By Crystal Duan
April 30, 2014
Students with children now face a wider range of obstacles due to the impending closure of the Student Parent Center. But for most, this bump in the road is just one of many that come with the rewarding struggle of being a parent.
The clothing is the first thing you see when walking into senior Danielle Walker’s apartment — a pink, mint green and black dress that partially covers the black cap and gown beneath it.
The outfits hang on her closet door, the dangling 2014 tassel visible even from a distance. Danielle will wear these outfits together when she walks across the graduation stage in a few weeks.
But first, she has to make it through the last stage of college: the dry weeks leading up to finals.
Tonight, she has placed her laptop on her bed, ready to view a two-minute news video for class, write a Blackboard blog post due at 11:59 p.m. and finish reading the BuzzFeed article currently filling her screen.
Like any other college student, Danielle has had her fair share of nightly assignments like these over the years. She’s sat in lecture halls, her hand cramping from extensive note-taking, her mouth occasionally indulging itself in a yawn, her eyes half-open relative to her concentration.
It has paid off — Danielle is set to graduate with a degree in interdisciplinary studies this spring.
It won’t be in psychology, like she originally planned, but that doesn’t mean she’s not on the road to success. She will be starting her master’s at MU, establishing a career with plenty of potential.
On the days Danielle is tired, the reasons are often the same as those of her peers.
She may have been up late studying to maintain the 3.0 GPA she currently has. She may have been engaged in one of many activities in the Columbia community in which she’s involved, which includes tutoring and mentoring underprivileged students preparing for their GEDs, as well as working as a Diversity Peer Educator.
But when Danielle is most tired, it’s usually because of her 3-year-old daughter, Janelle. When she’s happiest, it’s often also because of Janelle.
For every moment she’s worked her hardest, the efforts of which will culminate in her diploma this May, it has been for Janelle.
There’s a sparkly toy piano lying in the middle of the living room.
Attached to it is a pink microphone that, in place of actual melodies, produces scratchy feedback. It’s likely only music to the ears of whoever blows into it.
Janelle, a curly-haired toddler with a perpetual toothy grin, bounces into the apartment. She barely glances at her surroundings, the walls adorned with her pictures and the shelves stacked with her books and DVDs.
The piano and microphone are her focus, the object of her overwhelming enthusiasm.
Soon, the small apartment is filled with squeaky, amplified squeals and, most of all, Janelle’s overwhelming, larger-than-life presence.
Janelle is tall for her age. Janelle is perpetually wide-eyed. Janelle is articulate, with a curiosity to match her vocabulary. Danielle is currently trying to explain to her what “Eureka!” means, but Janelle will have to wait to hear back on that.
Tonight, Janelle is in a good mood. The biggest trial of the next few hours will simply be convincing her to take a bath, a task to which she eventually obliges.
But it’s not always easy for Danielle.
Danielle is reminded that tomorrow, Janelle might get sick. Janelle might fuss. Janelle might demand attention that Danielle can’t give. Janelle might be time-consuming and draining, an embodiment of the trials other college students see in their studies.
But Danielle also knows that Janelle is calming and refreshing. Janelle is thoughtful. She perceptively knows how to give love back — sometimes when Danielle is visibly stressed, Janelle invites her mother to lay her head in her little lap.
“If you’re having a crappy day, just be around Janelle for a couple of hours,” Danielle says.
Danielle is 24. Janelle will be 4 next month.
Danielle won’t have a graduation party. Janelle will have a birthday party, a celebration that Danielle has been busily planning in place of her own.
Both of them have fulfilling lives. Danielle just has to work to keep both in check.
It’s 5 p.m., and the Student Parent Center is quiet.
It’s going to be closed and torn down in June, in light of a collapse at the University Village apartment complex, which houses it. University officials and local news organizations know the SPC as the politically charged eye of the storm of university politics. Those who rally for MU to continue its day care services know it as an unjustifiably scarce resource.
Yet the kids, unaware of any brimming controversy, just know it as “school,” a place they stay until Mommy and Daddy come for them.
Families slowly emerge from the center. A little girl skips by, her father walking the slightest bit faster to keep up. Her friend calls to her from a swing, her mother pushing her skyward while huffing under her breath.
If there’s any hint of a figurative storm surrounding the physical facility, it’s the worry of the people that provide for these children.
“Hey honey, do you mind grilling the hamburgers right now?”
Waiting in the car outside the SPC, graduate student Naomi Clark is on the phone, her brow furrowed.
