How does going back to school work for single parents?
November 28, 2012 9:03 PM   Subscribe

How possible is going back to school as a single parent. Straight up; I need to know everything. How much did having children affect your attendance and grades and how did school change your relationship with your kids? Did you pass? Was it worth it? Would you recommend it?

I am young. I have 4 kids under 10, 2 are special needs. I am on government aid to support us and its quite possibly the most horrible feeling and biggest hit to my self-esteem to be one of those 'single moms on welfare' that all of society loathes. I hate barely scraping by and accepting donations for clothing and Christmas presents. I'd like a bright future for myself and my kids where I can support us and be a good role model for my kids in the process.
posted by tenaciousmoon to Education (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How much child caring support do you get? At night?
posted by taff at 9:11 PM on November 28, 2012

My dad did this when I was little, and it was just too hard in the end, even with my grandmother taking care of me at no cost on school nights. He was, however, working full time: his schedule was something like getting up at 5am, getting me to Grandma's by 7am, getting to work by 8am, leaving work for school at 5:30pm, getting out of school at 8:30pm, picking me up from grandma's at 9pm, putting me to bed, and then doing homework. I have no idea how late he had to stay up to do the homework.

There was just me at the time (I was about seven.) He went back again after he married my stepmom and they had two kids; it was still challenging, but not nearly as bad. His grades were better then, but I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that he was just older and wiser - he was 33 when he was doing it as a single dad, and about 45 when he went back again.

Every time any of my parents have gone back to school, it has made us feel neglected. It's possible that's just because my parents (collectively) are kind of crap at making their kids feel not-neglected in the presence of any other priority.
posted by SMPA at 9:15 PM on November 28, 2012

Could you study with the Open University? It would be much more flexible than having to actually attend a physical school.
posted by KateViolet at 9:29 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Huge, huge advances in online degrees.... Not just the sketchy schools anymore, a real alternative for someone in your position. Check into that. Dig your heels in and make it happen. You can do it.
posted by pearlybob at 9:36 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

My parents separated when I was 7 and my mom went back to graduate school, first for an MA and then for a PhD. Dad wasn't in school but worked full-time. I spent increasing amounts of time as a latch-key kid starting at age 9 (hey, it was 1979 and nobody was getting arrested for child endangerment for that sort of thing back then). I also spent a lot of time reading or doing homework in the corner of Dad's office while he was programming (or sometimes he'd log me in on his network account and I'd play rounds and rounds of Adventure) or in the back of whatever room Mom's rehearsals were in (she was a theatre director, and eventually professor). There were many nights when I fell asleep in the back of the room and had to be woken up or even carried out to the car when whichever parent I was with was done with what they were doing.

And even with that, I never felt neglected and never felt unloved. So it's possible.

Unfortunately, since I was the kid and not the parent in the situation, I have no practical suggestions for how they managed this. I wish I did.

One concrete suggestion I do have is that if/when you go back to school, make it a priority to connect with whatever resuming/"non-traditional age" student group or groups exist at your school. Speaking from experience, it's remarkable what a difference it can make to have a peer group of people who didn't graduate from high school last year and who know what it's like to pay rent and work a job and have others dependent on you for their survival and so on.
posted by Lexica at 9:36 PM on November 28, 2012

First, I do not loathe single moms of 4 working their asses off trying to find a way to better themselves.

Second, it is a little different, but I did my grad school at night while I had 3 kids under the age of 3. I did have a wife to look after the kids, but she had a job too. Staright up the hardest thing I ever did, yet the most satisfying. I got really good grades, but I think it was because I was interested in the subject more than the amount of work I had to put in.

If anyone ever asks me what I got out of grad school or was there anything practical, I always,, without hesitation answer, "I learned time management and a shitload about myself."

It will not be easy. It will not even be at the level of this is hard. It will scramble your mind. Whatever free time you have now which I imagine to be pretty little. maybe a half hour to watch a tv show before bed, you will lose to having to read a chapter for a class or having to write a 5 page essay, etc. I am not sure how sleep deprived you are already, but it will get worse.

One story I remember that still makes me laugh although it was not funny at the time, was right after I had typed (electric typewirter before pc or word processors) a two page paper that was due later that night. My wife asked if I would change one of the boys. So I put the paper on the desk next to the changing table and started to change the diaper. Well, as you probably know, when you take a diaper off a boy who is loaded to pee, he does. Straight up into the air. Landed all over my paper. But I had not recognized that yet. I was still disorientated from the pee in my face and hair. So I took the soiled diaper (#2) and put it to the side to clean up everything. When I was finished and went to toss the used diaper, it turns out that a little bit of sample had also hit my paper.

I dried the paper and wiped it as best I could, but handing in a paper with urine and shit stains was hard. Although I got a decent grade on the paper, one comment the teacher left was that I should not leave a coffee cup out near a finished paper or risk spilling it on the paper. I never had the heart to explain what he was really seeing.

