Tute sheets and Teletubbies: the life of a student parent in Oxford

Emily Beater dissects the reality of bringing up a child at university

I wake to a soup grey sky and I think great, I’ve beaten them, sleep, the alarm and my daughter’s morning cry. I’ll do some work.

Then, of course, she stirs and I think, “crap”, and then, “crap”, you’re not meant to think “crap”, and she rolls over and despair curdles my stomach because today is the day that I’m meant to grab an edge, an hour, get ahead of the constant behind.

“Mama” she announces “Peppa Pig“.

Resigned, we waddle into the bathroom. I jam contact lenses into my eyes because my glasses fell behind the cot a week ago and extracting them requires an elusive amount of energy and initiative. Beth peers over the tub, examines her bath toys, takes an itinerary of the room.

“Tap. Tap. Bubble”.

Peppa Pig jumps up from a minimized tab. This is the last time, though. After I get this essay done, I’ll organize our time and at five am we’ll do like … painting or something. I’ll get a box of feely things. We’ll cook.

Books jumble the space between us. Overheard by God, Allegorical Poets & the Epic, Well-Weighed Syllables. I’d been so full of hope, cycling the mile to the Faculty, gasping up to the desk and having the smiley man scan the volumes. I’d borrowed them with so much confidence but now they’d go the route of the others, patching holes in my essay or cannon fodder for a questing tutor. I pick one.

“Medieval Biblical hermeneutics were neither uniform nor simplistic … biblical scholars find that exegetes were on the whole …”

“I’m Peppa Pig!”, the pink cartoon announces, “This is my brother George …”

“… Sensible and discriminating, and that there were many understood qualifications…”

“This is Daddy Pig”

“… as to legitimate…”

“And this is Mummy Pig!”

“Mammy Peeg” says Beth. I kiss her, and then remember we’re meant to do interactive watching, to point out things on the screen. The Peppa Pig landscape has freakish slopes and single houses perched on top. “Oh look, flowers”, I mutter. “Hua Hua” nods Beth, and I turn back to my book. But actually, Peppa Pig is quite engaging. Miss Rabbit is getting an award from the Queen.

There’s something fearful about Oxford. I like my college and chunk of accommodation, but the city itself is an alien thing. Memories of my matriculation are vague: sickness, the Sheldonian and thinking I’d faint in my flappy gown. Gargantuan heads topped gates and stone-eyed statues dizzied me. My friend snapped a candid shot of us all and in the centre is my face, stretched in an early pregnancy yawn.

It didn’t get easier. Around third week, I reached my sickliest stage. The amusing thing about an unexpected pregnancy at Oxford is that the term still marches to its eight week beat, and you don’t stop worrying about work. Yes, you’ve been shattered to the core and your life radically altered, but you don’t want to miss that nine am deadline or they might think you’re not serious . J and I were keeping the baby, and my tutor, in her marvellously assured manner, convinced me that, with a tweak here and there (like telling my mum), I could do it. Now, my life was a pattern of work, venturing out for quick food to avoid the kitchen and an excess of sleep which mangled most of the day. I wrote my essays at night, scrambling what information I could from the Internet.

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My daughter certainly outperformed me in those first months. While I lay in bed gulping ginger ale and starting and discarding phone calls to my parents, Beth was passing stage after stage of embryonic development, sprouting arm buds and a C shaped spine, graduating from to pea to kidney bean to kumquat. We told family and after a mixture of calm from J’s mum and flurry from mine, things settled into a shaky structure. I would do my first year pregnant and take Prelims in September, after the June birth. My tutors were kind and accommodating. Everything would work.

Except for me. I couldn’t work. Academically, I kept it together. That was the one frayed band that hadn’t snapped. My aggressive perfectionism was hardly softened by the stereotype of failure surrounding young mothers. But the adrenaline that had filled me from the moment those two pink lines appeared, began to fade. I stopped taking antidepressants due to the pregnancy, and a cocktail of anxiety and exhaustion turned my mood dark. I stuck to my room, leaving only for classes or to curdle eggs on the stove. I took long trips home in J’s rickety car, sobbing when I had to return on a Sunday night.

