parenting

That twin mum student life

A fellow twin mother on a Facebook page for parents of multiples asked today whether anybody had studied while their twins or triplets were young. A friend tagged me in, and I thought that it would be a good topic for a blog post.

I started my degree when Hattie and Joe were 14 months old. I decided to go back to uni when they were seven months old and I was on holiday in France with them (and going crazy with stress and tiredness, and realising that I would possibly lost the plot entirely if I didn’t do something else). After casting my net fairly wide, Googling like the mad woman I was fast becoming, I decided that Urban Planning sounded interesting: you got to boss whole cities, rather than being ignored by a couple of small children! It also fitted well with my past life in a very cool community engagement role for a big London law firm, where I spent all day volunteering the lawyers’ services and giving their money away to support good causes and generally try to make the world a better place. I realised that I could apply that knowledge to the planning context by – eventually – focussing on how/whether good public space design would encourage healthy social interactions.

I was lucky to get into the Urban Planning course at my local university, as it’s always oversubscribed and only takes 40 – 50 students each year. It’s also an academically demanding course, but my age played in my favour there. And I think I wrote a pretty good application essay. Or maybe they wanted to fill a mature student quo? Anyway, I was offered a place. It’s a four-year Honours degree, and is a very ‘fixed’ course – in the entire degree we only get to choose two of the papers (so, quite different from most university degrees). It means that the year group is together virtually all of the time, so they become a pretty tight cohort. It also means that the school can offer a degree in which the various topics are integrated, so we should end up with a variety of perspectives that contribute to our overall education.

I negotiated to study part time initially, so I spread my First Year papers over two calendar years. Studying two papers per semester in the first year was reasonably manageable in theory, although I (typically) made life more difficult than it should have been by combining my 2014 uni work with a stint as the co-president of our multiple birth club, which I also combined with a fairly labour-intensive role as our club’s newsletter editor (naturally, I tackled that like I was editing Vanity Fair or something, as I’m a bloody idiot who tends to over-egg the pudding…). If I had just stuck to the uni stuff I think my first calendar year would have been fairly relaxed, and as it was I feel like I had a good amount of time and energy to tackle my course work. Fears that I would be marked out as the nerdy mature student were settled somewhat when I met my fellow students and discovered that, although I was older than everybody else by at least 20 years (they were all school-leavers, born long after I left school), there were plenty of very keen characters amongst them. There were also a fair few slackers, but I didn’t really realise the impact of classmates on study performance until late in my degree.

Of course, having course work didn’t negate also having two toddlers. We looked at our childcare options and swiftly realised that an au pair would provide us with great flexibility and amazingly good value. Au pairs have shaped my life for the past two and a half years, so that’s a story that will be told at another time. Having an au pair didn’t prevent me from having a lot of moments where my Mummy responsibilities totally over-rode my student needs: sick children or sad children still want a parent at the end of the day. My Facebook memories function keeps bringing up complaining posts that remind me of specific days where the clash of responsibilities was particularly acute…

Anyway, I successfully completed four papers in 2014, and got stuck in again during 2015 to finish my First Year. My 2014 classmates had moved on to Second Year by that stage, so I joined a new cohort. And while I had some great friends in 2014, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the new group. They are such a smart, funny, hard-working bunch (with a far higher proportion of really enthusiastic and motivated students), and studying with them definitely helps to keep me keen and passionate. It’s something very cool to be able to hang out with 18 and 19 year olds and find that, despite the vast age difference, our shared interest in what we’re studying provides us with plenty of common ground. I’ve actually got my own little squad of friends, and that’s been a really unexpected and very welcome element of my time at uni so far – I really didn’t think that I’d actually make friends. It’s nice.

2015 was harder work because, although I’d dropped all of my extra-curricular stuff, my papers that year were my first exposure to the design side of the degree – and man, when you’re like I was and have never used Photoshop, studied Graphics, or done anything vaguely similar, the learning curve was extremely steep! And the amount of work required for our design paper (called ‘Studio’) is immense – every assignment would end up being a frantic last-minute scramble, regardless of how hard we worked. We all needed to become accustomed to the consultation method of teaching: initially, we’d see our tutors and they’d give us feedback, and we’d act like that was Gospel and change our plans and design accordingly, and then we’d see a different tutor next time and get different feedback, and we’d get confused and discouraged, and bitch about how they all contradicted each other. Of course, now that we’re worldly Second Years we understand that consultation is exactly that: they tell us what they think, and we think about it and consider what we want to take on board and what we want to disregard, and adjust or defend our designs. But yes, in First Year we made life so much harder for themselves.

