The quest for academic success often leaves little room for other things, especially when a baby enters the equation. JOANNE LIM talks to students coping with parenthood and the paper chase.
PARENTING and studying don’t usually go hand-in-hand, especially for those in their late teens or early 20s.
If a typical college weekend includes going clubbing and having teh tarik at a nearby mamak until 3am, many young parents often sacrifice such “luxuries”.
While trying to cram last-minute facts for an upcoming exam, these parents have to contend with an attention-seeking toddler at the same time.
So how does one juggle a new family life, studies, and a job?
With their children’s future in mind, obtaining a good degree in order to land themselves a decent-paying job becomes of utmost importance.
Parents, friends, and the education system play a vital role in giving these young adults a chance to succeed academically, while coping with the daunting responsibilities of being a parent.
Local public universities such as Universiti Malaya do not discriminate against young parents who intend to study regardless of their marital status.
“Such information is given to us by the students when they fill up the university entrance form. However, most single mothers are secretive about their status, so it would be difficult to find out. We do extend our assistance to those who come forward and inform us of their problems. The counselling unit is always at hand,” says UM assistant registrar Kamaluddin Yusof.
The university even offers housing facilities for married couples with children by allocating apartments for them on campus.
For those who become single parents after being accepted into the university, Kamaluddin says if the situation is brought to their attention, the student and her parents or relatives would be required to attend a counselling session at the university.
“Most of the time, the students would keep it a secret from their parents or guardian for fear of the outcome. A counsellor will act as a mediator between the two parties. We will also give medical advice to the students as it is important to know whether the student is healthy enough to have a baby.”
Kamaluddin adds that some parents would rather their daughter defer a semester until she has given birth.
“Many students come back to continue their studies. We do not want to deny any student, especially high flyers, a chance to get a degree,” he says, adding the university tries to be considerate and supportive of the student.
Cases of student parents are also not uncommon in universities abroad where scholarship funds are available to help ease their financial burden.
Every year, Texas Woman’s University gives a scholarship to a deserving young parent returning to school, regardless of gender or marital status. The award may be used to help pay for tuition fees or any other expenses.
Certain universities also offer support services to students with young children, such as a parent network, support groups, and babysitting co-operatives.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program has been set up to provide support for the child care needs of university students in order for them to continue and succeed in their educational endeavours.
Giving birth at the age of 20 was not part of Diana’s plan of growing up. Her dream had been to complete her studies, find a good job, get married, and start a family.
Only, the dream came too soon, but not the way she wanted it. She hadn’t completed her studies when she became pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend of one year.
“At that point, he was not in a position to support a child financially, and I was against the idea of getting an abortion,” she says.
Living in Indonesia then, Diana only had her mother to turn to for advice.
“My mother was supportive of me keeping the baby and advised me to emigrate to Malaysia where my father had been working for 14 years,” she adds.
Her life changed dramatically and Diana was forced to grow up and make adult decisions.
News of her pregnancy had reached the college authorities in Indonesia, and Diana was ordered to leave immediately.
“They did not want to accept a student who was pregnant without being married. I had to stop studying for the entire semester before coming to Malaysia,” she says.
Instead of giving up on her education, Diana was determined to enrol herself in the June intake of a Bachelor in Hotel Management programme in a college in Kuala Lumpur, eight weeks after the birth of her daughter Alissa.
“I was only focused on our future – mother and child. If I didn’t complete my studies, I wouldn’t be able to get a job. How could I support my baby then?”
After giving birth, Diana had to cope with all the physical and emotional trauma of being a new mum alone.
“I was breastfeeding every night and while in college; my nipples were hurting real bad. Most of the time, it started leaking and I had to run to the toilet to extract the milk,” she recalls.
The pain continued for five months, forcing her to switch to bottle-feeding. “I couldn’t imagine how I was going to cope with all this, and whether I could even survive,” she adds.
Taking responsibility as a mother, Diana found a part-time job at her college after her daily nine-to-four lectures, earning RM500 a month.
“I didn’t want to burden my parents as they also had my younger sister to support,” she says, adding that proper time management was important in juggling all her responsibilities.
Diana’s parents would take care of Alissa whenever she was out studying or working.
“They do not mind caring for my baby. Even when I first got pregnant, my parents were very supportive and assured me that they would always be there for me.”
Diana recalls a piece of advice from her parents: “It’s not going to be easy, and whatever problem occurs, you have to be strong.”
“I would not have been able to cope without my parents’ help,” she says.
When she was 10 months old, Alissa spoke her first word – “Mama”.
“She’s my strength and my life. When I see her after I come home from work, all the stress and pain fade away,” Diana adds.
In college, her personal life was always kept a secret to avoid being questioned by friends.
“People would start asking me who and where the father was and having to explain such things can be quite upsetting.”
Diana would then have no other choice but to tell the truth: “I’m a single mother with a kid; the father’s not around; it all happened by accident.”
“Although friends did not shun me when they found out, it was awkward for me to talk about it and then see them trying to be sympathetic,” she adds.
Church friends who knew of her story often offered a helping hand or a listening ear.
“I was not rejected by the congregation; instead, people came up to me, asking how I managed to cope so well, with work and studies, and a child. It helped spur me on to care for my baby, and to never give up.
“Problems will always be there. You just have to be spiritually strong and always stay positive,” says
Diana, adding that because of her religion, abortion was not an option.
Life goes on
With her 18-month old daughter, Diana returned to Indonesia last year to settle things with her boyfriend.
“Things were still the same with him; he didn’t have a job, didn’t care to work hard, and I found out he had been lying to me about his work progress. I loved him, tried to be patient and understanding, but it was all in vain.” She decided to end the relationship and return to Malaysia.