She is talking to her husband, Derrick, before going into the center to pick up their kids. The hamburgers are down in the freezer, she says, where she put them after preparing them that morning. If Derrick starts warming them up now, the children can eat as soon as they come home, making the rest of the evening go much more smoothly.
Naomi doesn’t get off easy when it comes to preparing a meal. Five-year-old Liberty and 20-month-old Barrett will eat what she eats, so instant ramen won’t cut it. Ensuring that dinner — an actual, complete meal — is ready by evening is yet another item on the list of many things she juggles every day.
With student parents like her, kids come first.
That list stretches long most semesters to include the details involved in writing her doctoral dissertation, teaching undergraduate writing courses and working on Campus Writing Program projects. Yet Naomi doesn’t shirk from her responsibilities, especially those she has for children sitting at other dining tables.
Many an administrator knows Naomi as an MU child care activist — she speaks at public forums, sends strongly worded emails to university officials and passes out fliers in Speakers Circle, all urging people to support the continuation of university child care.
Naomi is graduating in May, taking a tenure-track assistant professor job at Loras College in Iowa. But she realizes the other children, who wave to her when she arrives at the center at 5 p.m. every evening, will soon have no place to go.
She says parents who cannot find — or afford — alternative options will be out of luck. They will soon have to schedule out every waking minute of the day, switch their majors or make other tiresome accommodations that can impede their careers if there is no SPC replacement.
But even as these parents leave classes and instructors behind, Naomi knows they’ll never leave their kids behind.
With student parents like her, kids come first.
Danielle is separated from Janelle’s father, but Janelle goes to see him on occasion. Otherwise, Danielle primarily cares for Janelle.
By making meals for her daughter, Danielle has actually enhanced her own diet.
“It’s actually healthier for me too when Janelle’s around,” Danielle says, though some weekends, Janelle goes to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in St. Louis. “I eat (much less healthy) when I’m alone and she’s not around.”
Like Naomi, Danielle keeps her fridge stocked well with ingredients for at-home cooking. She buys healthy food in a manner counter to most college students’ diets, generally refraining from sweets.
Danielle is always conscious of setting a healthy example for Janelle. Dinner consists of green beans, white rice, salads, soup and baked chicken. In the mornings, making breakfast is the first thing on her mind, along with the secondary task of packing Janelle’s lunch for school.
Danielle didn’t get a spot in the SPC, so she takes Janelle to school at Green Meadows Preschool.
While Danielle sits in classes at MU, Janelle engages in activities such as painting pictures. Her artistic tendencies are reflected in the variety of handprint flowers that hang in her room.
Janelle’s active imagination also comes in handy other times. She enjoys “role playing” by herself, and while it’s too early to tell if she has a future in improvisational theater, Danielle can read into how people interact with Janelle based on how she imitates them.
“(Children) can imitate through play how they process a certain interaction or how people interact with them,” Danielle says. “I've seen Janelle pretend to be a chef, a CEO, an astronaut and a princess at the same time. It is amazing to watch her cognitive development and her creativity.”
As a result, “pretend time” provides Danielle with information outside parent-teacher conferences and school functions “Role playing gives me insight into her teachers,” she says. “I’ll see Janelle be firm with her stuffed animals, and I’ll ask, ‘Where did you learn that?’ And she says that is how one of her teachers talks sometimes.”
Danielle strives to be as involved in her daughter’s life as the other parents, even while she has studies and other tasks. One day, she was late to morning classes because she took extra time to fill Easter eggs with candy for a Green Meadows event.
Sometimes, when the preschool is closed — or simply when Danielle misses her — Janelle goes straight to school with Mommy.
Janelle is generally well-behaved, quietly napping or playing on her VTech tablet. People usually find her adorable. Stares only come when Janelle, in line with her 3-year-old self, fusses.
Otherwise, Danielle doesn’t broadcast the fact that she is a student parent. She maintains excellent attendance, gets good grades and generally doesn’t give any indicators that she has a little girl to prioritize.
“I’m really private about my personal life,” Danielle says. “It’s not like I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m Danielle and I have a 3-year-old daughter!’ Many professors were surprised (to find out) I even had a child.”
At a time when others were trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their careers, Danielle had to figure out what the next year alone would look like when she became pregnant at age 20, only a little while after she would have been labeled “that pregnant teen.”
Soon enough, bouts of morning sickness characterized each uncomfortable day. Danielle’s nose was consistently sensitive, her vomiting was constant and eventually she had to prioritize herself and the little girl she would soon have.
