How do they do it?

The toddler had her first ‘full’ day at nursery on Friday. 9.30 til 5.30 – as long as most people’s work days! Usually we stick to occasional 3-5 hour bursts while I use the workspace. My partner was at work – I did nursery drop-off, he did pick-up (in rush hour, unlucky him!). I was a bit nervous for her spending all day away… I shouldn’t have been, of course: she ran off to play when I dropped her off and didn’t seem that fussed when her dad arrived to collect her. I went to uni to use the library and have a supervision meeting. It was great, like being a ‘real’ student again, (or at least how I rose-tint it perhaps) spending a good stretch of time surrounded by books in a quiet library and being able to focus on what was discussed in our meeting – though the gear-change from breakfast and commute with a toddler to high-falutin’ academic discussion is somewhat huge!

It got me thinking about what being a full-time PhD student entails and how others perceive it. I’m not convinced some people take the ‘student’ part of my life very seriously, especially as I often upload/share photos of the time I spend keeping the toddler entertained. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the urge to upload a photo of me reading, writing notes, writing abstracts, sitting in the library!

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I’m also unsure of whether I’m ‘doing it right’. Some days I spent little or no time on PhD work. Most of my hours are spent on childcare. We have a set number of hours per month of formal childcare, plus the help of friends and family where possible. Some days when I potentially have some time to myself (nap time/evenings) I just don’t have the energy to do very much.

But then I wonder how full-time PhD students who don’t have caring responsibilities or part-time work organise their time, and I don’t know if I’m really doing so much less. Maybe they have hobbies that occupy some of their time. Maybe they stay up all night and sleep until midday if they want. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, only to spend most of those on Facebook and fit in a two hour lunch break. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, and write 2,000 words a day! Maybe they get time for beneficial side projects which enrich their studying – translation, for example, which I would love to pick up again… in a few years. I genuinely don’t know, and there probably isn’t a ‘typical’ PhD student anyway. I’m just always thinking about whether I could be fitting more in, we only have one fairly contented toddler to keep an eye on, after all!

A break from routine, and creating a new one

Oh, to live in a commune. Or at least with more family close by. For just over two weeks in August the toddler and I upped sticks and went to stay with my parents (my partner/toddler’s daddy came for weekends while still working in London). The routine worked beautifully and I’ve been doing lots of writing and assembling of thoughts, much more than during a regular fortnight. I even managed to get to the gym practically every other day, and see friends!

The routine we quickly established: we had breakfast together then I holed up with my laptop in the office room for some reading/writing/editing while the toddler went for a walk through the park with my mum (mormor to the toddler), and did other bits and pieces like play in the garden and “help” with the shopping. After lunch, my mum and the toddler napped (mormor is recovering from an op, though to be frank I often need a nap after a morning with the toddler!) while I did some more work or went to the gym. Occasionally we shifted things round a bit, for example one day we went to the city farm which was lovely. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for their time, especially as I’m sure it meant my dad (who’s self-employed) got much less done than usual.

Now I’m thoroughly, desperately trying to learn from this routine and see if I can do it alone.

Firstly, the longer stretches of time-with-laptop worked well for my productivity. We have a flexible arrangement with a nursery/workhub where I’ve regularly been booking 3 hours (e.g. 9.30-12.30) every few days, but I think I need the period of time to be longer. Once I’ve folded the buggy, made a cuppa, faffed a bit on Facebook and Twitter, that’s already *coughs* half an hour(?!) wasted. Factor in a few more distractions, and allowing for thoughts to percolate and sentences to be rewritten and articles to be reread, then the longer, the better. My theory behind heading home in the middle of the day was that the toddler would then nap, giving me more time to work, but in reality I was using this time to eat lunch, and really it made my “work day” far too fragmented.

Lastly, we saw a real change in her sleep – we’d had a nightmare few weeks of hours at bedtime with her screaming and “negotiating” with us until she finally conked out exhausted at 9pm. Of course by then I/my partner were equally exhausted and stressed and thoroughly unable to salvage the evening for any studying. While staying with my parents, the toddler’s daytime nap was much earlier in the afternoon and the bedtime routine was less dragged out (quick bath, books put away after reading, pyjamas on, into bed and no talking/negotiating!).

