Women shouldn't have to choose between motherhood and higher education

Here's how we can help new mothers who want to go back to school

A baby and a mortarboard.
(Image credit: Illustrated | JBryson/iStock, Michael Burrell/iStock)

The other night, I had a strange dream. I was back in college, toting books from classroom to classroom. But in this particular dream, my baby girl was also with me, and I was desperately looking — to no avail — for a private space to nurse her between classes.

The dream reminded me that motherhood often closes certain doors, and is extremely difficult in certain spaces. Its time constraints and responsibilities can make it difficult to pursue certain careers, or to procure certain degrees. But many women want to break down these barriers, and find the means to pursue higher education while still embracing motherhood.

If only it were easier for them to do so. But we've made it nearly impossible for mothers to pursue higher education in the U.S. while their kids are still at home.

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At a recent United Nations event, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that more educated women would not choose to have large families: "Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, or nine children," he said.

In response he should have seen coming, highly educated women from around the world posted pictures of their many children, using the hashtag #PostcardsForMacron. The existence of these women does not mean that having seven or eight children is common amongst the world's most educated. But these pictures and stories posit that, in a best-case scenario, women would not have to choose between having children — be that one child or seven — and getting an education. As one Twitter user put it: "Show me a woman who wants to be forced to choose between being educated and having children … Why can't we support women who want to do both?"

I know the challenges of pursuing a career while simultaneously nurturing a family. My daughters make me a better writer. They also make writing a lot harder. Funding my own maternity leave, procuring child care during busy seasons, and trying to figure out a means to return to school at some point are difficulties I've grappled with in just the last few months. Thankfully, technology and increasing opportunities to work from home have made it possible for me to walk this rather difficult path. And I am thankful for the opportunity. But many times, I've been reminded how much easier it would be to do one or the other — pursue a writing career and a grad degree without kids, or enjoy my adorable kids without worrying about work projects and deadlines.

I don't think everyone should have to do both, if they don't want to. Being a stay-at-home parent is a noble vocation, and usually a full-time job. Often, parents have to divide and conquer in order to meet the needs of their families — and that may mean they have fewer educational opportunities. In the Washington, D.C., metro area, child-care costs are often exorbitantly expensive — which means that, unless your salary is significant, the numbers often just don't add up to go back to work, or back to school. But I wonder whether more people would embrace the difficulty if they were empowered to do so through increased societal support.

Support for parents is not just for those who are trying to choose between children and a Ph.D., after all. It is also important for those who already have children and need better opportunities to provide for them. For the single or impoverished parent, continued educational opportunities are incredibly important.

According to U.S. News, more than a quarter of undergraduates — 4.8 million students — are raising a dependent. These people need better support. How could a pro-life, pro-family society help care for these parents? How can we increase access to education for them?

One of the greatest frustrations for a young mom seeking a degree are the numerous barriers of entry for parents, including child care. While an increasing number of colleges and universities offer some form of on-campus daycare, even subsidized child care often comes with a waitlist and a price tag. This year, Congress put more funds toward the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program — which provides government subsidies toward college and university child-care programs — increasing its annual funding $15 million to $50 million. While some say this is only a drop in the bucket compared to students' need, it does present a hopeful increase in awareness of that need.

We also must embrace breastfeeding and make it easier to do in public spaces. While many colleges and universities are working to increase the accessibility of nursing and lactation spaces, there's still work to be done, Robin Hoecker notes for HuffPost: "Despite existing laws requiring lactation spaces and pregnancy accommodations, the vagueness of these statutes, coupled with the grey area of graduate students' status as employees, makes these laws difficult to enforce. This ultimately makes universities less accessible and desirable for women who don't want to, and shouldn't have to, choose between motherhood and academia."

Extra time and flexibility are also an important boon to mothers trying to pursue higher education. Catherine Pakaluk, the woman who started #PostcardsforMacron, noted on Twitter that it took her 12 years to complete graduate school: "While that may be normal in some fields, it's really not normal in economics where 6 years is closer to standard. Grateful for a doctoral committee that let me take my time." Schools should consider setting different standards for undergrad and graduate parents, considering the extra responsibilities they bear.

High fertility rates are not the product of a lack of education. But the two — an education, and multiple children — can often feel mutually exclusive. Many brilliant women out there choose children over a degree, because they see their children as the best investment of their time and talents. Their motherhood is not the result of ignorance — far from it. They've seen the value of life, and embraced it, even if it means fewer educational opportunities.

But if we can help those brilliant women choose both — if they want to do so — we should. Because children are a gift — to the Ph.D. student as well as the stay-at-home mom.

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