“Janelle will be older, more settled, when I finish school, which leads to a little more flexibility.”
Danielle had to withdraw from all classes for fall 2009 and spring 2010, only returning in fall 2012. She didn’t enjoy leaving — Danielle liked going to class and working on her psychology degree. She was also as actively involved then as she is now, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Express program and Legion of Black Collegians Senate.
Admitting defeat, however temporary, was not easy.
“I’m very competitive; I like being the best,” Danielle says. “At the time, it was really disheartening to see (everything) take a backseat to being pregnant.”
But now, Danielle thinks about it differently. As a self-proclaimed spiritual person, Danielle believes Janelle came into the world at exactly the right time.
She believes having Janelle in her 20s may actually be a better option for her. “I actually think, now, that it’s better (to establish) my professional career in my 30s,” she says. “Janelle will be older, more settled, when I finish school, which leads to a little more flexibility.”
As Naomi walks out of the center with Liberty and Barrett running ahead, she stops at the playground gate to talk to a fellow parent.
While her attention appears to be on the conversation, Naomi turns her body in the children’s direction.
Even while she has other matters to tend to, this attitude of kids-first, Naomi-later is consistent, especially throughout her mornings. The alarm clock goes off at 5 a.m., declaring the start of another morning of coffee and writing before Liberty and Barrett wake up.
“I know that once they’re up, they’ll want snuggles,” Naomi says. “They’ll say, ‘Mom, stop working, come play!’”
And then she won’t get any early morning work done.
The rest of the day entails an abundance of communication and compromises as she and Derrick alternate caretaking, or in her words, “relay parenting.”
When Naomi comes home overwhelmed with all she needs to do, the children “give her perspective.” Their eagerness and innocence give her grounds to crack a tentative smile, reminding her that work isn’t the only thing important to her.
Relay parenting extends past deciding who is picking up the kids from the SPC at 5 p.m. If Naomi’s doing laundry, Derrick will play with the kids. If Derrick wants to work out, Naomi will watch Liberty and Barrett.
Sometimes the differing needs of the individual children make for a “divide and conquer” approach, especially during the crucial bedtime period of 7 to 8 p.m.
“Once you settle one down, the other will want a drink of water,” Naomi says. “Some nights it goes back and forth ... like a see-saw.”
But the difficulties of caring for children can be balanced out. When Naomi comes home overwhelmed with all she needs to do, the children “give her perspective.” Their eagerness and innocence give her grounds to crack a tentative smile, reminding her that work isn’t the only thing important to her.
And Naomi knows the demanding days may pan out in time.
“I’m hoping that once I’m out of school, that we can actually be a family together,” she says of her upcoming May graduation. “And that we can spend more time doing fun things together — instead of so much relay parenting.”
On days when Naomi is on campus working in the Conley House as a graduate research assistant for the Campus Writing Program, she and Derrick drop the kids off at the SPC shortly before 8:30 a.m., leaving them there for the majority of the day.
Even when Naomi says she lost faith in the university’s ability to care for children in light of the University Village collapse, she continues to trust the staff she has come to know.
When they come home, Liberty will chatter about the nurturing influences of teachers like “Miss Emmy,” “Miss Jamie” and “Miss Stacy,” all of whom Naomi wants to retain jobs in the child care department.
Danielle is in support of Naomi’s cause. She also wants on-campus child care to continue, even though she didn’t experience the benefits firsthand.
Danielle says ease of access to continued on-site child care would make student parenting easier for all involved, and would even accommodate pregnant mothers deciding whether they will keep their children.
She and Naomi, along with several other parenting students, recently talked to Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin in a private meeting, where the chancellor revealed that he was also a student parent.
"My wife (Karin) and I had our first child as she was trying to complete her doctoral dissertation," Loftin said in an email. "Ultimately, we had a second child just prior to her receiving her Ph.D. It was a challenging time for both of us, but we worked together to take care of our children and were creative in finding appropriate child care for them."
Danielle hopes to inspire any curious students, regardless if they have children or not, to see the possibilities in balancing both roles.
“It was refreshing to see the chancellor has some personal experience,” she says. “I don’t want a message relayed that teenagers with kids can’t pursue education higher than community college. If someone has the drive to finish their degree, then resources should be allocated to help.”
Parenting is like taking an extra class at times — Danielle constantly has to do research. She has read books throughout Janelle’s development, noting when her daughter should have started crawling, walking, teething, talking.
Danielle’s also talking — talking to other student parents about how parenting in college works, even to those who do not want to keep their children because of a perceived misalignment with their goals.
