The overdue gift of Mother’s Day: Student mothers need more inclusive systems in higher education
In light of Mother's Day, Susana Filgueiras, who studies psychology at Leiden university, is highlighting one group of students that is often overlooked in higher education: student mothers.
Since the past decade, the number of women getting into higher education has been increasing1. In some institutions, women configure the majority of the student body, and among those, a few mothers. Despite the overwhelming participation of student women, mothers battle daily to keep their heads above water and finish their educational programs successfully as institutions constantly fail to recognize motherhood in their practices and policies.
Throughout the pandemic, when the borders that used to separate our families and occupational lives were crossed and daycare and school facilities were closed, motherhood challenges were suddenly made more visible to everyone. The “camera and microphone always on” requirement of the now online classes exposed the sweet and sour reality of highly motivated, though often exhausted, mothers trying to combine their career dreams and their care responsibilities. Adult mothers who choose to engage in higher education often do it for practical reasons. It is their gateway to a better position in the workforce or a (steep) step that will lift them out of financial dependency or government welfare. Sadly, despite “continuing education” being a popular trend, it is hardly an option for most mothers out there. Mothers who choose to pursue continuing education are often discouraged by the low incentives that are systemic in our colleges and universities. There is little willingness of the structures to accommodate a sick child, an adapted schedule, or financial incentives to 30+ mothers.
Now, amid the long withstanding pandemic that has pushed millions of women out of the workforce because their children appeared as an exclusion factor, when we have seen a decrease in scientific publication of women, and when we are about to face a female recession, it is crucial that we not only start asking why higher educational spaces are less welcoming to mothers but start thinking about concrete actions that policymakers and education leaders can (and should) take to better support mother’s success in the academy. It is time to recognize that there is an intelligent, motivated, and competent market of student mothers who are eager to earn degrees and change society for the better. If core values in higher education institutions are known to relate to social justice and reduction of equity gaps, this is the time and moment to ACT.
As a student mother who is battling hard to finish an undergrad program, I can say what acting is all about. Research on the topic, support these suggestions2. It all starts with empathy and understanding. Even though going back to school is a choice, adapting systems to accommodate us is investing in the kind of “gift that will keep on giving”, giving into a qualified workforce, into gender equity in higher learning, into inspired descendants. Acting is offering scheduling and attendance flexibility, at a policy level, like that accessible to athletes. It is being flexible to move mothers to existent classes that happen within opening hours of daycare facilities, because we can only excel when we know our children are well taken care of. It is offering us alternatives to catch up on missed classes or assignments, within the same course period, when our children are sick and not simply counting us absent. It is understanding that the pandemic impacts us all differently and as such, talk through our difficulties concerning having our cameras on during online work groups when daycare facilities and schools are closed due to lockdown, because kids will be running in the background.
Acting is about offering social support and facilitate access to financial aid for student mothers with low or no incomes. It is also about to use its scientific power to join the fight for affordable child care options. Finally, it is about bringing awareness of our struggles to staff, like it is done concerning studying with physical disabilities. And if Mother’s Day allows me to add a final touch to this gift, I will finish saying that acting is about recognizing the highly resilient individuals we are and start valuing the life experience adult mothers can bring to the campuses, especially in highly young and homogenous spaces. While I know this seems like a long list, it is mostly about refocusing existent measures to yet another vulnerable group. It is about making university a little more inclusive. On Mother’s Day, some (or all) of these could definitely come as an overdue gift.
If you are an undergrad mother at Leiden university, reach out to your student advisor for support. Additionally, visit the university’s information site on parenthood with further contact details of specialized student counselors. For mental health support, student psychologists can be reached here.
 Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) en Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (SCP). (2020, December). Emancipatiemonitor 2020. https://digitaal.scp.nl/emancipatiemonitor2020/
 Contreras-Mendez, S., & Cruse, R. L. (2021). Busy with purpose: Lessons for Education and Policy Leaders from Returning Student Parents. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Busy-With-Purpose-v2b.pdf
Moreau, M. P., & Kerner, C. (2012). Supporting student parents in higher education: A policy analysis. Nuffield Foundation, 1-72. https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Moreau%20Student%20Parent%20report%20-%20Full%20report%20October%202012.pdf