MA students' blog posts

Young mothers' challenges in accessing education

17 Nov 2020

Arhonda reflects on young mothers from disadvantaged areas and their obstacles in accessing education

The MA in Women’s Studies has been an enriching experience that has provided an opportunity to reflect on personal areas of interest within women’s studies which are hugely informed by my own social environment, community, and family life. I recently read an article where Lynn Ruane spoke about being more connected to who she was than to who she is becoming. This resonated with me as I feel my background has shaped the woman that I am today. A significant revelation that has emerged for me is the extent to which being from an area perceived to be ‘working-class’ has influenced my experiences and interpretations of the world. The area where I was born and lived into adulthood has been described as being disproportionately affected by economic deprivation (Leonard and Windle, 2020). Yet it was through this community that I gained an understanding of solidarity, social awareness, and a community spirit that has been an immeasurable strength in my life. This experience of social awareness and critical reflection regarding structural injustice, I hope, will underpin my dissertation in the area of gender and problematic drug-use.  

I was not aware growing up that my community was viewed by wider society as an area of social or economic ‘disadvantage’. As I began to experience the world through the different domains of life, I was made well aware of that perception, as ‘social class’ can often be experienced as a form of exclusion. Often, this exclusion is manifested in education, resources, and services. I can identify with this due to the barriers I experienced in accessing education as a young mother and as an ‘early school leaver’. Though I have attended University as a mature student, I did not complete second level education nor have I sat a Leaving Certificate exam. After leaving school at sixteen, returning to education felt like an impossibility because of the many barriers I faced as a young mother with a limited support network. The most significant barriers during this period were financial, childcare, and the all-elusive time. It would appear that the external factors that impacted my choice to leave school at aged sixteen re-emerged in the invisible barriers I came up against in returning to education in early adulthood.

It is walking distance from the area that I grew up to the gates of UCC. University College Cork may have been a short distance geographically, but the social divide in the accessibility to third level education can be wide. I would argue that for a considerable number of young mothers from areas perceived to be ‘disadvantaged’, returning to education is not always easy as the struggle to gain access to education is exasperated by intersecting issues such as gender and social inequality. The intersecting areas of gender and perceived ‘social class’ are factors that are not exclusively my experience.  This may be felt by many young mothers from a similar background as the rates of early school leaving is said to be double in areas perceived to be ‘disadvantaged’ compared to that of other areas. Young motherhood is also associated with early school-leaving, allowing young women from areas perceived to be ‘disadvantaged’ susceptible to dual exclusion from education.

In recent times, we have seen significant changes in the Irish landscape, particularly in the area of women’s rights and gender roles. Yet, young mothers often face multiple obstacles in returning to education due to societal norms where childcare remains predominantly the responsibility of mothers in a country which is among the most expensive for childcare fees in the EU; notwithstanding the additional costs, financial and otherwise, that is associated with accessing third level education. It has been argued that the perception of ‘problem’ motherhood that was once associated with ‘unmarried’ motherhood has now shifted to ‘too young’ motherhood (Sharpe, 2015). The concern being that women viewed as being ‘too young’ mothers have hindered their ‘own life chances substantially’ (Sharpe, 2015:408). Young women who become mothers may experience exclusion within education or may not want to return to education for varying reasons, quite possibly, due to the stigmatisation they encounter or lack of feasible opportunities available to them. These issues, I believe, are the continuum of systemic barriers which can include perceived ‘problem’ motherhood. Pregnancy or early parenthood ‘should not be held in opposition to an educational desire’ however, the two are often made incompatible by the barriers of inequality (Rudoe, 2013:67). The inequality that can span over multiple domains can often be a challenge to overcome when trying to access education, resulting in many being denied the opportunity to reach their academic potential. Lynn Ruane spoke of running at that glass trying to get out, trying to dig your way under but you cannot get out of this state-imposed snow globe. The aforementioned concept is one that many could identify with as they attempt to overcome obstacles in accessing education due to factors such as gender or perceived ‘social class’.

Women's Studies

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