We’ve been back a few days and so far, so good.

A plan in words – utilise nap time!

Unlike in Denmark, where at least one of my professional contacts has been on holiday since the third week of June until 1st August (I believe this is fairly typical!), this summer has become a busy time for me in relation to my PhD work. I’ve been forced out of my “reading and flailing” phase and into a more focused “aaargh I have to actually form this into a coherent jumble” phase. I have started planning for the Upgrade Portfolio which effectively means creating and assembling lots of written work (including a sample chapter, chapter abstracts, annotated bibliography), knowing what my chapter headings actually are, and writing a plan of action.

Today I have worked in the following places:

  • at the workhub while the toddler was in the nursery downstairs;
  • while I was eating lunch at home while the toddler was napping (she gets a tasty lunch at nursery *shakes fist in jealousy*);
  • and while sitting outside the toddler’s door (at her insistence!) as she fell asleep this evening.

Now, at 21 months old, she almost always has a 1.5 to 2 hour nap in the afternoon after lunch. After a long time of there being no routine to be certain of, I feel confident that if I plan for it I can use this time every day to do something productive. At the moment I use nap time to recharge my batteries, but I figure people working a “regular 9-to-5″ don’t get that chance, so maybe I should change my mentality. I was inspired by a US-based translator I spoke to recently via video call who knew that her toddler (a year older than mine) always napped around 1pm so she fitted in some work in that time. It dawned on me that the net trickle effect of even just one more hour’s work a day could be very useful for my productivity! So here I am putting it in words, I’m going to utilise nap time!

EDIT (5 days on): Well, this has been unsuccessful so far. Two nap times this week coincided with travelling to/from visiting friends who are on maternity leave. Another nap time she refused to sleep, and consequently didn’t nap all day (this has happened a few times before, she is very sleep-resistant!). That was particularly frustrating as I had in mind a couple of things to do that day. It’s very hard looking after a toddler, she needs constant entertainment and supervision when awake, I think some childless people wonder why I can’t just whip the laptop out and work while she’s playing nicely in the corner. Sigh.

Bookfairs and me

Since starting my studies last Autumn, I’ve attended three national book fairs: the BogForum in Copenhagen (November 2013), the London Book Fair (April 2014), and the BookExpo America (BEA) in New York (May 2014), and another book event called Crimefest in Bristol (May 2014). I spent the briefest amount of time at the BEA in New York, as it wasn’t officially open on the day I visited (but I attended a couple of seminars), so my impressions from this are limited. But here are some glib observations based on my experiences!

Size:

Naturally the Javits conference centre in New York for the BEA is huge. But that’s to be expected. When I visited the London Book Fair I was surprised by how big and empty it all felt, there were people milling about but it didn’t feel packed, but maybe that’s down to the size of the venue. I was most surprised by how large and busy the BogForum was – especially the amount of media attention it gets (on the morning television news, for example) and the huge number of stands and events, mostly focused around Danish authors and literature, not books in translation. Half-jokingly, one might think how can a country as small as Denmark have so many books?! It really brought home to me what a bookish nation Denmark is, despite regular paperback bestsellers costing the equivalent of around £20, it is a country of devoted readers.

Crowd:

The London Book Fair is primarily only for trade visitors, i.e. people who work in the publishing industry. In places it felt a bit surly and stand-offish to people like me just wandering around browsing; industry professionals arrange times to meet at each publisher’s stand and shake hands wearing suits. There were seminars, for instance I attended one on ‘Beyond Nordic Noir’ hosted by Nordic literary institutes hoping to widen interest in genres other than crime fiction from Scandinavia. But a cursory glance round the room revealed they were talking to themselves – a room of translators and people I recognised from other Nordic events, very little “outreach” to publishers or agents looking for something new! Denmark’s Bogforum is a huge national event, open to the public, and I saw many children and interactive activities for all ages and interests. The BEA falls somewhere in the middle – many of the exhibitors are there to talk business, but there were still book signings and book giveaways for the keen readers who attended. Crimefest was a lovely smaller event for real aficionados. I got the impression many delegates knew each other either from the social events surrounding the conference, or even from previous or similar get-togethers. There was perhaps a disproportionately higher number of older/middle-aged women than in other crowds, but I was surprised to see some younger delegates (in their twenties) too.