The impact on my home life was fairly profound. I was so busy and so stressed – it felt like incredibly hard work. I had to pull my first true all-nighter in order to finish one assignment. I had to give up some time with the kids in order get work done during occasional weekends. And I had to write off a lot of evenings to study. Fortunately for us all we had another amazing au pair, and the children were so good about it all. I still managed to fit in a lot of activities with them, and in many ways this was to my detriment, as it meant that I had no time on campus to do any actual work – I’d bus in, go to a class, and head home again to spend time with the kids. Little did I know that the growing trend of spending every evening with my laptop out was only just beginning!

Given the length and complexity of my degree (I can’t just pick up other papers to get the credits: I have to do the papers that are designated, in the set order), remaining part time wasn’t a sustainable option (plus, I would have had to change to a different cohort over and over again, which wouldn’t have been much fun). So, in March of this year I bit the bullet and began Second Year as a full time student.

And holy crap, it’s been insane. Seriously insane. I’m keeping my head above water (although I’ve had another all-nighter to finish a Studio project), but it’s hard. The workload for my course is intense: the academic standards are very high and the expectations placed on us don’t even let up, and Studio becomes ever more demanding (but bloody awesome – I love that paper now that I can use a bit of technology to actually produce my work without having a nervous breakdown). Our lecturer each expect us to put in something like two or three hours of extra work and reading for every hour of class time. We’ve have three hours of academic teaching for our non-Studio papers and five hours of Studio each week – so that means 14 hours of teaching time in total: so they’re expecting an additional 28 – 42 hours of study a week.

All bets have been off with regard to work-life balance this semester: I literally do nothing but go to uni, deal with the kids, and study. I’ve managed to attend one play date with them each week, but beyond that their entire weekday life is in the hands of yet another amazing au pair – she takes them to playgroups, the park, playgrounds, and the library, and even settled them into kindy when I could only attend on their first day. There is no way that we could manage me studying this course without such great support, and I’m so grateful.

Because I’m so busy during the week, I really try to prioritise time with the kids during the weekends, but my workload is insane: from the mid-semester break onwards I had a test or an assignment every single week. Tristan has been consistently amazing about taking on the lion’s share of entertaining the kids, and they are incredibly tolerant and understanding about it. As Hattie told a twin mum friend at kindy one day, “Mummy is very busy designing cities!” They like to watch me work, and Hattie seems quite interested in maps (and Joe just wants to play with my laptop). They talk about Mummy going to school and I don’t get much in the way of complaints about my absence from playgroups and outings during the week, although they’re always delighted when I can make it. And they always act like I’m their favourite rock star when I get home every night, which is lovely.

In some ways it’s easier to be studying full time because it just eliminates the possibility of doing extracurricular stuff, so I can’t overcommit in other areas of my life. Having said that, I really have missed regular catch ups with friends, and I’m glad that my second semester timetable is a bit more play date friendly.

Today I’ve finished my last of three exams, which came after a huge Studio project was due. The timing was terrible this time because Tristan’s been away for my entire study leave period, so life has been fraught recently and my poor au pair has gone above and beyond the call of duty (but we’re heading away for three weeks from tomorrow, so she’ll have a good long break to recover). While I love my course and remain very committed to it, I must admit that the prospect of another five semesters of this pace of study is quite terrifying. I need to make some changes to how I manage my workload going forward: I’m definitely not a slacker, but I need to get better at revising on an ongoing basis, of example, so I can be effective when tests and exams roll around. Studio projects are actually becoming easier to manage (despite the recent all-nighter), largely because I’m learning more, developing my point of view, and consequently starting to have the courage of my convictions (so I’m less likely to feel pressure to change everything at the eleventh hour).

And I know that I make my life difficult by having incredibly high standards for myself. My First Year grades were very good, and set a bit of a precedent that I now want to constantly reach. I was a total slacker at school and during my first attempt at uni (as a school leaver – it didn’t work out): I was a classic case of a kid who’d been told that she was bright, and who therefore coasted and did the minimum to get by. However, I had a bit of a personality transplant as an adult, once I started working and got passionate about things, and now my credo is ‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I will always strive to do as well as possible. It’s quite exhausting and I do have to work hard to remind myself that I have a lot on my plate – far more so than my fellow student, for example (most of whom live at home and get nicely looked after). My little squad are bright people, as are pretty much all of the people in my cohort, and I want to keep up with them, but I have had to try to keep a realistic perspective. I also think I harboured a bit of an irrational belief initially that, because I’m older, I would be ‘better’ or know more – but really, some of my classmates are bloody brilliant, and on my best day and with a 20 year old brain they’d be light years ahead of me. If I can stay roughly at the same kind of grade as those guys then I’m pretty proud of myself. I’m not making life easy on that front by already thinking about whether I might want to do some post-graduate study, and what kind of grades I need from this degree to enable this.

