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Mum Guilt,Lack of Sleep & Time Management:Balancing study & family in a world of Gender inequalities

Introduction and research question

Balancing family and study can be extremely difficult for women with young children undertaking university studies. Female university students with dependent children require a juggling act to obtain the work/life balance that can support the completion of their studies and maintain a healthy lifestyle (Lendak-Kabok 2022). Embedded in this balance is the social discourse of gender and the inequalities that burden mothers into believing they must do it all (Bowyer et al. 2022; Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021). This report aims to uncover the challenges mothers completing undergraduate studies endure when pertaining to the care of children. The research investigated how mothers work around care arrangements, who helps with these arrangements, and what, if any, are the mental and emotional impacts that they challenge. The question leading the research was:

What challenges do undergraduate student-mothers face when balancing study commitments with the care of dependent children?

Background and Literature

Existing qualitative and feminist research can be used to examine how undergraduate student-mothers are affected by the challenges faced by traditional gender roles, lack of family support, childcare and lack of time when trying to balance study and family commitments (Webber 2017; Webber & Dismore 2021; Lendak-Kabok 2022) in a society that is not particularly egalitarian (Akanji, Mordi & Ajonbadi 2020). This societal context plays an integral part in underlying the limits for optimal functioning in student-mother roles, as the nature of balancing study and family gives rise to student-mothers becoming overwhelmed (Akanji, Mordi & Ajonbadi 2020).

A common theme across the literature is the struggles being a mother in academia can have and the compromises that must be attempted to balance study and family commitments (Webber 2017; Webber & Dismore 2021; Lendak-Kabok 2022; Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021; Akanji, Mordi & Ajonbadi 2020; Bowyer et al. 2022; Rodrigo 2022; Ruzungunde & Zhou 2021).

Caring demands and unequal division of household responsibilities and childcare can be barriers for student-mothers in learning and completing degrees (Webber & Dismore 2021; Ruzungunde & Zhou 2021). Within traditional gender roles, student-mothers have the additional component of adding study to their routines and responsibilities they already possess (Webber 2017; Lendak-Kabok 2022; Ruzungunde & Zhou 2021; Bowyer et al. 2022).

Conflict with time and the negative interference on home life (Akanji, Mordi & Ajonbadi 2020; Lendak-Kabok 2022; Webber 2017 ) find student-mothers trying to balance study and family commitments by expressing the need to sacrifice sleep to utilise the lack of time (Lendak-Kabok 2022; Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021) or support (Webber 2017) around studying. Being time-poor, student-mothers try to free up time by working around family life, which can be viewed as a ‘double burden’ of studying at home (Lendak-Kabok 2022).

A lack of time can also generate feelings of guilt whereby student-mothers feel they are not fulfilling the role of an ideal mother (Webber & Dismore 2021; Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021). Guilt is centred on the idea that the family is being neglected because of studies (Webber 2017). Student-mothers throughout the literature convey the importance of negotiating time and space for study while conflicting with feelings of guilt.

Emotional and mental impacts within the existing literature suggest expectations are thought to unavoidably fuel stress, anxiety, mental exhaustion, and burnout as mothers in academia often succumb to their efforts to balance their multiple roles (Bowyer et al. 2022; Ruzungunde & Zhou 2021; Webber & Dismore 2021; Webber 2017; Lendak-Kabok 2022). Lendak-Kabok (2022) found that the core approach women appeared to use was to work harder and longer, attempting to compensate for the lack of work hours within the day. Evidence of fatigue and stress emerges when conflict is experienced from working harder and longer as this time-based conflict affects familial duties (Akanji, Mordi & Ajonbadi 2020).

Research Methods and Ethics

Through the use of a constructivist research paradigm, I aimed to investigate how student-mothers balance life between study and family commitments and what this means for their mental and emotional well-being. Understanding there are many realities, each founded on collective experiences, allowed participants to contribute their realities of being an undergraduate student-mother and how this has affected their lives (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). The constructivist view can align with the gendered discourse that mothers are the primary carers of children, placing the responsibility on the mother to balance her roles to maintain the care requirements of the dependent children (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015; Lendak-Kabok 2022; Ruzungunde & Zhou 2021). As a researcher using the constructivist paradigm, I was able to exercise transparency and trustworthiness to foster credibility within the research, supporting participant's valued contributions to this important topic and self-reflect on my experiences within the research topic, understanding that the views of the participants allowed me to form alternate opinions whilst co-creating the findings through the ‘non-innocent conversation with a purpose’ (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015).

