I started my degree in 2019. I was recently separated; a bag of clothes to my name and a 3 and 1-year-old to feed. I was at that metaphorical crossroads, wanting to do what was best for my children and I. So, I found myself clicking enrol.
Sometime later my first module book arrived in the post. I’d made up a cardboard desk, I’d bought the highlighters; I was excited. I’d placed the module book down to admire on my desk… low and behold a few minutes of distraction and when I returned my entire book had been adorned with the classic felt tip self-expression of a toddler. The irony was that the title was ‘An Introduction to Childhood Studies and Child Psychology’.
Anyway, the point I was originally trying to make by sharing the beginning of my journey as a studying parent is that... Open University enables individuals like you and I to improve our lives - no matter our circumstances. This opportunity is a privileged and yet courageous one. Adding ‘student’ to your bio is not an easy decision to make, but it shows that we are motivated, and it demonstrates that we have the capacity for successful learning, new career opportunities and essentially, a better life. To commit to such an honourable act of self-improvement, whilst simultaneously caring for other human beings is no easy task. So, here’s some advice.
What to expect
If you’re still in the decision-making process it is very normal to feel nervous or worried at the prospect of becoming a student. Who wouldn’t be? Parenting can be stressful, working can be stressful, and studying can be stressful – and we want to do it all, simultaneously?! Why?! Actually, considering the ‘why’ - your reason for studying - is really important because this fact will push you to keep going, particularly when you may deal with problems along the way.
I wish I could tell you in a nutshell what studying as a parent is like, but the reality of it is that we are all very different. What I can tell you is that for most of us in the beginning, it is a process of trial and error. It may take a few initial adjustments to figure out what works for you and your family. And like any new transition in life, eventually, it becomes the norm.
Develop a support network
The trick to balancing study with other commitments is to prepare. Communicate with your partner/children/relatives/friends; let them know what’s going on. Discuss the kind of support you may need or the changes that may need to be made. Set expectations with family and friends; if you all know what’s expected of one another on the outset you are less likely to have problems later on. And revisit these expectations regularly to keep the communication open. Maybe most importantly: don’t let the guilt of prioritising your study get in the way of your relationships. Whatever your reason is for studying, your family will benefit in the long run.
Throughout your course it is essential to reflect; are you managing? If not, does something need changing to make your life a little easier? Can someone provide this change?
Involve your children in your studies (you’d be surprised by how eager and helpful they may be) by studying alongside each other, discussing topics, proofreading assignments, submitting your assignments together.
If not already, give your children more independence with the responsibility of housework – and acknowledge and thank them for their efforts!
Be proactive! Get familiar with your OU support; your tutor, your SST (Student Support Team), your computing help desk, OU forums, Facebook study groups. You are not alone.
Time management: how to find time to study
Distance learning is all about the independent study; you are responsible for your own progress. You decide when to study, where to study, how to study. Take advantage of this flexibility; make it work for you and your family.
If you haven’t already, a 365-day family calendar that is accessible to everyone is a gamechanger. You will find that once your important study dates fuse with ‘normal’ family events on paper, time managing may become a little easier.
A personal calendar can also be beneficial for short-term weekly schedules; look at your study planner and consider what you need to achieve each week alongside your personal and family commitments. Make a realistic study to-do list and prioritise the tasks by importance.
When do you plan to study? Some students may wake up earlier and squeeze in an hour of reading, some study whilst travelling, on their lunch breaks, or whilst the baby sleeps.
Consider a study space; family life may be loud and busy, and procrastination is easy when you are faced with numerous chores. Having that space to retreat from the never-ending errands may be the answer for you.
When prioritising commitments and chores it’s useful to gain some perspective by questioning your normal everyday tasks and activities; does that really need to be done? Could someone else do it? How else could this be achieved?
Planning your meals or even getting your food delivered to your door could save valuable time.
Family life can be unpredictable so it’s best to have a grab-any-opportunity attitude...
Family life can be unpredictable so it’s best to have a grab-any-opportunity attitude; always be ready to seize your notes for an impromptu 15-minute study. Instead of aspiring for the long study sessions, appreciate the little steps you can take; every little step counts.
Family life can be unpredictable so it’s best to have a grab-any-opportunity attitude; always be ready to do absolutely nothing for 15 minutes – you see what I did there – we all need a break sometimes.
Sometimes you may find studying outside of the house may work better for you; libraries, soft play centres or children’s clubs could provide the opportunity to study whilst your child(ren) are safe and occupied. (See OU Anywhere)
Be prepared to compromise; you may find you have to reprioritise your to-do’s (or even write-off some) or miss out on social activities. Some days it may feel like you have achieved nothing. Some days you may not be as present or emotionally available for your family, and that’s okay! Some days you may find yourself going to work at 7am and coming back from a tutorial by 9pm. Recognising that student life as a parent requires some sacrifices means that you can be more equipped and more adaptable to any future problems you may encounter. When in doubt; talk to your partner, talk to your tutor.
