Few choose parenthood as undergrads

by Amanda Cohen | 11/21/05 6:00am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at students who continue their pregnancies and become parents while enrolled at the College. This article will examine the choices they face and the resources available to help them along the way.

Catherine Elizabeth Clayton has sat through Dartmouth classes. She has walked across the stage at Commencement, and since then, she has spent four years living in the Upper Valley. Sitting in Molly's Restaurant in Hanover, Catherine waits for her lunch, as she scribbles "MOLLY'S ROXS" with bright crayons. She is remarkably patient for a six year old.

Catherine is a Dartmouth legacy through and through. Her parents, Sara Clayton '00 and Adam "Tex" Clayton '00 brought Catherine into the world in 1999, and both assumed dual roles as parents and full-time students.

Being a parent at Dartmouth is generally not considered part of the "normal" undergraduate experience.

"Walking across campus with a baby in your arms would get you looks, and everybody had at least heard about us if they didn't know us," Tex said.

Raising a baby on campus is not a common endeavor. Women's Health Department Manager Elizabeth Hirsh recalls only three or four undergraduate students who have chosen to continue their pregnancy in the past four years. Many college students who become pregnant choose to terminate the pregnancy before it shows or begins to greatly change their regular patterns of student life.

"I think that most of the students who choose abortions generally do so because they are on a different track for life right now, and pregnancy or parenting is not in their plan or in their future that they can see," Hirsh said.

Sara agrees that her decision to keep her baby was unique among most college woman.

"It's an environment of students, and most of them are career-oriented -- out to succeed, get their education and make their way in the world, and babies generally don't factor in very well, and you certainly didn't see any. So I certainly would have been the odd duck," Sara said.

In the past, students have complained that pressures on campus, especially from Dick's House, push pregnant students toward abortion. Sara recalled speaking with another couple, Jen and Josh Nelson, both members of the Class of 1992, who had a baby as undergraduate students and felt that Dick's House pushed them to abort the pregnancy.

"She went in [to Dick's House], got the pregnancy test. They came back with the results and an appointment for the abortion and encouraged her not tell her boyfriend," Sara said of Jen's experience.

Hirsh, who was aware of the Women's Health Department's reputation for pushing abortions when she took her job in 2002, has tried to give students more information on adoption and parenthood as well as abortion through a "Pregnancy Options Counseling" handout.

"I tried to be very proactive in making a much more balanced approach in terms of options available, and I worked with the person that was doing the Pregnancy and Parenting Resource Center," Hirsh said.

The Center for Women and Gender provides resources to pregnant and parenting undergraduate students through the PPRC, which was spearheaded in 2002 by Karima Rizk '03 after Rizk returned from medical leave with an infant.

After the three-year pilot program ended, however, enthusiasm for the PPRC seemed to fizzle out. Xenia Markowitt, the center's current director, knew little about the program and believed it was inactive until last week when she was at a meeting with former center director Giovanna Munafo.

"It's not a high-volume kind of thing," Markowitt said of the program.

The resources available at the PPRC are listed for students on the website, or students can call the Center for Woman and Gender.

Markowitt said that, in her time as director, she has only received one phone call from a student regarding the PPRC. She found out what the student's priorities were and led her to resources based on her individual needs.

"The purpose is to have the students be able to negotiate their lives so that they're able to be students and finish their coursework and live a full active life, participating in everything the College has to offer. Clearly you can tell by looking around the College that there aren't a lot of mechanisms in place," Markowitt said.

Markowitt attributed the lack of mechanisms in place to help students care for children to the low demand on the campus, but she acknowledged that, for those who do have children, finding the necessary resources can be difficult.

"I would hope students know that they have a tremendously supportive set of resources that will work in different ways to try to accommodate different students. I certainly hope that people who are pregnant and parenting would call the center if they need to figure out what those resources are. We can certainly be helpful," Markowitt said.

No amount of resources, however, can alleviate the concerns student parents have about how they will fit into campus life.

"It was scary. It always seemed like we were in a special situation, a unique situation," Sara Clayton said as she named four other single students and couples she knew at Dartmouth who raised children as undergraduates.

Sara and Tex agreed that most of the community was supportive of their decision. Brothers of Tex's fraternity, Sigma Nu, volunteered as babysitters for Catherine while the two were in class or participating in other activities. The couple also credited their deans and professors for their support, which included allowing them extensions on certain assigments.

Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman said the problem most student parents face is the lack of understanding of other students. For example, a study group meeting at night is hard for a parent who must take care of a child. Many students cannot afford to pay a babysitter, and finding a babysitter last minute is never easy.

The Claytons agree that campus life was not advantageous to raising a child. While Tex said his fraternity was understanding about his not drinking and participating less in fraternity activities, the social scene as a whole is not favorable for student parents.

"We weren't in a frat basement Friday and Saturday nights. Our social life didn't grow. The friends we had before we were pregnant were basically all we had. We met a few people here and there. The Dartmouth social scene wasn't conducive," Tex said.

The couple married in the summer of 2001, after Sara graduated. Catherine is now a big sister to 22-month-old Audrey and a baby brother, James Adam, who is due in December.

Having lived through pregnancy and parenting as students, the Claytons have agreed to advise students in a similar position now, but difficulties remain for student parents from the toll a baby takes on their finances, housing choices and social lives.