I arrived at university expecting to learn how to be smart. I remember feeling intimidated at the prospect of interacting with people who were much more intelligent than me. I worried I’d come across common and uneducated, that my small vocabulary would prevent me from entering any kind of dialogue with the other students. I was willing to try, willing to throw myself into a new environment and earn my place there.
The most beautiful thing about beginning my degree with the expectation I’d be taught how to be smart, is that I discovered I already was. Nobody on my degree was better or worse than me, there were no labels that pointed out the illiterate (which I was almost certain I was) and I was able to indulge myself in studies I was sure had been created for me. Deep down, part of me still believed that only the affluent would have the opportunity to study a degree, so being there was a wonderful feeling and I am so glad I got myself there.
My biggest worry was about my children.
I didn’t worry about money because I knew I’d be entitled to student finance and grants to help with childcare, along with help towards my rent and council tax, as I am a single parent.
I didn’t worry about assignments because I like writing and I write even faster when I’m interested in the subject.
I didn’t worry about travel because I’d driven to Wolverhampton before and knew where to park without it costing the earth. I also knew I could catch a train, which I did most of the time, so I’d be on time for lectures and avoided the rush-hour traffic in the evenings.
I was a little overprotective. I’d been a child who was sexually abused by a step parent, had grown up in domestic violence and with a mother who was suicidal, so I have always been intent on my children never experiencing any of that. I know they are safe when they are with me or their father. Rationale tells me they will be fine, but experience tells me to be wary.
I never asked for help. I have been independent ever since I was forced to make toast for my siblings when I was seven. It was born out of survival but later continued by choice. Experience has taught me to depend on myself, that I can be guaranteed and that is all I ever had.
I was fearful. Exploring my childcare options made me realise something: my daughters would have to be looked after by a stranger. My mum was out of the picture, she’d been dead for some time. My daughters’ dad would never be a reliable, consistent option and would only increase my anxiety. My family live on the opposite side of Birmingham and wouldn’t be able to pick my girls up from school. I have friends but expecting that of them was too much for me to ask. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. Alone, I had nothing. It was time to be brave and try something new.
I found a childminder who lived nearby. I signed up to Childcare.co.uk and posted an ad with my requirements. Within a day or two, I had a reply from a woman called Vinny who lived in Smethwick, about a 10 minute walk from my home. I took my children to see her and I looked through her certificates, asked her some questions, watched her interact with my children and then filled out the registration forms. She picked them up from after school club three/two times a week (lectures changed every semester), gave them dinner and kept them entertained with games and play until I picked them up 7 pm.
It was hard for me at first because I worried so much but she was always consistent, always great with my girls and a huge help to us for the two years that we used her. In my last year, I am using a new childminder who is available on the day I need her.
Term-time childcare was covered with school and my childminder, which meant I was only left with half term to think about. Unlike school, a term at university doesn’t include half term so I asked a teacher friend to have my girls, or their dad, or if there was nobody I could ask I would stay home with them. The beauty of the internet means I could access missed lecture slides and catch up on my reading at home.
Once childcare has been arranged and confirmed, I’ve been able to relax and focus on my studies. In fact, I’ve discovered that my focus changes every year. It looks a little like this:
1st year: Staying up all night to finish assignments due the next day
2nd year: Ready to give it all up because it was too hard
3rd year: Best year yet because I have learned from my mistakes, feel more prepared and understand the work
My uni friends are much younger than me, most of them are now 20 or 21, which means I am absolutely the mum of the group. I’m a bit of a mother hen and they listen to me, but we work well together and difference in age hasn’t affected our conversations.
In terms of campus life, I’m not really involved with that because I live 40 minutes away with my children. I spend time on campus for my lectures, obviously, and also like to spend a few hours in the library. It has an amazing library and I find it easier to concentrate there than I do at home. I don’t go to fresher’s drinks or events, I’ve been unable to attend some workshops and talks that have been outside of school hours and outside of my usual university hours. They do some great day trips but I’ve not joined them, simply because I worry about who will have my kids.
I’ve not always been great at asking for help, but I am getting better. Reliable childcare (not including the childminders) has come in the form of my friends and my family, but I only ask when I absolutely have to.
Part of me has felt guilty for when my children have had a long day because I’ve had a long day at uni; they’ve been impacted by my timetable as much as I have. They sometimes need a break from it all as much as I do.