Student moms balance children, school and work

Folk Studies Graduate student Susanne Hughes, Bowling Green, assists during Fields Methods and Ethnography. She works as a Teachers assistant while balancing being a mother of three children and a wife. MICHAELRIVERA/Herald

Stephani Stacy

The concept of “free time” is a stranger to WKU graduate student Susanne Hughes.

Each day is a constant juggling of three sectors. She must balance her duties as a teacher assistant, keep up with classes to earn her degree and plan what her three children are going to eat for dinner before the day even begins.

“It’s like spinning plates,” said Hughes, 33, of being a student, teacher assistant and mother simultaneously. “A co-worker said that once and it made sense. You have to constantly be aware of all these different fields going on at once.”

Hughes’ typical day begins with planning what her children will eat for dinner and getting them to school. She then attends classes either as a student or a teacher assistant. Next, she studies for a couple of hours or works for the geology department before coming home to clean or do laundry. Finally, she helps her children with their homework and gets them to bed.

“Very rarely, when the kids are all calmed down and asleep, I’ll go to Tidball’s and hang out with some grown-ups,” Hughes said with a laugh. 

A good day for Hughes, she said, is one when none of her children are sick, and she is able to run her schedule smoothly.

“The days my kids are healthy – that may sound like just another day, but that’s a good day,” Hughes said.

“Nobody’s got allergies, nobody’s sick, nobody’s got ear infections – that really affects if I can go to work. If they’re sick, they come first.”

For many student mothers on WKU’s campus, academic and family life duel constantly. Mammoth Cave native Nancy Toney said one of the biggest challenges of being a student mom is trying to find time to study between working part time at a hotel and caring for her 4-year-old son Tristan.

“Your family has to come first,” Toney said. “But at the same time, when you go to school, you’re going for yourself and your family, so your family and school are sort of equal. Because if you don’t succeed in school, then you’re not going to get a good job and you may not be able to feed your family or pay your bills.”

Toney said she and her husband, also a senior at WKU, have to make their schedules flexible when Tristan gets sick.

“Usually I don’t go to school if he’s sick,” Toney said. “Or my husband doesn’t go to school. One of us has to make a compromise.”

Many student mothers fall into the category of nontraditional students, or students over 25. One organization on campus that supports nontraditional female students is Women In Transition or WIT, which is located on South Campus.

Megan Thompson, a faculty advisor for WIT, said the group provides amenities such as food and coffee to help student mothers save money. They also provide four computers, printing access and a quiet place to study on South Campus.

Thompson said WIT doesn’t keep track of how many students in WIT have children, but there are many student moms on campus. Thompson said WIT is a place where nontraditional female students can find women in similar circumstances and form a support system.

“I think that often times they feel like they’re the only mother in the group,” Thompson said of student mothers. “So there’s a lot of camaraderie down there and they feel like they’re not alone.”

Toney said the most important thing as a student mother is learning how to manage her time effectively.

“It’s like juggling the fact that taking care of your family and doing well in school is equal, so you have to find the time to give both of those equal attention. And it’s really hard to do that,” Toney said. “You have to learn to multi-task.”

Hughes echoed the same idea, adding that in the chaos of her life as a caretaker, she often forgets to take care of herself. 

“You want to take a minute for yourself, but you want to take care of other people, and you want to work, whether it’s taking care of your students or taking care of your children,” Hughes said. “The lack of sleep is probably the biggest thing. That and when the kids get sick.”

Hughes said flexibility is important in confronting everyday issues in her triple role as a student, teacher and mother, whether it is copying notes for a student that missed class or dealing with the unexpected illness of a family member.

“You do what you have to do,” Hughes said. “With nontraditional students, a lot of times, it’s having that education that makes the difference between having a good life and living in poverty.”