Wednesday 29 April 2020

Student-ing, Parenting and Locking Down During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Heather writes about the challenges of being a student and a parent, and how these have been compounded during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
- Heather Sutherland  

Just less than two weeks after the official start date of my PhD, my 6-year-old’s school was closed for the foreseeable future as COVID-19 tsunami-d the world.

On the one hand, I felt relief – for all the statements regarding the virus ‘not really affecting children’, I felt safer in the knowledge my child would be at home, away from possible infection. But on the other hand, as the realisation hit that I would now be a parent and home-school provider and (full time) PhD student simultaneously, my mind raced anxiously with the possible scenarios that the situation now posed, the non-availability of time in which to carry out the activities required, and with concern about my overall ability to manage.  

My previous experience of being a student-parent (before a global pandemic) had been quite stressful in itself. The institution that I was part of had no real recognition or provision for the needs of student-parents. It had been up to me to expose the (perceived) vulnerability and difference of my needs, relying on the kindness and understanding of an individual lecturer who allowed my then-5-year-old to sit in on two 2-hour sessions on quantitative research methods when childcare couldn’t be secured. 

The pandemic lockdown has amplified such challenges. I have found, as a student-parent, the challenges of studying through lockdown have been exacerbated by the seeming lack of specific and easily locatable institutional acknowledgement of students who are also parents or guardians. It is not that being a parent is an immediate risk factor for lowered wellbeing or mental ill health (the role can actually be a strength in many ways); unavoidably however, being a parent and a student concurrently can add pressures not experienced by others in an academic cohort, which can then increase stress and the risk of mental ill health developing if not responded to or (self) managed in a timely way. Add in a pandemic and the mixture can be particularly problematic for maintaining good mental health and wellbeing.

Because parenting is clearly not the norm for undergraduate students, the circumstances of holding both ‘student’ and ‘parent’ identities is often overlooked or misunderstood. Part of the issue is a persisting assumption that ‘the student’ is ‘the child’, a young person without attachment, free to explore and form new identities away from the family home. During this pandemic, I have seen many stereotypical references to how ‘students can just go home to their parents’ or how “crestfallen students have journeyed back to their childhood bedrooms…to chores, revived sibling rivalries and curfews”. But whilst we student-parents may be in the minority, this does not mean our (frequently stressful) experiences are any less keenly felt or any less deserving of acknowledgement both in the public sphere or in academic institutions. Even the excellent resource devoted to a whole university approach for supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the whole student population and university sector contains no explicit reference to the specific needs of student-parents or guardians, whilst the reference that does appear in new doctoral specific wellbeing resources does not reflect the full reality/complexity of the situations faced by many student-parents/guardians. Whilst there is no doubt that knowledge of and recognition for individual characteristics of students is increasing and developing depth, there remains a remarkable overlooking of those of us who are both a parent/guardian and a student.

What therefore, either during or outside of a coronavirus pandemic, about those of us who are the parents/guardians, whose studies are actually the jobs and income sources (via scholarships etc.) for a family, who are charged with securing the household for young(er) people inside who are looking to us daily for safety and reassurance and routine? 

Read Part Two for my reflections on looking after wellbeing as a student-parent during lockdown.

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 on how to look 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. This COVID-19 has changed the way of learning especially now where everybody is appreciating e-learning platforms.