I think my kids admire me for having done it now. It helped me with getting them to do their work as they hit middle school reminding them of how Dad did his work come hell or high water. It was a great example to my kids about the importance of education. It also got me some job offers.

If it were me, I would evaluate how long you think it will take, what it will cost you and what you think you can get out of it besides more knowledge. Sounds like you want it for the job opportunities. Before starting and choosing a school, talk to their placement office and find out what they can and do do to help their grads find appropriate jobs.

I would also try to make personal connections with my teachers online or in meatspace. They often are in a position to recommend you for a job or know about a job or can give good advice.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:38 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds like an incredible challenge to do this as a single parent with 4 children. You have my respect for sure.

I watched my father (not a single parent) complete his Bachelors and then Masters degree while I was in junior high/high school and it had a huge impression on me. I learned to highly value education. So much so that I now work for a university and help others, including many single parents reach their educational goals. Some of my students have told me that they do homework with their kids. It is not impossible if you want to make it happen.

I would suggest looking for an off campus/satellite campus of a university and see what they have to offer. These "non-traditional" campuses typically have courses available in the evenings, as well as online courses. They will have a smaller local student base and therefore be able to offer you much more personalized service. Online classes are great for people who need flexible schedules. Many reputable universities now have online programs, so the "stigma" that once went with online classes is quickly vanishing.

I work with many, many students who are not straight out of high school. There are many people returning to college later than what is traditional to complete their degrees - or study a whole new field. If you are an "older" student, you will not be alone, I promise.

Before diving in, have a support system in place. No one can do this alone. But you can do it if you really want to. I have seen many success stories and there was nothing exceptional about any of them other than the student did not give up.
posted by ainsley at 9:55 PM on November 28, 2012

I have NOT done this, but have three data points to offer:

1. I am a college professor and have had a lot of students who were single parents, their struggles were quite evident sometimes but they nearly always completed their degrees.

2. My wife was a single mom college student (working full time) when I met her. She would wake up at 2 or 3 some mornings to study before the kids got up. Sometimes she would take them to the library with her to study. She would get sick at the end of every semester from the strain and take the kids over to her parents and conk out a few days.

Seeing how much their mom valued and sacrificed for an education had a huge effect on the kids. Both grew up with great work ethics and excelled in college. When the boy was a college freshman he told me something like: "When I was little mom would always take me to the college library and tell me to be quiet because the people there were doing very important work. Now I am the one doing very important work in the library--it is so cool!"

3. PearlyBob is absolutely right--online education is possible and respected these days, and the flexibility might be just what you need. Find a traditional school with online courses--stay away from the University of Phoenix and the other for-profit online schools. You can mix online and campus courses if you like. Start out with one course and learn the ropes--online is a different animal than classroom learning and will take some getting used to.

Good luck.
posted by LarryC at 10:26 PM on November 28, 2012 [9 favorites]

single mom of a two-year-old here. i'll be graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor's in english in about 2.5 weeks.

i had about 2 years of school done before i started, so i decided to quit my job and just finish. i'm really happy i did. i have a job lined up and i'm moving out of state and everything. so it's definitely possible.

however, it is hard. i have full-time childcare, an involved babydaddy, and parents in the area for sleepovers when i have papers to write or other deadlines to meet. like right now, while i'm writing my thesis. and i only have one kid!

so, what you need to do is make a plan. and good for you, for being willing to give it a shot.

how and when are you going to study/do homework? if the kids aren't already in daycare/school, where are they going to go and how is that going to affect your budget? in fact, what does your whole budget look like? can you possibly make do on that? what does your support system look like? if it's not adequate, how can you get more support?

be very, very careful about accepting loans, please. i have lived in large part on loans while i finished and my student loan bills are not pretty, but back before i had a kid i got duped into accepting a private loan and now i have a lawsuit for non-payment to deal with. do your research!

i'd recommend making sure that, whatever your major is, you have a clear career path in mind, and a backup plan for if that doesn't work out. get an internship, and hold out for a paid one. go talk to local companies in your field if nothing materializes on campus.

i'm totally rooting for you. feel free to memail me if you have any questions or just want to talk.
posted by woodvine at 10:33 PM on November 28, 2012

oh: my relationship with my kid has not suffered, although i definitely wish i got to see him more. i miss him quite a bit, but he doesn't seem to be terribly upset about the amount of time he spends away from me. he's little now, so i'm hoping to make up for it as he grows up and i'm not quite as frazzled and stressed because i'm worried about how to pay the rent. but i have a lot of mama guilt. i have to hope that in the end, i'm going to be giving him a better childhood.
posted by woodvine at 10:36 PM on November 28, 2012

I have not done this myself, but I will offer some perspectives as an instructor who has taught many successful single parents.

