Wednesday 29 April 2020

Reflections on Student-ing and Parenting during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Heather shares her experiences and advice for adjusting to life under lockdown as a student and a parent. 

- Heather Sutherland

Having shared the challenges of being a student and a parent and how these have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic in part one of this post, here I share my experience-based thoughts on student-parenting during lockdown. 

Throughout lockdown living, I have been looking for other student-parent experiences, to aid me in navigating and assessing my own situation and actions. ‘Peer support’ is invaluable in such circumstances when specific acknowledgement and examples or relatable thoughts are key to helping/supporting one’s own sense of well-being. To that end, here are seven reflections from my own student-parent-lockdown so far.

1. Acceptance
For me, acknowledging that there can be no overall achievable balance of home-schooling, study and general-life targets can actually be a path to calmness of mind. Accepting that this is a ‘very bad patch’ for everything allows you to let go a bit, ease the sense of guilt from failing to meet all targets, and develop more pleasure in smaller things. This doesn’t mean ‘do nothing’ (!); it just means don’t use productivity levels as a means of self-assessment/judgement. The best quote I have seen to fit my student-parent circumstances so far reads as follows: “You are not working from home during a crisis – you are at home during a crisis trying to work”. Accepting this generally, reminding yourself of this daily, serves to make things feel much, much better. 

2. Compromise
I’ve tried to abandon all ‘shoulds’. Because both my child and I concentrate better in the morning, I’ve sacrificed my own prime work time and schedule to meet my child’s needs. Whilst my studies are compromised somewhat because of this, I am still able to produce something, something which can actually be redrafted and improved later (even post-lockdown later). Detaching from the embedded perception that ‘I really should be working first thing’ has been totally worth it, both for ‘my child and me now’ and ‘my studies and me later on’.

3. Routine
Everyone keeps pushing the ‘need for routine’. Initially we tried. But when planned routine and reality couldn’t match up, the weight of failure highlighted that a detailed routine was harming (all of us) more than helping. Our time allocations are now flexible and just sticking to one day at a time for all is good for all our minds.

4. Productivity
Parenting (and attempting school-level tutoring) is exhausting work and it takes time to build the energy to begin my own work after helping my child with theirs. It can take me up to an hour just to get started, which initially frustrated and worried me. Now more accustomed and accepting, I know this is part of my current process and that I will nonetheless produce something useful, even in the shortest amount of time. It is important right now to look at what we are producing, not what we should or could be doing under the expectations of usual circumstances. 

5. Honesty 
I knew from the outset of this situation that honesty with my university about the extra pressure on my studies due to my parental role would be essential to alleviate pressure on myself and support my own wellbeing. This is a time to be blunt about what is and is not physically and mentally achievable as a student-parent under lockdown. Regardless of what the university does with the information, it helps me to be honest with them – I have released my own pressure valve. 

6. Expectations 
It is hard to see the activities of other parents/guardians (most of whom are not students) and not think you’re doing your child a massive disadvantage via the ineptitude of your ‘teaching’ activities. Self-criticism, low self-esteem, and guilt can set in and in turn can then filter into judgements about your own work, approach, and results. It is important in these moments to pause for breath. I remind myself: ‘I am not a teacher; this is not about you or proving anything about your abilities in general – this is about getting through, doing what you can and letting all else go’. 

7. Mental Health for All 
Being a student-parent under lockdown, there is a need to prioritise your own mental health and well-being as a means to aid the mental health of the child(ren) looking to you for guidance – after all, if this is anxiety inducing for a grown-up, imagine how it could look and feel for those much, much younger. This in itself could feel pressurising, but for me it is also a motivation to review self-care practices. Rather than an ‘opportunity for productivity’, this situation is a chance for positive mental health – for the child(ren) to start learning healthy ways that they can communicate about and look after their own feelings/minds, and indeed for the student-parent to improve their own mental health resources (for now and for a ‘new post-lockdown normal’). In my home, we have been incorporating activities for self-care by doing them together (through family yoga, story-making, crafting and painting, and co-music practices etc). Verbalising gratitude has also been an important thing to learn to do – however challenging and frustrating this period is I am grateful to have this valuable time with my child, and I am grateful to be in a position where I have both my child and my PhD. 

Ultimately I am, we are, just muddling our way through, learning and trying on a daily basis. We, and probably no other families with a student-parent, are ‘doing this situation’ right or wrong – we are all doing our best, given the extraordinary circumstances, and that’s important to remind ourselves of to keep mentally healthy.

And lastly, what is also important to say is that the different identities of individual students (and pressures because of those identities) need deeper recognition – my hope is that when this tremendously difficult opening stage to the COVID-19 pandemic gives way to a ‘new liveable, normal’, universities will have noted in more depth the intersectional elements of their students’ lives, particularly those of student-parents, leading to the development of more understanding and ideas regarding how to really interact with a student in their specific circumstances. 

To read my extended thoughts and reflections on student-parenting under lockdown, click here.

For more information Student Space is here to make it easier for you to find the support you need during the coronavirus pandemic.

Find out more about looking after your mental health during the outbreak here

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m currently a PhD student at Northumbria University, bringing to my studies 20 years of experience in academia (as a student, researcher and tutor, in the UK and abroad). I chose to focus my work on ‘Student Mental Health’ after having lost my brother to suicide, endured my own difficulties whilst a student, and seen the struggles of others within the academic community. I believe hearing and listening to student voices and lived experiences is key to developing approaches to, help for and improvement of student mental health and wellbeing today.

1 comment:

  1. I truly accept the first thing is acceptance. love the tips, great!