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Nursing is a demanding degree, with a huge range of clinical knowledge, theory and practice contained within the three-year bachelors degree. For a third of nursing students, on top of this intensive study, they also juggle caring for children or being caregivers to whānau.

This is the case for second year nursing student Rachelle, who is married with four kids between two and nine-years old, and third-year student Katie, who is a solo parent with three kids between eleven and six.

“[Juggling study and my family] is a constant struggle – constant. It is really, really tough,” Katie says.

Both Rachelle and Katie have had to be flexible about how much time they can commit to their studies – with both moving between part-time and full-time study – to balance their family commitments.

For instance, Rachelle underwent her first semester of study while pregnant with her fourth child, and even sat her first exams at 37 weeks pregnant, and then took a year off before returning to study.

Studying has required both women to be aware of all aspects of their circumstances and assess how possible it is to undertake their training at every step.

Finances and forward planning

A big consideration is finances. Studying is a fiscally intensive undertaking, not just with the fees involved, but also from the loss of an income and the added financial burdens it can bring – such as the need to pay for childcare services. Understandably then, finances were a significant consideration for Katie when going into study.

“There was nothing to gain financially by becoming a student, in fact the opposite – it is a huge challenge,” Katie says.

Both parents said that planning is a key part of how they juggle their studies with their family. Rachelle sits down with her husband on Sunday afternoons and plots out the schedule for the week for herself, her husband and the kids. Together, they formulate a plan for how to coordinate all this activity.

“We have an unwritten rule that one of us drops them off, and one of us picks them up. For the kids, I think that is important,” Rachelle says.

Katie says she creates excel spreadsheets breaking down the days for each child by “who will be where and what person is caring for which child”.

Support networks and parent guilt

Both Rachelle and Katie have family who live close by and offer them support. The extra pair of hands makes juggling family and study much more manageable, they say. In fact, both thought that it wouldn’t be logistically possible to manage without extended family and friend support.

“I don’t think I’d be able to manage without them,” Rachelle says. “And I don’t think I’d be able to manage if my husband wasn’t as flexible in his job either.”

“My mother is fantastic,” Katie says. “She comes to my house at ungodly hours when traditional childcare isn’t even open or available.”

“I also have some mums from my kid’s schools who I rely on heavily as well. Without that network, it wouldn’t be possible.”

This need for extra support is particularly necessary because of the wide range of hours involved in both class work and placements. Placements could involve a range of different shift work, but classes also range from 8am to 6pm on some days.

“We had a class last semester which went until six at night,” Rachelle says. “Another mum’s kids were in childcare, but the childcare closed at six.”

Situations like these often-put nursing students into a position where they must choose between their education and their family.

“That is where a lot of the guilt comes from,” Rachelle says. “You feel guilty if you are not there for your family, but you also feel guilty if you’re not putting the effort into your studies.”

But, Rachelle says, this can also be a motivating factor – with everyday making you aware of what you and your family are sacrificing for, and a desire to do well so that sacrifice is not for nothing.

Both parents think entering the nursing profession will both make life easier and more difficult with juggling their families. Though nursing can be an incredibly demanding job, Rachelle says – depending on the position she gets – it should offer life a little more stability and allow her to leave the job at work in a way it isn’t possible to do with study.

“[It will make a difference] knowing that a shift is done, and not having to then go home and do a few more hours of study,” Rachelle says.

Clinical placements present one of the biggest challenges for parents studying nursing. There is far less understanding in placements around your personal circumstances, Rachelle says. At a training institution, lecturers and administrators become aware of the challenges you have outside of schoolwork and can be accommodating of that. However, placement workplaces are such a whirlwind that often there is not time for, or interest in, this kind of accommodation.

“You are trying to prove you have good work ethic – you don’t want to be the person making excuses because you have a sick kid,” Rachelle says.

Both parents say their schools have been accommodating. Katie says it has been her experience that lecturers can be amenable to requests for class or tutorial slots, when they are available, making this scheduling of family and classes more feasible.

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