Madisyn Miller, a current sophomore aiming to graduate in 2022, actually started her education in 2016 with the current class of 2020. With the goal of going to medical school, Miller had never imagined her life taking the turn it did a few short weeks after finishing her freshman year: she was pregnant. “At the time it was really traumatic, but now that I’ve had time to think through I’ve realized that’s when my life went to a different path,” Miller shared with me.
As her two-year-old son Ezra napped, I spoke with Miller about her experience leaving school at the end of her pregnancy, becoming a mother and returning to school while parenting. We sat on her couch and told stories about our babies and how we manage our education as the only two students that we know of who are mothers on campus. While I have shared part of my experience with motherhood in an earlier article (“Defining motherhood in college”), Miller decided to leave school after the fall 2017 semester to join her boyfriend—now fiancé—while he finished his last year of school at Northwestern College in Traverse City, Michigan. Her experience differed vastly from mine, and in sharing her story I hope to raise awareness of the power and difficulties that come with motherhood and pursuing education.
Typically women find out they are pregnant at five to six weeks gestation, as the usual first sign—missing a period—occurs during the fifth week of pregnancy. Miller found out she was pregnant when she was six weeks along. “It really did a 180 on my life,” she said. “ Back then I just remember it being all that I could think about, and it just kind of overtakes your body and you lay on the couch all day for like a week and absorb it. It just takes so long to absorb when you’re just not wanting that to happen.” Her parents were with her when they found out she was pregnant through a phone call from the doctor. “I think I told Adam the second day I knew. I just kinda took the first day to lay around in a ball on the couch thinking about my life from now on. It took courage, even though we had been dating for so long, just to tell [him]. It was just something completely different.”
“I didn’t know anyone who had been in a situation like mine,” Miller said when I asked her about who she went to for advice. “I was like ‘what’s pregnancy going to look like when I’m walking through a Christian campus.’ I know moms that are like 30 [years old], and I know students but none of them are moms. So it was a weird in-between, and I actually told my advisor, and he connected me to a student who has graduated since, but she was a mom too, and she kinda helped me through it. She talked me through what’s going to happen and how it was going to be.”
Miller spent the majority of her pregnancy going to school. “Luckily, and I say luckily but I really shouldn’t, but luckily it was winter months so I wore a big furry coat and not a lot of people could tell [I was pregnant],” she told me. With the exception of one friend who reacted negatively to Miller’s pregnancy, “everyone who I told and knew was very supportive of me.” Unfortunately, like many unexpectedly pregnant women including myself, Miller said that “most of my pregnancy was kind of hidden, and I was very shameful of myself and my pregnancy. It’s hard not to be. There’s nobody else. You’re very singled out, and it’s very physical. You can’t hide it at all.” Except for the emotional difficulties of rationalizing an unexpected pregnancy, Miller’s pregnancy was relatively normal with no complications.
“There were times that I was discriminated against,” Miller said. Although she could not recall specific instances at first as her pregnancy was two and a half years ago, Miller says she “remembers trying to sit in the desks, and I was like 36 weeks [pregnant] and trying to squish into these little desks, and I was like ‘how do people do this?’ I remember being like ‘this is not right.’”
A few days after our interview, Miller contacted me as she had remembered a specific instance of discrimation and offensive actions that a department of professors took part in at Hope. “The professors made a poll about whether or not I was going to come back to college,” she shared with me. “Someone discreetly told me that their department had a poll running about whether I would be a dropout or come back to school.” Imagine already facing the confusion of an unplanned pregnancy mid-education and hearing that the professors who were supposed to support and encourage education without discrimination, many of them parents themselves, are the ones actively betting against your future.
Sara Dorer, the Title IX coordinator for Hope, is a great resource for students facing discrimination on campus for pregnancy or other reasons related to sex or disability. She can be contacted at email@example.com or calling (616) 395-6816. While Dorer helped me navigate pregnancy and parenting on campus, Miller said she “did not talk to the Title IX director, but I wish I did.” After moving to Traverse City, Miller relied on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) as a resource. “I was a student and making no income so of course eligible for WIC. They have so many nice programs and connections like La Leche League or Tea with Moms, or I know there’s a workout mom group. There are so many different things you can go to and meet other people. I’m very thankful for it.” Northwestern’s only support for Miller and her boyfriend was “a food drive during Christmas where they would give us some food and a $100 gift card to Meijer, but otherwise [there was] no support,” Miller said.
