So you’ve done the test and it’s come back, not with a grade but two little blue lines: you’re pregnant. Having a baby while a student can leave you in doubt. If you can barely afford food for yourself, how will you feed another person? What about sitting through lectures with morning sickness? And is there such a thing as student parental leave?
NHS doctor and campaigner Rachel Clarke was the first pregnant medical student at her university. She recalls it was both determination and a fleet of willing babysitters in the form of her fellow students that helped get her through. Pregnancy at university doesn’t just have to be a choice between abortion or abandoning your studies. If you decide you want to keep the baby and keep studying, here is some advice on making it work:
Talk to the university sooner rather than later
There’s more support around than you might think. Once you’ve confirmed your pregnancy with a GP, the student welfare office can offer advice and guidance about your next steps. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction for the support available for student parents, and help you understand how to talk to your tutor about it.
Make sure the tutor knows that, not only are you pregnant, but that you will be having the baby. When Clarke told her tutor, a doctor, that she was pregnant she was unnerved by his blank expression. In fact, he’d been trained not to show any emotion until he knew whether she was happy about it or not. So, if you’re not met with huge congratulations, don’t assume it’s because the staff aren’t pleased for you. Your tutor will be able to help you decide what you want to do about your studies, whether you want to take a leave of absence, put an exam or piece of coursework on hold or take time off for hospital appointments.
Depending on your degree course, the university might also need to carry out a risk assessment, particularly if you’re working with chemicals or doing field work.
Ask for flexibility
Don’t be afraid to ask the university to make an exception for you, and try to find someone who will fight your corner. Katie Adamson found herself pregnant at the end of her second year of a business degree. She knew she wanted to come back but was worried about how she would manage the childcare. She spoke to her tutor about it and they worked out a way to ensure that all her lectures happened in two days. Without him pushing to accommodate her, it might not have been possible for her to finish her degree.
“He helped me more than the university did,” she says. “He checked in every other week to see how I was getting on. When the other tutors could see it was working and that I was maintaining my grades, they all became a lot more supportive too.”
The university has to accommodate you if you need time off for medical appointments while pregnant, so make sure they know that you’re taking them. Prospective fathers are also entitled to time off for antenatal appointments and delivery days.
Sort out your finances
There is financial help out there, says Adamson, but she found it by looking for herself. Most universities probably won’t have a list of everything available. For full-time students in England and Wales, the Student Loans Company offers a Parent’s Learning Allowance and/ or a childcare grant, in addition to the standard student finance. These aren’t guaranteed, but they’re a good place to start.
You can also talk to the National Association of Student Money Advisors (Nasma), who will be able to advise you on government support and the best ways to make your budget work for you. Factoring in childcare is very important; think about how many contact hours you have a week and how you’ll structure it. If you have to use a creche or nursery, you might find that they require a minimum number of days, which can end up being expensive if you only need the childcare for a couple of hours of lectures.
There isn’t any official financial support available for pregnant students; depending on where you’re based, you may need to budget for travel to checkups and hospital appointments.
Tell your peers what you need
Both Adamson and Clarke were the only pregnant students on their course but both said they got the most support from their fellow students.
“My advice for other women is to make the most of the support you have around you,” says Clarke. “It’s tough being pregnant; you don’t have the same energy levels. Sometimes you feel really emotional. Having people around you, who you trust, is really important – whether it’s to lend you notes or bring you a chocolate brownie, it all helps.”
Adamson agrees. When she found she was pregnant she felt overwhelmed but says the mature students on her course really helped her.
“They were really supportive. You don’t often meet mature students as a first year so it gave me a different perspective. Universities have lots of information for students of different sexualities or ethnicities but there’s not much discussion about being a student parent. It can feel isolating. But don’t give up – if you want to make it work, you will.”