What I miss out on

My previous post was rather upbeat and positive (how terribly unlike me, she scowls), so I just wanted a little strop about how having a baby (or any caring responsibilities) makes it harder to embrace all the academic opportunities I have in front of me.

A month or two ago a speaker visited my university to give a guest lecture on what looked to be a useful topic for my research. It was at 4pm on a weekday. Our paid childcare arrangement (flexible) could have taken the baby from, say, 3.30pm (to give me time to commute to uni), then my partner would have to travel from his place of work to pick her up. He finishes work at 5.30pm, and is awkwardly placed for a quick commute to the crèche, it would have taken about an hour. So pick up at 6.30pm, travel back home (45 minutes), but her bedtime is around 7pm and she’d need to eat beforehand. So many little factors and timings to consider for one short lecture which may or may not have been relevant. Pre-baby I could’ve dropped by and felt no great loss if it wasn’t “all that”, maybe mingled and chatted to people for a bit, and made the most of it. But post-baby it seemed like such a huge undertaking that I just couldn’t justify it.

This week I had planned to attend a two-day conference in another city. I’d booked train tickets (travelling up the day before), B&B accommodation, told the organisers my meal options for the delegate dinner, and even arranged to visit an old friend who lives in the area on the final night before travelling home. My mum was “booked in” to stay for the three days we needed childcare (while my partner was at work – he has no annual leave/holiday left to use this month). Then unfortunately my mum had to cancel for health reasons. We had just over a week’s notice – I remained optimistic, but ultimately there was no alternative, I had to cancel my trip.

There was a great fortnightly graduate discussion group at uni which started at 6pm. I attended a couple of times when we lived in the flat near the tube station; if my partner shifted his hours and got home at 5.15pm I could hand over the baby(!) and just about make it on time. I tried it once since moving further out and arrived at 6.20pm – disruptive (for a small informal discussion group) and pointless (missing most of the speaker’s paper so having little input or questions). Fortunately – well, depending on who’s looking at it! - my partner was off sick on the day of the final bumper discussion group of term, so as he was feeling okay that evening I was able to leave in good time (4.30pm) to arrive by the 6pm start time!

I try my best not to remain defeatist though. I emailed the speaker of the 4pm lecture who kindly sent the presentation slides - the slides gave me some great food for thought. I have met up with fellow students for coffee at uni to discuss our work on separate occasions when I already had childcare in place, it’s just unfortunate I was unable to maintain a regular dialogue with the discussion group. Conferences at this stage in my PhD are “nice to have” but not an essential, so no doubt in future I’ll be able to arrange a similar trip. It can just be very frustrating in the heat of the moment thinking “I wish I could do it all”!

Three ways having a baby helped prepare me for a PhD

I’m only six months into my PhD so I’m still just getting started and I’m sure I have very little authority to talk about what doing a PhD is really like. In two years I’ll probably have a different viewpoint! But I wanted to jot down a few thoughts I had about how studying for a research degree and having a baby utilise the same skills.

1. Taking each day as it comes

I am a planner. My calendar is full up weeks in advance and I love looking at my agenda for the week ahead. Having a baby turns this on its head slightly. In the early days you are waking and sleeping in fits and bursts and cannot see beyond the next feed. When someone tells you something is happening next week it seems a lifetime away. When well-meaning but unhelpful people say “it gets easier in three months”, it seems like an absolute eternity and you sink into a pit of despair (well, some of us do).

baby reachingBut you soon gain perspective and learn to roll with it. You have to just change the pace and your expectations and wake up each morning to a new day. It doesn’t mean not planning things (I look back at my calendar for the first few months of her life and I did a remarkable amount!), but it means not thinking too far ahead and panicking yourself, not overwhelming yourself with the huge To Do list of everything that needs to be completed in the next few weeks, months, years. Focus on the most important tasks right now. If you’re having a bad day today, tomorrow will be better.

