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The eternal balancing act: talking to student parents and carers at USyd

“The choices you're making don't impact just you, but also your family.”

Jen Scott Curwood with her son Cole and newborn Luca.

Jen Scott Curwood shows up to our interview with an unexpected visitor. She’s clutching her son, Luca, who just turned one month old. “He’s at that stage where he just wants to be held, but also rocked,” she apologises, even though Luca is incredibly well-behaved. Jen softly pinches his cheeks so they expand like a balloon. “His name comes from the Latin word meaning ‘bringer of light,’” she explains. “After such a dark time of the pandemic, that felt right.”

Jen, 43, is an Associate Professor of English Education and Media Studies at the University of Sydney. Before migrating to Australia, she raised her oldest son, Cole, while studying a second Bachelors degree, a Masters and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin. (Cole, 22, is a fourth-year Engineering student, a USU Board Director, SUEUA President, and now an “adoring” older brother.) 

As incredible as her achievements were, the early years were tough. ​​Due to weaker social safety nets in the US, Jen was back at university within six weeks of giving birth. “As a young single mum, I was really depending on food stamps and student loans. I was in survival mode.”

At USyd, most students are either recent high-school leavers or postgraduates. Socialising regularly with classmates, or dedicating time to extracurriculars, is a luxury many parents and carers don’t have. There’s no official data from the government or the University on the number of student parents, but “a lot of postgraduate parents are doing the juggle,” says Lexi Metherell. 

Lexi, 39, jokes that she started her Masters of Nursing after a “sudden rush of blood to the head”. After receiving “fantastic” care when her son Frankie, now 5, was born, she wanted to become a midwife herself. “Parenthood is a big, life-changing event, and you sort of pause and reflect on what you’re doing,” she says.

Ben Varley, a 32-year-old PhD student based at Westmead Children’s Hospital, spoke to as many parents as possible to prepare for the birth of his first child, including his auxiliary supervisor. The obstetricians and midwives he works with were a “great source of information,” but Ben says that “now it’s time to wait and see” what parenting brings.

When balancing parenting and study, every bit of time is precious. Lexi’s second child James, 2, was born just one week before Semester 2 in 2019, meaning she had to multitask constantly. “I’ve breastfed him, typing an essay with one hand. I’d be standing at the kitchen bench typing while he slept on me in the baby carrier.” COVID has made it easier to keep an eye on her children, but she’s wary of exposure risks.

Alongside physical exhaustion (four hours consecutive sleep is a luxury) and financial and mental strain, Lexi says that “sometimes making it to class is a logistical feat.” When classes were in-person or during hospital placements, she’d maintain several spreadsheets to organise childcare. Lexi is conscious she has the financial and family support to work part-time and take one subject; international student parents taking full-time loads have it even harder, especially those who are isolated from their partners in their home countries. 

As such, student parents are forced to make tradeoffs on a daily basis, which often lead to feelings of guilt. “The choices you’re making don’t impact just you, but also your family,” says Jen. And trying to grapple with moral questions is hard for any parent, let alone a student. “I got the COVID vaccine at 34 and 37 weeks pregnant. So Luca was one of the first in Australia to be born with antibodies,” she recounts. “[Thinking about] what kind of world do I want to bring my children into … [those are] really difficult decisions.”

As a lecturer, Jen’s taught a handful of parents. “One of the greatest compliments I ever got was from a young man, who said, ‘you have shown me what’s possible as a parent.’ He felt previously that a lot of doors were closed to him.” But often, students wouldn’t share that they had children until they learn she was also a young parent, or until they saw her pregnant belly on Zoom. “I had one student who had to miss class when their baby was in hospital,” Jen recalls. “My heart just went out to her.”

Her students and loved ones now understand the pressures of parenting. “[Cole] is helping to care for his little brother, and he’s like, ‘I have no idea how you did this on your own.’”

***

For student carers, this strain is amplified even more. Not only must they stretch themselves thin between studying and caring, they experience the major emotional toll of their loved one’s condition. Carers Australia says that young carers are “more susceptible to social isolation, financial and educational disadvantage, unemployment and poor physical and mental health.” Of approximately 230,000 young carers in Australia, 81% are secondary or post-secondary students.

Tiana* cared for her younger sister after she contracted a life-threatening illness that compounded her disability. “Out of nowhere, she started screaming in pain 24 hours a day … It was very difficult to see my sister in so much pain.” Her illness was one that would’ve been easily identified in able-bodied people, but due to medical ableism, it took two years to get a diagnosis. 

“We took her to the emergency room, I think, eight times in the span of a month,” she says, softly. “And each time, they turned us away saying, ‘Oh, she’s not sick. It’s because of her disability.’ … We just kept pushing.” Her sister has recovered, but that stressful period is “reflected in my grades.”

