First, being a mother is hard work. Certainly it's not a life of leisure to be a full-time stay-at-home parent. It's exhausting. It's also exhilarating. I'm a big fan of moms being home with their children, especially when they are very young. I also know that 61 percent of Utah mothers with children under 6 work, and 73 percent of Utah moms with children ages 6-17 are employed. And often they are employed in a few, specific fields at the low end of the pay scale. Odds are very good that women will be working for pay at some point in their parenting career.
Last November, Susan Madsen at Utah Valley University published a research snapshot on "Poverty Among Utah Women." The most striking numbers are those of "female-headed households," where 28.9 percent are in poverty. When children under 18 are present, the percentage is 37.5 percent, and when the oldest child is 5 or younger, it's a startling 46.9 percent.
Utah women lag behind women in the rest of the nation getting four-year degrees. We apparently have set up a false dichotomy that you can go to college or you can become a mother. In fact, you can do both. Shocking, I know.
In 2010, the Utah Women and Education researchers looked at why more young women are not graduating from college. What they found was that while young women believed a college education would help increase their own knowledge and lifelong learning skills, only 20 percent believed they could use their college degrees to "teach their children and/or be a positive example to them," only 15 percent felt college could help prepare them to make a difference in society and barely 8 percent thought college could help them develop skills like critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and tolerance for differences in others.
There are far more benefits to completing a college degree than just getting a job. When moms have college degrees, we know that, overall, they give birth to healthier babies, provide healthier lifestyles for their children and, when they do work for an income, it helps them get higher-paying, more flexible jobs. They also have healthier lifestyles, increased life satisfaction, are more resilient and less depressed, all of which are valuable skills when deep in the parenting trenches.
It's also never too late to go back. Colleges and universities today offer more and more flexibility and support for "non-traditional" students to complete degrees, with early-morning, evening, weekend classes and online classes, as well as childcare options, scholarships, women's centers, mentors and tutors. Thirty years after I received an associate's degree in nursing, I went back to college to get a bachelor's degree. My kids found it both funny and inspirational that mom had homework, just like they did. Two years later, in April 2016, I graduated cum laude with a degree in communication.
There is no doubt that in Utah we emphasize marriage and motherhood. It's a path I chose when I married at age 21 (more than 30 years ago!) With the exception of a couple of years, I have been a full time mom for three decades, with part-time gigs of many varieties on the side. I would say this to those girls who don't plan to graduate from college: Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Graduating from college will give you more freedom and more options when they happen. You can do it!
Holly Richardson is the Utah Women and Education Initiative Coordinator at Utah Valley University, encouraging women of all ages to not only start college but to continue finish their degrees. She is also a student at Southern Utah University, pursuing a master's degree in professional communication.