Online support networks are vital for parents who study

As two new mothers living thousands of miles apart but juggling the same academic and childcare demands, we found solace in connections with other studying parents, say Nicola White and Rebekah Farrell

July 10, 2018
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I set up the Facebook group Parents Who Study with Rebekah Farrell at the beginning of this year after we “met” on Instagram and discovered that we were both parents who were completing PhDs. Even though we were at opposite ends of the world, we found that we were experiencing the same isolation and self-doubt.

Rebekah is a PhD student in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve just completed a PhD in medical decision-making at UCL in the UK. 

I started my blog and social media account in 2014 when I returned to my PhD after six months of maternity leave. On returning, I found that I was doubting my ability to write and to meet course deadlines. I was worried that my brain had turned to mush from all the sleepless nights.

I was worried that I was functioning as only half the parent and half the student that I should have been. The process of writing for my own blog and for myself allowed me to write without the pressure of going through the peer-review process or being “graded”.

During my PhD, in all honesty, I felt pretty lonely. I could no longer participate in the random nights out that my peers enjoyed because of childcare duties and/or a lack of money for childcare. No one else I knew in my department was in the same situation. I didn’t know if how I was feeling was “normal”. 

Rebekah was also experiencing a similar loneliness in Australia. She was trying to juggle her PhD with her new baby and with work commitments. She had also experienced the death of her supervisor and found that it was difficult to know who to talk to.

There are many parents who have connected with me on Instagram or Facebook who are also starting or have started a course and are delighted to find the Parents Who Study group. 

Other parents have said that they are considering going back to retrain but are worried about the logistics, mainly the financial implications. When Rebekah and I met, we realised just how little support there was available for student parents. We found much solace through the connection because we were able to talk to each other about our shared experiences and struggles.

We created the Parents Who Study group to extend that friendship and to provide a community of support for parents who are currently completing a course or are about to embark on one. 

The group now has about 250 members from all over the world. We have really enjoyed watching it grow and seeing how active and supportive the members are. 

Whatever time of day it is, there is someone who will listen and provide support. Just to know that you are not alone is often all you need in the dark hours of the morning when your child will not sleep and you have deadlines looming.

The opinions provided are from peers (both fathers and mothers) who have made the decision to complete either an academic or vocational qualification while raising a family.

The comments are not filtered by institutional policies or political interests – they are people’s honest, unbiased experiences of studying with children: where they found financial support, how they juggle deadlines and sleepless nights, what childcare arrangements they make.

Such information is invaluable when you are at the precipice of making a decision to start a course or to leave a course.

Any academic or vocational qualification is a journey between self-doubt and accomplishment. This group enables you to ride the waves when something positive happens to you, and it provides a virtual hug when it feels impossible to meet all the demands being thrown at you. This is why it is critical to have this support network for parents who have decided to or are thinking of embarking on a qualification.

To us, it didn’t matter if those in our support network were doing the same qualification because the stresses were exactly the same. We all worry about finances. We all worry about our writing ability, about finding the time to do the work. We all worry about parent guilt and balancing the demands of coursework with the demands of raising children. Balancing parenting and studying (and often employment as well) is hard, but it’s easier when there is a network of people behind you available 24 hours a day.

Whatever your challenge, there will be others going through the same or similar who might be able to help. Stop by and say hello!

Nicola White is a research associate in the division of psychiatry at UCL, and Rebekah Farrell is a PhD candidate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.

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