For almost 30 years, I’ve taught youth and adults. The most rewarding aspect of teaching is watching students overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve great success in school and in life. My students, a great many of them single parents, continually inspire me. Although I’ve encountered both single mothers and fathers among my students, I’ve observed that it is usually single mothers who are especially challenged as they tend to be the primary caretakers of their children and the only breadwinners in their households. I marvel at how they do it; from them, I’ve learned the following.
Single mothers who are successful students choose the right time to return to school. The “right” time will vary according to individual circumstances, but generally single mothers should not go back to school unless the time is “right” for them and their children. Good planning and forethought should go into anyone’s decision to attend college, but this is especially necessary for the single mother. Inspired by the birth of my wonderful daughter, I felt that I could conquer the world, especially on her behalf. So in addition to working full time, I began part-time graduate studies. I thought this was manageable and was certainly ambition enough to make it work. But, who was I kidding? A single mother myself, leaving my 10-month-old baby just one night a week, even in the very capable hands of my own mother, was more unbearable than the hours of sleep I had to forfeit in order to keep up with class assignments. Well into the semester, I was forced to withdraw from school. Regardless of my career aspirations, bonding with my baby was much more important than obtaining a degree. As an instructor, and single parent myself, I empathize with other mothers struggling solo to be good college students, effective parents, and productive employees all at the same time.
Successful student moms tend to have strong support systems. Be it a network of loving family members or loyal friends or both, a single mother will indeed need the village to help her, especially if she is in college. She’ll need someone to nurture her sick child so that she won’t have to miss class. She’ll need someone to pick her children up from daycare or school when she has to stay at work late and then race to class. I am ever grateful to the community of friends and family who were willing and able to provide meals, recreation, and respite for my daughter when my being a student meant that mentally or physically I could not be with my child. The master’s degree that I was ultimately able to earn belongs to that community of friends and loved ones, as much as it belongs to me. However, even with the greatest support systems, single mothers cannot be effective students as long as health, childcare, school, and other issues concerning their children are unresolved.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from my students is that in order to be successful in college, one must be realistic. Media messages aside, we cannot have it all; we cannot have it now. Attending college requires that students make personal and financial sacrifices; single parents must be aware of and realistic about how they will manage those sacrifices. Sadly, every semester there are those students who crash and burn simply because they’ve tried to do too much. Eager to achieve and make up for “lost” time, they register for too many classes while having to juggle myriad other responsibilities. How foolish it was for me to believe that I could or should have abandoned my baby daughter one or two nights a week to attend college. In addition, I would have been away from her all day while I was at work and been preoccupied with coursework most other nights and weekends.
It was so much more rewarding for me, nearly 18 years later, to be able to share my success with my 17-year-old daughter. She was the loudest person in the audience, cheering enthusiastically, as I walked across the stage to finally receive my master’s degree. I waited to begin my graduate studies in earnest after my daughter herself was fairly well settled in school and life. Going step by step, taking a course or two at a time, maybe every other semester, meant that I had few regrets: I rarely had to miss her concerts, or her volleyball games. I did not have to miss major milestones in my daughter’s life. More often than not, I was able to be home myself to check her homework, feed her properly, and tuck her into bed.
It is these lessons from my students that made me a successful student, despite my single parent status. I am ever grateful to them. They’ve been great role models. Their patience, grace, and perseverance is what made them successful in college and in life.