My first interaction with other students at university was in my induction session, a week or so before my first classes started. Someone next to me in the lecture theatre initiated conversation:
“What school did you go to?”
I blinked. I was confused; I had left school five years before. It wasn’t a part of my life I thought about much anymore.
I look young, so I’m usually perceived as being the same age as most other people in my classes, but I started university at 22 and was considered a ‘mature student’. I had already lived on my own for two years, worked for several years, and I had gotten married three months before classes started.
Another student asked me what halls I was staying in, and I watched them mentally backtrack when I replied and said that I didn’t – I lived in a flat with my husband. It seemed so strange to me that where I went to school or who I lived with would be interesting to other people. These things were so detached from how I viewed myself that it was jarring for me to realise that others formed their perception of me based on them, and that these were potentially key parts of their own identities.
Moving away from home for the first time can prompt a kind of identity crisis. For the first time, you’re free to make your own decisions about the kind of life you want to live, (hopefully) without judgement or unwanted input from family. Maybe you suddenly find yourself with more control over things like who you interact with, what you eat or wear, how you spend your money, how you decorate your home, and what you do at the weekend. It’s a chance for you to reinvent yourself and change how you’re viewed by the people around you.
However, outwith the student community you’re often only seen as a student. Assumptions are made about how you live your life; non-students often assume your free time is devoted to light-hearted socialising and enjoying a lack of responsibilities – flat parties, going out with new friends, study dates, pulling all-nighters before deadlines. Other people’s perceptions of you are built around your student status and it’s central to your new identity.
When you have a baby, a similar thing happens. It’s a time of massive change: your body, your hormones, your daily routine, and your family dynamics are all changing and adapting. It’s a good opportunity to decide who is important in your life and cultivate the kind of home environment that you want to raise your child in. Again, it is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, and how other people view you will change even if your own internal identity feels unchanged.
When I took my baby to get his immunisations, a member of staff greeted me at the door:
With two (well-meaning) words, I was stripped of any individuality and I became very aware that, at least to this person, my defining feature is that I have a baby.
Now, people assume that ‘parent’ is key to my identity.
Becoming a parent, like being a student, is such a full-time commitment and has a whole culture surrounding it. ‘Student life’ is very different from ‘mum life’. I’m the only one of my friends to have a baby and I’m the only student in any baby groups I attend. I manage to participate in some aspects of ‘mum life’: unwashed hair and mum buns, clothes covered in milk and spit-up, and being able to empathise with the unique tiredness that is a product of consistent sleep deprivation and constantly having to be present while caring for a baby. I appreciate the understanding and solidarity that other parents extend to me when I express my frustration and exhaustion. And I celebrate with other parents when they get through a difficult phase with their baby or when I see them get some much-needed sleep or support. But I’m not on maternity leave. I don’t have a lot of ‘mum friends’, and I’m also a lot younger than most of the parents I meet. I’m so busy with uni work that I miss out on most opportunities to meet other parents.
In the same way, I subscribe to some of ‘student life’, but not all of it. It’s difficult to find other people in the same situation and people who don’t just think I’m “brave” for taking on so much at once. It’s difficult reconciling the two parts of my life in my head – they both take up a huge amount of my time, and I’m constantly juggling changing nappies, attending lectures, playing peek-a-boo, writing essays and reading bedtime stories.
Depending on where they meet me, people often put me in a box of either ‘student’ or ‘parent’. I’m sure this happens to other people, and I’m sure I do it to other people too. Accepting that my identity is broader than just what I spend most of my time doing or what others perceive is a work in progress. It’s okay to not want my identity to revolve around my baby, or my degree. Identity is fluid and complicated and it means different things to different people. Most importantly, my identity belongs to me and it isn’t dependent on how other people see me.
[Jasmine Yancey – she/her]