x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Emirati women face the challenges of being mummy students

The predicament of women graduating from high school is whether to start a family or continue on to university and start a career. But some do not see why they cannot do both.

Shahad Al Yafaei poses for a portrait with a book at her mother's home in Sharjah. Shahad is getting her Masters in Public Health whilst working a morning job and taking care of her 2 year-old daughter. Razan Alzayani / The National
Shahad Al Yafaei poses for a portrait with a book at her mother's home in Sharjah. Shahad is getting her Masters in Public Health whilst working a morning job and taking care of her 2 year-old daughter. Razan Alzayani / The National

The predicament of women graduating from high school is whether to start a family or continue on to university and start a career. But some do not see why they cannot do both. A growing number of university students are either pregnant or new mothers, Ayesha Al Khoori reports

Balancing university studies with raising children is virtually impossible for women in many countries.

But as more women enrol in universities in the UAE and continue to marry at a young age, seeing mothers and mothers-to-be on university campuses is becoming common.

Shahad Al Yafaei, mother of two-year-old Reem, planned to have her first baby in her final year at the University of Sharjah while studying health science administration.

"I was 18 when I got married, in my first year of university. After seeing that a lot of students were getting pregnant and seemed to handle it well, in my last year I also decided to try to get pregnant," says Ms Al Yafaei, 24.

Most couples do not plan to have children while the wife is studying, but it is rare for couples to take measures to avoid getting pregnant. Even so, women say they feel universities could do more to support them when they fall pregnant or become mothers.

The biggest challenge for Ms Al Yafaei was coping with the tiredness of having a newborn.

"I used to drink a lot of coffee throughout the day and in my university break time I would go to the prayer room to try to sleep, at least get some rest," she says, laughing. "I was very tired. I felt like a zombie most of the time."

Having a baby and the inevitable lack of sleep made it difficult for her to focus on her studies. Last-minute cramming was not a safe option.

"Once Reem had a fever and we had to take her to the hospital. We stayed with her all night until her fever subsided," she says. "If I hadn't studied a week before, I would have failed my exam the next day. If I was in a hardship with a lot of workload for university, my husband would take Reem for a while so I could work on my studies."

Reem was born during February, the beginning of the final term of Ms Al Yafaei's final year, and she had five months left of a work placement at Dubai Hospital.

It was here she was encouraged by the hospital staff to take an hour out of her day to leave the hospital and return home to breastfeed Reem.

"I was scared and I didn't know how I would breastfeed her, and that was very important to me," Ms Al Yafaei says. "I went to training in Dubai Hospital and they encouraged breastfeeding, so that gave me the opportunity to leave for an hour to go to my baby."

After completing her bachelor's degree, Ms Al Yafaei started working at the Sharjah Health Authority and applied for an online master's degree in public health.

"I felt since Reem is young, she wants to play all the time and she wouldn't mind if I am not there at times, so I took it as an opportunity since I only have one baby now," she says. "By the time I graduate that is when she will start to understand more emotions and need me to stay with her more.

"It might be the time for me to consider having another baby."

By doing a degree online, Ms Al Yafaei did not have to give up as much of her time with Reem to attend classes or take exams. She was also able to do the coursework outside of her working hours while caring for Reem.

"I feel my time is more organised now that I have a fixed work schedule and I arrange my own study time. Reem also goes to a nursery that is close to my family's house," she says. "She was the first and only grandchild in my family and her father's family, so she enjoys the nursery more than her time with us, since we are all boring grown-ups."

Despite occasionally struggling to balance motherhood, a job and university, Ms Al Yafaei stands by her decision to become a working and studying mother.

"If I could go back in time, I would still make the same choice, to have a baby and work and to continue my studies," she says. "My priority is being a mother. I can put a stop to my studies and continue later, or take a holiday from my job to be with my daughter.

"But I will not stop Reem from growing. Motherhood is a continuing job that I will not stop.

"As advice, I wish mothers would stick to their ambitions. We can do it. Even if we are tired now, we'll see the changes in the future."

There is not much infrastructure to support student mothers. Some universities in the UAE give women just a one-week break from their classes after giving birth.

There is also very little provided in terms of on-site childcare, despite the high numbers of pregnant students and those who are mothers.

Dr Soad Al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at UAE University in Al Ain, says it is common for students to continue their education after getting married.

At UAEU, she says, there is a small percentage of mothers in the classes, but all seem to handle their studies well.

"It is natural that a human being would want to educate herself. What is unnatural is that they would stop," Dr Al Oraimi says. "I actually encourage female students to continue their educational paths. What prevents them? Especially since education is available in the country.

"Having a day care centre is good and would help the students, but every university has its circumstances and its budget. It needs a lot of work and employees, and it requires responsibility, and that's not easy. The mothers have families, of course, who are helping even if she is in class, which is good."

Mother-of-three Khadija Al Hosani, a graduate from Zayed University's business and finance college this year, was the first of her siblings to get married straight out of high school, something that worried her parents. She went on to have three children at university.

"I was married by the time I started college, and got pregnant six months later, I was very happy.

"But I was scared of telling my parents. They said, 'how can you get pregnant when you have studies? You will never be able to graduate'," Ms Al Hosani says. "But I did, thank God, even though studying is hard and very tiring.

"My father would get shocked every time I told him I was pregnant. He would be very upset. None of my sisters had to go through what I did, studying while being married, let alone getting pregnant. My father would worry."

Ms Al Hosani, now 23, says her husband was very supportive.

"He tried to calm me down. I used to get very tired and my husband would come to find me crying while working on a project," she says. "He also suggested we enrol Salama, my first born, in a nursery. She was very quiet, I was living blissfully and I didn't feel the pressure of studies.

"But when Mohammed, my second baby, came I couldn't work at all. He never slept, not at night or during the day. I used to stay in university to have a chance to work."

When Mohammed, now 2, became ill and Ms Al Hosani took time out to care for him, her grades dropped and she received a warning from the university - a further two warnings would result in expulsion.

"The university didn't help. They would treat me like the other students, not realising I am a mother," she says. "My only problem was the time. I didn't know when I would finish my studies.

"Sometimes I couldn't focus while studying because I was worried about the children, and other times because I would stay up all night. I would do my assignments in university breaks and I rarely had time to socialise with my friends. At home I couldn't work unless I put the children to sleep, and I would usually sleep right after them."

Ms Al Hosani says she received little support from her family, who live in a different emirate.

"Most times they would tell me I didn't know how to raise my children because they went to nursery and a maid would watch them while I was in university.

"I would get insulted by this, and it affected me because I never allow myself to come short when it comes to my children. I always stay with them when I'm home.

"Salama, who is now 4, has many awards from school. She recently wrote a short story and memorised parts of the Quran. She also got three awards for her exceptional behaviour in class. I am very insistent on raising them well, even if I am studying."

Proving that having a child at university need not spell the end of a woman's studies, Ms Al Hosani is now undertaking a postgraduate course in finance.

"Sometimes when I'm upset I think, 'why did I get married and have children when I should have been a student?' But that feeling is soon forgotten after my assignment is submitted," she laughs.

"My priority was to get an education to raise my children well, to be with them at all times and to be able to support them."