Due to the limited number of participants permitted, I used purposive sampling for the recruitment stage. This form of sampling aligns with the goals related to my research through the constructivist paradigm, which uses an inductive (data builds theory) approach to research (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). Participants were chosen through my social network who fit the inclusion criteria. The research participants recruited were mothers 21 years or older with dependent children requiring care who are studying for an undergraduate degree at a university in Australia and can read and understand English. Once verbal consent to participate was given I distributed the participant information statement and the consent form. Conducting the interviews in a mutually agreed location, I obtained the signed consent forms and permission from the participant to record an audio copy of the interview on my phone recording app. The participants interviewed comprised Rose (27) single mother of two children aged one year and seven years, studying full-time and not currently employed, Claire (37) married mother of two children aged four years and seven years, studying full-time and not currently employed, Angela (28) married mother of one child aged seven years, not currently employed and Sandra (42) married mother of two children aged five years and seven years and part-time self-employed.

For this report, using an interview schedule, I conducted four semi-structured one-on-one interviews with the student-mothers. This qualitative method enabled a collection of rich data to improve understanding of experiences in undergraduate study and the challenges encountered when balancing family and study commitments (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). Flexibility allowed for conversational flow and tailoring of each interview to obtain the most relevant and significant information while ensuring the student-mother had an empowering experience (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). Allowing for privacy and the capacity to be more forthcoming with accounts of their experiences one-on-one semi-structured interview approach was preferred over a focus group (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). I considered a focus group to be less personal as student mothers may not have wanted to disclose personal experiences in a group setting, weakening the richness of the data. In terms of data analysis, all recordings were transcribed and then replayed to account for transcription errors. Keeping the research question in mind transcriptions were re-read multiple times allowing for the raw data to be placed in groups, noting keywords and reoccurring themes, this allowed for coding of the information. (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015; O’Leary 2009). During and at the conclusion of the interviews, emerging themes could be noted as all participant's transcripts corroborated the information recorded. Thematic analysis was used to search for meaning and interpret the data collected to uncover the findings (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015; O’Leary 2009).

Ethical practices are fundamental in research where the aim is integrity and honesty, and at the core is beneficence, doing no harm (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). I ensured the participant's protection by ethical practices that follow the three Cs: Consent, Confidentiality and Care. I gained voluntary informed consent from the participants via a signed consent form, where participants were informed of practices within the research, stating they can withdraw from the research at any time without penalty. Participants received an Information Statement outlining that personal information will be de-identified and a pseudonym will be used, encouraging participants to share experiences and feelings without fear of repercussions. Valuing participants with care and respecting the participant's autonomy, dignity, and rights ensured that through the constructivist paradigm, participants were active agents in the research and had the self-determination to make their own decisions (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015). During the interview process, using beneficence, I monitored the participant's non-verbal cues, if any signs of distress or harm were observed, I would have asked the participant if they would like to cease recording or end the interview. If this had transpired the recording would have been deleted and the participant would have been redirected to the list of contacts that may be of service to them in the Participant Information Statement (Waller, Farquharson & Dempsey 2015).


Challenging existing gender structures

Sharing the load

The traditional gendered belief that household chores and child-rearing are the responsibility of the mother has been challenged by all the participants in this study. Participants with husbands discussed how their husbands shared some of the workloads within the home, lessening the burdens of chores with studies. However, they still felt overwhelmed. Participants explained that help was only offered in times that worked around their husband's employment. On the contrary, student-mothers have the additional component of adding study to their routines and responsibilities that they already possess. Claire stated it has been a big adjustment that has taken quite some time to fine-tune how it is now working:

I try and do as much as I can on my own, whilst juggling what's required of me to get my uni work done… I get dinner ready... so we can sit as a family and have dinner and put the kids to bed together and so certainly during the week, that all falls on me… my husband is very supportive… on weekends he'll do the cooking and he'll, he'll put loads of washing on and things like that… he's very good at picking up the slack and helping.