Seriously consider starting out at a community college. They are not all equal, so ask around, do your research, and find out which CCs in your area have a good reputation: which ones have instructors with high expectations and courses that provide a good, solid foundation for your later studies? One of the best things about high-quality CCs is the small class sizes; you can get more individual attention and help from your instructors. You will save tuition and be able to create a flexible schedule for yourself (e.g. lots of evening courses offered). If you go the CC route, make absolutely sure your courses are transferable to other institutions.

Online courses might be useful to you at some point (they can be great in terms of flexibility and not having to arrange childcare) but in my opinion, it's best if possible to start out with some face-to-face courses. Many students aren't made aware that you need to be absolutely solid in your academic and time management skills to be successful in an online course. I suggest that you develop those skills in the classroom first, where you'll get more support, and then take online courses later when you're more confident and already know what you're doing. [On preview, I second a lot of what LarryC said.]

From my observations, successful single parent students seem to have these things in common:
  • They have a good sense of how much time a course will take--this includes work done outside the classroom--and they plan their semesters accordingly. Sometimes this means taking fewer courses because of all their other commitments like kids and/or a job. Taking more semesters to complete your degree may be frustratingly slow, but think of it this way: it's better to take two courses in a semester and do well in both, than take three and fail two of them. Then you are really going to waste time having to retake those courses. Take it easy, especially when you are first going back. Don't let anyone pressure you into taking more courses than you can handle (and that "anyone" includes yourself).
  • If they find out they're missing important foundational education, they take those courses first, rather than trying to skip them and go straight into college courses. If your entrance results indicate you need to take developmental courses in math or English, you should take a semester to do them. These are NOT "dummy courses" (or shouldn't be); they're designed to give you foundational skills you'll need once you start your postsecondary education.
  • They find out what academic resources and help are available to them and then they actually access it. My successful students find out where the tutoring centre, counselling services, and (if necessary) disability services are, and THEY USE THEM. They make good use of their instructors' office hours. Sometimes I sit in my office during office hours and wish my struggling students would come for help. You know who comes to see me? My mature students--typically the single moms who want to get a head start on the research paper even though it's not due for six weeks. They are upfront about asking me for help when they need it.
  • They form support networks with other students in their classes. They study together, give each other notes if they have to miss class, provide a shoulder to lean on if someone needs it, even cover each other's emergency childcare needs.
  • They are super organized and manage their time well. Sometimes they get help with this from the tutoring centre, which provides workshops and one-on-one sessions on time management.
Some of my best students are the ones who come back to school as single moms. I have witnessed some amazing success stories. I wish you the best of luck!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:48 PM on November 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

My mom went back to school as a single mom when I was a kid. Can't quite remember the exact timeline, but I think she started seriously going to school around age 33, with three kids under age 10, and graduated at 39. She had also taken some community college classes before starting at the state school; no idea how many of those transferred. But, basically it took her on the order of 6-8 years of part-time school to finish her bachelor's. She was also working full-time.

It was definitely tough. I don't think she had much time (or money) to spare on herself. It was maily work, school, kids for a long time. She certainly didn't get enough sleep most days. I think she might still be paying off the loans, 10+ years down the road. It also required a lot of family support: our dad watching us some nights and weekends, grandpa or aunts picking us up from school, that kind of thing.

Her grades were decent. She's very smart, and I think that if she'd been going to college with no kids, she would've been a total straight-A overachiever. I think instead she got a mix of Bs and As, and at least one C in a very difficult class. (I remember her getting that report card very vividly!) I am pretty sure that there was some strategizing of what homework is important, what can I let slide, what do I need to know and what can I ignore, because as a single mom you don't have the luxury of giving 100% to every aspect of every class. Cs get degrees, as they say.

Despite the difficulties, I know that she felt like it was worthwhile, and so did we. It meant so much to her to feel like she could support us the way she wanted to, and it meant a lot to have a college degree, too. As far as our experience as kids, it was a mixed bag, but with a lot of positives. She'd come home and tell us about all kinds of cool stuff she'd learned, which I think helped instill a love of learning, and it taught us the value of getting a degree. I do feel like we had to learn to be more independent and helpful (not a bad thing), and (less positive) learned not to bother her about something if it wasn't important... like, sometimes I wanted help with my homework, but didn't ask because I knew she was busy with her own homework. But, would I have preferred her having time for my homework but being miserable and feeling lousy about herself in a dead-end job? No way. And, I guess that it probably helped that, ultimately, it felt like she was doing it for us. School took her away from us a lot, and that was a bummer, but it was going to be worth it down the road. We were making sacrifices for her but we knew that she was making even more sacrifices for us.
posted by mandanza at 11:23 PM on November 28, 2012

