It Takes a Village

Art by Sarah Vickers

Most university students find it challenging enough to take proper care of themselves. The daily struggle of maintaining a (reasonably) healthy diet, leading an active social life, and getting enough sleep to function is more than enough to keep most students occupied with themselves alone.

But there are students on campus who face the same responsibility — for two. Some students have children, and therefore  face the additional challenge of parenting – a 24/7 job – on top of balancing school and the rest of their lives. How do they do it? The Bull & Bear met with student-parents and the communities that support them to find out exactly how they make it work.

Unique Challenges

It will come as no surprise that caring for children demands significant emotional, financial, and physical resources that can conflict with school and other priorities. Salina Melim, the Administrative Director for SSMU Daycare, says that the biggest challenge is balancing time for attending classes and for keeping up with the workload, all while not neglecting your child.

Olivia Kurajian, a U3 student and mother to 3-year-old Evelyn, stated: “being a parent affects everything in my academic life as well as my personal life. Not only must a student-parent manage their own academic affairs and health, but we are also in charge of managing the schedules and ensuring the wellbeing of our kids.Anna*, a PhD student in the Faculty of Law and mother of two, said “It’s hard to function during the day if I’m losing sleep at night. I have to work at night while my kids are asleep.”

Not only must a student-parent manage their own academic affairs and health, but we are also in charge of managing the schedules and ensuring the wellbeing of our kids.

Most importantly, for these students, parenting comes first while school comes second. Lisa Gallagher, the Director of CPE McGill, told The Bull & Bear: “Being a parent is the ‘first identity.’” Melim added: “The child is the first priority. I don’t even know how you’d be able to focus on class when your child needs care, like when they’re sick, for example. It has an obvious emotional impact on parents.” Student-parents must balance these two different, and at times conflicting, identities and responsibilities they carry. Thankfully for some, there are resources available on campus so that they don’t have to do it alone, if they can get a spot.

The McGill System

McGill campus contains two major childcare institutions: the SSMU Daycare, which caters mainly to undergraduate and graduate students and the McGill Childcare Centre (CPE), which serves mostly graduate students, faculty, and staff. These organizations make it easier for student-parents to pursue their studies by ensuring that their children are supervised and cared for throughout the day, in an accessible and nearby location. The Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE) also offers a Family Care Program, administered by Jessica Wurster which seeks to support student-parents on campus. These institutions strive to help student-parents achieve a balance between their work, life, and study obligations. However, they lack a mechanism to account for the exact number of student-parents on campus, and so may not be meeting demand.

For many parents, daycare services are essential to their continued attendance at the university. Kurajian stated: “If I didn’t have daycare services on campus, I could no longer be a student at McGill… A subsidized daycare on campus means that I save hours of my day running around the island and I spend less money to send my daughter to daycare than I [would] spend on my daily lunch. Financially, physically, emotionally, realistically; without a subsidized spot in a daycare on campus, I could no longer be a McGill student.

Financially, physically, emotionally, realistically; without a subsidized spot in a daycare on campus, I could no longer be a McGill student.

The amount of money that student-parents save with campus subsidized daycare is significant. Parents at CPE pay $8.75 a day, while parents at SSMU Daycare pay $8.25, compared to the $40 per day charged by private daycares. Though provincial daycare is subsidized, and costs as little as $7.55 a day per child, the wait time to get in can be several years, at which point children are already old enough to attend kindergarten.

Similarly, McGill’s daycare resources are limited in their capacity. The greatest issue, according to Gallagher, is that “demand is much higher than the capacity to offer spaces.” SSMU Daycare has 40 spaces, while CPE has 110. Both institutions receive funding from the Provincial government for their operations and are subject to the Minister of Childcare’s permit capacity allowances. While the Quebec childcare system includes many benefits and services, availability is limited. Spots in daycare are highly competitive and wait times can be months to years long.

Gallagher told The Bull & Bear that the average waiting period is three years from the time parents apply to the time they get a spot, and that women often sign their children up as soon as they become pregnant. At CPE, there are currently over 600 families on the waiting list; the centre takes 20-30 new spots each year.

Though locals with knowledge of the system register as soon as they know they are expecting, international students are often not as familiar with the province’s system. They arrive in Quebec with the misconception that their child will automatically get access to daycare services, only to be told that the wait for a spot to open will be at least several months long.

For international students with children and no local support network, the wait-time issue is a serious dilemma. Some are forced to turn to private daycares, which are expensive and often located far from campus. Wurster said that of the ten daycares in downtown Montreal, eight are workplace-based. Melim said, ”Many parents are desperate, and I sympathize with them.”

Government regulations for childcare services make expansion a costly and time-consuming goal. Melim told The Bull & Bear that SSMU Daycare is restricted by the simple lack of physical space: “To actually expand we would need to buy a building or rent a bigger space, plus structuring to fit government regulations such as access to bathrooms, reconfiguring spaces to be child-safe, and very strict government processes for the building.”

Building a Village

It is not uncommon for student-parents to face obstacles due to the lack of awareness and understanding about their unique situation and needs. Kurajian stated, “I know many student-parents at McGill who suffer in solitude because the resources are thinly spread throughout campus and there are no official policies on assignments, exams, etc. as it relates to childcare responsibilities.”

Anna added that time for socializing with peers is limited: “I have to choose between spending time with my kids or with other students.” However, she stated that as a graduate student with fewer courses and more independent research, her kids actually help with the more solitary experience: “My kids force me to go outside and spend time away from my thesis. They let me take a break, sleep better and eat better… It helps my brain to have a break.”

Melim added, “There must be some leeway when it comes to professors in accommodating students with children.” She explained that she, herself has had to write letters and make calls to professors to explain absences or late submissions due to emergencies concerning children. The problem is particularly acute for student-parents on scholarships, for whom academic failure could be ruinous.

When it comes to graduate students, Wurster explained that sympathy from professors for their situation is given arbitrarily: “It is very dependent on how receptive a supervisor is. Some may have never dealt with student-parents and may not know how to be more accommodating. The current policy [for students with children] is not very specific.

It is very dependent on how receptive a supervisor is. Some may have never dealt with student-parents and may not know how to be more accommodating. The current policy [for students with children] is not very specific.

The same lack of understanding is often present amongst peers, too. Kurajian explained that being a parent profoundly impacts the way she interacts with other students: “Being a parent means that when other students… complain about their assignments or lack of sleep, I sometimes feel resentful. This is not because I fault them for feeling this way, as their feelings are justified, but I resent not having time to watch an episode of a show on Netflix or being able to go out past daycare hours, 5 days a week. Sometimes, student peers will invite me to events and it is embarrassing to have to decline.”

Making it Work

To address isolation faced by student-parents, both SSMU Daycare and McGill Childcare Centre aim to help parents build a support network amongst each other and across the greater McGill Community. Community-building takes place through events hosted for specific communities or purposes, including international spouses and partners, study weekends amongst student-parents, and coffee socials.

Wurster says the challenge lies in “trying to build community between people that already don’t have much time, as student parents are extraordinarily busy.”

All of the childcare providers had one thing in common: each spoke of deep admiration for their student-parents. Melim told The Bull & Bear: “I admire all of my parents. They are doing their doctorates and PhDs with kids and families. I just admire how great they are. They try to be so actively participants here. We really try to build a strong community with them.”

Melim emphasized the importance of daycare services in making the pursuit of education more accessible for student parents. She stressed, “Education is the future for parents and for their children. At the end of the day, this is your life. Everything you have is for your studies, which determines the future you build for yourself and for your children.”

 

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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