2. Organising your time

As a heading this seems to contradict the previous point, but bear with me. On maternity leave you soon get into a rhythm of “something to do in the morning”, “something to do in the afternoon” and somewhere in the mix, “nap” and “eat”. You divide your day into segments, an activity here, something from the To Do list there. This works remarkably well when studying, too. A few hours this morning on this activity, a few hours this afternoon on something else. Reading, writing, planning, researching, meeting, admin. For me, this has also involved planning flexible childcare and activities for the baby, not telling myself I’ll work ad hoc but knowing when I’ll actually have time to study (even if it never feels like enough!).

3. Gaining confidence

Admittedly, a large part of my confidence in speaking to new people or giving presentations comes from my work background, and I learnt a lot in the years I spent doing a business-to-business sales role. Yet a huge part of my newly-found everyday confidence comes from having had a baby.baby reading

I made a push to meet new people in a new area a few months after I gave birth (we moved when I was 8 months pregnant, and I didn’t do antenatal courses). When you’re struggling with physical and mental exhaustion and a demanding being fully dependent on you, you lose inhibitions as you gain confidence to meet her needs (“I won’t feel self-conscious about breastfeeding in this cafe, she needs to be fed”). You empathise with other new parents (mainly women) who are in the same boat as you, soon fostering a small (shell-shocked) supportive community of strangers. So you gain confidence in your ability to “network” (for it is networking, but not recognised as such), make conversation with all sorts of people you otherwise wouldn’t have encountered, and find common ground – all incredibly useful skills!

Secondly, looking after a baby is such a challenging learning experience. At the start you have little confidence in your own abilities as you struggle to get to grips with everything from square one. (Not unlike studying I suppose.) Returning to the familiar after the all-consuming period of early motherhood, even if it’s a new position – i.e. the PhD was new to me, but studying or working was not – gives you a burst of self-belief: I can do this, I’ve done it before. I know how to give a presentation, use various technologies, find something in the library. I’m damn well going to make the most of this opportunity.

I’d love to hear any other insights or thoughts on this topic!

Organising your thoughts – a topic map!

I attended a surprisingly motivating and useful “starting your PhD” type course a couple of weeks ago, one of the optional courses at uni available to any graduate student who signs up on time.

I was excited by the idea of “topic maps” – writing out key words, as back-to-basics as possible, starting off from my core PhD topic in the centre and then branching off into sub-categories. This method can apparently help develop good search terms for databases (such as journals, library catalogues, thesis collections), as well as primarily being useful to organise your thoughts. Currently my topics are “mapped” only by my reading list, and what I occasionally write up as literature reviews of sorts.

So, keen to organise the many interconnected yet still disparate strands of my research I started by writing as many topics as I could think of on post-it notes, so I could shuffle them around into a “map” and connect the dots.


Oh dear…

Then I took a deep breath and thought it’d help to “write up” this, uh, “map”.


But writing it up made it worse, I felt like I’d put everything in the wrong place. When I went to connect each topic by line I found EVERY topic connected with (almost) every other topic!

I think at this stage – when I’ve done a bit of reading, but not enough – I am not ready to sketch out a topic map. There are probably still areas I haven’t considered. There are too many overlapping, interconnecting jumbles of wires that I haven’t unpicked.

Or maybe a topic map is not for me?!

The Guilt

At the moment I’m constantly feeling like I’m not doing enough. My To Do list just gets longer, I’m not making a dent in it. I reassure myself that I’m still right at the start of my studies, then I get wobbly-lipped at the realisation that I’m nearly 6 months into my studies, actually. Eep. I have two books in particular just sitting on my desk needing to be read but I feel like a stroppy teenager wailing But I Don’t Want Tooooo coz they’re haaaard. When I get a nice stretch of time to work I feel guilty for “wasting” it. Embarrassed to confess that on Saturday afternoon, when the baby was out with my partner, I settled down with my books and my laptop and… napped for an hour. And look at me now, blogging when I should be reading!