Single mom here. I went to school for the reasons you mentioned: that self-loathing and crawly feeling from all the imagined judgements heaped on me by strangers; the fear of the stigma my kids might face; wanting to give us all a chance for something better.
When I started school, I was looking for an easy degree- something quick that would lead to a good job.
I found a tremendously supportive community at college and started to dream bigger. Yes, it was hard work, but it was worth every minute. My kids went to campus with me sometimes, mostly to the few social events I could make time for, and they learned that college is an awesome place with people who talk with respect, encourage curiosity, and free barbeques.
I finished my master's degree almost 2 years ago. My kids were 6 and 3 when I started, they are 16 and 13 now. We pulled together as a team through the years of very lean budgets, too-little sleep and a water-tight schedule. Now, we all savor our free time and relative monetary freedom.
Even with the incredible burden of student loans, I wouldn't change a thing.
(But seriously, student loans are no joke. Avoid them as much as you can, but do what you have to do.)
posted by itwasyou at 11:48 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work for a university and my husband is a returning adult student finishing his bachelor's online (through a state school) while working.

I would highly suggest looking into the resources at a local community college first. Nearly every reputable college or university offers support services for adult and/or non-traditional students, but a community college will be the best equipped to work with you because that's their bread and butter. Plus you'll get a lower cost for courses that will be specifically geared toward transferring to another program, and you'll have a better chance of going to a four-year college (if that's your choice) with good grades and a good classroom foundation. Transferring in is SO much easier than starting as a freshman.

I agree that there are a ton of great online and low-residency programs out there. Do NOT, do not do not do not, go with any for-profit schools, regardless of their accreditation. (You're looking for a school with regional accreditation -- I know that seems counterintuitive, but whatever.) The "better" for-profit schools will have courses that transfer to regular schools, but they are super expensive, and the support is nearly nonexistent. My husband started at Capella because he wasn't sure where he'd be living; it was almost impossible to find advising support on their website, but every semester they'd send him another piece of useless swag like a book light or a paperweight. So where do their priorities lie, hmmm?

The cool thing about many online programs affiliated with brick-and-mortar universities is that you can take advantage of residency for lower tuition. First, look for the stuff in your own state for in-state tuition. But some programs will offer in-state tuition for anyone, regardless of their location, who is taking a program where they won't step on campus -- simply because it reduces the physical load on campus. The University of Wyoming, for one, started as a frontier correspondence school and still serves that purpose.

Based on my husband's experience and what other people have said, I would absolutely concur with those saying that a mom working on a degree is a great inspiration for a kid. At the very least, what a great way to build a spirit of work and "we're all in this together" -- homework time that includes Mom's homework, too!

My husband, who started community college around age 30, says that coming back after a significant time away from the classroom was actually a really positive experience for him. He was more focused and his classwork meant more in terms of personal gain, so he found what was meaningful to him and ran with it. He has done VERY well. It's taken him quite a while (he's on Year 8 or so of doing classes half-time thanks to a demanding technical program and tuition reimbursement through work), but he's in a program that has gotten him industry-wide certifications concurrently with class credit.

There will be a lot of scholarships, grants, etc. available for single parents, adult students, parents of special needs kids, etc., so look into those. But you may have to do a lot more nosing around than you think you have time for, which will undoubtedly be frustrating.

The most important advice I can give you:
1. It is NEVER too late to go back and try again. If this time doesn't work for you, whether you have to drop out due to funds or you come close to failing a class, it is ABSOLUTELY NOT the end of the world. You have quite literally learned something about yourself in the process. Just dust yourself off and try again. They/we are very forgiving :)

2. It may be tempting to look at the other students around you and see younger/richer/lazier/more dismissive students who seem to have things easier than you. It's even more tempting to let these perceptions encourage you to ace yourself out. I remember one older student I knew who wouldn't shut up about all of the little entitled kids in her Japanese class.

Guess what? It's not a competition. If one person gets an A, that doesn't mean you can't get an A as well. Sure, some things might be more difficult for you for whatever reason, but everyone struggles with something or other, whether you can see it or not. You can always learn something -- socially, intellectually, technique-wise -- from the people around you, and conversely it will be very rewarding if you present yourself as a friendly fellow student who can offer something of yourself as well.

3. This is the biggest thing, especially for someone in your situation. It'll be very easy to hear the word "no" and think, "Okay; that's it." Don't take a single no as an answer.

My husband came from a single-parent blue-collar background and expected to follow his mom to the cereal factory. He always thought that "college was not for me" and ended up working nights at a gas station out of high school. That was just his reality, and what everyone told him, so he didn't question assumptions or authority.

Because of this, it's very easy for him (well, it was in the past, but he's much better now!) to get discouraged from alternate ways of solving problems. He'd look at something and say, "Well, I guess I missed the date on that..." or "Dammit, the professor's not there. I guess that's that."

I, on the other hand, grew up knowing that I would almost certainly have to be a little sneaky about getting things done, so I would research the proper channels and figure out if there was another way to get what I wanted. "Oh, that prof's not there? Let's call the department chair." Or "Maybe this form is technically late to Office X, but why don't I call Office Y, where it's supposed to end up later, and ask them if I can take it directly to them."

