Student/Parent: Invisible Labour

I’m trying to get into the habit of not studying on the weekends. On Sunday evening, I write a to-do list for the following week, including the unfinished items from last week’s list. On Monday morning, I wake up to the sound of my baby crying. I’m exhausted, so hungry I feel sick, and really need to use the bathroom.

I pick my baby up to feed him, ignoring my own needs until he’s content, and try to rearrange my to do-list in my head. Pee first. Feed the cats. Change the baby and get him dressed. Then make breakfast. Make the bed. Hope the baby takes a nap. Do the dishes, sweep the floor, clean the litterbox. Eat breakfast. If I have time before he wakes up, put on some washing and start my uni work.

Of course, he wakes up before I can finish eating my breakfast.

While I was pregnant everyone would offer the same advice: ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps’. But when do I shower or use the bathroom? When do I eat? When do I tidy the flat, do my uni work, or have time to do anything for myself? As a result of trying to balance all these things, I’m sleep deprived, eating way more takeout than I should be, and I’m behind in all my classes.

Parenthood and studying aren’t exactly compatible, although it’s made slightly easier this year by having online classes only. I’m most productive on days when I can study for hours at a time in uninterrupted peace, and I prefer to prepare for exams by cramming the two days beforehand. But caring for a baby means my day is broken up into a never-ending cycle of feeding, changing, and entertaining. I study while the baby sleeps or my partner watches him, but it never lasts for more than half an hour before he stirs awake or cries for his mum.

Having a baby means you very quickly learn to prioritise and multitask. I attempt to multitask by feeding and changing the baby while listening to a Zoom lecture. During the few short naps he takes each day, I aim to clean the flat, complete my reading for uni, shower, do the washing and the dishes, prepare dinner, and make myself a coffee. My head is constantly planning, organising, and re-organising, as the responsibilities of motherhood struggle to fit in with every other aspect of my life. The constant act of juggling so many responsibilities is a defining – and exhausting – characteristic of parenthood. You drop some of them: an inevitability that comes with stretching yourself too thin that manifests itself in forgetting less important responsibilities and seeming preoccupied to other people. I’ve heard people refer to this as ‘baby brain’ – a term I’ve always found dismissive of the broad range of skills needed to manage a household and raise a child.

The labour that goes into running a household and caring for others is often invisible, and this invisible labour usually falls upon women to complete. Behind the scenes, we’re mentally meal planning, budgeting, scheduling appointments and remembering birthdays, making sure school uniforms are washed, ensuring the baby has clothes that fit and sterilised bottles, keeping track of immunisations and medications, constantly checking the baby isn’t too hot or cold, and taking pets to the vet. If you were to hire someone to do the equivalent, you’d need a cleaner, PA, driver, childminder, nurse, accountant, cook, nutritionist, and someone doing your laundry.

Women in the UK complete an average of 60% more unpaid labour than men¹. Full-time students report completing the least amount of unpaid work per week, presumably down to their demanding workload and prioritising deadlines over doing the dishes. Mothers on maternity leave are recorded as doing the most: an average of 60 hours of unpaid work per week¹. Breastfeeding alone takes up around six hours of my day, every day.

Parenthood is often invisible to other students. Undertaking a degree is a full-time commitment which is difficult enough to manage alongside a part-time job, let alone the responsibility of caring for a dependent. Every day, student-parents balance being a student and being a parent: watching lecture videos while breastfeeding a baby, scheduling doctor’s appointments around lectures and classes, planning dissertations while soothing children to sleep, and waiting until the kids are asleep to finish studying. Only to do it all over again the next day.

[Jasmine Yancey – she/her]

¹Office for National Statistics. Women shoulder the responsibility of ‘unpaid work’. November 10, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2020.

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