But then – as another mum pointed out to me at playgroup today – whatever you do, you feel The Guilt. In the corporate world (she works part-time) you feel guilty for not working enough, not being seen enough, not spending “enough” time with your child. Air-quotes of course because neither of us rationally believe we should be feeling The Guilt, but some days you just do.

Brand Scandi spotting – an occasional series (no.1)

I find it interesting to spot signage or products clearly stylised around the Scandinavian/Nordic “brand”.

Nordic Pantry range – Christmas 2013, Sainsbury’s Supermarket:

IMG_20131224_123827 IMG_20131224_123821

What makes this range Nordic then? Some thoughts: the red/silver/white colour scheme, the pattern on the packaging is reminiscent of that Faroese jumper worn by Sarah Lund in The Killing, they are hyggelige products too – a snuggly scarf (“snood”), mittens, handwarmers, hand cream. The name “Nordic Pantry” is interesting too – bringing to mind Scandi baking, cosy kitchens, a sense of “home”.

On-campus university refectory – Vim & Rigøur:


I can find surprisingly little info online about this re-brand: it certainly wasn’t called this in 2010 when I was previously a student, and on the uni website it’s still just called The Refectory. It’s all about the ø and the dark, moody colour scheme: the branding is trying to convey sophistication and an international flair (in keeping with the tagline: International Dining Rooms). The A-board sign outside (which I haven’t got a photo of) has a grey background with light writing, it has a very noir feel. This seems to be attaching itself to the Nordic “brand” without much else to back it up. The fare is the same as it has always been – pizza and pasta (from the, ahem, Trattoria), baguettes (ooh la la), a “world cuisine” counter, and a deli counter called Goodness Me (bless you!).

I’ll carry on spotting and post what I find on my travels – I would love it if you shared with me anything you’ve seen in the UK riffing on the Scandi brand!

Is anyone reading beyond Nordic Noir?

On the one hand:

1/4 of crime fiction readers had read a translated literary novel after reading a crime fiction novel from that language and 30% of those who hadn’t yet said they might in future: “One publisher supplied the metaphor of readers being ‘contaminated’ by their exposure to foreign crime novels and going on to explore foreign fiction in general as a result”.

(Engles, Paul. “Selling Ice to the Eskimos” Swedish Book Review, Issue 1 (2010), p38)

But on the other hand:

“The popular audience is not crossing over to elite foreign literature, where, it might be argued, a more incisive representation of foreign cultures is likely to be found, unconstrained by the generic demands made by crime writing”

(Venuti, L. The Translator’s Invisibility – a history of translation. London: Routledge, 2008 (2nd edition), p155)

So what’s it gonna be? Do readers of Scandi crime read any other genres in translation?

Nordic Noir event at All You Read Is Love pop-up cafe


My write-up of the informal panel discussion about Nordic literature and translation.

Originally posted on Nordic Noir: The Scandinavian Crime Book Club:

Reading and Translating Nordic Literature and Nordic Noir to a Contemporary British Market

A rainy dark January evening in suburban London was an appropriate setting for discussion of Nordic literature and translation.

A panel discussion took place with UCL Scandinavian Studies PhD students Nicky Smalley, Anna Tebelius and Ellen Kythor led by senior lecturer in Scandinavian literature at UCL, Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen.

Each of the PhD students started by introducing the topic at the forefront of their minds in relation to the event’s title. For Ellen Kythor, this was the concept of Scandinavia as a “brand” as perceived by Brits, and how translators and publishers of popular novels may be creating and reinforcing the brand. Anna Tebelius discussed translation and art – her PhD project involves translating an experimental text from Swedish to English, and she has recently tried an artistic approach to translation using audio-recording equipment. Nicky Smalley’s PhD…

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I take each week as it comes, fitting in childcare, reading, time at university, writing, time with my partner, housework (hahaha, no… wait, I mean cooking – that’s as far as it goes), socialising. I thought I’d plot a short summary of a few days last week to give you an idea:


9am – groceries delivered; unpack with the baby’s able assistance

11am – early lunch at home

11.30am – leave for crèche in the hope the baby will nap en route; 11.40am – baby asleep!

