Mums Who Study

My Child

Autumn 2010

Words Tatyana Leonov


Now that you’ve settled in with your baby, you may be wondering what’s next. Well, have you considered hitting the books? Here we explore the growing options for mums keen to study. 

So you’ve had a baby, got settled into your new routine and have a bit more time on your hands. What now? Do you go back to work? Look for another job? Find a hobby? Start a business? After the birth of a child your perspective on life can change, and your plans may too. Many mothers may decide that they want to study – to get a first or second degree, or to pursue a new interest.

With the broad range of choices that are now available, study is an entirely possible option. This is due to the growth of the Australian university sector, the introduction of more learning options and the support choices offered (such as childcare and counselling).

Since Australia’s first university, The University Of Sydney, was established in 1851, the number of universities has grown and there are now over 40 Australia-wide. The development of the study sector is partly due to the many long-established colleges becoming accredited universities and to new universities emerging to service our expanding population.

There are also other learning facilities. People have the option of going to TAFEs, business colleges, institutes that specialise in certain areas such as drama or dance, or private colleges.

Gone also are the days when you had to physically be present in class. You can study on campus or via distance education (which can be online or you can get the information sent to you), and either full-time or part-time. Or there are options where you are able to combine a variety of learning methods to suit your life and budget, which means you can study at a university in another state or while working full-time.

As a general guide, you can take up to 10 years to complete a university degree, which is perfect for busy mums as you can take time to do your course. Each university and faculty may have different restrictions, so it is important to do your research and work out exactly how long you have.

With Open Universities Australia, a person has access to online and distance education courses that are taught by leading universities and higher education providers located around the country. Established in 1993, it provides over 1,000 units and 90 qualifications taught by 18 different universities; its mission being to offer people the opportunity to access higher education anytime and anywhere.

A mother’s life is always busy but having such a diverse range of study options available means that it’s much more realistic to study and get a qualification today.

‘A large portion of our student cohort at the University Of Southern Queensland (USQ) are mature-aged students, with children themselves and, like me, many are the first people in their families to undertake tertiary education,’ says Jo-Ann Sparrow, 38, who is a part-time communications officer at the USQ Springfield campus.

Mum to nine-year-old Matt and nine-month-old Sam, she is also studying a Masters Of Public Relations at the university part-time.

Sparrow can spend anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week on her studies depending on her workload. ‘It is a big commitment as any time I spend studying or working directly impacts on my other roles of wife, mother and friend, so I have to be confident that it is for a purpose and worth that time away from my family,’ she says.

Many universities now also provide a range of services to help students “do it all”. Childcare, accommodation, learning support, medical and health services, and counselling are just some of the resources a university might offer.

In addition, studying may seem impossible for some because of financial constraints but it is worth looking into all of the options available. Centrelink offers additional benefits such as Jobs, Education and Training (JET) assistance which further subsidises childcare fees, as well as the Pensioner Education Supplement (PES) to help pay for things like books.

For Laura Jane Lambert, 26, mum to Jackson, 22 months, and Maddox, four months, it’s all about finding a balance in life. Both Lambert and her husband, Jason, 31, are studying nursing at USQ full-time. ‘Neither of us work. Instead we live on child payments and Austudy. Money is tight at times but we just make sure we live on a budget,’ she explains.

Having people around to lend a hand can often make things easier. ‘Jason’s and my parents often help; we have an amazingly supportive family network. I just make sure that I have expressed some milk for our youngest,’ Lambert says. ‘It’s possible to do. You just need to have an organized life. It’s hard at times but I just keep remembering what’s at the end.’

Mothers study to pursue an old dream or a new one, to earn more money or to change careers. Alison Nordling, 36, mum to four-year-old Emma wanted to pursue another interest. She is studying part-time to become a counsellor, specialising in intercultural relationships at the Australian College Of Applied Psychology, Sydney. She is also working part-time as My Child’s Art Director.

Going back to study (or studying for the first time) is not always an easy choice. There may be less time spent with the children and money can be tight.

‘It’s very tricky,’ Nordling explains. ‘Especially when it comes to the end of the semester and you have to write really intense papers that require a lot of research and thinking, all the while trying to juggle deadlines at work, as well as long commuting times between home, daycare, work, school... not to mention still having to look after an energetic child.’

Of course, Nordling, like every other mum, needs to also find time to go shopping, cook, clean and have some semblance of a social life!

Emma attends childcare five days a week and Nordling studies during the days she is not at work, when Emma is asleep at night or when Emma is with her father (they have a shared custody arrangement).

Studying is not necessarily just about shifting careers or earning more money; it can be about pursuing an old interest, meeting people, gaining new experiences and building connections.

Plus for mums who don’t want to work so that they can be around for their kids, study is a great option. They can keep their brain active, and fit study around time spent with their children.

For Sparrow it was just a matter of finding out study was possible with a family and a job: ‘After I started working, I considered studying journalism but that was before the rise of distance education and I really couldn’t fit my studies around my full-time work.’

She went to a clairvoyant for a laugh and was told she should study journalism. Sparrow did a search and found out that journalism had been opened up for distance education through Monash University that year and that she was one day from the closing date.

‘I quickly submitted my application, got my books and was underway in less than two weeks. It was one of those weird coincidences or perhaps fate,’ she says.

For Sarah Cooper, 28, mum to nine-year-old Ella, five-year-old Jenna, and Jameson, three, it was just a matter of gaining confidence. Cooper started studying music 10 years ago but after 18 months decided she was not ready to ‘know everything yet, let alone to teach high-school students about it.’

Answering Ella’s questions over time about music inspired Cooper to get back to study.

‘I had decided that I was done with music, that it was my past and motherhood was my future. However, I now realise that you can do something you love and make a career out of it!’

Cooper is now studying music at USQ and will later decide whether she will be a private singing teacher, or pursue another year of studies and become a high-school music teacher. ‘I just love rediscovering my creative outlet and redefining my sense of self,’ she says.

If you’re keen to find out more about studying there are a wealth of books available and the internet is a great resource. Start by searching for courses that you might be interested in, and talk to other people who have had similar experiences – they may have some great advice to offer.