Pregnant students face social stigma, lack of support and career dilemmas

Kate Bullen, in her third year of an arts degree at Sydney University, with her nine-week-old baby Eleanor.
Kate Bullen, in her third year of an arts degree at Sydney University, with her nine-week-old baby Eleanor.  Photo: Brendan Esposito

It was a moment that will remain in Kate Bullen's memory forever. The successful 22-year-old was kicking goals at university, had become a board director of her student union, and was busy planning her bright future. And then she found out she was pregnant.

"It's such an emotional moment straight away. I just couldn't think of it in a logical way, I couldn't do a pros/cons list; I couldn't do anything. There was just fear."

As the average age of first-time mothers rises, with the median age now nearly 31 according to Family Planning NSW, balancing a career and a child is the norm. Yet when young women become pregnant, having to juggle studies, internships, part-time work and a baby, they are often confronted by social stigma and a lack of financial and social support. Even if they choose to have an abortion, its illegality in NSW and high cost create even more difficulties.

In a long-term relationship, Bullen had a gut feeling she would continue the pregnancy. Terrified, but determined, she aimed to show how a young woman could do it all: combine babies, boardrooms and books.

At first, she kept the pregnancy private for as long as she could, missing 21st birthdays and end-of-year parties. "I was so anxious because I wasn't sure what people were going to say," she says.

Though responses have been positive to her face, she believes things have been said behind her back, particularly in relation to her work/life balance.

"Being on a board, people have asked how I could justify having a child, and said I won't have time. But really, I was just thinking about doing what every single working mother, in every single country in the world, does every single day."

Fellow students, tutors and work colleagues seem to lack skills to support her, since young women who study rarely have children.

In Britain, according to a study by the National Union of Students, 29 per cent of students with children said they fell pregnant during their studies. Yet in Australia, having a child in the 20-24-year age bracket is in sharp decline, with only 53 live births per 1000 women compared to 123 for women in their 30s, according to Family Planning NSW.

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While all NSW-based universities address pregnancy within their anti-discrimination guidelines, they don't provide tangible methods to care for students, resulting in many feeling alone and abandoned.

Bullen notes that universities don't put as much effort into investigating how parents are treated and what spaces are available to them on campus.

She feels it's the universities' student organisations that provide the most assistance, as there is a focus on support and counselling. She herself helped to introduce a breastfeeding policy on her campus, allowing students to publicly breastfeed in all union spaces.

Subeta Vimalarajah, Wom*n's  Collective officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Sydney, and the woman behind Australia's "tampon tax" campaign, believes that many students feel apprehensive about sharing issues around pregnancy with their university, as they perceive it as a very impersonal body.

"University bureaucracy can be very difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone when students are feeling vulnerable and alone," she says. "As the Wom*n's Collective and SRC are run by students, we can provide a source of support. Even when we do not have the resources to assist students, just offering to accompany them when they talk to university management is often very appreciated."

Universities Australia Deputy Chief Executive Anne-Marie Lansdown says it is important that pregnant and parenting students can continue their studies while starting or raising a family. 

"Student parents should know that universities welcome them and their children, especially during those gruelling early sleep-deprived years of parenting. While universities already offer several support services, we are keen to do what we can to keep improving the facilities, services and support for students who are also parents," she says.

These claims were echoed by Emily Jones, a spokesperson from The University of Sydney, who says her education institution is committed to being a family-friendly organisation for students, offering a broad suite of support services and facilities. She cites 11 parent facilities' across their campuses, counselling services and degree flexibility as hallmarks of their commitment to young pregnant students.

Yet Bullen's experiences show that some of these services are difficult to access, especially on-campus child care, due to long waiting lists and exorbitant costs unfitting for young students. Jones similarly mentions the value in student unions such as the SRC in these cases, with "caseworkers available to help students who encounter difficulty due to pregnancy, pregnancy-related illness, maternity leave requirements or distress following abortion". 

Within this environment on campus, where students are not always prepared for young pregnant women to be present, social situations are most anxiety-inducing for Bullen. It's noticeable in moments when friends smoke around her, and in the responses she receives when she is unable to eat certain types of food.

Out at dinner one night, a friend said, "You're being a bit precious, aren't you?" when she asked the waiter about the food served. On her appearance, another asked, "Oh, you are pregnant, right? You're not just fat?"

Bullen has a hard shell, and statements like these no longer affect her.

She notes how few young women speak out about making the choice to keep a child.

"We need to have more people who have honestly made the choice talking about it. Because I'm saying it was a really hard decision, but it was the choice I made and I would never shame a woman for going the other way," she says. "I hate it when I see politicians, usually male, saying that either choice is invalid. Unless you've had to make that choice, man, you have no idea what it's like."

Though this is a time where we are taught women can have it all, Bullen feels her experiences show that women can have it only when society deems the time is right.

- SMH