“It’s a little disheartening,” she says. “Because it is doable.”
There were naysayers who weren’t exactly supportive of Danielle’s situation. She says her adviser told her to drop out of MU and go home to St. Louis.
The adviser didn’t think Danielle would be able to make it as a single mom and a student. She didn’t believe that Danielle’s ambition and determination, manifested in her academic goals and work ethic, would help her as a parent.
But Danielle has done it. In going through the worst, she has enhanced those skills and developed a routine for planning.
She is already eagerly anticipating her graduate studies at MU and thinking about the fall. Danielle and Janelle plan to move closer to campus and into a bigger house.
“I wanted Janelle to be away from the college town atmosphere,” she says of their current home, in which they have lived for three years. “The place I’m looking at now is in the Rock Bridge (area) ... for when Janelle goes to public school next year.”
Danielle doesn’t think Janelle will have siblings, considering she originally wasn’t even sure if she would have kids.
Regardless, Danielle does not regret any aspect of her journey with her daughter. She has taken curveballs one at a time, with the next one being balancing graduate school and an assistant position in the Multicultural Center.
The skills she’s learned from parenting will serve her well in this role, as they already have.
“I’ve learned to not take no for an answer, especially in social justice,” she says. “I also see that there are a lot of paths to solving a problem. It’s made me more creative with solutions and multitasking ... I’d say I’m more healthy and organized now.”
Most of all, student parenting has given Danielle perspective and helped her as far as character growth goes.
“This reconstructed my notion of what college life is about,” she says. “It gave me a greater perspective on how Janelle fits into it.”
Liberty doesn’t want cheese on the hamburger Naomi prepared for her. She wants ketchup, though.
Naomi wastes no time. She has that prepared too.
Barrett is crying at his high chair, gnawing on carrots in between gasping sobs. He wants to be heard.
“Shhhh, I know,” Naomi says.
Her tone is understanding in a way that overworked college students normally cannot maintain.
Even the small interactions, easily giving way to impatience, matter.
Making time for family is not easy. By the time the children are in bed at the end of a long day, Naomi says her brain is “usually fried.”
But the hard parts of parenting young children won’t last forever.
“Things are just here for a season,” Naomi says, feeding a carrot to Barrett. “You think it’s never going to be different. Leaving the house will always be this big production. But you adapt. The panic lessens. Things change, especially as their development progresses.”
Barrett is smiling in the next instant, cooing and clapping happily as if to illustrate Naomi’s point.
“Someone once said, ‘Parenting is no fun and all joy,’” she says, eyes tired but mouth crinkled.
Looking at her expression, it’s clear she believes just that.
“I need my chair,” Janelle suddenly proclaims. She’s rejected the piano and microphone, which sit downstairs. Now, in her room, she moves to sit in a Tinker Bell chair while unceremoniously pushing aside a Minnie Mouse doll.
Janelle boldly asserts her desires even in the realm of play. Stuffed animals are her own “babies,” which she feeds and puts to bed when she isn’t doing puzzles, playing Bingo or pretending to read books in a cramped corner adjacent to the wall.
Janelle plows through books within minutes. They have titles such as “Goodnight Moon” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” in the collection Danielle is currently trying to teach her to read.
This summer will be devoted to meeting that goal. For now, Janelle continuously receives books in the mail, possessions she gets excited about as she stacks them in piles.
The responsibility of a child hasn’t diminished Danielle’s experience. If anything, she thinks it’s enhanced it.
She plays by herself for a few minutes, paying no mind to Danielle, who simply watches from aside.
To perceive Janelle’s needs correctly, she must be quick to listen and slow to scold.
Both Danielle and Naomi have done a lot of that over the years. Regardless of age, putting someone else’s needs entirely before their own isn’t easy.
But when Janelle sings a scratchy rendition of “Let It Go” from the Frozen soundtrack into her pink microphone, Danielle displays her most patient side. She displays her most caring, most creative, most spontaneous sides.
She can wait for Janelle to come around on the matter of taking a bath. She can wait for Janelle to eventually understand why Mommy, head in lap, can’t always articulate her problems. She can even probably wait to read the BuzzFeed article.
But Danielle hasn’t waited to the point of missing out on having a fulfilling college career.
It’s just been fulfilling in a different way, she says. The responsibility of a child hasn’t diminished Danielle’s experience. If anything, she thinks it’s enhanced it.
“My undergraduate road has been the most challenging years of my life,” she says. “(But) Janelle has always belonged, and that has made all the difference.”