short on my Bachelors in Development and International Relations, suddenly I was faced with a situation I had not anticipated; do I work my life around my son, work my son around my life, or just throw it all away and become a full time mum?

Today, the result of finding a middle ground between the former two options exists. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I could have hoped for. Moo and I are not a nuclear family; I am a co-parent with his dad, a system in place since he was born, and as circumstances arise and Moo gets older, our situation changes as needed. I study part-time, three generations of my family occupy the house I live in, and I’ve not only returned to my volunteer role at GirlGuiding New Zealand as a Ranger Leader (girls aged between 12 ½ and 17), but also taken on an additional role of being a Training Assistant, on the pathway to becoming a Trainer for other Leaders. I live my life as I choose, and integrate Moo into it as required if he is in my care.

From an academic point of view, things have been generally speaking, relatively straight forward. I make the most of the time Moo is with his dad as study time and work care arrangements around lectures and tutorials. But if there was ever a piece of advice read here: you have to be a little crazy and whole lot of adaptable to take an intense 5 week summer paper with a two month old. I would sit at my desk and be working on assignments or catching up on readings with Moo lying next to me playing, or almost begging him to go down for a sleep so I could get an hour’s peace to get part of an essay knocked off.

Photo 1.jpeg
This was one method of essay writing; Moo fell asleep in his bouncinette once while I was sprawling through books trying to work on an assignment on the floor.

A lot of the time I find myself switching between my ‘mum’ headspace and my ‘student’ headspace so things can get done. To my classmates I am a regular student just like them, and it’s only when I talk to people that they realise and sit in slight astonishment that I am juggling study with raising an infant. As an undergrad and Moo being his age it is impractical to bring him to lectures meaning I am in constant reliance of my support networks to look after him. Over time, things have certainly become more manageable; I sit and write this on the couch while he eats crackers, stares at the cat, and pulls half the contents of the bottom of the DVD rack out and throws them on the floor. Needless to say he has now started working out how to move, and I spent much of my exam prep this trimester hoping he wasn’t going to learn how to crawl BEFORE my exam.

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This was Moo as I was writing this piece; he shuffled off the towel, is secretly a gymnast with legs like that, and was trying to pick up a small piece of cracker on the floor. Had also thrown his homemade drum away made out of an old formula tin.

GirlGuiding has been a part of my life for over 15 years now, and the concept of leader’s daughters in units with me has been quite normal. A lot of leaders are typically mums, however being so young means many of the young leaders I work with are usually students or full time employed, maybe with a serious partner but no kids. Suddenly I’m an anomaly; 22 years old, well experienced, young leader, facilitating/attending/presenting trainings WITH an under 5! I emphasise with here, as in the course of his life, Moo has already come to weekend trainings, is down for two school holiday sessions coming up, and I’m sure a few more in the next few years.

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I posted this photo on Facebook on the Sunday morning of my first weekend training, captioned: “There should be a blanket patch labelled ‘I survived a GirlGuide weekend as a trainer with a small child.”

Being a new trainer, plus learning the ropes with a very dependent young child makes anyone’s stress levels skyrocket. Attending a weekend training, let alone facilitating one, is another kettle of fish when it comes to having Moo coming along; sometimes I wonder who has more stuff packed in the car, him or everyone else. By the time all his clothes, port-a-cot, food, some toys, and pushchair are packed, then somehow it’s my personal bits, plus resources needed to bring along and so on to pack; there’s an entire house in a small car minus the kitchen sink and a fridge almost. (Although I’m getting really good at car tetris.) A conference I attended led me to be ‘that crazy woman pushing a pushchair up and down outside to get the baby to sleep’. Part of one weekend training involved sitting at the back of the room listening to presentations quietly, so to avoid the awkwardness of the occasional squeal or baby noise we sat at the back of the room listening while I bribed Moo with gingernuts on a blanket on the floor. That same weekend I was presenting two morning sessions; Moo was happily sitting watching me present when all of a sudden he fell down from sitting up and absolutely lost the plot while I was mid-sentence. Bringing such young children has become a rarity over time but now there are a couple of us who for one reason or another need to bring children along always/on occasion and that these other little people are a major part of our lives beyond GirlGuiding and they do need to come along and be involved in the training sphere sometimes. Bringing Moo along certainly has its challenges, but he has never hindered the ability to get things done.

Looking to the future is a hard and difficult one. My passions for a very long time have laid with the Pacific and Development, and really making a difference in the world. Once upon a time I saw myself ten years from now potentially returning to the academic sphere having ventured overseas once again and gained some real-world experience. Now as I save what I can from my benefit each week so that in the long run I can afford to buy my first home (big dreams I know, but you can’t give up on your dreams entirely) I’m faced with a future either working within the NGO sector locally for a salary less than ideal doing something I love, or adapt my skills into something else and start a career path down a different track, while committing my spare time into my passions. One day I’d love to return to the academic sphere to add to my study in a postgraduate form, but only when things are a little more stable.

Regardless of where the future is headed, there is one thing I know for sure. We cannot let children hold us back from chasing what we want to do, sometimes the better option is to let our children come along in the chase. From my perspective there’s a lot of occasions where we forget that other people have lives beyond the portion of their lives we know them from, and sometimes these intersect, and other times they are reason things do not happen immediately. Adaptability and flexibility is key, not only from a mother’s point of view but from an everybody point of view. I praise people like Lorena who have the ability to combine their interests with their children and also their professional life. As the concept of professional work changes and how it is represented, from flexi-hours to working from home, surely it is time to bring the sphere of children and where they fit in the bigger picture into it as well. What if we looked at others like real complex humans, with histories and stories untold, friendships and relationships we may not know about, and a vast array of experiences and needs; would our methods of recognising care, how we treat people, and how we go about and participate in our careers and lives differently? I certainly hope so.

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One thought on “When Worlds Collide: A tale of parenting and an optimistic undergraduate

  1. It was lovely to read this guest blog post from you, Jess! I identified with so much of it, as the small size and staffing constraints of our programme meant that last year I had to return to teaching full time when my son was eight weeks old. So he shared many hours in the office with me early on, rode along to countless meetings, and even on one occasion (a guest lecture for another programme that fell outside my usual childcare arrangements) came along to the lecture theatre. Having another baby was a timely reminder for me to remain open to the complex needs of our students, a number of whom are also parents (or caregivers for other family members). I particularly love this bit that offers wisdom for both us lecturers and for our students:

    “From my perspective there’s a lot of occasions where we forget that other people have lives beyond the portion of their lives we know them from, and sometimes these intersect, and other times they are reason things do not happen immediately. Adaptability and flexibility is key, not only from a mother’s point of view but from an everybody point of view.”

    Fa’afetai and alofa atu ia Mo’o,
    April

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