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Moms in College: Diapers & Degrees

Before we graduate from college, most of us try to experience new and exciting things. We hope to live on our own, to meet amazing new friends, and maybe even find a boyfriend or two. But one goal many young women hope to avoid in four years of studies is having a baby.

And no, I don’t mean a plastic doll, like the kind they give you for play in family development courses. A real baby. A living, breathing, pooping and crying human being. The idea of pregnancy between the ages of 18 and 22 — the years that many young women struggle not only to get through their courses, but to learn to pay their own bills — is frightening to most, but many women our age are managing motherhood. Not only are they raising children, but they’re doing it well, and getting their degrees at the same time.

A Bundle of Joy?

For Cathryn Brooks, 22, finding out that she was pregnant during the end of her junior year at the University of Missouri brought her anything but joy.

“I cried my eyes out,” she says. “I cried and then I called my mom and told her that I was pregnant and she said, ‘Why are you lying to me?’”

But despite their shared shock, Cathryn’s mother was supportive of her situation, due to her sister’s similar circumstances. Her sister, 20 at the time, was six months pregnant by the time Cathryn was aware of her own pregnancy. Despite the effect that a child would have on Cathryn’s life, her mother encouraged her to finish school. “She said, ‘as long as you continue school and finish your degree, I’m not worried about it.’”

But for senior LaNita Williams, 22, the decision to keep her child was not as easy, especially since she became pregnant near the end of her freshman year. “I was trying to figure out whether or not to go ahead with the pregnancy,” Williams says. “I thought about it for a little while but I decided to go on with the pregnancy and carry my child. I was very blessed to have a good support system in her father.”

Eight months and only 10 pounds of baby weight later (gasp!), Mckenzie Powell came into Cathryn’s world and changed her lifestyle drastically. During her pregnancy, Cathryn says she slept more than she could even remember, but now, she’d kill for a decent nap.

“I don’t ever think I hit R.E.M. sleep because I’m always tired,” she says. “She wakes me up right before I think I’m going to hit that deep sleep.”

And in the morning, while most college students drool until their first class is slated to start and the bus is set to pull off without them, Cathryn finds herself up each morning around 8:30. She gets up whenever Mckenzie awakens to start her day, and when the baby fusses she often can’t get back to sleep.

Things were a tad bit easier for LaNita, because after the birth of her daughter, Karma Williams, she took a semester off at the beginning of her sophomore year.

“I’m really glad that I did because it definitely created our bond and I learned more about what being a parent is,” she says. “I had to learn who this little person was and learn what works for them.”

No K-i-s-s-i-n-g


Mckenzie hasn’t only affected the way her mother sleeps — the newborn, now a burgeoning two and a half months old, has also changed things in Cathryn’s relationship with her fiancé, Mckenzie’s father. While many people feel that after the baby carriage should come marriage, Cathryn and her fiancé have been engaged since her sophomore year, years before Mckenzie’s arrival. But ever since she came out of the womb, Cathryn’s fiancé has taken a late-night shift at a local fast food restaurant to support the growing family. As a result, they’ve seen less and less of each other.

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have three classes in a row so I don’t get back until 3:30 p.m.,” she says. “He goes to work around 4 or 5 so I don’t really get to see much of him.”

But even though they don’t get to spend much time together, he spends a lot of time with Mckenzie. But like any new mother, when she’s in his care, or anyone else’s for that matter, paranoia kicks in. “When I’m in class, if I’m not too tired I think about her,” she says. “I wonder how she is and hope that her daddy hasn’t dropped her [laughs].”

On the other hand, LaNita’s relationship with Karma’s father has become shakier and shakier as her child has grown. After Karma’s birth, he moved in with LaNita at school and played a huge role in both of their lives until the little tyke turned one. But after that, things changed, causing their break up over a year ago.

“He got a great job opportunity in Belleville, Illinois,” she says. “The distance between us kind of made the relationship not work well. After he moved out, a lot of silly stuff happened between he and I and he kind of dropped off in different areas. It’s been sort of an on and off thing, but it’s on right now and I hope it stays on.”

LaNita says that they’re even talking marriage, but she admits that she has bigger things to worry about at the moment, and that of course includes finishing school.

School Daze

The biggest impact that Mckenzie has had on Cathryn has been on her life as a college student. Staying on top of her classes, her main focus in the past, has recently become a major struggle. “I was going to take this semester off, but I thought, ‘I can do this,’” she says. She is graduating in December instead of in May (something that she knew she was doing even before Mckenzie was in the picture), and she knows that graduating late is better than not crossing the stage at all. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education in 2002, 61 percent of students in community colleges alone don’t finish their education after having a child.

“My mom said, ‘you have to take care of yourself to take care of your baby and if you don’t finish school you’ll be disappointed,” Cathryn says. “I feel like if I would have dropped out I would have been working one dead-end job to the next. I had to do what I needed to do to make myself happy so that I could make that baby happy.”

While Karma’s father and Lanita’s family have been extremely helpful in supporting LaNita’s efforts to finish school, Lanita’s friends have been a big help as well. She will walk at graduation with the rest of her class in May, but she has a few classes to complete in the summer.

“I don’t think I would have been able to finish school if it hadn’t been for my friends’ support,” she says. “My friends sometimes come over at night so that I can do interviews or so that I can take a test. Support groups, other young mothers, utilize them as much as you need to. We’ve been able to be a support system for one another.”

Despite the lack of sleep, less time spent with their beaus and more responsibility than they were initially ready for, both Cathryn and LaNita can’t imagine life without their girls. The screensaver on the tiny Dell computer that Cathryn takes with her from class to class is a picture of Mckenzie. Although Cathryn wasn’t initially happy about having a baby in college, if in 21 years, Mckenzie comes to her with the news that she is pregnant, Brooks already knows what she will do.

“I’ll help her out as much as I can. Just like my mom has helped me.”

But LaNita knows that her daughter and family members look up to her. If the same thing happened to one of them in their quest to finish college, she would be supportive, but she doesn’t want them to follow the same path.

“Finishing is important because I have younger family members that look up to me and I want to set a bar for them to pass,” she says. “And if I can do this, than my daughter can definitely do better than this.”

Cathryn Brooks, student at University of Missouri
LaNita Williams, student at University if Missouri