It’s 11.59pm. The big hand is looming precariously closer towards the number 12 and it’s time you faced the facts – you need to pull an all-nighter. Again. You told yourself last week that you wouldn’t let this happen but here you are, staring at the screen, willing ‘Document 1’ to fill up with never-before-seen brilliance which will dazzle your tutors come the 10am tute (brilliance is optimistic – you’d settle for a few good points). Life as an Oxford student is hard. But we make it work, it’s all about adjustment. And adjustment is something I know about, what with having a two year old son to contend with whilst I try to decipher Shakespeare.
If you’d told me a few years ago that by the time I was twenty I’d regularly be spending my time wiping excrement off another human being, I would have been enormously offended, and probably questioned your twisted sense of humour. You see, being single and having a child wasn’t in the life plan – let alone having a child at the tender age of eighteen. When I was twelve I envisioned myself being relatively child-free until around thirty, when suddenly I would ‘settle down’, get married to Hugh Grant’s younger brother, and pop out a set of twins named Tom and Jerry. But I’ve realised two vital things in the eight years in between. Firstly, that Tom and Jerry were never going to be good name choices, whatever the circumstances. Naming your children after a fictional duo of an unlucky cat and a devious mouse just isn’t a good move for the playground. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, that life doesn’t care about the plans you have for it. But I’ve adjusted, and I’m loving the adjustment, despite the copious amount of nappy changes.
Having a child is alien to most students – many of my friends were petrified even to go near Bailey when he was a baby, in case (a) he started crying (a given) or (b) they got asked to hold him (also a given). But what I’ve learnt from being both an Oxford student and a toddler’s mum, is how there are a few common tactics that can help you to survive both.
1) Be a bit ridiculous
The determination to read four thick volumes in a week, despite knowing it’s a feat humanly impossible is not what I’d call conventional behaviour. But you do it anyway, and somehow manage it, or just about. Nor is the ability to juggle a heavy workload with several extracurricular activities and a role in the JCR, and still squeeze in time to be mildly sociable, a straightforward task. But so many of us do it. Take a look around Oxford and see the range of quirky, eccentric people we have here, I might go so far to say that to be a bit ‘odd’ is a product of the Oxford condition.
I first realised the extent of Bailey’s effect on my personality after I had spent the entire day pushing a teddy bear around Oxford. In a pushchair. You see, Bailey didn’t want to be taken for a ride in the Maclaren himself, but he did want to help Mummy ‘drive’ Teddy around the shops purely for the stuffed toy’s comfort. The unfortunate result of this request was that Bailey became wedged in between myself and the stroller, hiding him completely from view. To passing onlookers it looked like I had cracked, that the workload was simply too much, and I had resorted to pushing a spotty red stroller around the town centre with a teddy bear strapped into the harness.
This, coupled with the fact that I (like students everywhere) put off laundry until it’s absolutely necessary and so was wearing the flattering ensemble of odd socks, striped jeans, and a fluorescent pink T-shirt, made me realise I’d entered the realm of the ridiculous. Moreover, I’d become a crazy old lady who watches pigeons (Bailey’s favourite pastime) by the age of twenty. I hadn’t expected to be here for a good forty years yet.
2) Get competitive
We’ve made it. We’re in one of the finest institutions for learning in the world. Congrats for beating the competition in the fierce, academic survival of the fittest. But don’t get complacent. Although we’re here we still experience rivalry from a range of different sources, whether it’s in contests between Oxford and Cambridge, between different colleges, or within our own subjects. A decent amount of tension, and often very blatant competition, is always bubbling under the surface.
When I entered into Parent World I didn’t fully understand the concept of playground politics, a term which can fairly be applied to most if not all conversations between doting parents. Parent World is a dangerous zone of conflict, and should be entered into with the utmost precaution. My ignorance of this world’s very existence was soon remedied after a few of Bailey’s swimming lessons. Bailey loves his swimming lessons. I use the term ‘swimming’ very loosely here: he’s not quite got the whole coordinated leg and arm thing going on, but he does flail about in the water like a pro. Swimming was the first opportunity I got to encounter other mums in their natural environment, and I realised just how real competitive parenting is in day-to-day life. ‘My Noah’s so good at French’ or ‘Jenny’s starting to do 4 year old puzzles and she’s only two’ are frequent conversational topics in the swimming pool changing rooms. The first time I was treated to an account of Noah’s aptitude for French, I laughed out loud, thinking that Noah’s mum had just cracked some hilarious joke. It wasn’t a joke. No, one and a half year old Noah, who I had yet to hear speak any decipherable English, was developing a mysterious ability for French. I soon learnt to nod politely and exclaim how wonderful it is that X’s son/daughter has developed Y talent. Needless to say, Noah’s mum and I have never truly recovered from the tension.
3) Learn to love deals
Whether it’s the reduced section at Tesco (a treasure hoard for slightly out of date yet delectable food at low, low prices), or discount tickets to Thursdays at Bridge, every student with a hefty overdraft knows and appreciates the value of deals. We have loyalty cards, student discounts, ‘buy four, get two free!’ vouchers – constant companions whenever we hit the shops or fancy a late night dominos. And nowhere does this love for discounted merchandise show itself in a more obvious form than at the Freshers’ Fair, the dream realised for the dedicated saver. Free pens, free bags, free T-shirts and pizza are all only a sign up away, the only hindrance being the weekly emails you’ll then have to unsubscribe to one by one for the rest of the year. We feel obliged to pick up free things at this event, even if we don’t need or want them, with my five fridge magnets advertising ‘the best in Oxford recruitment’ being a case in point.
Like the student, the parent is on a constant quest for anything discounted. I circle the supermarket like a hawk, eyeing up every aisle on the off chance that a crazy bargain will reveal itself. My hands are constantly ready to make a grab before the next shopper can swoop in first, whether it’s for bulk packs of shower gel or eighteen individual chicken fillets. Having a child is a massive financial wound – it costs £200,000 on average to raise a child to twenty one – and this knowledge alone has made me almost fanatical in my bargain hunting.
4) Remember: it’s hard work, but worth it
Studying at Oxford is mentally and physically exhausting. Like you didn’t already know that. The academic side alone can be at times overwhelming and leave us, after a particularly grievous deadline, feeling like a shrivelled and dried up raisin. But studying in the city of dreaming spires is an incredible experience: the people we meet, the engagement with our subject, and the exposure to unique events (aka. Johnny Depp) is something to be cherished. We have odd traditions, like dressing up in a cape and kinky black ribbon upon entering the University, and more recently, braving a dark, stormy night until 6am to watch the Morris dancers flaunt their folky stuff (does anyone actually know why we celebrate May Day, anyway?). This really is one of the best, if not the best, time of our lives.
But then so is being a parent. Never before could I get away with watching Toy Story 3 at least once a month, or relive the beauty of The Very Hungry Caterpillar without generating a weird reputation. I get to make cushion fortresses in the living room, visit farms and feed the ducks, and test my football skills with someone of vaguely the same level. Watching Bails grow up gives me a sense of achievement unrivalled by anything I’ve ever experienced before, and growing up with him is part of the excitement. I may refer to myself in the third person as ‘Mummy’ accidentally with my friends, and have an overly competitive mind-set when I enter the supermarket, but these are the side effects of being a parent which I’ve come to accept. Life really doesn’t listen to the life plan – it hurls trials and obstructions at us when it thinks we aren’t looking, but for me, it’s adjusting to these trials which has made life really worth living.