As seen in the above excerpt, Claire is aware of the traditional gender roles that are still apparent, although her husband is trying to balance the unequal responsibilities. Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein (2021) support this insight in their study that explored cultural norms and standards that have not progressed as fast as the rates of increase of working mothers in the past few decades. In previous decades men have been the providers, with women traditionally staying at home to rear children and perform household duties. These expectations are now established in social norms where mothers choosing to take on higher education require the intersection of roles of mother and student, causing unique challenges (Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021; Webber 2017). As Claire explains, it has been a big adjustment to fine-tune what is required to juggle study and family commitments. This aligns with Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein’s (2021) understanding of the burden of responsibility and sense of overload for those who identified as having helpful partners. In Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein’s (2021) study, those who describe having helpful partners still expressed an expectation that they carry the load without asking for support, and if they did receive the support, it was seen as “helping” them rather than taking an active role in duties within the home and child-rearing.

Childcare falls on mothers

Participants discussed how husbands try to help out on weekends and after work. Sandra when talking about her husband said “he'll come home from work. I'll go into office; he will do dinner bath bed so I can get the stuff done”. However, although some student-mothers had extra support from friends or family, the role of transport to and from the children’s schools and care was the sole responsibility of all the mothers interviewed. This responsibility placed a heavy burden on mothers to work around the childcare responsibilities with their studies. Commuting became an issue for those who lived a distance from the university as Claire did not commute to the university unless she had classes and found that was even a challenge for the caring role:

…when I've got a lecture that starts at nine and a have to do school drop off, day-care drop off, and then the half an hour drive to uni. That's always very frantic. Same goes for whatever time my lecture finishes, I have to make sure I allow enough time to get to school pickup… I feel like I can't go and work at uni because it's half an hour away from home… I just work at home when the kids aren't there. It's nice and quiet, but I am surrounded by toys and chaos.

While Angela used after-school care as she could not get back in time to collect her son.

Angela discussed that with her husband’s employment, he is not home a lot of the time, and she doesn’t have any family close by, so school pick-up and drop-off are her responsibility:

I don't really have that village.… I only have uni Tuesday and Wednesday; I did Tuesday after school care only and then Wednesday after school care only… I live in [Suburb de-identified], it's about 40 minutes’ drive from Ourimbah. So rushing for school pickup and stuff was a bit of a nightmare… but also so I can stay back an hour or two here and do a few hours work after class or something.

Claire and Angela’s quotes open an understanding of how taxing balancing studies with the caring roles and the pressures that entails of them. This ties into the work of Lendak-Kabok (2022), who revealed men still have a choice to participate; or not within the caring roles due to subtle, nevertheless persistent ideals that childcare is primarily a female domain. Student-mothers, however, are compelled to make compromises and find solutions, while the struggles that need to be overcome are not recognised by society (Lendak-Kabok 2022). In her research, Webber (2017) noted that although this can be a complex task, on most occasions, mothers feel a responsibility to organise the needs of their families around their study requirements. This consequence is unique to student-mothers as they are competing with long-running socially constructed ideals concerning their standings within the family (Webber 2017).

Time Management

Sacrificing sleep

To place pressure on themselves student-mothers require to be efficient with time management. Even when being efficient with balancing their time, they still feel they require more time than there is in a day. Claire explained how her first year was severely impacted by struggling to find the right balance, so she became very disciplined with managing her time effectively; however, she stated that she still has to pick up the rest of the hours during the evenings when her children are sleeping:

I felt I was just didn't have enough hours in the day or night to keep up with my study. So whilst I might go to bed at 11 o'clock, I'd be awake until like twelve or one o'clock just thinking or worrying about all the things I needed to do. Then this year, I've really tried to be more diligent with my time management… I try not to work beyond 11pm… that really impacts my sleep quality.. I can't really start working in the evening until… the kids are settled in bed and are asleep… So I'm kind of restricted. I generally work in the evenings from eight to eleven.

Claire’s sentiments above explore the pressures placed on her and how she utilises her time to accomplish what she requires. Claire’s experiences were echoed in Lendak-Kabok's (2022) study that found a common theme that working mothers simply did not have enough hours in the day and attempted to compensate during the evenings to ‘catch-up’. Like all the mothers interviewed, sacrificing their sleep to utilise the time when their children are sleeping was something they required to allow for study. Previous literature (Webber 2017; Webber & Dismore 2021; Lendak-Kabok 2022; Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein 2021) has found that mothers work more and sleep less to accommodate the shortfall of hours lacking in the daytime due to caring responsibilities.

