'Juggling study and family life'

Advice from Dr Louise Webber on how to balance higher education study with family life

"Juggling higher education study and family life can be a daunting task for many mature students. Managing time, feeling guilty, juggling family relationships and gaining support are all issues that many mature students face during the course of their studies." – Dr Louise Webber

The strategies mentioned on this webpage tackle common issues and come from extracts from Juggling Higher Education Study and Family Life, written by Early Childhood Studies Lecturer, Dr Louise Webber. 

Note: the content is based on research with a group of mature students from a University of Plymouth partner college. Although this is based on the experiences of mothers, the findings are relevant for fathers too.

Juggling time and feeling guilty


  • Recognise the benefits of studying for the whole family – improving higher educational aspirations through role modelling, supporting your children’s education from a position of greater knowledge, a likely hike in income with a career change, and the positive changes in family dynamics and relationships.
  • Feeling guilty is common – recognise that feeling guilty is common when trying to be a parent who studies. This is a normal part of studying.
  • Manage your commitments – recognise that you cannot do it all – when you add studying at higher education level to what is already a busy schedule something has to give. You need to decide what this is. Is there a committee you are on, a club you attend or obligations that can be put on hold while you are studying? Can you delegate any tasks at work or at home to ease the load?
  • Don’t leave everything to the last minute – it is vital to keep up with your assignments and tasks because being a parent means having to deal with unexpected family emergencies.
  • Select appropriate tasks for the situation consider carefully how much time you have and plan accordingly. Tasks such as proofreading can be picked up and put down (e.g. when waiting to collect a child from sport); searching for online journals can be saved for when you want to be around the family but can be multi-tasking.

"When you are feeling guilty try and remember that you will be a source of inspiration and are setting a positive example to your children about what it is possible to achieve." – Marie

Managing family relationships


  • Share your motivations for studying – discuss with those around you your motivations for completing the course; this will help them to accept the new you.
  • Consider the effect of studying on your partner – role changes in families can cause additional pressure for your partner, so be aware of the strain of higher education studies on both of you. Finding ways together to reduce both of your workloads can create a shared goal.

"Don’t leave anything until the final hours, whether it’s coursework or revision; you are more likely than the younger students to have a last-minute drain on your time, I should know I learnt some hard lessons" – Esme

Gaining support

  • Be prepared – before starting your course, plan ahead with your partner about adapting routines, childcare and housework.

  • Stay organised – consider getting support, if you can, with aspects of your new and demanding daily routine, or devise strategies to reorder your priorities: what are essential tasks, what are desirable, what are not needed?
  • Share your experiences – use your higher education peer group as a sounding board to discuss the effects of your transforming perspectives on family and work life. You may find that they are going through similar experiences.

"Each assignment brings new challenges and avenues of exploration. Focus only on the assignment in hand; the next one will come soon enough! I would have found it too daunting to look at the bigger picture and investigate every assignment I was expected to do throughout each academic year. I coped better by focusing on one at a time." – Maggie

Student Marie shares her insight

"Returning to higher education as a mature student has been the most challenging, demanding, brilliant and ultimately life-changing experience.

"Admittedly, after over two decades without any sort of formal studying, the first days of my course could be likened to being in a washing machine or being thrown in at the deep end of a pool with a wave machine on full power. However, staying afloat is definitely worth it.

"Socially it can be a daunting experience even for those with good personal skills and confidence. Younger students may have the upper hand when it comes to getting going academically, being Internet savvy or connecting to one another on social media; but remember you can bring maturity and experience into your work, so use what you have to your advantage. Think long term, plan well, stay focused and forgive yourself when things don’t go to plan, and remember to be flexible and allow your goals to evolve.

"Treat the children to your time and attention when the pressure is off and let them celebrate your successes too. Try not to worry too much about the feelings of guilt when assignments are due and the children feel like they are second place; my son has a lot of Lego as a result of my degree. Rest assured the pride and exhilaration you will feel when they tell you how proud they are and that you are an inspiration to them far surpasses the negative feelings, for both them and you. 

"Finally, learn to trust in someone on your course if you can; friendship comes when you least expect it and in the least obvious places but sharing the journey makes it so much more fulfilling. There will be highs and there will be lows. However, whether you are looking for a new career, new experiences, new direction, or just to do something that is not what the people around you expect you to do, the journey is empowering. It has given me the strength to stand up for what I believe in and have pride in myself as an individual and it has given me back my self-respect. In addition, I have been able to show my children that it is never too late to chase a dream or goal, even if they think forty-something is ancient!"

Reference

Webber, L. (2017) Juggling Higher Education Study and Family Life. London: UCL IOE Press.