Systems of higher education appear to be designed for childless students who enter university with minimal responsibilities but for parents seeking a qualification, the obstacles are endless.
It is a grey October afternoon with a dull sky and threatening rain. Njabulo Nkosi is attempting to lay her restless two-year-old son down for his afternoon nap. As exam season is approaching, she needs as much time as possible to focus on her accounting studies which she does while baby Asante sleeps. “Come now, nana,” she says in a defeated tone while trying to comfort the wailing toddler. At this point, the weather is not the only one in a sombre mood.
The challenges that come with having to complete an academic year are not foreign to anyone who has undergone tertiary education. For Nkosi, however, these struggles have been amplified due to her added responsibility of being a mother.
The Nkosi residence in Witbank has become a multidimensional space. It is not only a roof over a family’s head but a space of growth and development for both Asante and Njabulo.
During the 2021 academic year, the 21-year-old single mother of one has had to implement a strict schedule to juggle her roles as both a parent to her son and as a full-time student. This involves scheduling afternoon nap times, inserting play time for her child and training her son’s sleeping habits so that he is ready for bedtime at around 21:30. As soon as little Asante is asleep or preoccupied with playing, his mother, who is also a first-year student at Unisa, uses this time to focus on her studies.
Nkosi’s story is not a unique narrative. It is one that many other students across the country (and even globe) are faced with. A 2017 study conducted by The Hechinger Report revealed that upon completing their household responsibilities and work outside their academics, university students who are parents to toddlers or pre-schoolers often had about 50% less time for essential activities such as studying and even sleeping compared to their classmates without children. In addition, student parents are 10 times less likely to complete an undergraduate degree within five years in comparison to their counterparts.
Prior to the pandemic which hit South Africa in March 2020, Njabulo depended on her aunt to take care of her child while she stayed at her student residence in Pretoria. She has had to rely on other relatives to take care of her child as her mother is deceased while her father is always preoccupied with work. Nkosi was initially enrolled at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). This presented challenges of its own as she had to live separately from her son. Due to financial constraints, however, she decided to move back home and partake in distance learning via Unisa. This meant that she would be around her child full-time. “Moving back home was great in the sense that I got to spend more time with my child, but it was harder as I had to ensure that I also have time to focus on my studies,” she says.
Financial constraints are arguably the biggest barrier for many student parents if they are enrolled in full-time studies, more especially for those from lower income backgrounds. According to research conducted by the Journal of American College Health, there is a strong correlation between financial instability and the likelihood of graduation. The financial needs of student parents extend far beyond books and tuition costs to different facets of childcare. Providing childcare resources such as hiring a nanny or paying for preschool requires extra money, which may be difficult to attain if students are pursuing their studies full-time.
The National Library of Medicine – based in Maryland, USA – says that student parents often have lower educational aspirations as many of them do not reach the postgraduate level of studying. “I feel pressured to finish my studies quickly because I want to secure a job to be able to pay for his (the child) expenses,” Nkosi said to Wits Vuvuzela.
With a few exceptions, women often carry the primary responsibility of childcare. Student parents are more likely to be people of colour, women, from lower income backgrounds and first-generation university students. This intensifies the obstacles that one needs to overcome in attaining their degree.
An October 2019 article published by IOL News revealed that around 63% of births that were registered in 2018 did not have any information on fathers. While this does not necessarily mean that the father is not actively present in the life of the child, 2018 research by the General Household survey shows that a large percentage of South African children do not have their father as a primary caregiver. Over 43% of children lived with only their mothers. On the other end of the spectrum, there were only just over three percent who lived with their fathers. From such statistics and everyday patriarchy, women often bear the brunt of being primary caregivers to their children.
Mbali Mazibuko, a communication sciences student, has had to juggle her full-time job as an office assistant at the Lesedi Hospital in Soweto, her studies at Unisa and her role of being a mother to her three-year-old son, Zanokuhle. “The father of the child is not involved in anyway. Emotionally nor financially. He is absent and is a nonfactor in our lives,” she says. Luckily, she has a supportive mother who helps with looking after the child while Mbali is at work. The family of three are one of many South African families with a non-traditional family structure.
As women often must bear the responsibility of childcare, in cases where they are unmarried and have an absent ‘baby daddy’, they and their families have no choice but to shoulder the financial implications of raising a child. This is the case for Mazibuko who, in addition to being a student, has had to prioritise her full-time job in order to financially support baby Zano.
Over the past two–and–a–half years, Mazibuko has had to wake up at around six in the morning and prepare herself for her work day. Late afternoons are consumed by household and childcare responsibilities such as cooking and dedicating playtime to her son. Though she is often fatigued, her strenuous days are not over. As soon as the dust settles and the others are asleep, the third-year student remains burning the midnight oil with her academics. Her aspiration: to leave her home town, Soweto, and build a better life for herself and her child.