Mental and emotional health

Mum guilt, stress and anxiety

Expectations of mothers remain deeply engrained in the social structures of society. This expectation has caused mental and emotional impacts on student-mothers trying to balance study and family commitments. All participants in this research discussed some form of mental or emotional pressure concerning feelings about adding studies to their routines. Whilst Sandra said she did not feel ‘mum guilt’ but had feelings of guilt due to the pressures of studying and taking those pressures out on family. Angela, Claire, and Rose all revealed forms of ‘mum guilt’ through feelings of selfishness, missing quality time with children and missing school events. Claire expressed:

I think there's been times where I've had the mum guilt that I shouldn't be doing studies and I should instead be more present with my children… the mum guilt is probably a really big part… I've had a lot of a lot of mum guilt with feeling like going to uni is somewhat selfish.

Claire's insight into feelings of selfishness and being more present with her children can be explored in the confines of gender roles, where Claire feels as though she is not living up to the expectations of being a ‘good mother’. This can be explained by Forbes, Lamar, & Bornstein (2021) when they discussed how attempting to conform to female gender roles has impacted women’s well-being. They discussed the idea of ‘intense mothering’, which describes the social ideology of what a woman must achieve to be considered a ‘good’ mother. Unrealistic expectations have implications for student-mother's mental well-being, where feelings of guilt, stress, and anxiety are strong emotions that are intertwined with their studies (Webber 2017; Webber & Dismore 2021; Lendak-Kabok 2022).

Rose expressed that she could get very stressed at the end of a semester, which can affect the dynamics within the home due to her emotions. She admitted this also has a negative impact on her daughter:

… it can get really overwhelming, and I can get very stressed with it, and then actually become upset sometimes because I'm so stressed like I'll get really worked up and yeah, I feel like that affects her because she worries if I get upset.… I find myself staying up late stressing about it like I’m trying to but can't fall asleep.

In the above extract from Rose, she is aware of the negative impacts that the challenges of study place on her and her children due to the workload of studying within the university; however, she has managed to push through and continue with her studies as she feels she is a role model for her children. Webber & Dismore (2021) highlight how the challenges of mothers in higher education verify the complexities around caring for children and their studies. The pressures to consider the needs of the family are daunting and intense, which also have emotional ramifications (Bowyer et al. 2022). Webber (2017) discusses 'emotional' capital and bonding offered through families. Even when it is proved stressful, children can offer mothers support through encouragement and pride; however, the negative 'emotional' capital can enhance the feelings of guilt and threaten the completion of the degree (Webber & Dismore 2021).


As seen here, existing literature analysing mothers in academia supports my research, illustrating student-mothers carry a heavy burden when balancing studies with family commitments due to excessive responsibility and a sense of overload on student-mothers. As discussed by all participants, feelings influenced by gender roles are intertwined with all facets of study that place pressures on student-mothers to try and ‘do it all’. Mental and emotional impacts have also been found to be a major component of balancing studies and family as expectations place pressures on student-mothers, creating feelings of guilt, stress, anxiety, and feelings of not being a ‘good’ mother. Results from my research align with findings by Lendak-Kabok (2022), Webber (2017) and Webber & Dismore’s (2021) that demonstrates student-mothers suffer a lack of sleep, ‘mum guilt’ and stress due to the demands of balancing family and studies. Answering my research question, student-mothers face many challenges balancing studies with family commitments due to the perplexing gender norms that are intertwined with expectations of student-mothers roles.


As a student-mother, I can identify with the feelings participants expressed within the research. Interviewing the participants highlighted the many struggles being a student-mother have on the mental and emotional aspects of trying to be a ‘good’ student and a ‘good’ mother and how these play a role in finding the ideal work/life balance; however, I feel these would not be understood if the research were to be replicated by a male researcher.

Learning from the project, I have taken away skills to better understand the art of interviewing, as the first interview was very ‘clunky’. If I had had time, I would have liked to re-interview the first two participants with the final questions. As I progressed through the interviews, I felt I established a better understanding of the questions I wanted to add to the research.


Akanji B, Mordi C and Hakeem AA (2020), ‘The experiences of work-life balance, stress, and coping lifestyles of female professionals: insights from a developing country’, Employee Relations, 42(4):999-1015,

Bowyer D, Deitz M, Jamison A, Taylor CE, Gyengesi E, Ross J, Hammond H, Eseosa Ogbeide A, and Dune T (2022) ‘Academic mothers, professional identity and COVID‐19: Feminist reflections on career cycles, progression and practice’, Gender, work, and organization, 29 (1):309-341, doi: 10.1111/gwao.12750

Lisa K, Forbes A, Margaret R, Lamar B , and Bornstein RS (2021) ‘Working Mothers’ Experiences in an Intensive Mothering Culture: A Phenomenological Qualitative Study’, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 33(3):270–294,

