Getting a degree as a single parent

Posted 1 February 2018

When she became a single parent at 24, Aileen was faced with a tough decision – take any job to get by, or study and strive to achieve her dream? Read about Aileen’s journey as a single mum of 2 in adult education.

It’s only when I listen to stories from single friends with no responsibilities, two parent families or my friend who has just become a single parent to older teenagers that I realise how much me and my children have been through over the last 11 years. When I became a single parent at 24, to a 2-year-old and my unborn daughter, the first thing I had to do was quit my job. I had worked evening shifts and 1 night shift a week at a nursing home, there was no local childcare that would cover those kinds of hours. My first visit to the job centre left me in tears as I was quizzed about my partner leaving, I was treated like a criminal and as if I was stupid. I felt stupid and worthless for many many years and I wish I could go back to tell my past self that all would be ok.

I stayed at home with my children until my daughter received childcare vouchers and could attend playgroup part-time. I enrolled at the local college to do a Diploma in Access to Education. It was incredibly hard to be away from my daughter, I felt guilty all the time and tried to fit as much study into time between lessons so that I could have quality time with my children in the evening. I couldn’t get involved with any of the social activities that fellow students were doing, which was hard to deal with. I almost dropped out because of finances after my car broke down and eventually had to get financial help with travel costs, so I could continue to attend.

As work started to be marked and I gained distinctions, sometimes with the best marks in our group, my confidence and self esteem raised. The most important thing to me was being a great mum, but no one rewards you for that, especially not if you are a single parent. It was my chance to show the world that I didn’t end up in this situation because I’m stupid, I ended up here because I put faith in the wrong person, someone who was supposed to look after me and his children but was not prepared to.

Trying to focus on what I was going to use my qualification for was difficult, did I look at a job I could go straight into or aim as high as I could? With some grit and determination, I focused on becoming a scientist! Who could put you down when you’ve got a science degree? I took up As-level chemistry along side my access course, almost doubling my workload and having the pressure of final exams for the first time since GCSE. Sitting in a room of 16-year olds as an adult was interesting, and they found it a little odd that I was there. An unspoken agreement started between me and one of the very quiet students that I would handle the practical work (which she hated), if she gave me some assistance with some of the more complex equations!

My applications went in for University, but my hopes were dashed when the closest University rejected my application because they wanted the full Chemistry A-level. I was offered a place at Exeter medical school to study a degree in clinical science, it was perfect and a massive boost considering Exeter was in the top 10 universities at the time. I set about planning to move there, but the university wouldn’t help and because the rules on when single parents had to start looking for work had changed, no-one could say if I’d need to work even if I was at university. In the end I felt staying put and studying from home was the best option, so enrolled with the Open University to do a BSc Natural science, chemistry pathway.

I found studying for the first year of my degree brilliant. I could get a certain amount of Uni work done during the day when the kids were at school, I also did some voluntary work at a charity shop and work experience with the science technicians at the college I’d attended. When my daughter turned five I found a job within a month, it was only a seasonal role, but it saw us through the summer that year until I started work at a school. That year I worked almost full-time hours, looked after my children and completed my first year of university full time. Looking back, I wonder if I found the power to extend how many hours there was in a day.

My degree then went on hold. I’d studied my bottom off for three years and was at the point of burning myself out. I chose to take a break for a year, which ultimately became four years. During that time I was on a good wage, we enjoyed lots of days out and I even saved up to take the children to Turkey (all be it April and cold in Turkey, but still an exciting time away). A change in our circumstances at the beginning of 2016 meant I took on a part time job and grabbed the opportunity to study again. I’ve now only got five months until I’m half way through my degree and I couldn’t be happier. I’m aiming to qualify with a science degree by 2020. It means we need to struggle financially for the next few years, but as my children are nearing teenage I will be able to get a well-paid, full time job when I finish and support them through university or whatever they want to do in the future.

There should be the option and opportunity for single parents to study and gain qualifications that improve their employment chances. So often we are put into this bracket of only being good enough for the lowest paid, basic jobs, because after all we were stupid enough to get into this situation, right? Wrong! We are amazing! We master a role normally done by two people, that takes an extraordinary amount of strength and resilience. Don’t ever let anyone put you down, don’t ever take no for an answer, use the determination you’ve had as a single parent to push yourself, because if you can manage one of the most difficult jobs in the world alone – you can manage anything!

17 comments on “Getting a degree as a single parent

  1. You my dear are a inspiration to many in the same situation and if I’m honest even to me a married woman who does have that partner support. Respect to you – your kids have a very strong ( I know at times you haven’t felt it) independent and confident mother. What a positive influence you are to your kids and I know it’s hard juggling studies and being a mother but keep focusing on the rewards that are going to leap at you. Xxx

  2. Reading your story has inspired me to finish my UCAS application for BA HONS and hopefully I will gain a qualified teacher status in 2021.
    I have 2 children 3 & 11 and my local university is 2 hour round trip, I am very nervous a little scared to see how I will cope if I am accepted.
    Thanks very much for sharing your lovely story and well done you xx

    1. Oh my goodness I just hung off your every word! Its 2020 now and I’m wondering how you’re doing! I’m not a single parent but I am studying full time with the OU with 2 kids and running a business. I’ve been struggling with the work load of late but any time I feel the strain I’m going to come back to your article and just read it over and over again. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story. You’re truly an amazing inspiration to ALL women – not just parents. Xx

  3. I’m there now, I’ve just almost finished the first year of my degree as an older mature student, with no support from my childrens’ father, no support from the uni hardship fund (“you have £12 a week disposable income”) and my rent being over £65 a week more than my housing benefit.