After the fall semester at Hope, Miller moved up to Traverse City to live with her boyfriend, Adam Kovacs, who was in the aviation program and a junior at the time of the pregnancy. They had decided that he would finish school first as Miller’s education would take longer to complete, and they didn’t want to be separated while becoming new parents. Miller spoke about preparing to move and have Ezra: “I was like the frugal-est person ever when I was pregnant. I worked so much, and I was trying to make so much money. I ended up saving enough money to take three months off when Ezra was born so I didn’t need to work. I feel like that’s not only a personal thing but an innate biological thing like part of the nesting instinct to grab as many resources as you can.”
Ezra was born on January 15, 2018, by an emergency cesarean section at Holland Hospital. After moving to Traverse City and discovering that they could not tour the closest hospital’s birth center or switch obstetricians so late in the pregnancy, Kovacs and Miller made the choice to schedule an induction (a process which induces labor) at Holland Hospital to have Ezra with the doctor who had cared for Miller throughout her pregnancy. Miller told me the traumatic story of Ezra’s birth in great detail, and her experience and recovery will be shared in a followup article next week.
After being a stay-at-home mom for a few months, Miller applied to jobs at Munson Medical Center to get clinical hours for her aspiring medical career. She got a job on the stroke and detox floor that also works with Alzheimers and dementia patients. Despite the emotions associated with leaving Ezra for the first time, Miller said she “started working and I loved it. I missed Ezra of course, but it was a healthy break, and I was showing an example of what you should do, what I want him to do, of caring about yourself but also doing your own thing too. This [working on the stroke and detox floor] was some critical stuff, and I really liked it. They were the only floor in the hospital that had a breastfeeding room. Otherwise the only other one was in the basement. Every three hours I would go and pump for 15 to 20 minutes.” Similarly, the only breastfeeding room at Hope is on the first floor of the science center. “I did miss him,” Miller continued, “and I hated pumping, and I much rather would have breastfed every single time, but it was healthy to get away and for him to socialize with other kids.”
While Miller worked and Kovacs went to school, they had a nanny who also had her own child look after Ezra. “I wanted more one-on-one [care] until he was a little bit older, and I think I would do that again,” Miller told me. “He’s in a daycare right now, but if we were to have another I would want them to be with a one-on-one [nanny] until they’re like eight to twelve months old. I like that connection.” Miller and Kovacs’ schedules worked out well so that the nanny was only necessary for five or six hours about three days a week between Miller’s 12-hour shifts and Kovacs’ classes. After the first nanny moved to South America, “We got another woman who was a military stay-at-home mom whose kids were in middle school. She watched him until he was about ten months old, and it was around then we got him into a home-based daycare. We wanted that social aspect, and we were finally ready for him to be around others without worrying about the provider not paying attention to him,” Miller said. She emphasized the importance of forming a trust between a childcare provider and parents, and discussing the different situations the provider may face when caring for children. “Every single person I’ve put him with I know would never put him in danger, but it’s hard because there’s a lot of kids, and it’s hard to pay attention to just one of them,” Miller expressed.
Miller returned to Hope for the fall semester of 2019. “I love Hope,” she says. “I came in with horses blazing. I was so ready. The one thing I missed about college, and that I think I see now from a different perspective, is how much school means to me. I remember being at the hospital and missing intelligent conversations. I missed analyzing paragraphs and articles and critically thinking about things. You don’t do that in day-to-day life as a low-level patient care assistant. I was ready to learn again. I was learning at my job but not the way you learn at school. You can only learn so much about what to do during a code or helping someone go to the bathroom, and you can learn a lot about what disease they have and how it affects them, but you also need that foundation of learning who people are.”
In preparation for school, studying was Miller’s focus. She took out her old binders and books and helped one of Kovacs’ friends tutor an online class. “I was like, I need to remember it all, remember how to study again,” she said. “I started [school], and I signed up for way too much stuff. I was a full-time student and doing research and all these things, and it was way too much.” I agreed with Miller here—taking a full-time load of classes plus extra-curriculars is incredibly hard to do while parenting a toddler. “It’s different when they’re a newborn because they sleep all the time,” Miller said. “It’s still hard, and you don’t get a lot of sleep. Sleep deprivation was awful but the activity and exhaustion level [now] is bad now too. I should have slowly added on. What I’m doing now is the maximum. I can’t add on anything else without breakdown.” Miller is currently planning to major in biology and minor in leadership. She is on the pre-PA track and wants to go to GVSU for PA school. She’s in the biology club, part of STEP, does research at Hope and volunteers at the Holland Health Clinic.