When you come from a background of poverty, you're very used to things being hard and no meaning no. ("No shit, Sherlock," I can hear you say...) But this is the first step towards better and more efficient self-advocacy. It will take a little time to figure things out at first, and it'll be hard to make yourself get comfortable doing it. But it'll save you time and money in the long run, and it'll be the best way I know to really show how strong you are when it comes to getting things done.

It will undoubtedly be hard, but you have a TON of support options out there. I personally love love love helping people get into higher ed; if I can be of any help to you, please don't hesitate to get in touch :)
posted by Madamina at 11:59 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

A previous job involved working with single parents in university. Depending on where you live and what school you'll be attending, there are resources out there for single parents (and, more generally, for all parents) including bursaries, childcare, food/clothing/vouchers and perhaps even cheaper housing.

I have seen people do it. One of my (former) clients was in her mid-20s with a 12 year-old and a 9 year-old, and no dad or extended family in the picture. It was hard. She got her bachelor's in 6 years (a bachelor's is 3 years where she lives), and is now working, slowly but steadily, on her master's.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:31 AM on November 29, 2012

One of my best friends (married, with a supportive husband, so not quite your situation) has four kids. When she started her Bachelors in Psychology, she had one. Ten years later, she's a unit or two away from completing her Masters. And that's how she did it, one unit a semester, waking up at 5am before the kids do to fit in her study and going to class in the evenings. At least part of the reason it's taken her so long is because the government keep changing the course requirements to qualify and literally tacking years more study on but she's taking in in her stride. She's my absolute inspiration. I have one child and don't think I could do it, much less four. Single mum on welfare? I have nothing but awe and respect for anyone who tackles this.
posted by Jubey at 2:43 AM on November 29, 2012

A friend of mine got through undergrad and got a 2:2 whilst having 3 kids. A Cambridge 2:2 though, and that was full time hours. It is possible.
posted by jaduncan at 4:05 AM on November 29, 2012

Hell, I know someone who got a first in medicine whilst training 36 hours a week for the university rowing team. Only you know how much you have time management skills and lack of writers block; both are prerequisites for packing a lot in.
posted by jaduncan at 4:09 AM on November 29, 2012

I would look very seriously into how realistically this education will pay off, and whether there are different ways of finding the work you're looking for. You don't say what field you're looking into, but these days a degree is no guarantee of anything. Thousands upon thousands of young college graduates with no kids can't find work. You may have other options that get you to work sooner ... and it sounds like this is more about financial security than a burning desire for higher education. So look into your options. Ex.: you can pay for school for a CNA certificate, or you can get a job with a company that pays for CNA training for promising employees.

I am a single parent who already had a degree and some experience when I found myself on my own with 2 little ones. I have done ok but even with my education/experience, I have only been able to go *so far* at work. I couldn't travel for training or conventions so no unique experiences to share at work in training sessions, I couldn't do happy hours or evening business events so no networking, in the early years I often had to leave at a moment's notice because a kid spiked a fever, I had to leave right at 5 to get across town to the daycare before late fees kicked in ... my field is on the creative side so I could make up the work, but not the presence. Most fields you really have to be there, are locked to a desk or a client or a phone or a store or whatever. On top of that, opportunities in my field have contracted significantly in recent years, it's very competitive and people are willing to do it on the cheap ... which is reflected in my salary. So it's really worth doing a realistic calculus about whether the investment of time, money, and energy will pay off.

I don't want to discourage you. If you're considering a course of study that has a bright future in today's economy (health care) then go for it, but before you go the traditional route, really look around and find out what benefits various companies offer. Companies that pay for training and education aren't as plentiful as they used to be, but they're still around, and with them you get the added benefits of close-by mentors, networking, an opportunity to put your knowledge to use right away, all while you're adding to your resume. There are also tons of resources online for self-motivated people who are looking for knowledge as opposed to degrees/certificates. Tech skills, jargon/vocabulary, etc. If you decide to go for a degree, you may be able to save time/money by testing out of some core classes if you prep online first.

Beyond your question ... with four kids you are probably busy every minute of the day and on your rare quiet moments you don't feel like socializing ... but building a village for yourself and your kids is so, so, so important. For you socially, for your kids to see you relax, for you to have people to call on when your 14-year-old needs a ride from school to someplace at the last minute and you're at work, so there are people who already know your story so you don't have to give the full background all the time. Plus that's where you learn about unadvertised jobs and that's how you get interviews even when your resume doesn't have exactly what they're looking for.

Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 4:22 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a single mother of just ONE little one and...its hard. So hard that I've tried it and dropped it on more than one occasion. My transcripts are the most embarrassing thing in my life.

