The positives of PhD parenting



Balancing work, family and life is always considered tricky, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. But as someone who has “chosen” to start a PhD full time with two children under 5, I think I have good insight into just how tricky that can be. I am almost 6 months into my 3 year studentship and at a point where my commitments and deadlines are looming at an accelerated pace. Rather than allow myself to experience the sense of panic which was rising, I decided to write this blog.

Since this adds nothing to my actual thesis, in my past life I would never have taken the diversion to write a blog. However, the PhD is changing me and I have a few reasons to make this unusual choice. Firstly, one excellent piece of advice from my supervisors has been to write, regularly and constantly. I have followed this so far and have benefitted from the experience.

Writing different pieces enables me to enjoy writing even more. Thus whilst not related in content to my thesis, writing improves my writing. Secondly, I don’t often take time to reflect on how I am coping with the process of being a “PhD-mum”. I need to do this to appreciate that this is a choice, a challenge and an opportunity. My previous (limited) experience of blogging put me in touch with a supportive audience for my academic writing; perhaps this piece will open me to a world of supportive “PhD-mums”. Finally, I cope best with panic by channelling it into something.

This is therapy.

I often wonder if I made a bad choice undertaking a PhD at this point in my life/career. I worry that my children will see less of me, feel second to my thesis and my husband will crack under the pressure of the childcare. But, today has come as a good day to reflect on these worries. Due to the looming deadlines and lack of time, this Saturday was a Daddy day. Given that my student status means I can do most of the school runs and normal childcare, devoting the weekends to study is a small step for me, but a giant leap for my relationship.

Unlike a pre-PhD Saturday lazy start, this one began with my alarm so I could crack on before the rest of the family got up – this bought an hour of studying before everyone else needed my attention. This was really useful as I could relax a bit knowing that I had already started. When the children surfaced, I gave them my full attention and we ate together – we don’t often get to do this when my husband is off to work, so I want to preserve this at the weekend. After breakfast my husband began rallying the troops into various day-out arrangements, picnics, teeth-brushing etc.

Under the cover of busyness I returned to work, unnoticed in the throng.

I was briefly interrupted to say goodbye to the team before they headed off. Apart from a short break for a cup of tea and some lunch, I worked uninterrupted for over 5 hours. Knowing that the family would be back at some point and I will “have” to stop keeps me focussed, and the slight adrenaline rush is a positive influence. When they got back, I stopped for a snack with them before they began playing and I am could slip away unnoticed again.

This was my favourite part of the day. I continued to work whilst hearing the general hubbub of family life. This ascended into general merriment as Daddy decided to make home-made burgers with the children, at least two days after I should have done some shopping (some things do slip when you are this busy!). At this point I did lapse and join in the fun (someone needed to clean up and reassure the children those burgers looked just like normal ones…) This meant I could have dinner with the children and participate in the bath and bedtime routine.

So, in the course of the day I managed more than 7 hours of solid focussed work and was able to listen to much of the fun. I didn’t miss out (although I didn’t go to the farm) but my children love the opportunity to tell me something of their day. Importantly they experience a very different day with just Daddy; we see things differently, control things differently (!) and encourage different skills. Plus, they are beginning to express interest in my work, they don’t listen for long, but they always ask me about it.

So, on a day when I hear that 80% of women feel guilty about going back to work after having children – I sympathise (BBC news, 21.1.14). And now I appreciate that I am exceptionally lucky. I am focussed on an area of research I am passionate about. I am learning something every day. And, I am giving my children and husband an opportunity to spend some quality time together and discover things without my (overbearing?) guidance! So, whilst I am busy, lacking sleep and a bit stressed day to day, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A friend of mine was unfortunately made redundant during her second maternity – a sign of the times. She recently posed the question of whether 18 months later leaving her Facebook status as “maternity leave” was OK since “stay-at-home mum” was such a big move for her. I have never specified my status but I might start to proclaim it; I think the idea of “PhD-mum” might just be the best opportunity my family could have.

Author Bio: Rebecca is a 1st year PhD student at Brunel University, London. Her research focuses on how young children develop ‘number sense’ in schools, for which she is undertaking ethnography in two primary schools in the South East of England.