Furthering education: When mothers go back to school

By Cayt Mirra

Cayt Mirra is a mum, secondary English teacher and freelance writer. She is the Creative Director of Femagogy Zine, an online zine for teachers and feminists. She published her debut novel, The Blood Apothecary, in 2015. You can see more of her work at www.caytmirra.com and www.femagogyzine.com.

We live in a culture that puts immense pressure on women to ‘have it all’ and to have it all at the same time. But for some, further study is a way to advance economic outcomes, or to move into a new career. For some it is a lifeline.

I was on maternity leave with my second child when I completed the application to do my Master’s. I don’t think I should be held responsible for this decision; I was sleep-deprived. I think it stemmed from a desire, between nappies and breastfeeding and toddler-wrangling, to use the more academic part of my brain. Honestly, part of me resented the time I was having to take out of my career, and this seemed like an antidote to some of the hard-feelings. Besides, I have always wanted to complete a Master’s, and this one seemed perfect. It was part-time, online and seemed like it would build my skills as a secondary English teacher. The course started at the same time that I was returning to work part-time.

I was all ready to go. I had exercise books and highlighters and I was confident that I would complete all of the required readings. Maybe even the recommended ones. I was excited to go back to work. I had planned all my classes for the first fortnight.

And then both my kids got conjunctivitis.

So instead of spending my first week teaching and learning and reading, I spent it bathing little eyes with saline and watching In the Night Garden. My first week’s readings were completed during my lunch breaks at work, or in bed at night.

The early years of motherhood are probably some of the busiest that many women will experience, but it is also a time when many will seek out further learning. Whether an online short course, language course, university or a local art or writing class, many mothers can find immense value in the social connection as well as the intellectual challenge. But probably some of us take on these challenges out of some sort of misguided feeling that we should, that raising children is, in and of itself, not enough. That we need to do more, more, more. We live in a culture that puts immense pressure on women to ‘have it all’ and to have it all at the same time. But for some, further study is a way to advance economic outcomes, or to move into a new career. For some it is a lifeline.

But juggling study with parenting has its challenges, and course providers could do more to support parents. The rise of the online course is certainly a step in the right direction. Many universities provide crèche services. More and more ‘mums and bubs’ classes seem to be popping up, although these are often more about the child than the mother. The more child friendly educational services can become, the more we can provide equal access to learning.

For me, even online learning does not always sit nicely alongside parenting. Often my children are just left to their own devices, which has had its consequences. While I created an online presentation about student-led questioning, my son coloured in our skirting boards with highlighter. While I emailed my tutor to clarify some feedback on my assignment, my daughter ate cat food.

My final assignment for this semester became the bane of my existence. Whenever I wanted to work on it, the kids wanted to play or throw tantrums or do other ‘kid things’ that are not conducive to a productive learning environment. Whenever they were both asleep at the same time (a rarity if ever there was one) I just couldn’t focus, hearing phantom cries and feeling like I was working against the clock. Working when the kids were there just wasn’t ideal. My brain struggled to switch from critically analysing a research article to wiping up vomit to proofreading my reference list to playing Hungry Hungry Hippos to contributing to a reflective discussion forum to trying to find the pink drink bottle because the green one just wouldn’t do. In the end, the assignment was finished at a café, where the only things I had to balance were my coffee and a big slice of chocolate cake. But I am privileged to have a partner with whom I can leave my kids. Without a strong support network, the challenge of study would be one I don’t think I could handle.

I am an advocate for learning. As a teacher, I believe that we are all lifelong learners, and that we can all benefit immensely from further study, whether it be to begin a career, pursue an interest or simply meet some other adults. I am indescribably grateful for the metaphorical village of people who raise my children with me. I am also indescribably proud of myself for the things I have achieved in my personal and professional life since becoming a mother. For parents, predominately mothers, the early years of child-rearing can be isolating. When we become mothers, it can seem as if that is all we are. I believe strongly that all mothers need to have connections to the adult world. For some, further study is the answer to this. It is hard, but for me, it has been indescribably rewarding.

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