I wish I could say, “And then I came back”, because that’s what I thought would happen. That once the baby was born and the strange hormones stopped, I would go back to normal. It’s an understandable mistake. Until your every motion is tied to the needs of another, how can you but assume that your life is your own? The prams which blur into the background, the cries in the café which are nothing to do with you, the child who shrieks down the supermarket aisle comprise an adjacent realm so removed that when it meets you, you are shocked. So yes, after suspending for a year, I came back. But not before my body was stretched apart in labour, not before I knew a baby’s cry could cut sharper than a knife, not before I saw my daughter’s cupped hands and closed eyes and knew at last that she was real and not a dream.

We were lucky. By the skin of our teeth, Beth got a nursery place. My search for “Oxford undergraduates with kids” yielded little official content. I found a pro-life website, psychological research and a page for graduate students. Eventually, I discovered a clause allowing Undergraduate parents to live in Graduate Accommodation. In my time as a student parent, I have experienced both great support and great erasure. My tutors are supportive and flexible, but official channels are blind to parenthood as an extenuating circumstance. There is little in place to accommodate child related issues, and, although I have been fortunate to receive help, it’s always been more experimental than inherent. When requesting an extension for my Prelims coursework, I was asked to submit evidence from a ‘childcare provider’ to prove I was unable to obtain childcare over a weekend. But what happens when – as in mine and most cases – you, the mum, are the ‘weekend childcare provider’? What happens when your extenuating circumstance is not a flu which can be proven with a doctor’s note, but an ongoing fact of your life? Yes, undergraduates with children are unusual at Oxford. But we do exist, and our absence from all but the vaguest official acknowledgement gives us no certain place to stand.

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The fifth of October was everyone’s first day. J’s at his hospital job, mine at college, and Beth’s in childcare. She had had short visits to the nursery before, hour stays where she gurgled in a half moon cushion while toddlers gaped. But now, I was leaving her for the day. I’d be more than a few feet away. I wept. I checked my phone continually. I imagined her every move and the sweet scent of her head.

Yet when I arrived, college distracted me. I was back to where I started, red shirted student guides, Freshers, and coffee blooming from an urn. Laughing with my friends from my (first) first year, I was suddenly cleaner and newer than the woman who had spent the last four months with a baby attached to her breast, unable to shower for more than five seconds. I could shape my experiences and laugh at the hours of labour which had caused me such fear. I relaxed. I knew what to do. If I read books they stayed read, if emails dinged, I soothed them to sleep with a few keypad clicks. But it didn’t last long. Nursery called, and I was hit with the recollection of my other world.

This double life unhinged my fantasy of being both perfect student and perfect mother. For starters, it wasn’t really “double” at all. The one interspersed continually with the other. In my first terms back I tried endlessly to compensate. I tried to write essays through the night, tending intermittently to the baby’s cries. I rushed us out of the door in the morning, trying to chase an extra few minutes, hating myself before the day begun. But my exhaustion was too intense. Before Beth’s birth, I had had the stamina to pull all-nighters, but now I was simply worn out with the weight of managing motherhood and a degree. And over time, I allowed myself to feel it. By the grace of God, I learnt to acknowledge the challenges of my situation and let go of guilt. I request extensions with confidence and receive them, I spend the time with my partner and daughter that we all so need and deserve. Previously, I thought I’d shatter if I let anything ‘slide’ beyond my self-imposed perfectionism. Now, I’m growing roots and not glass houses, I know that even if I break, I will not unearth. I had seen it as something to overcome, my position as a student parent, but now I see it as something to rejoice in.

My daughter is her own person. She is my baby, my joy, my responsibility. I hope never to impose my image on her, but it is she who taught me this and I will always be grateful.