Position of translated literature:

London Book Fair‘s Literary Translation Centre was well-attended and got a fair bit of social media buzz, there are some good write-ups and videos around online of the seminars and discussions that took place there. For BEA, 2014 was the first year it had a section of the event called the Translation Market, devoted to books in translation, which is telling. I attended some seminars as part of the Global Market Forum ‘Books in Translation’ series, and – despite some excellent panellists – they felt a bit slapdash, rushed and marginalised, to be frank! Both BEA and the London Book Fair had stands for publishers from different countries (including Nordlit, see an earlier blog post of mine). Curiously I can’t remember the BogForum having the same, though it did have some publishers of translated literature, especially of non-fiction where related products could be marketed e.g. celebrity chefs. Crimefest had a remarkably well-attended and well-produced panel called Euro Noir, where translation was mentioned a number of times explicitly (including one translator being part of the panel!) and there were a lot of insightful and informed questions from the delegates. I also saw Swedish panellists Lars Kepler (a pseudonym for a husband-wife duo) interviewed in another panel on the same day, and the programme featured other Nordic Noir panels across the whole event.

Best coffee:

Back onto an inconsequential topic, Crimefest was near Park Street in Bristol which has a branch of Boston Tea Party, a lovely south west chain of coffee shops. At BEA I paid something silly like $8.00 for a regular Starbucks coffee, such is the mark-up at a conference centre! It was surprisingly hard to find coffee at London Book Fair, I arrived craving caffeine and wishing I’d taken advantage of the coffee cart outside on the way from the station. Bogforum had the best coffee – a few little espresso coffee carts dotted around with quick service at great value, a pleasant surprise.

Things to do instead of actually writing

Y’know, there’s always something else to do…

  • Lift heavy things at the gym
  • Meet another student to chat about Bourdieu
  • Go to playgroup, sing about bananas
  • Attend a literary discussion event at Free Word Centre
  • Send email to a translator who’d been left off the original mailing list about the translators’ network
  • Arrange meeting with supervisor to discuss case study
  • Arrange childcare for meeting with supervisor, including phone call to nursery to ask about afternoon pick up
  • Spontaneously go to IKEA and finally get the last bits of furniture for the living room
  • Send email to potential US coordinator of the translators’ network
  • Have lunch
  • Place online grocery order (prompted by lacklustre lunch)
  • Work out how many hours teaching/marking I did this year and whether I’ve been paid
  • Speculate on the best childcare option and commute for next year’s teaching
  • Go to the city farm with toddler and her mormor (my mum)
  • Meet a friend with WordPress expertise for lunch on the other side of London to discuss building the translators’ network website
  • Collect a bargain buggy from a local mum (found via Facebook selling website)
  • Meet a (pregnant) friend for dinner in Soho and talk childbirth and parental leave (among other things)
  • Have a picnic on the common with the toddler
  • Phone and then email the publisher’s marketing department of the novel I’m starting a case study about
  • Meet a North London friend and her toddler in the middle at Coram’s Fields
  • Research a close family member’s recently diagnosed illness and compartmentalise until later
  • Read three journal articles by a prominent literary theorist
  • Write a blog post (arf!)

Weekly Wipe reviews The Bridge (a few months old but still amusing)

“Thing is, it’s not a nice foreign land like in a holiday programme. It’s really cold and there’s all murders, and you can tell from looking at it that there’s hardly any colours allowed over there… everything’s grey and murky and muted and sort of ominous. It’s probably less depressing being murdered in Scandinavia than anywhere else on earth because even as you were dying you’d think, ‘oh well, at least it’ll be warm in heaven, and they’ll let me wear red trousers if I want’.

(from BBC 2 – Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe)

To brand or be branded? Some insights into Brand Denmark

Can a nation ‘brand’ itself? The imagery and stereotypes we, as Brits, think of when we talk about Scandinavia or, more specifically, Denmark have been built up over a long, slow stretch of time, interspersed with bursts of activity – for instance, the recent success of Danish TV programmes on BBC4 in the last few years.

