For a young mum with a 3- and 1-year old, thinking of doing a master’s degree abroad didn’t seem like the cleverest idea. It would be a big leap. We’d go from two salaries to none; have the deep social roots we’ve put down be pulled out and relocated; and go back to school again – only this time, with kids.
I remember the moment I made the decision. My youngest was turning 1 and I had been a working-from-home mom for nearly a year and a half now. A friend had just received a promotion and despite being really happy for her, that little voice in my head thought:
“When the kids start school, how am I going to compete in a brutal job market with all the others who didn’t make the choice to stay at home?”
It troubled me, forcing me to think about my identity. Not just who I was to a prospective employer, but how I saw myself and how my kids would see me. Coming from a generation of women who worked while raising their children, I knew that this stint at home was short-lived and was coming to the end of its time. A postgraduate degree could kick start my career to give me an edge over the years that I’d lost.
Continuing education had always been part of the family plan. My husband Max was immediately supportive and we discussed applying together; listing down our available options, mapping out our academic interests and identifying the relevant overlaps. We chose the UK because of the quality courses that appealed to our professions, the good things we’ve heard about the experience and the calibre of graduates that came from our chosen schools. We chose Chevening for its reputation and association with leadership and influence.
Not sure if you should pursue a master’s? Get some advice from the people who know best at the Study UK exhibition seminar: MSc, MBA & MA: Which One Do I Master? on Sunday 19 March 3:30 – 4:15pm at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
Everything from that point was left to circumstance and Max was awarded the scholarship first to study Climate Change at UCL, while I went on to receive it the year after to pursue an MSc in Environment and Development at the LSE. Taking turns worked out perfectly for us. One parent would hold down the fort at home so the other can undertake a demanding academic year.
Looking back now, I think of the ball of a time I had with the kids while Max did his degree. We moved into Goodenough College in Bloomsbury, a collegiate and educational trust for postgraduates under the patronage of HM the Queen. Admission wasn’t based on academic merit but on social capital: how much you can invest in the College’s social life. Right in the heart of London’s university district, charming Mecklenburgh Square was close enough to walk to both UCL and LSE, and were minutes away from King’s Cross, the British Museum, Oxford Circus and Covent Garden. The College itself was beautiful and held up to world-class standards. It housed 700 residents including 40 families and was small enough to get to know everyone within a few months. There were 2 playrooms, a children’s library, a private garden and an amazing support system for families including a sizeable budget for us to spend every term on activities for the children.
I started my course in the fall of 2016. The transition was more difficult than I thought. We had cashed out most of our savings to move here the first time – spending nearly RM40,000 to pay for our visas, the NHS health surcharge (very important for the kids to have access to healthcare!), our flights and the accommodation deposits.
We considered sending the kids home but decided to keep the family together in the end. Aidan would start primary school in September – children in the UK start the year they turn 5 – and Aria would move up to kindergarten, leaving time for Max to work during the day. We were lucky to receive a large bursary from the College, easing a huge financial burden. Because activities were subsidised, we were able to have experiences we wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. We withdrew the last of our savings and was very blessed to be supported by family and friends where we fell short.
It wasn’t easy academically either. In my class of 60 students, I am the only mum. School was challenging and I spent my days either in classes and seminars or in the library reading. I had to juggle essays and presentations with social commitments at the College and to the scholarship programme. At one point, I worked two part-time jobs. While it was manageable to keep all the balls in the air, what I found the hardest was how impossible it was to do everything at 100%. A master’s really stretches you thin.
But I was lucky to have Max stay with me – who now stays at home for the school and hospital runs, manages showers and bedtimes, cooks, cleans and does the laundry. Having a support system of other student parents is also really important. What I missed out at after-school pub crawls with my single classmates, the families at the College made up for.
Still, being so committed to school does come with a lot of guilt.
I know mothers who want to pursue a master’s but do not precisely because of everything I’m experiencing now.
Is this important? Can we afford it? Will I have time for the kids? Will they adjust? Can I manage it all?
I won’t lie. It requires a lot of thought; careful planning; a great awareness of your capabilities and that of your spouse and kids – recognising needs and matching them. There must be a willingness to take risk (and use credit). To have courage and a little recklessness.
Mums often discount their abilities to do things, even when they break their own personal boundaries every day, each time they learn something new with their child. We always feel inadequate for not doing enough, get criticised for being less than perfect, prioritising others all the time but still falling short of being the best.
I struggle with this too especially now I am choosing to put my life first and challenge myself beyond my kids and my family. But putting me first is also putting my kids first. That the pursuit of higher education provides pleasure and purpose that makes me happy and healthy. And when I am, they get the best version of me. I do this for them in hopes that they can see me and be inspired by my bravery and tenacity and resolve to do things even if they are difficult.
Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi is a Chevening scholar pursuing a master’s degree at the LSE. She is an entrepreneur and sustainability professional who believes that mums really can do it all. In London, she is the Environmental Officer on the Members Council of Goodenough College, Chair of the Environmental Society, a Debate Mate mentor, Parents Club coordinator for toddlers, wife to her husband Max and mum to 5-year old Aidan and 3-year old Aria.
Interested to take the leap yourself? Check out the Study UK exhibition seminar: MSc, MBA & MA: Which One Do I Master? on Sunday 19 March 3:30 – 4:15pm at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
Pre-register to stand a chance to win movie and retail vouchers for the family!
For a full list of the seminars, click here.
This is a sponsored post presented by the British Council Malaysia.