by Claire Bryant
I found myself a single mother before Emma-Louise was born, and the requirement to provide for my child suddenly ended up solely on my shoulders. The decision to return to school was made for one reason alone, to gain a qualification, that would lead to a career, which would allow me to provide Emma-Louise with the life I wanted her to have. I eased myself back into study by initially completing a two-year part time HNC in Business and Finance at a local college. Having thoroughly enjoyed myself and passing with flying colours, I contacted the local university asking if I could enrol on a four-year full-time degree course in Computing.
Counting the cost
The university was very positive about my application and advised me on what financial help was available to me as a mature student. I applied for and received all the grants I was eligible for and within a fortnight attended my ‘freshers week’. I was very conscious when making this decision that the implications on a now 3-year-old Emma-Louise, of me studying full time, had to be carefully considered. I had to ensure that we had plenty of quality time and that I could 100% commit to the course.
Looking after baby
Childcare was my biggest concern but, as the university had a subsidised crèche, this issue was quickly resolved. Emma-Louise attended three days a week and my very supportive mumum had her the other two days. On the days she came with me, I could visit her at any time that I was not in lectures or tutorials. We enjoyed the drive to and from university and always arrived there early enough to have some time in the common room together before the crèche opened.
Emma-Louise loved being at the crèche and caused a few raised eyebrows when she proudly told anyone who would listen that she went to university with Mummy.
The only problem with my childcare arrangements that I had during the four years was when, one morning near Christmas, a friend asked where Angel Gabriel was. Emma-Louise had been given this part in the crèche nativity play which was being held on a day she did not normally attend. I had totally forgotten. I had to drive the 25 miles back home to collect her, but am happy to say she arrived in plenty of time to speak to the Virgin Mary. Luckily my lecturer saw the funny side when I rushed into the lecture theatre, apologising for being late with the excuse that I had to collect the Angel Gabriel.
There was always a great deal of work that had to be completed outside of university hours, so homework and assignments were completed at home when Emma-Louise was in bed. If she wasn’t well I would curl up with her and read my text books over her shoulder once she had dropped off to sleep. If I could not attend university due to Emma-Louise being unwell, my very supportive lecturers and fellow students would provide me with any notes or assignments I had missed. I managed never to hand an assignment in late, and thrilled myself and my family when I finished top of the year at the end of the first year of the course.
Seeing the world
My degree was a sandwich course which meant the third year was a placement in industry to gain relevant experience. As I had done so well in the first year it put me in line for a placement year at CERN, a large multinational nuclear physics research facility outside Geneva, Switzerland. When the placement tutors told me of this opportunity I pointed out that I was a single mother. It turned out that CERN also had a crèche for employees and I agreed to go, with Emma-Louise in tow.
Just before Emma-Louise’s fifth birthday we moved to a small flat just over the Swiss border in France, five minutes away from CERN. Emma-Louise attended the crèche for four months, but didn’t settle in well so I moved her into the local French school where she thrived. Within months she was babbling away in French, even in her sleep, and at times I had to remind her that she needed to speak to me in English! I admit this was a difficult year for me, I was far from family and friends and barely spoke the language. Luckily my fellow placement students were wonderful, and even CERN, who admitted they had never had a single parent placement student before, went out of their way to help me in any way they could.
During my final year Emma-Louise was at primary school. I would drop her off and pick her up whenever my timetable allowed. When I couldn’t, my support network of Mum and my friends would kick into action. I admit that many times during these years I considered throwing in the towel. The late nights studying, the guilt at not spending more time with Emma-Louise and the pressure of looming assignments would get me down. At times like these, I would remind myself that I was doing this for my daughter’s future, and I would find the determination to continue. I certainly would not have got through these years without the support and encouragement of my family, the lecturers, and my friends both in and outside of university. I will be eternally grateful to them all.
All the hard work was rewarded when I graduated with a first class honours degree, the top pass possible. Receiving my award on graduation day was my proudest moment and Emma-Louise was there to share it with me. I truly enjoyed these years, I made many new friends, and although the last thing I was looking for when I started was romance, I also managed to meet a wonderful man whom I married a year after we both graduated.
If you are considering returning to study as a single parent, the best advice I can offer is to plan, ask, accept and enjoy. Plan your childcare arrangements in advance and ensure you have a good support network around you. Ask for and accept all the help that is offered – everyone wants you to succeed. Finally, enjoy yourself, it is a wonderful experience and one you will never regret.Pics: 1) Claire on graduation day with Emma-Louise in 1997; 2) Emma-Louise in the crèche nativity play as Angel Gabriel (the one holding the baby!); 3) Emma-Louise and Claire outside their flat in St Genis-Pouilly in France.
My years of studying achieved what I was aiming for. I got a job within weeks of graduating and am now an IT manager. I have suffered three redundancies, but that’s the business – and with the degree on my CV I usually find a new job quickly.
Emma forgot much of the French that she had become fluent in until secondary school, where she excelled in it, coming top of her year and getting an A* at GCSE. She also got eight other A*s and two As and her ambition is to go to Cambridge. I am sure being with me through my time at uni has influenced her in some ways, and in the end we have a great life and standard of living which is what I wanted when I decided to go to university in the first place. The Daddy and sister we got were just added bonuses!