I’ve enjoyed learning about the theory of Place Branding. Since coining the term nation brand and the Nation Brands Index, Simon Anholt (Places – Identity, Image and Reputation, 2010) has conceded that ‘competitive identity’ is probably a better term for the metaphor. In any case, unlike branding in a typical corporate marketing communications context, you cannot ‘do branding’ of a nation or change its perception via a snappy marketing campaign, a nation’s brand is earned rather than constructed (according to Anholt).

The Danish pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is an interesting case study of Denmark’s self-branding when attempting to project and protect its image abroad. The Welfairytales theme of the Expo pavilion used two Danish icons: bicycles and the Little Mermaid statue (which was relocated from Copenhagen to China for the occasion). Ren & Gyimóthy (in their article Transforming and contesting nation branding strategies: Denmark at the Expo 2010, 2013) have written about some of the minor cultural misunderstandings which resulted. The pavilion’s imagery and activities may have been an exercise in ‘auto-communication’, Danes communicating the brand values they would like to project about themselves and not adequately allowing for cultural misinterpretations – for instance this is one of the phrases by everyday Danes used to decorate the pavilion:

‘Denmark is a little country where you can enjoy a cup of coffee while your child sleeps in the baby carriage outside the café’

Ren & Gyimóthy astutely remark (p27): “This well-known Danish idea of safety reflected in letting your child sleeping outside in public space is perhaps not easily grasped by middle-class people from a country with massive urban air pollution and a hot and humid climate”!

Last week I attended a fascinating meeting with the Danish cultural attaché in the USA who gave me some further insight into Brand Denmark. Denmark does not have a cultural institute as such (nothing comparable with Germany’s Goethe Institut, for instance), but the cultural attaché at the Consulate General in New York still advises on 125 cultural project per month! They have had a radical rethink in the last ten to fifteen years. Following the Danish Wave events in 1999 – a two-month cultural festival initiated by the Consulate and Embassy, where Danish authors and artists were brought over to the US with negligible impact – they have become reactive, taking their lead from looking at an artist’s reception in Denmark and their focus on new and modern brand values, rather than the traditional ‘old’ icons (Hans Christian Andersen!). The Consulate General of Denmark in the USA now ensures all cultural events they support fit within four core brand values:

art – sustainability – children’s culture – film

An initiative by Scandinavian arts councils has been established to promote Nordic literature abroad as one brand. The ‘Nordlit’ collaboration presented a unified Nordic presence at the London Book Fair and Book Expo America – rather than each nation having its own stand, the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and even smaller related countries e.g. Faroe Islands) shared a single stand. As wee and similar nations, they believe it’s beneficial to merge so they can cross-promote, utilising to their advantage the (probably correct!) presumption that many English-speaking readers and publishers cannot readily distinguish between the Nordic countries anyway, so why not cross-promote authors from the same region (“you liked this author, you might also like this author from more-or-less nearby”).

I look forward to investigating further how Brand Denmark is being created nationally and internationally by Danish cultural bodies, and how much impact this has had on the everyday British public’s perception of Denmark and Danishness. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts, dear reader!

A report from the city that never sleeps

I went to New York for the first time this week. I had been dreading the 7 hour flight but in the end it was fine. I got up to stretch my legs a few times, drank LOADS of water, they serve food as various intervals so that keeps you occupied, and I read a bit (though not as much as I’d planned – I foolishly thought I’d have time to study but no chance!). Travelling overnight on the way back was a poor decision, though – there was no way of sleeping properly, but at least I could nap when I got home. I’d been warned of a potential one-and-a-half hour wait at immigration on arrival in the US, but through a combination of a morning flight and it being a national holiday, the whole process took well under an hour. The immigration officer told me “you’re all set” as he let me through, kicking off an adoration for all the little American phrases I heard which took me by surprise.

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The view from my hotel window (the distinctive tower is the Chrysler Building)

I soon checked into the hotel and WHAT A VIEW! And what a privilege. I was in a huge room on the 36th floor. Of course I made the most of this by barely sleeping (kept waking up, woke up at 5am both mornings, didn’t reset my body clock at all as it was such a quick visit!). They provided optional ‘fit kits’ for healthy types so I actually took them up on the offer and did some weights every morning. I’m unhinged…

Some excitable observations:

The Sights

I found it very easy to get around New York without internet access on my phone, I used a little pop-up map (and the grid system makes it easy to just walk for a certain number of blocks certain you’re heading the right way). I felt very at home as a Londoner, I walked everywhere and didn’t mind the crowds. As soon as I arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan, I was hit by the 30 degree heat and raced for the comfort of air-con in the huge Macy’s opposite. I had a wander around the Macy’s themed souvenirs and wasn’t best impressed, overall the World’s Largest Store aspires to be Selfridges but ends up feeling like a Debenhams.

