When Lily Yeager started college, she went through the typical freshman checklist: buy textbooks, gather note-taking materials, pick out classes online. But Lily had more than just textbooks and pencils to worry about — At five months pregnant, she was also looking at cribs and baby clothes, and moving her finals around so they wouldn’t be too close to her due date.
Lily, now 21, gave birth to her daughter Adeline shortly after her first semester at Lone Star College in Houston. She transferred to UT as a psychology sophomore last month.
Despite the hardships that come with being a full-time student and mother, she often tells people she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Adeline.
“That’s kind of funny to say because, yeah, it would be so much easier to get a degree without an 18-month-old, but the thing is that I think being a young mom has shown me so much of what I’m capable of,” Lily said. “It’s given me a sense of drive that, if I really want to do this, I don’t have time to mess around.”
More than 11 percent of undergraduate students nationwide are single mothers, according to a 2017 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. This number has doubled since 1999.
Even though the number of single mothers attending school is growing, the rate of single moms with a college degree is still lower than those of married mothers or women in general. In 2015, only 31 percent of single mothers older than 25 had a college degree, according to the Institute.
This isn’t entirely surprising, considering the many struggles that come with balancing education and full financial responsibility. The USDA’s child expense calculator suggests a single parent student of a lower-income household can have an additional $4,800 in expenses per semester. At UT, and in an expensive city such as Austin, this number could be even higher.
Adeline is now 18 months old, and at 30 inches tall, she’s almost half Lily’s height. While Lily is thin, with high cheekbones and long hair down to her waist, Adeline is plump with large, round cheeks and a small curl of blonde hair at the top of her head.
“She is chunky, which in my opinion is the best type of baby,” Lily said, laughing.
Although she’s cautiously quiet around strangers, noiselessly observing them with intelligent and watchful eyes, Adeline is quite silly at home, Lily said. She’s an easy child — she has been sleeping through the night since she was 6 weeks old.
When she was accepted to the psychology program, Lily looked into enrolling Adeline in the UT Child Development Center, the campus daycare center for UT families. But with a waiting list of 842 children, the Center is hard to get into. More than 600 of those children are infants, meaning it could be more than two years before a young child is enrolled.
“I’ll be completing my undergraduate experience here within three years max, I would say,” Lily said. “So the chances of my ability to utilize that resource are slim to none.”
With a minimum rate of $850 per month for infants, the Center is one of the more affordable care centers near campus. The state average for full-time child care is around $730 per month, but in Austin this can be much higher. Daycare centers can cost $1,000 to $1,200 per month in Central Austin.
Center director Hara Cootes said the waiting list for infants is long because infants require more caretakers per child and it’s not financially viable for the Center to accommodate them.
“When you look at a waiting list and you see that there are 629 infants on the list, you immediately think we should be expanding,” Cootes said. “But actually, for a program to be financially viable you must have a waiting list of older children, you can’t just have a waiting list of young children.”
Education doctorate student Jessica Rubin got on the waiting list when she was three months pregnant with her son, but he didn’t get in until he was about a year-and-a-half old.
“We were on the waiting list for a really long time,” Rubin said. “And between that I had to cobble things together, babysitters and friends, and things like that. He actually went to another daycare for a couple of months before they had a spot for him at the childcare center for UT.”
Although the waiting list can pose difficulties for students attending school for two to four years, the Center is one of the largest university-affiliated child care centers in Texas. The Center currently serves 480 children, more than five times as many as there were when Cootes first started working there in 1992. It has also expanded to two other locations in that time.
“I think you’ll see based just on the numbers that the University has made a commitment to childcare on campus and definitely to expansion,” Cootes said.
Few single parents use the Center. Cootes said only 25 to 33 percent of the children at the Center are children of students, and almost all of those are graduate students. Although 11 percent of undergraduate students nationwide are single mothers, only one-fifth of those students attend four-year colleges, according to the Institute.
Rubin said the Center’s proximity to campus has been very helpful for her as she works “beyond full time” as a Ph.D. candidate, balancing taking classes, teaching classes and research with also being a single mother.
“Figuring out how to prioritize and how to get things done was really challenging,” Rubin said. “It was really hard. It’s not something that I would necessarily recommend. I don’t think that this is the best way to do either thing. But I think that I learned a lot about being a student from also being a parent, and about being a teacher from also being a parent.”
Lily found Adeline a different child care center that is close to campus and charges the same as UT’s Center. She said Adeline has adjusted remarkably well to the move and to entering full-time child care.
“I’ve had a lot more issues adjusting my 6-pound poodle who has separation anxiety when I leave than I have had acclimating her to childcare, funnily enough,” Lily said. “I wasn’t expecting that one. The two of them are actually inseparable.”
Finding daytime care for Adeline was just one of the obstacles Lily faced when she decided to attend UT. According to state custody laws, Lily and Adeline’s father were required to live in the same county. Because Adeline’s father is in Houston, she had to fight the geographical restrictions while waiting for her acceptance to UT.
“That’s where I really had to believe in myself,” Lily said. “If I didn’t advocate for myself to be able to have that geographical restriction lifted so I could come here if I did get in, and I would have given up my chances to go, I would have been devastated.”
Lily ended up making an agreement with Adeline’s father regarding child support so he could save up to move to Austin. She said he is fully supportive of her pursuing her education at UT.
According to the Institute, more than half of undergraduate single mothers work more than 20 hours per week, and 43 percent are working more than 30 hours per week.
When Lily first had Adeline, she was working from home full-time while also taking 18 hours, including honors courses, at Lone Star College. She also didn’t have Adeline in full-time childcare at the time.
Lily relied on online courses and working remotely so she could stay with Adeline at home. She said she would cram in hours of homework during Adeline’s naptime and stay up late working after she went to bed. On the weekends Adeline visited with her father, Lily played catch-up.
“I was non-stop either being a mom or a student,” Lily said.
Today, Lily picks up her daughter from daycare every day after classes by 6 p.m. and said Adeline often runs to her when she sees her come in the room. When Lily has to set her daughter down and walk away to do something, Adeline races after her on stout little legs, arms raised.
Lily describes her daughter as her motivation, but says she’s pursuing her education for herself.
“If I’m happy, she’s happy at this age,” Lily said. “If I’m confident, I’m more likely to raise a confident woman. And that’s what I want to do. And so fulfilling myself and not … relying on any other person, just really doing something for myself, is one of the things that I think makes me a good mom for her.”
Lily plans to transfer into the neuroscience program at UT and go to medical school after graduation, where she wants to study neurosurgery.
“I want to show Adeline that I can accomplish my dreams,” she said. “And I want her to grow into a young woman who is fearless in accomplishing her dreams no matter what mistakes she makes or how life unfolds. I feel like it is so important to show our children how to use their talents to make the world a better place.”