In the spirit of Mother’s Day, contributor Elnoviamy (Amy) shares an honest and touching recount of her journey becoming a mother whilst pursuing a master’s at the University College London, UK. May her story inspire us all, especially women everywhere, to be gritty despite all odds.
When I was asked to write this article, I initially planned to present a resourceful information about what to expect as an expecting mother whilst having academic commitments as a student in the UK. I thought it would provide an illuminating glimpse for other women who might be experiencing the same condition.
However, I realized that the journey of motherhood and academia does not have to be filled with conceptual details or motivational victory. Instead, by uncovering the harsh truth, I hope this can become a reflection for me and other women to celebrate choices and to understand that things are not always according to plan.
Soon after finishing my bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to do a master’s. I was lucky to gain adequate experience in professional teaching during my final undergraduate years. Thus, directly preparing myself for a scholarship application seemed like a reasonable choice. I was also lucky to have a partner who shared the same goals and supported my personal growth. We decided to get married to continue supporting each other’s career and dreams.
My dream was vivid and simple, or so I thought. Aspiring to be an educator, I had always wanted to study in the University College London (UCL), UK. It is well reputed as the best education university in the world and I wished to see myself attending classes from the best curriculum policymakers in the UK. Receiving an unconditional offer from them was the best feeling in the world.
However, only a few weeks after my UK visa had been granted, I discovered that I was pregnant. It felt surreal, like a perfect combination of the sincerest joy and jitter. Being a new mother while pursuing higher education seemed to be a daunting choice. I was scared by the responsibilities, let alone the potential health consequences of pregnancy. Concerned family members and their poignant remarks were hard to handle. Yet, I understood that human beings are accountable for every decision they make.
Among the first things I did was reaffirm myself. I restlessly roamed into many stories from other mothers about their pregnancies during studies, and this put a weight off my shoulders. I confirmed flights and UK’s visa regulations for pregnant students and contacted International Student Helpdesk for more informative support.
Once I had done those steps, I started to feel supported. I knew that I would get full medical support from the UK through their National Health Service (NHS) insurance. I grew quietly hopeful that I would manage pursuing a master’s with a baby inside my body.
After all, why would family commitments stop a woman from celebrating her academic growth? Why is building a family in a seeming antithesis to opportunities to higher education, especially for women? When choosing to have children, do women have to sacrifice their personal ambitions? These questions became the convincing factor for me not to let go this rare opportunity.
However, adapting to academic life during my first months was hard. London moves quickly and those who walk slowly will be left out. I clearly overestimated my physical ability. I was not ready for what my body experienced.
The pressure of the workload, combined with hormonal imbalance, did not reflect what my midwife referred to as a “happy and peaceful body experience”. I was constantly fatigued by crossing off my maternity to-do list. I usually did either a blood or urine test every two weeks, combined with flu jabs, pregnancy support meetings, and regular ultrasonic screenings. I was also assigned to prenatal classes where I was taught how to breastfeed and take care of the baby. Living in London without the presence of my spouse, I needed to do all the maternity visits by myself and that was honestly a despairing experience.
On the hand, despite my effort to stay organized, there would be times when I would reluctantly drag my body to the library. ‘Baby Brain’, as unrealistic as it sounds, was real to me. The challenge to catch up with the long reading lists every week was also real. During my first two terms, I spent too much time feeling anxious and resentful that I was not able to fulfill my own expectations because I kept thinking I was not good enough.
This hardship continued after I delivered the baby. Juggling studying with keeping both the baby and myself happy and sane was an overwhelming duty. There would be unforeseen plights where the newborn Radiant got clingy and would not let me go to the university.
It got worsened when I was readmitted to the hospital for two weeks for contracting a mastitis and MRSA virus. One night in the hospital, I received the news from my sister that my dad was no more. Suddenly losing someone I dearly loved without any chance to say goodbye was mentally destroying. Soon after hearing about my health, my dissertation supervisor insisted that I completely rested before the final part of my research, thus delaying my dissertation’s submission.
God sees, god speeds. Among the seemingly never-ending hardships, I learned that I was bestowed with many blessings. London gave me new sets of family. I became much better at asking and accepting help from friends and colleagues.
The university also provide an excellent support system. My program leaders and supervisors helped me find flexibility in managing my double duties as a student and a mother, among others by offering deadline extensions and rigorous feedback for my dissertation. It warmed my heart that despite their comforting words, they provided me with professional guidance and assessment for my research.
I was also lucky to experience a world-class healthcare service from the NHS. The midwives and doctors there constantly reminded me that pregnancy is a unique experience and that I should put my wellbeing first. The best part, having a partner who came and took over most of my motherly duty, was something I would forever cherish.
I was lucky to be surrounded by people who never turned their back on me. These people helped me reassess my unrealistic expectations of becoming a perfect mother and a perfect student, because now I understand that there is no such thing.
Radiant, my baby, would be four next year. We both have overcome those mountains of hardship, but we are nowhere near victory. Radiant and I will continue doing great things together with me as a mother and an educator and him, a son and a friend.
Radiant would be my constant reminder of how strong a woman can be when she chooses to believe in herself. I am grateful for what I decided four years ago and have been humbled by my experience. Women choose their way of lives and I am grateful that I chose not to be afraid.
Photos provided by author.