    I’ve paid into the system for 30 years and I feel particularly annoyed that for 3 years while I better my and my family’s lives, nobody is prepared to offer just a little temporary assistance.

    I can’t work as I have the children every night, every weekend and all the school holidays, and I’m dreading the summer holidays as I will have no income and no way of getting any. How am I supposed to feed my children and pay the rent until September when the student loan comes in again??

    There is so little support within the system for parent students.

    1. Please look into claiming income support in the holidays, not everyone in the job centre is aware of this but it is available as your student finance is only there to cover you for the weeks your are at university therefore you are entitled to claim this in-between.

      Hope this helps

      1. Thank you for this. I did go to the job centre and was told to apply for job seekers allowance as my children are too old for me to qualify for income support.
        I was told not to expect to get the JSA as apparently the student loan is supposed to last through the summer holidays if you are unable to work to support yourself.
        Anyway, thanks to a very understanding lady at the job centre, I was awarded JSA and although I had to go through the motions of looking for a job, she knew I wasn’t really interested as I am returning to uni next month.

        I have resolved to allow myself £25 a week less from my student loan this year so I’ll have enough to tide me over next summer. Pasta every night it is then!!

      2. I’m a single mother at the age off 50, I really want to do a degree, to better my life, I have little money and scared for the future, I just wouid like some one in the same boat who might be able to give some insight please

      3. Well done.. look at all us strong mamas doing what we need to in order to look after our babies.

        I started my degee 2.5 years ago now. I am now into my 3rd year and then will have one last year and will be finished.

        For the mums considering it but are scared.. just do it. Sign yourself up for it and then figure out the ‘how’s’ after. Honestly.. you will find a way!

        I started my degree with a 3 year old and 7 year old in tow as a single mother I now have a wonderful supportive man.. who is also studying!! Hah. My childrens father is quite well off and enjoys throwing money at the children while I struggle to make ends meet. But It won’t be that way forever and it spurs me on to achieve better.

        I do degree 2 days per week and I work a low paid job 3 days per week. And we study in the evenings when kids are in bed and at weekends. Yes its hard, yes its stressful, yes we are poor and yes our house is always a mess these days but I don’t even care. I am performing well in my modules and my boys are happy.

        Also.. It’s enjoyable! It’s actually really fun to have something for myself.

        The only difference between the person who achieves and the person who doesn’t is one of them never quit. Just go for it.

        1. Amazing! What are you studying? Would love to know- in the middle of divorce he is trying to make me quit my university degree

  4. Well done you, you’re definitely an inspiration! I read your story as I’m in a simular situation and I was searching for financial help for single parents who are studying. I have a 3 year old and I have just completed my Access to HE Policing course after previously having a very difficult time with my ex. Instead of allowing the past to destroy me like yourself its only given me more strength and determination to achieve high goals, to give my myself and my daughter the very best future. I am now heading to university in September to study Criminology and Psychology 😊. Good luck with your future studies and all the best to you Xx

  5. You are such an inspiration, thank you for sharing you story. In pretty much the same situation after splitting up with my husband in 2015 and being thrown into the world of being a single mum I went down the self employed route and worked for a few years, now I’m determined to try and find a way to do what I should’ve done when I left school. Back in 2000 I wanted to be an Architect, silly me at that age didn’t want to do ten years training so I went down the different career path and ended up with a degree in Commercial Music. Now at nearly 35 I’m unemployed, a mum to my one beautiful daughter of nearly 4 years and I am desperately searching of ways I will be able to fund a second degree so I can start the route of becoming an Architect, albeit a bit late but now I have all the more reason to do it this time. I know how hard it is being a single mum and I admire your drive and determination. Best wishes xx

  6. I’m truly inspired by your story. A real soldier ! I’m stuck in a similar predicament. I’m a single mum to my almost 2 year and I am currently doing an Access course twice a week. How do you deal time management. I can get overwhelmed sometimes with the workload and by the time I come home and fix dinner I just want to crash. I’ve tried waking up early before my little one wakes up, it helps sometimes.
    I was in a domestically violent relationship- which I got away from 2 months ago. He has tried to get back with me- I of course refused and now he wants nothing to do with our child. I’m by myself with baby. His family haven’t bothered to reach out to me at all since the split.

    Any suggestions as to how to balance things out- motherhood and education?

    I plan to move from I live to be closer to my mum, so hopefully next year won’t so hard.

  7. Some truly inspirational mums here!

    I’m starting an access to HE course in September with the aim to go to Uni next year.

    I do believe that as single parents we have more fight within us to succeed! For our children and to say a big fat F U to all the people who haven’t supported us.

    I can’t wait until I am earning a decent living in the future so I can financially support my kids without having to depend on anyone else or the benefits system. I want to be the best role model for my 3 children 🙂

  8. Hey everyone, this is really inspiring! 🙂

    I’m a single mum also looking to study but a Master’s degree in Art therapy. It was something I was interested on doing even before I found out I was pregnant. I have an 18 month old and live far from family in temp accommodation. I’m just so concerned about how I’m going to manage studying, working (if I can) and childcare as I can’t rely on family. Only childcare providers. Hopefully LO will be in nursery when he’s 2yo for the 15 hours free childcare but the days at uni are sometimes full days so I don’t know. I really want to do this course not just for a better paying job, but it’s one of my dream goals. Any advice at all please?! 🙂

    1. Hi Meron, thanks for getting in touch, and it’s great to hear that you’re interested in studying for a postgraduate degree! As a starting point, we suggest calling our freephone Single Parent Helpline on 0808 802 0925.

      With best wishes,
      Chloe @ Gingerbread

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