A bump in the road: Pregnancy is not a barrier to education

Ellie O’Byrne at her MA in journalism and new media graduation at CIT.

Semesters and trimesters: it’s student life, but not as you know it. When women combine third-level studies with pregnancy and motherhood, it brings challenges, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Each year, when a new influx of eager-faced, excited young women arrives in Cork to embark on their third-level student adventures, I spare a thought for those who will get pregnant.

Because it happened to me.

Twenty years ago, I left school bound for Trinity College, to study philosophy (who knows what career I thought I was going to get out of it). 

I had a boyfriend in Cork. Travelling back at weekends to see him, just three months into my first semester, I was pregnant at 18.

Before you wise-ass commenters of the internet ask, yes, failed contraception was involved.

There were nights of nausea and crying in my shared student apartment, as my life unravelled. On top of the morning sickness was the knot in my stomach at the thought of telling my parents.

I didn’t consider abortion, though a couple of friends mentioned it. It wasn’t a political or religious choice, but a personal one, a feeling that my destiny was now shared. 

When I went home for Christmas, ten weeks pregnant, I told my parents.

File photo.

They were amazing. There were no recriminations: they were worried, but supportive. 

The next morning, when I woke, my mother, in one of her many stellar parenting moments, brought me a bouquet of flowers. 

“No-one has congratulated you yet,” she said.

Trinity College, kindly, given that the courses were not compatible, arranged for me to transfer a deferred place to UCC’s arts degree: as naïve and stubborn as I was, I knew I couldn’t manage alone in Dublin and my boyfriend and I had decided to live together.

My little boy arrived, the most perfect being ever to have crawled into this world. 

The pain, love, and ecstasy of birth are earth-shattering even for the most mature and prepared mother, but I think it hit me all the more because I was so young. I was completely besotted, in love.

The deferred college place came around when my son was only two months old. 

In fairness to the college, I didn’t enquire about what was on offer for students who were breastfeeding mothers. I just couldn’t imagine being apart from my baby for so many hours each day. I walked away from the course.

Life, an artisan bakery business, and a daughter as wonderful as her brother got in the way. 

Now, my son is older than I was when I had him. 

It took me 13 years to get back to third-level education, but now I have a BA in journalism and an MA in journalism and new media from CIT: the MA was a one-year programme that took two years, because I was parenting, supporting the family as a freelance journalist, and studying.

In my experience, there are penalties to be paid in our society for following any course other than the ‘normal’ life trajectory of school, college, work, marriage, and babies, in that order.

But young women get pregnant: they always will. Even the best forms of contraception have 99% success rates: wherever you have a large cohort of women of child-bearing age, you’ll get pregnancies. 

There are over 33,000 students enrolled in UCC and CIT this year.

In the lead-up to the abortion referendum, the ‘In Her Shoes’ social media project highlighted the extent of the student experience of abortion in Ireland.

Almost 30% of Irish women who travelled to the UK for abortions in 2016 were between 18-24, according to the UK Department of Health. 

With GP-led medical abortion services now being rolled out across the country, it’s not possible to predict what impact this will have on students’ choices; maybe decisions like mine will be rarer in the future. 

But if we’re really pro-choice, we support those who continue their pregnancies as well as those who don’t.

Talking to women for this article, more post-grad students had pregnancies they kept than did under-grads, and mature students had planned a pregnancy around the academic calendar.

Sadly, there were women who chatted off the record, but who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories; women who experienced extreme stress and isolation while studying or struggled to complete degrees for years, or even, in one case, were worried that sharing their story would damage their job prospects.

Planned or accidental, there’ll always be women combining pregnancy and motherhood with third-level studies.

Ellie O'Byrne at 20 with her baby son

Suz Brown's story

Suz Brown did a postgraduate course in UCC in co-operatives, agri-food, and sustainable development while pregnant: she started the course in September 2015 and gave birth to Billy in March 2016. 

The second trimester of pregnancy combined well with her studies, but she says later pregnancy was a struggle.

Suz Brown, weeks from her due date, on a field trip to Cloughjordan Ecovillage for her course in co-operatives, agri-food, and sustainable development.

“It was quite hard after Christmas, because I was wrecked, and everything had to be delayed until after he was born,” says Suz, whose primary degree is in economics and psychology (also from UCC).

Suz and her partner, Tom, had not planned the pregnancy; it was “a shock in the beginning, but fine,” Suz says. 

After Billy’s birth, she completed her course within one year, but only by doubling down on her sleep-deprivation.

“I had a beautiful baby and I was very lucky, but it was hard-going, because I had to do everything at night,” she says. 

Sometimes, I’d have him in a sling, and I’d be studying at the desk, with him dozing or awake. Now, there’d be no chance of that. He’s a toddler and flying around the place; he’s harder work now than he was then.

Suz says support from Tom and her family was vital, but that the departmental staff in UCC were also very helpful and facilitated her.

“I had to do a work placement that should have been from April to June, but I did it in September and October, instead,” she says. 

“I also did my exams in the autumn, during the resits. I got extensions and deferrals, when I needed them, and my department were amazingly supportive.” 

Childcare at UCC is limited to just 80 places at Creche Cois Laoi, the campus creche that serves the needs of staff and students alike; there’s normally a waiting list for places, but there’s a childcare assistance fund towards the costs of external childcare arrangements.

In CIT, there are no childcare facilities at all, although there is a similar student assistance fund for students who are paying for childcare elsewhere.

Niamh Connelly is UCC’s student welfare officer. 

She says she’s only had one student inquiry this year relating to a pregnancy, but that the college has no way of knowing how many students are pregnant, because they don’t always disclose themselves, or they may approach the Student Health Centre or the Student Experience Centre.

“There are 21,000 students, so there are definitely pregnant students, but there isn’t one clear point of access,” she says.

Niamh urges students to disclose their pregnancy to their head of department as early as possible, if they’re continuing the pregnancy, not only to avail of a full range of supports, but also because, on certain courses involving medicine or laboratories, there may be safety issues for the developing foetus.

“The first 13 weeks are pretty critical to avoid chemicals, radiation, and biological factors, so, on some courses, it’s about working out any risks that might arise and making sure there are measures in place, so that both student and baby are safe and looked-after during study.” 

Niamh says UCC’s policy is to facilitate study wherever possible and deferrals are offered if the timing of a pregnancy or challenges relating to parenting are insurmountable.

“If you can’t sit a summer exam, you can sit it in the autumn, at the repeats, without the results being capped. 

"You can also defer your place for up to two years. You just need to work with your department.”

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