 

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Grand Central Station – it’s really interesting that such a stunning building is still being used for its intended purpose. People were queuing at the lovely ticket office windows, although there were also lots of tourists like me taking photos. The most fascinating thing for me was the combined use of this public space with corporate consumerism – a whole two balconies were being used as an Apple Store complete with Genius Bar, though you were welcome to just wander around it all being nosey. It was well integrated and not too dominant, I only realised it was an Apple Store when I actually got up there, from afar it could’ve been a very laptop-y cafe!

I went straight to see the Rockefeller Center on the same afternoon I arrived – I felt on a high the whole time I was there pottering around as I had the 30 Rock theme in my head (I love 30 Rock. Sadly they didn’t have much merchandise for it in the NBC Shop as it’s old hat by now!). On the off-chance there wasn’t a queue, I went to see if I’d be able to go to the Top of the Rock that afternoon (I’d heard you had to book a timeslot, very busy, etc) and – to my delight – I could buy a ticket and go straight up! It was admittedly 5pm on a sunny Memorial Day, I have since been reliably informed that all Americans would have been at a barbeque(!). The view was amazing – I could see sunbathers in Central Park, a spectacular view of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty in the distance – it really did look like I was gazing down at a map, especially with the grid system to the streets so the buildings all looked like they had been neatly lined up.

Manhattan as viewed from the Rock IMG_20140526_172852

People had told me not to bother with Times Square but I found myself wandering around in that area so popped to take a look, it was just crowded and chaotic and not particularly impressive, as predicted.

The main Public Library building was well worth a visit – it’s a beautiful building inside, and outside it’s based in a lovely little park which hosts events like outdoor theatre. I enjoyed a fascinating and beautifully laid out free exhibition – the ABC of it, why children’s books matter. New Yorkers roll their eyes and say, that’s still on is it? but for a first time visitor I was extremely glad to have caught it, it was lovely!

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NY Public Library

Lots of classic kids books, even a bit about Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales for us Scandi enthusiasts. The shop was excellent, too – I bought some souvenirs here including a lovely book for the baby, rather than in Macy’s where the only souvenirs were tacky!

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the High Line

I walked all along the High Line – a park converted from a former railway line – and ended up in the meatpacking district and Chelsea Market. The High Line was beautiful, even on a breezy grey day. I loved the juxtaposition of the cultivated greenery with the industrial buildings and in places the remaining train tracks, it was cleverly done. The meatpacking district, especially when viewed from above (standing on the High Line) reminded me of the Spitalfields Market area in East London, all industrial units which have been regenerated into trendy and expensive clothes shops and the like.

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High Line sign & assorted Americana

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Signpost in Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market was fun – lots of foodie shops and stalls, I had a delicious rice paper wrap from a vegan sushi place (one of the top ten vegan sushi restaurants in the US, it said – are there more than ten?!). It was very ‘New York’ – as well as vegan sushi you could find mini donuts with your choice of a selection of flavoured sugars, a ‘dairy bar’ with yogurt, ice cream, milkshakes, cupcakes of many varieties, a loose spices and tea stall, and Vietnamese sandwiches.

Later I walked around some of Central Park even though by now it was a bit grey and chilly, just to say I’d been there. It is really lovely, loads of different parts within it such as a huge lake and undulating hills and pretty arches/bridges.

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Central Park

Coffee

London is ridiculous for the number of chains on the same street, you can stand in some spots and be within sight of three Prets for example, and wherever you walk you’ll find a Costa, Starbucks, Caffe Nero, or an indie coffee shop or three. On the way to my meeting I walked a good twenty minutes between my hotel and the Consulate and didn’t see one Starbucks, in fact I kept walking in order to find somewhere for a decent caffeine fix. There are however lots of delis and shops where you can pick up a watery black ‘drip’ filter coffee. The reason for free coffee refills in diners is that this coffee is weak and insubstantial. The UK’s penchant for espresso-based coffee has clearly not caught on in New York, and it got me wondering whether if someone opened a competing chain to Starbucks and had one on every corner, whether they’d make millions. Maybe not – even Pret in Manhattan has a selection of drip coffees for people to pour themselves, they’ve customised their offering for the market I suppose. I missed a good flat white – although it was far too hot on the first two days for hot coffee, iced coffee is the way to go!