“Having a child and having to complete my studies forced me to do things differently and to prioritise things differently. It’s been a rollercoaster ride. There’s a side to it that is really draining, where you are always tired and frustrated. But then it also has a side where you are like, I am learning a lot and I am growing,” Mazibuko says to Wits Vuvuzela.
Not only are Mazibuko’s weekdays filled with an array of responsibilities, but her weekends as well are dedicated to house chores such as cleaning and doing her child’s laundry. In addition, she uses this time to catch up on any schoolwork she has missed during the week while she was at work.
Student parents are often faced with the dilemma of having to compromise on being either a “good” parent or a good student. This means they spend less time with their children, as school work has to be prioritised. “Since I’ve had to change universities and adapt to a new environment, I never really have time to spend with my son as much as I would love to, especially because the first two years of a child’s life are crucial,” says Nkosi.
Claudine Ribeiro, a social worker and director of the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre (JPCCC), told Wits Vuvuzela how parent-child dynamics can be affected if they do not spend much time together, more especially in the child’s toddler stages. “Attachment is at the core of some of the problems we see. When a young child doesn’t attach properly to their parents, or to their mother figure, that’s where the problem comes in,” she says.
Ribeiro emphasises the need for parents to be the primary caregiver, which can be overwhelming for parents trying to attain a qualification.
“If they struggle to parent the child, it can definitely affect them (student parent). They may experience feelings of guilt, depression and sadness and it may just add to their feelings of inadequacy,” Ribeiro says. If these issues are not dealt with, it can have a huge impact on one’s mental health. In addition, depending on relatives to help out with the child may further perpetuate these feelings of guilt as some of these students come from financially impoverished backgrounds, or may have family members who are too elderly to effectively cater to the needs of the child.
Although such pressures and stresses were present pre-pandemic, the covid era made things increasingly difficult. “Things have been really tense. I was diagnosed with depression last December. School on its own is depressing and when you add a child on top of that, the situation just becomes a lot worse,” says Mazibuko. The covid-19 pandemic brought with it an array of different stresses including job insecurity. This, coupled with the pressure of completing her qualification, were just some of the drivers of her deteriorating mental health.
South Africa still lags in terms of the services offered, compared to western nations where student parents are offered some form of support from their institution. A December 2012 article by The Guardian reports that some universities in the western hemisphere provide specific provisions to cater to this demographic, such as a childcare coordinator or an on-site nursery.
Raising a child as a student, more especially at tertiary level, becomes a challenge as there are no specific support systems in place to support this demographic. A 2017 report released by the University of KwaZulu-Natal indicates that the institution undertakes to support students who are pregnant in their journey with completing their academic program. This support is extended to psycho-educative programmes, personal or career counselling, life skills training and limited health services via their campus medical facilities. Despite these instilled measures, some students such as Mazibuko are unaware of the policies in place to support and guide them.
Facilities such as Wits campus health are primary healthcare clinics. This means that they offer basic health services considered essential. These include the prevention of diseases through immunisation, the managing of illnesses such as common colds and promoting health by educating students. There aren’t, however, any specific provisions aimed to cater to student mothers. Wits Vuvuzela spoke to Anna Moloi, the head of department at the Wits campus health on how they tackle instances whereby a pregnant student seeks medical assistance or a student needs healthcare for their child.
“There are no maternity and antenatal services. Pregnant students are referred to antenatal clinic of their choice or their gynaecologist if on medical aid,” she says. Campus health, however, offers limited medical assistance to the children of students. “We will see the child as an emergency while on campus and refer them to a public clinic as we do not buy medications for the babies. The services of a private GP on campus can be utilised. Medical aid rates will apply,” Moloi explains.
Both Nkosi and Mazibuko speak of the joys their children bring to them. Although the mere thought of juggling these different roles full-time may seem intimidating, the love they have for their sons pushes them to manage their respective situations to the best of their abilities. Not only are these women pressured to be good mothers, but they are faced with the added expectation of being good students simultaneously.
Nkosi is pursuing a degree that statistically has high financial rewards. Mazibuko is on the brink of completing her qualification with just one year remaining. At surface level, it appears that these young women have everything under control. But despite having higher academic averages than their peers, over 50% of student parents like them drop out of university before completing their degree. If more institutions of higher education – especially in South Africa – could widen their vision of their student demographics, perhaps this number could decrease, preventing many from having to decide between being educated and raising a family.
FEATURED IMAGE: Njabulo Nkosi attending to her two-year-old son while also trying to study. Photo: Karabo Mashaba