I asked Miller the big question: how does she manage family life and student life? “This is the meat of the sandwich,” Miller replied. “The hardest thing. This is what I struggle with every day. Am I spending enough time with Ezra that is quality time? Am I spending enough time with school that’s quality and efficient? Am I doing what I can for the GPA I have, is my ratio of working hard for classes match up to my grades? Is it worth it? Am I doing enough for my partner? Am I emotionally there? There’s so much. You can divide your plate in so many ways and it’s so hard to figure out where to divide it.” Miller went on to describe her daily schedule to me in detail. She is in class or at other school-related activities from eight or nine thirty every morning to five o’clock in the evening before going back home to spend five to nine with her son, except on Mondays, the only day Miller will “allow myself to stay at school. I schedule every single thing Monday night. I do not want to take that time away from Ezra.” The rest of Miller’s schedule is also exact. “Every single second of my life I have scheduled and structured. You have to because how else am I efficiently going to volunteer, be a researcher, be a mom, be a good student to get into PA school. I definitely have something going every single minute. It is very hard,” she said. “As soon as Ezra’s in bed, I start homework. Just like every other student I have five to six hours of homework every night. To get where I want to be as a student and to accomplish my goals, I have to put in that time and that usually means not a lot of sleep. It’s very, very, very hard.”
Self care is a much acclaimed solution to parenting and student burnout, but with such a tight schedule managing both, it can be hard to find the time. “Self care is one place I’d really like to work on because when I have extra time it’s like ‘ok, let me do the dishes or an extra load of laundry,’ or ‘let me finally make Ezra’s bed into a toddler bed because we haven’t, and we should.’ There’s just always something else to do,” Miller said. She did mention going on “self-care binges,” where she takes care of several things at once like getting a haircut and doing her eyebrows, or buying a few new things for herself. Many other mothers have written on the topic, and the general consensus is that sometimes mothers don’t need time to care for themselves, but time to take off caring for everyone. When facing burnout, the exhaustion is debilitating, but so is the mental load of all the things to do and all the things that won’t get done if the mother takes a break.
I also asked Miller about student reactions to hearing she has a son. “When they find out I have a kid, most students are very excited. Like ‘Can I meet him? What is this like?’ A lot of them ask the questions you’re asking like ‘what is it like being a student and a mom?’ It’s rewarding and awful,” I then asked her if she felt isolated from the “normal” student life. “Yes, I feel isolated from normal student life. I come home and I’m a family person. I’m a mom and going to be a wife and I’m a cleaner, a cook, all these things. Then I go to school and I’m a student and I’m supposed to be a good student. When I meet other moms they’re usually not students, and I’m not friends with them because they’re a lot older than me. You’re constantly stuck between these two worlds. You have to be good in school. You want to be a good mom, but you’re at school and paying all this money to be a good student. How do you do both? It’s very isolating. I have a lot of friends who are students who say they understand but we, we understand. They don’t get the exhaustion. And other moms don’t understand either. ‘Why didn’t you take your kid to the park? It’s a sunny day!’ Well I have so much other stuff to do, and I just can’t. It’s hard to be the best of both worlds. It is very isolating being in between.”
This isolation as a parenting student was a large focus of Miller’s answer when I asked her what Hope could do better to support students with children. “I think they should start a mentorship program to help people. Everything I’ve said would have been so nice to have someone walk through with me,” Miller said. I strongly agreed with her. Each bodily change in pregnancy and early motherhood was new, and having someone to walk through it would have helped immensely. “All the things you have questions on that you can’t ask your mom. I mean you can but you don’t want to,” Miller explained. “And if students don’t want to become parents, they shouldn’t have to take their roommate to Planned Parenthood and then always have that roommate remind them of that shame. They should have someone who they kind of know but they don’t speak with every single day, but that will help them through it. I think that that would really help.” Other than mentorship, Miller and I agreed that “they should have more scholarships to help take the financial burden off of us. Not only are we paying for Hope and tuition, but we are also paying $100 for diapers every month and $150 for daycare every week and so many other things that you don’t think of. So maybe if there were more scholarships available that could help. And more breastfeeding rooms,” she ended. Yes, you heard that right. Daycare is priced at $150 a week, and that is on the conservative side.
The difficulties of financing education and parenthood in college is a nation-wide issue that many parents, including single mothers, have to face. The statistics are depressing: parenting students typically hold significantly more debt than non-parenting counterparts, and scholarships are rare but often necessary for parenting students to make ends meet. Of parents in college, the number of mothers is twice the number of fathers, yet the percentage of single mothers who graduate college is half of the typical graduation rate of women in college. These data speak for themselves: parents in college need assistance but do not typically get it.
Even at Hope, the same issue arises. With few parenting students there is not a large drive for change, but between students and professors with children, the need for facilities like breastfeeding rooms and scholarships to support the additional needs of parenting students is clear. Miller’s story, which will be continued in an article next week that examines the care for women throughout labor and the rising maternal mortality rate in the United States, shows one of the many diverse ways that mothers choose to pursue their education despite the many difficulties.