1pm – arrive at crèche/workspace

1pm-4.30pm – I work on writing up my literature review based on what I’ve been reading/researching over the last few weeks; also read over my first literature review to prepare for tomorrow evening’s “translating Nordic literature” cafe event

6pm – go to the gym while partner eats tea with baby and puts her to bed

8.30pm – finish off written work by adding last page references and quotes from material I didn’t have with me earlier at the workspace; email document to PhD supervisors (feedback meeting arranged for next week)


10.30am – meet for coffee with local mum/baby group; see a teeny-weeny newborn and wonder when I should stop referring to our 15 month old (who has been walking for nearly 3 months) as “the baby”(!)

11.30am – clothes shopping for “the baby” on our walk home

1.30pm – childcare/study swap with mum friend at home: both babies nap in their prams in the hallway initially while we chat about our latest projects; when they wake up we each take turns (for around an hour) to look after both babies while the other takes her laptop upstairs to work at the desk

7pm – take part in “translating Nordic literature” panel discussion at pop-up cafe on the other side of town, write up here.


9.30am-11.30am – go to drop-in playgroup; see local mums/babies we know

12pm – lunch at local pub alone with baby

1pm-3pm – on laptop at home while baby naps: update list of books to read, look up where to find them in the library; admin bits like emails

A couple of weeks ago I used the workspace/crèche as a “crèche only” for the first time, when I left the baby and managed to pop up to uni for a few hours (only a half hour journey on the speedy Victoria line), so that was a bit of a milestone. We are still using my partner’s annual leave and help from my parents when we can, especially for occasions when I have commitments or meetings.

We almost always eat breakfast and tea (evening meal) together as a little family: the baby, my partner and I. Around that I take each day as it comes!

Taking a baby to a conference

Or: How to have a baby and keep one foot in academia

In April last year I attended the Nordic Translation Conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. More precisely, I was a delegate and my partner and 5 month old baby came too!

I’d been doing occasional freelance translation jobs so I was keen to keep in touch with the industry. I didn’t know at this stage that I would be heading back to uni so soon but I hoped it would be on the cards in future. This particular conference takes place only every 5 years so I knew I’d be kicking myself if I decided from the off that I couldn’t go just because I had a little baby.

The baby was exclusively breastfed, when she demanded it – this means she only consumed breastmilk (babies start solids at 6 months old, and milk is still their primary food source until around 12 months in any case). She had never taken to being bottle-fed (not that we tried very hard) so she needed to go wherever I went, and vice versa.

Before registering to attend I emailed the organisers to see how amenable they were to my idea of bringing the baby and also contacted a former lecturer who’d had a baby during my first degree, keen to see if she or anyone she knew had been in a similar position. Deep down I felt strongly that having a baby should be no impediment to participating, but theory and ideology do not necessarily translate into practice. I was realistic that my expectations might not correlate with what’s normally accepted at these events, so I told myself that if I got any hint of the organisers trying to put me off then I would just not attend, it wouldn’t be worth the stress.

As it happened, my former lecturer and the organisers themselves were incredibly positive and supportive! The organisers even insisted I let them know if they could be of any assistance during the event. In the end, a few attendees with older children brought them along, too (although this was not apparent to most delegates as they were being entertained elsewhere).

Accommodation was available on the university campus, which made everything much more straightforward. We booked a family room which would fit the travel cot. We rented a car – the amount of stuff you need to take for a couple of nights away when you have a baby is ridiculous! – and the drive from London to Norwich was surprisingly smooth. For a journey of that length with a baby that young it was inevitable we’d have to stop once or twice, but I still made it in time for registration on the first afternoon.