When it comes to studying during the day my advice is to prioritise your child(ren) first. And what I mean by this is simply by making sure you offer some undivided attention with your child(ren) prior to any online tutorials or study sessions. When my kids feel acknowledged I find they are more likely to stay engaged in their independent activities for longer. Likewise, if you are clear about your plans beforehand then they will (hopefully) get used to this expectation.
Whatever study routine you choose, make sure it is sustainable. Staying up until the early morning hours, for example, is not sustainable for your health.
How to prepare for the potential challenges
Life happens and can sometimes get in the way of study time, however, there are steps you can take to reduce the pressure:
What if I/my children get ill?
If - scratch that - when you get ill, my advice is to know your study planner. Always be aware of next week’s workload and compensate, or even stay a week or so ahead of your study planner so that when you need a few days off, you won’t suffer academically.
How do I study over the school holidays?
We know they’re coming, so unlike illness, we can prepare for this. Take note of important study dates and make sure you have allocated time to meet these.
For all of those moments where you feel out of control...
Try to regain it by re-evaluating your study routine, accept that there will be sacrifices and communicate with your family and friends. If you are finding life unmanageable, talk to someone. Your physical and mental health always comes first.
It is okay to give up.
There, I said it. There may be days when it feels like nothing is working in your favour. There may be days when you feel like giving up. It does not mean you are weak or a failure, just human. Think about your worst-case scenario - would you consider an extension or even postponing for a year? Just knowing it is an option could be enough to get you through to the next step.
Also, know when to accept help.
I for one find asking - or simply accepting offered help - really hard to do. If you find this hard too, try to re-evaluate your idea of control; are you managing everything whilst running on low, suffering in silence, or more in control by sharing the workload and subsequently functioning at a more optimal capacity? Asking for help is not just for our own benefit but for our kids as well. No one is expected to do this alone (kudos to those who do).
Maintaining the desire to study (especially when it’s for several years) can be tough. Here are a few ideas to keep you going:
- Remind yourself of why you are doing this. What motivated you to enrol?
- Visualise yourself at graduation. This never gets old for me!
- Think about the modelling you are providing for your child(ren); you are showing them what higher education looks like, you are showing them what hard work and achievement looks like.
- Think about the personal benefits you have experienced through study; the personal fulfilment, the new acquaintances, the new knowledge.
- Plan to treat yourself. You deserve it. Every step is an achievement.
- Think positive; stick some affirmations up around the house. Remind yourself daily of your efforts, your values, give yourself some love.
Procrastination and persistence
It is completely normal to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of study, especially if you start to get behind. Reflecting on your study behaviour by creating a reflective study journal can really help; noting how you feel when you know you need to study, noting how you feel when you’ve achieved a task; figure out what motivates you and what doesn’t. Dissect your tasks into smaller, more achievable goals.
Reflect on your self-confidence; do you doubt yourself? Fostering this self-awareness enables you to acknowledge your worries and potentially address them with solutions.
Guilt is a common feeling amongst parents, student or not. Knowing your boundaries and being honest with yourself can help appease this feeling. The silver lining: it demonstrates your true values as a parent. My personal mantra: this time is temporary, and the benefits are literally life-changing.
When I first read Being an OU Student I could not relate to the students who were happy to settle for a pass. After receiving my first TMA mark, however, it dawned on me that this pressure for perfectionism was completely unrealistic! Although it is great to be highly aspiring, there is nothing wrong with compromising. If juggling commitments means just passing to gain that same qualification, so be it.
And that’s it, folks. The irony in my life continues… as I write this my two children are both poorly, and as such, I have lost count of the interruptions whilst trying to write this. It is illustrative of how parenting is very much a thankless endeavour... so from one parent to another, I wish you all the best on your OU journey and thank you for your efforts.
Do you have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to have your student/parent experience shared with the OU community.
Join the private Facebook group. OUSWAPC hosts virtual chats, check the page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ouswapc/
Contact your OU tutor, SST or computing help desk here: https://help.open.ac.uk/contact#contact-wizard
A charity for single parents: https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/
A confidential helpline for families: https://www.familylives.org.uk/how-we-can-help/confidential-helpline/
Call, text, email or skype for student support from 6pm to 8am: https://nightline.org.uk/
The UK's student mental health charity: https://www.studentminds.org.uk/
Call or email for day and night support, open every day: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
Support for adult family members via text, email, phone call or webchat: https://www.family-action.org.uk/what-we-do/children-families/familyline/