GROWING UP TOGETHER

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Story by Bradi Murphy | Photos by Aadil Sheikh and Will Barksdale

Toys scattered across the floor, dirty fingerprints on the wall, homework laid across the table. Despite the chaos, beaming grins fill the homes of four college students studying at Baylor and McLennan Community College. Fulfilling their joint roles as parents and students leads to unpredictable hardships, moments of joyous laughter and humble accomplishments.

Hannah Beth Midkiff, an apparel merchandising major at Baylor and single mother of Piper, 7, and Sutton, 5, found peace and motivation through her journey of motherhood as a single parent. Since finding out she was pregnant in 2010, Midkiff demonstrated bravery, loyalty and calmness, even in the midst of fear.

“I had this overwhelming amount of peace, even though there was a lot of uncertainty,” Midkiff said. “This was my first moment of ‘mom-ing,’ where you’re calm and collected in a horrible situation, and you have to say, ‘It’s all right. You’re going to get through this.”

At 20 years old, Midkiff decided to leave an abusive relationship and become a single parent. “I was under the impression that when you have a child with someone, you’re meant to be with them forever. It was a hard lesson to learn that this wasn’t a sealing factor,” Midkiff said. “I didn’t want my daughters growing up thinking that the way he treated me was OK. I wanted them to know that we, as a whole, deserve better.”

Midkiff said being a single mother taught her to persevere, to approach life with courage and to practice patience. Midkiff went on to use these skills during her pregnancy with her second daughter, Sutton, at age 21. She acknowledged that she would not be where she is today without the love and support of her family.

“It was definitely a village. I’m a single mom, but I’m not alone,” Midkiff said. “You can find your village anywhere. There’s a lot of support out there, but you just have to be willing to ask for help.”

After having children, Midkiff devoted her time and energy to parenting. She later decided to go back to school to gain financial stability for their family of three. Midkiff chose Baylor on a whim, applying on her phone just one week after deciding to continue her education.

“I went back to school because I was hungry. I needed something better, and I did not lose sight of that,” Midkiff said.

Midkiff said she balances school and parenting by completing her classwork while Piper and Sutton are at school. This schedule allows her to focus on her daughters and be present in the moments they share together.
“My advice for other students is to be unapologetic of who they are in every situation, because their story may inspire others,” Midkiff said.

Amy Cook, a social work major at McLennan Community College and single mother of 3-year-old Alexander Cook, said parenting is a challenging journey that becomes more difficult when parents maintain the impression that everything should be “picture perfect.” Cook said optimism and transparency are important concepts for single mothers to grasp.

“People always expect you to be a blissful [parent] who never gets annoyed and who never gets upset, but it’s OK to take a minute to say, ‘This is so much harder than I thought this would be.’ It’s OK to be vulnerable and real,” Cook said.

Cook hopes single mothers can break the silence to reveal that parenting is messy and strenuous. Beyond the day-to-day hardships, Cook said motherhood has given her an immeasurable amount of confidence and self-love. Cook hopes to instill this positivity and love in her peers by assuring parents that they don’t have to live in a flawless world where everything goes as planned and appears effortless.

“We need to be more accepting and understanding and real about what [parenting] entails,” Cook said.

Finding solace in the chaos of parenting has been a long journey for Cook, but her journey began before Alexander was born.

“I was in Chicago, and I lived close enough to walk to the hospital to have him. I didn’t want to call an Uber. I moved while I was pregnant so that my apartment was right by the hospital … I walked him home from the hospital on a rainy evening, and it was freezing cold outside, so right off the bat, it was a journey,” Cook said.

Cook continued her journey by moving to Waco, where her parents live. Cook is pursuing her bachelor’s degree and said she recognizes that to excel in her roles as a mother and a student, she needs make plans but stay open to change.

“There’s a saying that you make all of your plans and then you throw them out the window,” Cook said. “Plans A, B and C turn into plan J. That’s been a little tricky for me.”

Cook stays on top of her studies by bringing Alexander along for the ride. Since Alexander wants to do everything Cook does, she prints out copies of her school assignments for him to highlight and scribble on. At the same time, she focuses on completing the real assignment with fewer distractions.

“It’s a bit of a juggling act. I always wonder why, as parents, we don’t just get two extra arms,” Cook said.

Likewise, Andrew and Paige Benzing, Baylor students and parents of 2-year-old twins Ashton and Hayden, learned how to balance school and parenthood by building complementing class schedules. Their contrasting schedules allow them to attend class on separate days of the week and watch the twins while they’re at home, providing each parent time for studying and care taking.

“It has been important to be fully present in what I’m doing,” Paige Benzing said. “I had to get better at being with the boys when they’re awake and studying when I’m supposed to be studying, instead of being on my phone or procrastinating.”

While the Benzings have found it beneficial to follow a plan, they also recognize that sometimes a plan can provoke increased stress.

“We’re very much taking it one day at a time as far as getting through the week, and one semester at a time for getting through college. That’s kind of become my mantra,” Andrew Benzing said.

The Benzings began dating December of 2015 and had their twins almost a year later. Although they have overcome a number of obstacles since then, they recognize that parenthood is a lifelong journey.

“Going from a single college student, to a dating college student, to a married couple, to parents all within a year was hard because we didn’t quite master each stage within that process,” Paige Benzing said. “So, with being married and having kids, which we’ve done for about a year and a half, I think we just get better at it as time goes on.”

Many students enter college with dreams and aspirations that usually involve a four-year degree followed by a career or continued education. While this futuristic mindset can be helpful in achieving goals, it may induce anxiety if plans change along the way.

“Everyone’s path is different, and I wish I would’ve known that even as a freshman coming into college,” Paige Benzing said. “This time of life is so short, and even if it takes you six years to graduate, you can make anything work.”

For Midkiff, Cook, and the Benzings, parenting has been a journey of ups and downs. With confidence, careful planning, devotion and love, their unanticipated dual roles as parents and students built a foundation for extraordinary futures. Their circumstances have taught them to be vulnerable and empathetic, instilling within each of them immeasurable confidence that they hope to pass onto their children.