The other big driver – and this is purely self-inflicted pressure – is the knowledge that my decision to go back to uni puts our family at a disadvantage financially (both because it costs money for me to study, and to pay for childcare, and because I’m not earning anything), and also makes life more difficult when I’m so busy. Poor Tristan is so tolerant of me studying nearly every night, or abandoning him and the kids for long stretches of the weekend in order to feverishly study in my bedroom. And he’s not just tolerant: he’s actively supportive and has already told me that I can stay at uni forever and pursue an academic career if that’s what fires me up. He just wants me to be happy, bless him. All of this makes me feel like I need to do really well for it to be worthwhile.

And honestly, the effort that I have to put in if I want really good grades is probably only an additional 25% on top of what I’d have to do in order to produce ‘just OK’ work – so the extra effort seems worth it.

To summarise, here’s what I can tell a prospective twin mum interested in pursuing a student life:

  • Sort out your childcare – if you know that your children are happy and entertained, it’s much easier to leave them to it while you do something that also makes you happy. While I love and adore my children, it is SO NICE to have another dimension to my life again (I can bore people for days with talk of what I’m studying).
  • Don’t stress out too much about the impact on the kids. They’ll be fine as long as kind, consistent care is the over-riding feature of their lives. And a happy mother who isn’t with them 24/7 is much better for them than somebody who is always present, and really unhappy.
  • Think carefully about what you’re going to study and what the demands will be. Although I love Urban Planning and will finish my course, if I’d known exactly how demanding it would be I’m not sure that I would have made these choices. A course that enables you to choose more flexible study options would make life much easier than what I’m experiencing.
  • Find out what foundation skills you need, and then get them early on. I should have done sufficient research to learn about needing to know Photoshop, so I could have got to grips with it before I was battling to hand in course work.
  • Start part time if you can, so you can see if you actually enjoy the course that you’ve chosen. However, remember that you can’t just fill in every waking moment with stuff: if you choose to study, even part time, you can’t also do stacks of other things. Something has to give (I learned this the hard way).
  • Accept that, if you study full-time, you really won’t have much downtime. It’s not like work, where you leave the office and can chill out at home. There is always something that you need to do. Friends and Tristan will tell you that I’m never not studying. And you will end up still doing a lot of stuff at home, even when you have an awesome husband like mine who does a vast amount of domestic stuff as well.
  • Don’t underestimate how much time you’ll need to set aside to study. You can’t cram it all in – that’s the perfect way of guaranteeing that your children will get sick right before a deadline for course work! You have to keep on top of stuff (luckily, for most parents, organisational skills develop rapidly!)
  • Don’t feel guilty about wanting to study. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for my stay-at-home mum friends, given that they’re handling a life that I simply wasn’t cut out to do: that is the hardest job I ever attempted, and this was reinforced for me when I had four months without an au pair, at home as a full time Mummy over the summer holidays. For me, studying is the best option, and I refuse to feel guilty about wanting to use this part of my brain. I feel a bit bad when I can’t go to the park with the kids in the weekend, but I know that I can make it up to them with snuggles or whatever later, and that they hold no grudges, and that it’s actually OK that I want to do this.
  • Do whatever you can to make life easy. We started My Food Bag this year, and even that on a fortnightly basis has been a big life enhancer. And if we could afford a cleaner I would hire one in an instant.
  • Accept that you’re not an 18 year old student who has the luxury of endless time to devote to your studies. Get your shit together if you’re going to do it, or else you won’t get your work done and you’ll feel constantly stressed. And that’s no way to live!
  • Enjoy the time that you do spend with your children. It can be difficult when you’re tired and stressed – Hattie and Joe’s behaviour deteriorates in direct correlation to how strung out I am, which can cause a bit of a vicious circle as I react badly to their behaviour, but I try my hardest on this front (and that’s all any of us can do…)
  • Be proud of the example that you’re setting for your children: that their parents have passions, pursue their interests, engage in life-long learning, and work hard. Check out Joe last year, already keeping several balls in the air:

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Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to pack for our three-week trip to France: we leave tomorrow!


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