But I'm gearing up to attempt it again. I've got anxiety and depression issues that make this tougher to pull off and I've no idea if you have those things too so it may be easier for you. I don't want to make it sound impossible because it certainly is not, I'm just saying that my experience with it has been rough. However, YOU CAN DO THIS.

Planning it all out beforehand seems to help me succeed. Like, I researched these classes, they are important and I need them, this is my schedule, this is when I'll need childcare, my old ass car can get to me to two classes but I'll need to take the others online because I can't afford the gas to get to this or that, things like that.

Have you checked into all the assistance you're offered? Get that squared away first, too, obviously.

On personal preview, I guess I don't really have the greatest advice but feel free to memail me if you need a pep talk or want to vent about how daunting this can seem. I've been there, I'll soon be there again, and sometimes it just helps to rant to someone who you know totally understands :).

BEST of luck to you. I second that one day, no matter how tough, your kids will remember your dedication and remember it fondly. It will shape them in great, great ways and honestly, to me, that's reason enough to at least give it a shot.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:13 AM on November 29, 2012

My special needs sister and I were raised by a single mother who went back to school while working full time to get a paralegal Associate. (Mom had gone to college in the 70s, but found herself single and needing extra income in the late 80s.) From stories, we were also on food stamps and government assistance. I say "from stories", because I don't remember anything specific about our struggle, just that mom always made an effort to let us know that we were loved and that everything she did was to make our lives better. (I vividly remember a t-shirt she had gotten from a working mom's association that read "I work because I love my children.")

Times were hard but manageable. She found a few friends/neighbors who were willing to watch us on nights she had class, she stayed up late to do her homework, and she was probably tired all the time. What I remember from this period was Friday Night Pizza Night with cheap (probably Dominos or the like) $5 pizza and watching movies on the couch with my mom and sister. I don't remember missing my mom or feeling like she was neglecting us-- because the exact opposite was true.

I was and still am fiercely proud of my mother.
posted by Flamingo at 7:12 AM on November 29, 2012

[Comments not rants, please.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:31 AM on November 29, 2012

Have you ever heard of the author Buchi Emecheta? She had 5 kids, and moved to a new country and finished a degree as a single mother, and her book Head Above Water, is about that. It's extremely difficult, but she manages it while also being an author at the same time. So, it won't be easy, but you can definitely do it, I am rooting for you.

My mom also took me and my sister to a new country to go back to school. Clearly she didn't have it as rough as you as there were only 2 of us, and at 13 I was old enough to watch my sister (no need for day care most of the time, unless I had some other activity I had to go to). I will say this- it did not help our relationship with her. I think now that she was depressed, and stressed out being away from our dad (so I guess she technically wasn't a single mother, they were married but lived across the world from each other), but she took it out on us. Especially me. When it came time for me to start university I went as far as I could afford, then afterward I left the country and didn't see her for five years. We still don't have a great relationship.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 7:51 AM on November 29, 2012

Wow, thank you so much for all of the thoughtful and informative responses. I really appreciate all of the input and stories.

To begin with, I am in Canada so that probably changes my online options. I should have mentioned that.
There are community colleges locally that offer online, part-time and evening study so long as the degree is completed within 7 years.
I would absolutely need to apply for student loans. My financial situation is beyond pathetic and I am currently looking for a Sunday shift to bring in an extra $250 or so a month (the only day the kids go with their father).

I should have also mentioned that I not only am building from the ground up, but from more of a hole in the ground. Due to a hard-knock life situation as a child, I was working full-time and had my own apartment at 16. Needless to say, I didn't even finish high school. I don't have a vehicle or licence. I don't have a support system other than my mother. I have an anxiety disorder that is currently being managed though exercise, herbs and diet.

My main passion is fine arts, and I would love a bachelors in that, but the logical side of me asks, how much of a steady and reliable income does being an artist provide?
I would also like work as an early educator, but having very visible tattoos, I don't know how likely I am to be hired at that either. My appearance doesn't scream professional. I wish I could go back in time and reconsider the visible tattoos.
Culinary arts also interests me as does a degree in holistic therapy (I have a passion for herbals), also botanical; growing plants and flowers.
I am highly creative and skilled at a variety of artistic pursuits and am a strong visual and hands-on learner. I am poor at math and have weak audio processing skills (absorbing any info via lectures).

I know my first step is to acquire my license. Managing school, childcare and kids on the bus in this climate just isn't going to happen.

I suppose I need some career recommendations...?

Also, I have been tracking our sick days and appointments for the past 3 months and it generally accounts for 20%-40% of the workweek. Will I be kicked out for missing on average 1.5 days a week? (Can you tell I know nothing of post-secondary?)
posted by tenaciousmoon at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2012

I started back to college when my third child was 8 months old- he's 37 now so this was a long time ago. I had no help from family and minimal unreliable help from their father.