“All he needed to do was to study and work hard, and prove to my family that he had actually gotten his life together, but he couldn’t do it,” says Diana.
She realised how little he cared for her and the baby.
“He called and perpetually sent SMS (short text messages) but never once offered financial assistance; and I think if he really was a responsible father, he would take the initiative to do something about it.
After graduation, Diana found a full-time job at a hotel, earning RM1,400 a month.
“It’s not enough, but we’re doing fine as mother and daughter. We managed before when I was studying and we will manage now. I have become a much stronger person after all this.”
If she could rewrite her past, would she?
Diana says: “It was never my plan to have a baby at such a young age, but now when I see her and hold her, the thought never crosses my mind. I know everything will fall into place one day.”
As indeed it has.
The 23-year-old who got married three weeks ago, believes that she has found a good husband and a father for Alissa.
“He loves us both dearly. It’s time to put the past behind and look forward to a new life,” says Diana.
Taking a road less travelledFor 23-year-old Kathy, abortion was not an option when she received news of her pregnancy two years ago.
Her mother knew it was morally wrong to abort the baby, but felt it was still a better option.
“I couldn’t go through with it. I cannot imagine killing an innocent life. Some people try so hard to have a baby and they fail. How can I just throw mine away?” she says.
She was then a single mother-to-be, in her second year of pursuing a communications degree at a private university.
“It’s RM10,000 per semester. I wasn’t going to quit studying halfway through and waste all the money spent. I would also need a degree to apply for jobs later,” says Kathy, whose parents are still paying for her education.
Three months into her pregnancy, Kathy married her then boyfriend, Jason Khoo, 25 – the baby’s father.
“He was very supportive of my decisions. Other guys would have freaked out but he didn’t,” she says.
Theirs was a simple wedding, attended by relatives and close friends.
“I eventually had to tell some of my close friends – those I could trust, especially friends from church. They were shocked, of course, but they enjoyed buying baby stuff for Judith on her full moon,” she recalls.
Her decision to keep at her studies paves a tough road for her.
“I never have time for myself anymore. I go for lectures in the morning and return home to take care of Judith, and then complete my assignments.”
By the end of each day, Kathy is tired and emotionally drained.
“I am sacrificing a lot for her and have totally given up on travelling and partying. I find myself doing things I should only be doing when I’m about 28,” says Kathy, adding that letting her family take care of the baby when she goes out to enjoy herself would not be fair on them.
“I know a girl younger than I am who has a baby. She works at night, then goes partying and comes home drunk.”
Being emotionally stable and mature is important for a young mother.
“I don’t blame some people for choosing abortion. Some are just not able to handle the responsibility that comes with having a child and they don’t have supportive parents. You might end up ruining someone else’s life if you’re not prepared to dedicate your time to the child,” says Kathy.
From changing diapers to playing with Judith, Kathy’s family helps out in whatever way they can.
“They give her a lot of attention and she has become quite spoilt. She needs someone with her 24 hours a day and demands to be carried most of the time.”
A common scenario at home: Kathy working on the laptop while Judith takes a nap beside her.
“We have a timetable at home. I do my revision and assignments from 8pm to 11pm while my mother and husband look after her,” she says.
She receives an allowance of RM500 a month from her parents, and has set up an education fund for 10-month-old Judith.
“Jason puts in RM350 a month into the fund and we will continue to do so for her studies from kindergarten right up to university,” says Kathy who will start working next year.
The couple plan to enrol Judith in kindergarten at the age of two.
“I want to give her a head start in education. It’s better than staying at home and watching Barney on TV all the time,” she adds.
Doing computer sales, Jason earns RM2,000 a month, barely enough to support his family.
“It’s not much, but we’re managing,” says Kathy.
Since having Judith, she has been more conscious of the way she spends money. Phone calls are kept short and eating out is a rarity.
In university, she keeps a low profile and does not mention her baby.
“If they ask, I wouldn’t lie about it but I won’t publicise it either. People will start asking why I didn’t abort ? it’s too much pressure. Many don’t see my point of view,” she says.
Staying with her parents, Kathy says she is not thinking of moving out soon.
“I’ll have to think of dinner and laundry among other things. It would be a bigger struggle,” she adds.
Does she regret any of this?
“I don’t regret it. It’s a sooner or later thing, anyway. Someday, we’ll all get married and start a family; for me, it just happened earlier.”
In fact, she plans to have two more children later on.
“Judith has brought much joy to the family. I will definitely want her to have siblings,” says Kathy. But right now, she’s gearing up for a prom night.
Having it all -- degree, husband and childAzreen Mohd Nasir, 23, was in his final semester, completing a degree in environmental science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, when he got married.
His wife NurulHidayah Ahmad Zahid, 25, had just obtained her Bachelor in Communication at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
One month ago, the couple became proud parents of a baby boy, Arjuna Iskandar Azreen.
“We didn’t plan to have a baby so soon, but we were ready to commit ourselves. Financially, we still needed our parents’ help although we had some savings between us,” she adds.
Graduating a week after the baby was born, Azreen is coping well,thanks to his new job as a manager of a small consultancy.
“I had to start buying diapers and milk powder with my paycheques. That’s part of the sacrifice – not spending money on myself,” he says.
Adds Nurul: “Being a student and parent has its tough moments, mentally and physically. It’s difficult being patient at a young age, so having a screaming baby by your side while you’re studying is really trying.”
The couple plans to pursue Master's degrees in Florida, in the United States, next year.
“We will bring baby Arjuna with us. I don't foresee much difficulty in coping, as my aunt will be with us,” says Nurul who hopes to have four more children. “The more the merrier.”
“I see people my age still flirting around and I thank God I've got it all – an education, a good husband, and a beautiful baby.”
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