The venue was perfect – it all took place in one building, with seminar rooms and a lecture hall, and one coffee area for use during the breaks. For the first two sessions, while my partner was unpacking us into the campus B&B, I had the baby with me. As babies go, she is fairly quiet and contented, but in a well-attended seminar session, I was suddenly all too aware of her chattering and babbling – we’d never been in a scenario like it before. So for one of the sessions I kept stepping outside with her, which in hindsight was probably more disturbing than just staying put and sitting at the back with her would have been. But I felt self-conscious – I had never seen a baby in a professional context like that, and I didn’t know what people might expect. After all, they had spent the time and money to attend as well. During the break after this session I breathed a sigh of relief when another delegate approached me and cooed over the baby, saying how lovely it was to hear her happy burbling during the session!

For the next couple of days of the conference, my partner and I agreed that he would take the baby while I attended sessions, and I’d feed her in the breaks – but if she communicated that she needed me while I was away, he’d text me. In the end, I didn’t have to leave any session early… by a quirk of fate she was happy with our plan! From my partner’s perspective, there wasn’t much to do other than walk around with the pram (UEA’s campus is to be commended on being very pram/wheelchair accessible!), occasionally stopping back at the conference break area or going back to the B&B room. He couldn’t drive anywhere or get the bus into Norwich as that would risk taking her too far away from me.

It was excellent to be able to focus my mind on something not baby-related for the first time in 5 months, and I enjoyed livetweeting some of the sessions (#nordictranslation). I even attended the evening meals to socialise and catch up with attendees I already knew from my degree (the world of Nordic translation is rather predictably pretty small!). It was so uplifting that despite having a little baby so dependent on me I could still be participate as myself (the translator, academic, whatever, but not “just” a mother).

Breastfeeding didn’t pose any problems. I just found space in the coffee break area, even chatting to fellow delegates while doing so – hopefully doing my bit for normalising breastfeeding in public! After all, the baby would not have got fed at all if I hadn’t done it this way, and I wouldn’t have been able to attend if I couldn’t bring her.

Of course, I am lucky in many regards. My partner was able to take annual leave. The baby was going through a lovely phase of sleeping very well overnight, and still napping a couple of times in the day. She wasn’t yet crawling (she started that at 6 months) so she was happy being held or sitting in the pram (once babies start moving around they are less content with this!). As someone else put it, having a 5 year old running around would’ve been much more disruption, so it was a perfect time to attend. It can’t be played down either that if you’re looking for a family-friendly discipline, Scandinavian studies is probably one of the best. My story would have been very different in other disciplines, I’m sure.

Camerapril2013 202_cr

I will (hopefully) never know if any delegates felt uncomfortable or irritated by the presence of a baby, but blissfully we only detected good vibes from those who did engage with us. I met some lovely people and made some great contacts – a baby is a good icebreaker!

I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on babies in academic settings like this, please add a comment below. And do let me know in the comments if we met at this conference, it was a really friendly event!

From Last Night of the Prams


A review I wrote for a local parenting blog, click through to read the full post.

Originally posted on Last Night of the Prams:

Review by: @nellefant, local Mum and admin for http://www.tootingbaby.co.uk
Did we pay? One comp for launch date
Do we know the organisers? No (though @tootingbaby has been to one of their baby raves, and loved it)

Alfie (@captcookiecraft) who manages the craft room at Big Fish, Little Fish events (the parent and baby raves which began in Brixton) has started The Minnow Club, a regular craft and family coffee morning. It is held at the Prince of Wales pub in Brixton (very near Brixton station, opposite the Ritzy Cinema), 10am-midday on Thursdays.

I attended the launch event in December with my baby, along with around twenty other parents/kids. A craft table full of pre-cut Christmas tree decorations was packed with crayons, glitter pens, sequins, and fluffy bobbles, for children to colour and stick (with the hands-on help of parents if required!). There was a separate Playdough table with shapes and…

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