Getting the Job Done

Western senior and mother of two offers a glimpse into the life of a student parent

Personal narrative written by Sara Helms

I am amazed by my peers; young adults who are so responsible, creative, driven and intelligent. When I was their age, I was lost. I didn’t know who I was or who I would become. This combined with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to be a responsible adult led me to fail at college life. After two miserable and confusing years, I dropped out of school at the age of 20 and fell into retail work.

I always knew I wanted to finish school, but it would be another decade before I would find motivation and inspiration to actually do it. My daughter, Hannah, was about one year old, and I was 31. I could feel the impending doom of my career at Sears, as stores across the country were closing and it was only a matter of time before our store was next. So I began the terrifying process of going back to school.

There was another major life decision my husband and I were making at the time. It was very important for us to have our children close together, preferably within two years of each other. In the fall of 2013, while preparing for my first quarter back to school, I was also doing some family planning. That was the quarter we found out Hannah was going to be a big sister.

Life was great; I savored the college experience. I was taking care of my prerequisites at Skagit Valley College while continuing to work part time at Sears. Somehow I also got talked into writing for the school’s student newspaper, something I had never considered or imagined I would ever do.

Spring quarter, while in my third trimester of pregnancy, I turned in my final assignment just two days before going into the hospital for my scheduled cesarean section. Two months after Juniper was born I went back to work. The following fall, I returned to school. Homework consistently got tougher after that. It was very distracting to have a precious, adorable baby around. Time studying was constantly interrupted by things like breastfeeding or potty training.

Going to school as a parent is hard and exhausting — I cannot reiterate that enough. People ask how I do it and I always tell them all the same thing: it’s very, very difficult. I always say how impressed I am by my younger peers who are excelling at school, while doing equally great things, like working two jobs or getting involved in student government. Parenthood is not a job — you can’t call in sick, you can’t be late, you can’t quit. In fact, if your kids get sick you have to put your entire life on hold to care for them. One night during my first year back at school, Hannah threw up three times in her crib. The next day, she was completely fine and we spent the day cuddling and playing. But because I stayed home with her, I missed two midterms that day.

I’ve been in school for Juniper’s entire life and for most of Hannah’s. These are critical years for them. This is a time for bonding and for learning things like how to crawl and walk, how to use a potty, dress themselves, draw, read, write, share, make friends, use manners — the list goes on. Kids need a lot of attention, so I’ve felt a lot of guilt these past three years as I find I have less and less time to devote to them. Even as I write this they are in someone else’s care.

I often feel that I have no right to complain about how impossible it seems at times. After all, I’m the one who left school at the age of 20 and waited over 10 years to go back. I’m the one who decided to enroll as a full-time student with a toddler at home. I’m the one that planned a pregnancy my first year back at school. What was I thinking, right?

I will soon be a graduate and looking back, college has been a positive experience. If I hadn’t gone back to school when I did, I may have never gone back. Although being a parent and a full-time student has had its difficulties, this was the right time for me to finish my degree. Now, whether my children want to travel, work or continue their education when it’s time for them to leave the nest, I will be prepared to support my girls in whatever their dreams may be.