Lendak-Kabok K (2022) ‘Women’s work-life balance strategies in academia’, Journal of Family Studies, 28(3):1139-1157, doi: 10.1080/13229400.2020.1802324

O'Leary, Z 2009, Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project, e-book, Sage Publications, accessed 29 March 2023,

Rodrigo Rosa (2022) ‘The trouble with ‘work–life balance’ in neoliberal academia: a systematic and critical review’, Journal of Gender Studies, 31:1, 55-73, doi: 10.1080/09589236.2021.1933926

Ruzungunde, VS; Zhou, S (2021) ‘Work-Life Balance in the Face of COVID-19: The Gendered Impact’, Gender & behaviour, 19(2):18098-18106, doi: 10.10520/ejc-genbeh_v19_n2_a39

Waller V, Farquharson K and Dempsey D (2015) Qualitative Social Research; Contemporary Methods for the Digital Age, e-book, Sage Publications, United Kingdom, accessed 22 March 2023,

Webber L (2017) ‘Women, higher education, and family capital: ‘i could not have done it without my family!’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 22(3):409-428, doi: 10.1080/13596748.2017.1358521

Webber L and Dismore H (2021) ‘Mothers and higher education: balancing time, study and space’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(6):803-817, doi: 10.1080/0309877X.2020.1820458


Interview Guide

Prefacing informed consent questions

I would like to confirm that you have read the Consent form and information Statement and understand your rights, and do you have any questions regarding these forms?

Do you give your consent to take part in this interview, and allow for recording and transcribing of the information shared?

Framing statement

Thank you for taking your time to participate in this interview. This interview will be a part of several interviews with student-mothers on balancing study with the care of dependent children. Your views and experiences are of importance to understand the challenges student-mothers face in your everyday lives as a mother and student. This might range from how you juggle care arrangements to support you receive and challenges you may face, or anything else you believe influences your experience. All answers are valid, as I am hoping to hear about your own individual experiences and views.

Family Dynamics

Could you begin by telling me about your family?

Prompt: Married, partnered, single, age of child/ren

And if you don’t mind, may I ask what is your age?

And are you currently employed?

Husband/partner: Is your Husband/partner currently employed?

Has or is your husband/partner attended or attending university?

Does your child/ren attend childcare/OOSH care?

If yes, is this to work around your studies?

Whose responsibility is it to drop them off and collect them?

Do you rely on friends or extended family to help with childcare?

Prompt: How often do they help, say per week?

If yes, does this give you some relief from trying to balance your studies and the care?

Are the fees a factor in the number of days you use the care, and would you utilise it more if the Government subsidised university student’s childcare to help with study time?

Study commitments

What are your current study commitments?

Prompt: full time, part time

Does your time for study work around your children?

How do you feel you balance your studies with childcare/family responsibilities?

Prompt: Work set hours / days, work while children asleep

Do you feel there anything that is left out because of study commitments?

Do you think being a mature-age student-mother plays a part in the importance of balancing studies with family commitments?

Balancing time

What do you think is involved in developing a sense of work-life balance between study and family?

Since studying has anything changed with your time and why do you think that is?

Do you work late hours?

Do you feel there anything that is left out because of time limits?

Do you feel since studying you get enough sleep?

Do you make time for self-care?

Prompt: What do you do

How do you feel personal values effect your sense of a work-life balance?


Do you feel your study is valued?

Do you feel you have support with balancing study and family commitments?

Do you think your husband/partner experiencing university helps to understand the amount of support that is required?

Prompt: Do you think this would be different if they hadn’t attended university?

*Rotate question and prompt if required*

Does your partner help with the responsibilities in the home?

Prompt: Have they always or is this since you started study?

Do you have a designated workplace in your home for study?

Do you feel support is key to helping productivity?

Emotional and mental impacts

Since studying do you feel your emotional and mental health has been affected in any way?

Do you think you cope well with balancing university and family commitments?

Would you say that you experience any negative feelings regarding balancing study and family commitments?

Do you feel as though you are a role model for your child/ren?

Prompt: How does this make you feel?

Do you feel you miss out on family time because of study commitments?

If yes, does this effect your mental health?

Can you separate your time mentally?

Prompt: Concentrate solely on what you are doing at that time or is there an overlap

Would you like to add anything further to this interview regarding our discussions on these topics?

Thank you for your time.

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