I was very lucky in that I had excellent federally subsidized day care for him and my other two were in school. I went to a community college. I really didn't mind what people thought of me as a welfare mother, but times were different back then in the mid-seventies. I wasn't going to school to prepare for a specific career, I just wanted to learn stuff. It took me ten years of attending the community college and then a state college to get a BS. I worked full-time for some of those years, stayed home full-time during others. I never even bothered to try combining kids, work, and college. I always went full-time when I went.

A friend gave me some really good advice when I started out: go to all your classes, pay attention, do all the reading. Another bit of advice I give to students now, whether they're 18 or 58 is to ask as many questions as they need to to ensure that they understand whatever their professor is trying to teach. I learned from experience that if I didn't understand something chances were good that there were others in the class who didn't either but were too embarrassed to say so. I didn't mind looking like a fool and always asked for more clarification until I understood the material.

I found that getting the kids and myself to bed by 9 allowed me to get up at 4 to study and write papers when the house was quiet. As the kids got older our deal was that they had to be in their rooms and quiet after 9 and the ringer on the phone was turned off- this was pre-cellphone days. It probably helped that we didn't have television. I couldn't find decent work after I got my BS, and enrolled in graduate school a couple of years later. Got a PhD when my youngest was 20.

Ask for more time to finish papers if you need it, but don't abuse it. I found professors were usually fine with this when I asked, and it probably helped that I was an overall good student.

It was hard and it was rewarding. I went through a rough patch with one of my kids, but it all worked out. They are all thriving and they still like me.

Good luck, and feel free to get in touch if you need moral support. Also, look for any campus organizations for non-traditional students, and if the campus doesn't have one, start one.
posted by mareli at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2012

tenaciousmoon: "There are community colleges locally that offer online, part-time and evening study so long as the degree is completed within 7 years.
I would absolutely need to apply for student loans. My financial situation is beyond pathetic

Taking online courses as much as possible will save you some money in transportation costs, clothing, maybe having to eat on the run, but ime, online classes from a traditional brick-and-mortar school also cost more. So it may be a wash.

I didn't even finish high school.

Start looking at community colleges that offer GED (Canadian equivalent) programs, or some kind of transitional program to get you the GED while you're taking college classes.

I don't have a vehicle or licence.

This may not be a problem if you have other transportation options: bus, train, bike, catch a ride with someone else?

I have an anxiety disorder that is currently being managed though exercise, herbs and diet.

Is this something you can get a official diagnosis from a medical professional for? Because that opens up some opportunities for extra help, from extra tutoring to longer time frames for taking tests. But you have to be proactive and seek these things out. At least in the US, as a professor, I cannot ask a student if they have some kind of medical situation without opening myself up to some legal issues. But dangit, if you don't tell me, I can't help you!

I would also like work as an early educator, but having very visible tattoos, I don't know how likely I am to be hired at that either. My appearance doesn't scream professional. I wish I could go back in time and reconsider the visible tattoos.

It's done, it's in the past, don't dwell on it. Find out for sure. (I wish I could tell you one way or the other.)

Culinary arts also interests me as does a degree in holistic therapy (I have a passion for herbals), also botanical; growing plants and flowers.
I am highly creative and skilled at a variety of artistic pursuits and am a strong visual and hands-on learner. I am poor at math and have weak audio processing skills (absorbing any info via lectures).

Hands-on learning is what community colleges do best. At my school, we have the transfer courses and departments (the math, science, English, etc.) and we have the technical, skilled trades departments. A degree in a skilled trade area usually requires the minimum of "traditional" college classes (where there are more of the lectures that you might struggle with).

And the weak audio-processing skills thing might be one of those things you might be able to work around, and be eligible for alternative learning approaches, like more one-on-one tutoring, for example.

I know my first step is to acquire my license. Managing school, childcare and kids on the bus in this climate just isn't going to happen.

I think your first step should be finding a local school and going to talk to someone. Start with a general academic or registration adviser to get the basics down: Can I enroll without a high school diploma? Are there services available for adult students with children, either through the school, or through some local organization? In my US state, individual counties have programs to help the unemployed and laid-off acquire new skills. Ask what kinds of programs are available like that. What is available for someone who might have learning issues? How much does school cost, and what kind of financial aid options are there?

Then go and talk to an adviser in each department that you have an interest in: Go ask the culinary folks how long the program takes and what kinds of jobs their students get at graduation. Go ask the education folks if someone with tattoos should even bother. Go ask the floral department about job prospects in that field. Go ask the fine arts department if you need a portfolio.

Will I be kicked out for missing on average 1.5 days a week?

