BYU student-parents navigate college life

Many BYU students and undergraduates nationwide face the challenge of balancing school, work and being a new parent. (Canva illustration by Molly Ogden Welch)

It’s 3:30 a.m. Like clockwork, I am awake again. After tossing and turning through the night, I am inevitably forced out of bed and out of my comfortable position, either by intense hunger or by a tiny human pushing on my bladder. I not-so-nimbly get out of bed, trying not to wake my husband with the grunts and groans that come from my 8-months-pregnant body. I go to the bathroom or grab a quick snack, and then it’s back to bed. Only now, the pregnancy insomnia kicks in and my mind is awake.

This would be less of an issue if I wasn’t supposed to wake up for real in just a few hours for school or my job on campus. Several people have told me how impressed they are that I am taking classes and working while also being so pregnant, but I don’t see any other option. With just a few credits left before graduation, it would be a shame to let the past few years go to waste by not finishing my degree.

At least, that’s what I tell myself as I wake up early to frontload my entire semester before my baby arrives. That’s what I tell myself as my husband and I anticipate the challenges that our last semester will bring as student-parents. 

My professors have been nothing but accommodating this semester, helping me make a plan so I can finish my coursework before my daughter arrives in March. But a major stressor remains: How do I balance parenthood and finishing school?

This graph shows information from the Education Resources Information Center, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and California State University, Sacramento, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. (Made in Canva by Molly Ogden Welch)

Many BYU students and undergraduates nationwide face this same dilemma. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, “Of the 20 million college students in the U.S. enrolled during the 2019-2020 academic year, 4.3 million were raising a child.”

BYU students McKay and Jessica McFadden joined the ranks of student parents in October 2021 after the birth of their daughter, Ruth.

“Pretty much right when we got married, we both felt like we should start our family. We knew that it would probably be tricky because we’re both in school, but we were just like, ‘This feels right, let’s do it,’” McKay McFadden said.

Ruth was born mid-semester, adding to the McFaddens’ already busy schedule of full-time school and part-time work.

“Last year was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We had the baby halfway through this semester, and that was hard on its own. Wonderful, but just a hard adjustment. And Jessie was super busy. My school-load was crazy, so we were stretched last semester,” McKay McFadden said.

Couples may worry that having a baby while still in school may be too difficult. They might wonder if their professors would be understanding of their situation, especially if they were to have a baby mid-semester like the McFaddens.

BYU is equipped with many tools to help students with these exact concerns. Tiffany Turley, BYU’s Title IX coordinator, is one of many administrators on campus who helps to ensure the rights of pregnant and parenting students are protected at BYU. The Title IX Office helps pregnant women and parents in the six weeks postpartum as they adjust to being parents.

Despite having her baby mid-semester, Jessica McFadden said her professors were very willing to work with her after her daughter was born.

“One of my professors was like, ‘Hey, for the next few weeks, don’t even look at anything from the class.’ He was like, ‘Just focus on a time with your baby and your husband, because this is time that you’ll never get back.’ So we really appreciated that,” she said.

Turley said the Title IX office is there to help students and professors plan for the semester, especially for classes that require in-person lab work. Most of the time, students and professors plan their class accommodations on their own terms.

“We don’t get too many pregnant parenting requests just because I think most faculty really are great to kind of accommodate,” Turley said. “If students take the initiative to be proactive about their coursework, I know that goes a long way.”

Jessica and McKay McFadden pose with their daughter, Ruth, who was born in October 2021. Jessica and McKay are studying communication studies and mechanical engineering respectively at BYU, and both work part-time, all while balancing new parenthood. (Photo courtesy of Jessica McFadden)

BYU Women’s Services & Resources is another resource available on campus to support both mothers and fathers in their parenting journey at BYU.

Dixie Sevison, director of the organization, said many scholarships are available for single parents attending BYU.

“WSR is also responsible for the BYU Mothers Room/Changing Station Map and keeps this map updated and available for student and visitor use,” Sevison said. “On the WSR website, one can find information on having a baby while in school and other resources available to student parents on campus and in the community.”

Women’s Services & Resources hopes to make their resources more widely known to help student parents feel prepared when they are on campus with their children.

“These are not resources one thinks about until they need them and because of this, students may have no clue what types of resources are needed or even available,” Sevison said. “Another issue with these types of resources is each parent and family will have different needs. The best advice I can give student parents is if you have a need, ask if there is a resource or help available for your situation.”

Both women and men have resources available to them as they become student-parents, but new fathers especially might not always know what is available to them on campus.

“When I say, ‘pregnant parenting,’ it’s the pregnancy phase and the postpartum parenting phase when parents seek accommodations,” Turley said. “In that situation, it is either parent. It could be a father who needs six weeks to help his wife.”

Although men do not carry and deliver their children and are typically not the primary caretaker when a child is born, fathers play a vital role in supporting mom and baby physically, financially and emotionally. Plus, they are adjusting to parenthood just like their wives. This can be difficult to do as a student-parent, especially if professors and on-campus employers are less willing to make accommodations for new fathers than they are for new mothers.

“I think sometimes the father/child relationship is an afterthought,” Sevison said. “A lot is said to fathers about financially supporting their children, but not a lot is said about fathers having a relationship with their children. I am a strong believer that each parent has the right to have their own relationship with their child. Because of this, I think it is important for new fathers to know that they do matter.”

Sevison believes professors should provide the same accommodations for student mothers and fathers alike because both parents are responsible for the well-being and care of their children.

Jessica and McKay McFadden were able to get the flexibility they needed simply by talking to their professors. They made good use of campus resources as they continued with their education. One of their favorite resources is the family study room in the library.

“Finals week, not going to lie, it was a little crazy,” Jessica McFadden said. “But it worked out. We sort of just said, ‘Okay, McKay will go take a final and then he come back and watch Ruth and then I go take my final and we just switch off. The beginning of finals week, we went to campus super early, and we brought all the stuff for Ruth, and we camped out in the family study room in the library. We would just be there all day studying.”

She said when they have overlapping classes and can’t find someone to watch Ruth, Jessica will bring her baby to class. Her professors have not expressed a problem with this.

Despite all of the complications having a baby while in school can bring, Jessica and McKay McFadden would not have it any other way.

“The best thing really has just been having Ruth around. It’s just so fun. There were days last semester, I remember during finals week, she was just starting to smile. I got home from just a super long day and she just smiled at me. All my worries, everything just kind of melted away,” Mckay said.

Jessica McFadden agreed with this sentiment.

“The biggest piece of advice I would give is to rely on the Savior,” she said. “No matter what stage of life, especially being a student, you realize that you cannot do it by yourself. So rely on the Savior, on your spouse, people around you who want to help you. Don’t worry about the whole time in school that you have left, but just take it day by day. It’s possible. It’s definitely possible.”

To hear the full interview with Jessica and McKay McFadden, listen to the linked podcast.
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