“I think I’ve always been aware of a stigma [around young carers, as] something that’s maybe not fun, or not normal,” says engineering student Nick*. He lives with his mother, who has an autoimmune disease which requires constant care, and has no other family in Australia. But he says that caring for parents and grandparents is common in his culture, so his role “feels a bit normal.”

He’s quick to stress that caring is not a burden. “I’ve never looked at it as a bad thing. I’ve become more resilient and mature.” With a kind smile, he describes his mum as a very warm person, who takes care of others before herself. It’s clear where Nick’s empathy comes from. 

Tiana says she often hears ableist remarks from people around her, and is sometimes misinterpreted when she expresses frustration. “It’s taken like, ‘oh, it’s hard to take care of your family? How could you say that, that’s so awful.’ But I love my sister. I should be allowed to say, ‘I’m feeling tired, and I want to focus on myself,’ without negative assumptions about my feelings towards her.” It’s an immense mental and emotional load to carry. “When I’m not with her, I’m still thinking about her. I remember [feeling like] I can’t even self-indulge by studying, because that seems like a privilege.” Tiana has since moved out, but her siblings still face tradeoffs with work, caring and study.

Nick emphasises staying organised (it’s something you “acquire in the role” after adjusting to a demanding Engineering degree, he says), maximising his time, and maintaining social relationships. Relating with other carers, while those moments are rare, is something he “can’t really experience anywhere else.”

***

Student parents and carers are under-represented at USyd. There’s a Facebook group to connect student parents, but daycare services around campus are booked weeks in advance and don’t cater specifically to students. Reports of universities being unaccommodating to parents are nothing new, as UNSW closed its on-campus childcare service last year.

Even the SRC’s Disabilities Collective and Caregivers Network, which leads activism on disability justice, hasn’t come across many carers. “It is not only vital to the disabled community but the community as a whole that the University does more to support carers in completing their studies,” says Sarah Korte, SRC Disabilities Officer.

Lexi, who is pregnant with her third child, has started a petition for an on-campus occasional care service, allowing parents to drop off children for shorter periods than traditional daycare, to attend a tutorial or go to the library. She thinks that occasional care, and reviewing the University’s policy on children on campus, would help reduce structural barriers to attending university. “On campus, you don’t really see kids, you don’t see prams – that doesn’t reflect the real world,” Lexi says. In particular, it’s “a really tangible thing that the University could do to advance gender equity.”

Like many PhD students, Ben receives an RTP (Research Training Program) Scholarship as necessary income, but was shocked to learn that the University’s terms and conditions only allow five days of paid paternity leave (versus 12 weeks for mothers), reinforcing gender roles around caregiving. “Working with lots of families over the last few years, I have learnt the importance of [a] support person when a newborn enters a family’s life,” he says.

Ben emailed me a few days later with great news: their baby, Alexandra, arrived safely on Thursday at 11:18am. (Lockdown will make parenthood “interesting,” without the usual family support.) While they’re ecstatic, he said more paid leave would help support longer recoveries, such as from caesarean sections (as was their case), or mental health issues like perinatal depression.

Ben Varley with his wife and newborn daughter.

Nick has greatly benefited from the Young Carer Bursary (applications are now open), which made a huge difference to his HSC. “I’m grateful to have that support … even just to get things like tutoring, and different supplies, it’s been helpful for sure.” He hopes other students can offer empathy to young carers. “People always have lives outside of what you see on the surface. … I’ve developed the sensation of knowing if someone’s in pain, and if I ever work in a healthcare environment, I’ll be able to understand that.”

He hasn’t contacted the University much, partly because of bureaucracy. “It does take some empathy, and luck, on who is reading your special consideration application,” Tiana adds. Jen shares that accessing flexible working arrangements and parental leave was unexpectedly challenging: “I had to be really familiar with University policy and state law to advocate for myself.” 

She encourages student parents to “reach out for the support that they need” and be “as goal-oriented as possible … let’s just try to get through today, clear this one hurdle to make it to the next. … Often university can feel very depersonalised, but your tutors and lecturers are people too.” 

Being a parent while studying has made Jen’s relationship with Cole even more special. “He was there at my graduation ceremonies, and when I received my offer for my position here in Australia … as a parent, every day, we’re trying to be the person we want our child to become.” This time around, she’s giving herself more grace, and is grateful for being in a more financially secure position. “Time is the one element we can’t get back … with children, the days last forever, but the years go by in an instant.”

When talking about her sister, Tiana’s voice brightens instantly. “She’s pretty hilarious. She is just completely herself at all times.” They shared a room growing up, and because of their closeness, Tiana says it was easy to decide to become her carer in the long-term. “She’s a little angel … I want to make sure that she’s happy and she’s with me.”

*Names have been changed.

For more information on the petition for occasional care, click here.

The Young Carer Bursary is accepting applications until September 30.