Mothers seem to be most susceptible to problems involving physical demands as they are most likely to experience the “role strain” associated with adding to the pre-parenthood roles of spouse, housekeeper and student, that of primary caregiver (Sollie & Miller, 1980). In response to the theory of intensive mothering, stressors from family-study conflicts were developed from student mother’s transition from a predominant student to a predoninant mother. Forster & Offei-Ansah (2012) have shown that student mothers perceived a priority of childcare and family responsibility, which jeopardized ther academic performance. Our study has also proved that when the roles of student and mother conflicted, student mothers would prioritize their families and children over educational duties.
Another example of prioritization mentioned by participants is the need for unexpected academic absence for intensive care of their sick children. Studies have confirmed that one cause of emotional stress for student mothers was their children’s illness. Obviously, majority student mothers admitted their fear of losing a child from illness that they prefered keep them accompanied until their fully recovery, even with a compromise of poor academic performance (Esia-Donkoh, 2014). Another study also suggested that student mothers could not prepare for examinations and therefore failed it due to their duties of sick children care.
Despite the roles of being mother and student, stressors could also emerge from strains of husband-wife relationship, especially when only one spouse enrolled in graduate school. For both of our participants, their husbands were not previous or current enrolling in graduate school. It has been reported that couples who were both graduate students had significantly greater marital satisfaction than couples which only one spouse was a student (Brannock et al. 2000). Gonzalez et al. (2001) found negative emotional expression of estrangement from families existed among students who enrolled in doctoral study. The transition of one marital spouse to graduate study potentially threaten the continuation and stability of a family unit as the student is regarded as “abandoning” the family for the sake of her educational dreams (Norton, Thomas, Morgan, Tilley, & Dickens, 1998). In our study, one of the participants reported that her husband was furious with her absence from housework and family duties for qualifying exam preparation. Ott (2004) summarizes this concern as “For those of us with families, the real costs of graduate school have yet to be calculated financially, psychologically, or relationally” (p. 28).
The stereotype of female to be less likely successful in academia reduces their social and family support. A study showed that more than 70% of student mothers in New York universities forwent their education due to lack of support from society and their families. In our study, mother A received less expectation of academic success from her family member and therefore she was less ambitious about her career in academia. Women’s education was highly stigmatized that it further hindered their future career options and stigmatization was part of reason for insufficient support from family. (Bullen, Kenway, and Hay, 2000; Berg & Mamhute, 2013; Bullen et al., 2000) More recent studies indicated when the roles of women in society increased through higher education, their traditional mothering role was often preserved (Gill et al.,2015). In fact, the impact of the family and its supportive role on students was irrefragably related to cultural expectations regarding sexual roles in the family, particularly the traditional roles of females as caregivers and males as providers (Gill et al., 2015). In our study, mother A’s husband was absolutely absent from the childcare duty during her early motherhood period and he believed that women (his mother and his wife) should be responsible yet capable of baby care.
Coping skills: types and resources
No single coping strategy has been proved to work for every problem or for every individual (Tein et al., 2000). Each individual must determine which coping strategies to use in which situations in order to reach the most positive outcome. For student parents, coping strategies may mediate the relationship between family life and stress associated with school life (Dyson & Renk, 2006). In our study, the most profound problem-focused coping skill was time management. The shift work between spouses and student mothers self efficacy in prioritizing multiple tasks was an essencial solution for their stressors. Effective use of problem-focused coping is negatively associated to psychological distress and positively related to desirable psychological outcomes, as well as a variety of beneficial family behaviors including reduced levels of stress, higher levels of life satisfaction, and higher levels of overall well-being (Deater-Deckard, 2004; Giancola et al., 2009; Tein et al., 2000).
Among doctoral students in general, levels of stress also appear to predict both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, with more coping strategies being employed as stress levels increase (Dyson & Renk, 2006). Studies have shown that student parents also engage in a variety of coping strategies as a way to handle their obligations and that these coping strategies are generally adaptive. Specifically, successful coping strategies that are commonly used include planning ahead, prioritizing, using available resources, remaining focused on goals, setting aside family time, and asking for assistance when it is needed (Branscomb, 2006; Wiebe & Harvey, 1997).
Despite the coping skills that doctoral students developed from their own motherhood experience, in our study, it is highlighted by self-efficacy in time management, the resource that a student mother could turn to remains limited. A common method of coping with stress is to seek for available resources. Having access to appropriate resources will significantly impact on parents’ stress level (Deater-Deckard, 2004). However, both of our participants reported that there was no consulting service or parenting education program offered by their school, although a graduate school is expecetd to be equipped with diverse education programs. One participant reported that there was no daycare service affiliated with her school, therefore, she had to seek for local private daycare institutes which were expensive and inconvenient. In addition, even when institutional resources are available, they are often underutilized (Branscomb, 2006; Medved & Heisler, 2002; Springer et al., 2009). One study that Branscomb (2006) conducted among 15 universities including 151 student parents, only 11 students reported ever used any campus services, including affordable housing, affordable childcare, child care referral resources, early intervention, counseling services, drop-in sick child care, after-hours care, and parent-support groups. Only 13% of students have heard of related campus resources, suggesting that lack of awareness may account for underutilization of available resources. Even when students are aware of resources, it is possible that they are not used because some student parents reported lack of time to seek out resources, perceive a social stigma in using resources, perceive negative stereotypes associated with being a young parent, or university personnel are uncomfortable dealing with needs of nontraditional students (Medved & Heisler, 2002; Wieber & Harvey, 1997).