In my experience as a community college professor, I can require attendance all I want, and some students will just not be able to attend class for whatever reason. So I deal with attendance on an individual basis - if you're absent due to real life reasons, like dealing with children, job, transportation issues, health issues - heck, I even had one student spend a few days in jail one time - I will bend over backwards to work with you, as long as you are showing that you are engaged in the class. In other words, if you are turning in homework regularly, and obviously progressing and interested, but you have to miss class for a week because your kid is sick, I am going to let that go. It's the kids who just don't show up, who don't turn in homework, who basically can't be bothered that I have a problem with. That's my policy. In my experience, individual professors have a pretty big say in this kind of thing, unless the program itself has strict requirements. (Our nursing program, for example, kicks students out who miss a certain number of days, because their program is very fast-paced, and they have the luxury of a huge waiting list.) So attendance might be something you'll have to deal with on an individual class-by-class basis. I wouldn't worry about it too much.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:11 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're dealing with the need for [the Canadian equivalent of a] GED as well as some learning/processing issues, DEFINITELY go to a community college. They do a great job of taking people wherever they are in life and evaluating the best path.

From what you're saying, too, a vocational path might be more useful. This won't preclude you from going to a four-year school if you choose, but the requirements are different and not all of the courses will transfer.

One thing you might consider is looking into fields you enjoy and seeing what kinds of certifications are useful, and then working towards those. Culinary training, which my brother went through (at a CC!), has everything from pastry programs endorsed by professional orgs to something as simple as a ServSafe certification. The more/better certifications you have, the easier it is to quantify what you know and move up the job ladder. My husband does networking, and the moment he got a CCNA (a certain company's basic standard), he ZOOMED up the ladder. He didn't have to explain what he knew, and his colleagues/interviewers didn't have to ask him.

Another thing I'd suggest (and another checkmark for classes in person) is making friends with some of the other students, many of whom are facing similar issues related to money or child care. Since you're in the same boat, take turns! Maybe one person watches some of your kids so you can study quietly; you can do the same for them the next week. Or maybe you can cook together to make cheaper meals in less time -- anything to leverage the power of community and share your resources. You don't have to be lifetime BFFs, but these connections can be huge.

Just make a pact with yourself. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Write I WILL KEEP MOVING AHEAD AND GET A LITTLE BETTER THAN BEFORE. Maybe "better" means that you'll get your HS equivalency by June; maybe it just means that you make plans and locate funding by then. Doesn't matter how fast or how obvious your path is to those around you. Just do whatever you can, breaking up a big mountain into a series of small steps.

You can do this!
posted by Madamina at 10:32 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just did this. It took 6 years, and every day was extremely hard. My kid doesn't even remember me before school, and almost every day I had to say no to her in some sad way beacuse there wasn't enough time (or money) to be with her or give her something she needed. It was terrible.

But... I just got a job in my field and suddenly all these doors open that I never could have had without going to school.

I'd say if you do it, make sure you're working toward a specific career that would provide financial security. Also, consider doing this in stages, ie: 1. Become a paralegal, work for a while, then go to law school or 2. Become a nursing aid, work for a while, and then go to nursing school.
posted by latkes at 10:56 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of good advice in this thread; I am glad you're finding it helpful.

I teach in a Canadian CC, and part of my job is academic advising for students in your situation. I really enjoy doing the advising and planning because it's exciting to see students taking their first steps toward fulfilling their educational dreams! Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like more specific advice but don't want to reveal your specific city/province here.

I estimate that at least 1/4 of the students I work with are in your position re: educational background, funding needs, single parenthood. If you did decide to go to a CC, I bet you'd meet lots of classmates in similar situations. It's not an easy path to take, but I've seen many success stories. Like Madamina said, you can do this!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of my earliest memories is going to my mother's college graduation. I was about 3 (close to 4) years old. My mother had four kids, ages 9, 8, 3 and 2. I don't know how long it took her but she was under 30. She had help from my father and grandmother. It can be done.
posted by shoesietart at 12:32 PM on November 29, 2012

I'm not a parent, but I am an online student, and the University of Athabasca in AB. I am in my fourth year of my Commerce degree, and I've been doing this part time for 5+ years. I can offer you some perspective on online learning which is a fabulous option in your situation.

First, take one course at a time. Each course takes 10-20 hrs/week, so you'll have to gauge if you have that time. Some courses will take a bit more, but not most. Athabasca gives you six months to complete a course, and you can purchase up to three extensions for another six months total. You can do any course in a year, trust me. Some courses will be so easy you will hum along and finish in two months. Others will take closer to the full term. So be it.

You definitely have to be self starting and organized, and have quiet moments of time to study in. If you can't make that happen, you will not be successful. Facebook has a couple of fabulous U of A study groups, most of which are populated by people like you - single parents, full time workers, older students, etc etc. No one is there because they're eighteen and bored.

Definitely see if you NEED a degree for whatever you want to do. Want to be a CGA? Come aboard. Want to take marketing? You're better off trying for a job. (This is the rule not the exception). Memail me for specific online school experience if you go this route, and best of luck whatever you decide!
posted by tatiana131 at 12:37 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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