Bagels

One of the best foods New York has to offer! I had a couple, an everything bagel (‘everything’ being everything savoury like poppy and sesame seeds, onion, wholewheat) with a schmear of scallion cream cheese but I should have branched out and tried more, one for every meal would be about right I think. Next time (please let there be a next time!) I will have honey and pecan cream cheese on a cinnamon bagel. I really should stop planning my meals so far in advance…

The Subway

…is dirty, smelly, and difficult to navigate – I know, I’m already a confessed London Transport fanatic, but you realise just how amazing the tube in London is after using the New York subway.

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I foolishly found myself too exhausted and far away to walk back to my hotel on the last afternoon, so needed to top up my Metro card using the remainder of my cash in order to make one journey. There are far too few ticket machines, and they all use an old technology form of touchscreen which is maddening (hit the screen a few times, it registers the wrong number, start again…), and they often reject your perfectly adequate dollar bills! Thankfully despite the queue forming behind me for the only machine of the three accepting cash(!), no one was huffy or rude (an impossibility if the same scenario had occurred in London!), in fact the man behind me exchanged my faulty dollar bill for quarters and blamed the machine. All the lines and many of the stations are numbered, so that must be annoying if you have dyscalculia or any problem remembering numbers (‘was it line 4 to 33rd Street or line 3 to 44th Street?’). This is why people take taxis, I guess!

‘im indoors

I kept in touch with my partner online from the hotel, we just chatted briefly via messenger. The time difference meant we couldn’t catch up at the end of my day (the UK is five hours ahead) but it was nice to still have that connection during the day. He was spending four days at home covering childcare for the duration of my trip. He insisted I shouldn’t micro-manage by planning him things to do while we swapped roles (I’m usually at home doing most of the childcare, around my studies) – “on principle you shouldn’t have to help me, I should be doing this without us reverting to stereotype of the useless dad who needs to be told what to do” – but in the end I did make some successful suggestions, including toddler soft play at the leisure centre, a couple of hours at our combined childcare/workspace for a well-earned break, a few easy meal ideas, the regular childcare swap at home with another mum friend.

The purpose of my trip

I spoke at an informal meeting of translators (of Danish to English) at the Consulate General of Denmark, invited by my funders (the Danish Arts Foundation), on the work I’d been doing on establishing the network for Da-En translators in the UK/Europe. The meeting went well, I think, although perhaps everyone was left with more questions than answers (should there be two networks or shall we combine networks?) and was followed by a fantastic dinner at the official residence of the Danish Ambassador of the Consul General, a penthouse on the 76th floor of NY by Gehry overlooking Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center – absolutely stunning views, as you might imagine!

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View…

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…view…

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…view!

It was a lovely group of people to spend the afternoon and evening with, speaking Danish and talking about translation, books, and New York.

An amazing privilege, quite unreal the whole thing. Now my legs ache from walking so much!

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Days turn into weeks turn into months…

Time seems to be passing at a phenomenal rate. I am now 8 months into my PhD! This last month in particular has whizzed by, and it seems like so much of my time is devoted to being with the baby. My previous post outlined where I study, and it happens in dribs and drabs.

At the beginning of last month I facilitated the third meeting for the translators’ network – I proposed and started building an online space for the translators to keep in touch. At the end of last month I had a meeting with each of my supervisors (to discuss my most recent written work i.e. literature review). All the discussion and feedback left me with a list of topics to investigate and texts to read, most of which I’ve got my hands on, all nicely piled up on my desk.

Yet I’ve barely found any time to sit and read! A lot of time in front of my laptop has been spent working on the translators’ network and related presentations (including one coming up abroad next week – I will certainly be writing a long blog post about that trip, watch this space!). I have admittedly had a few weekends away as well, a couple planned since January, but these things always seems to coincide with busy times nonetheless. I tend to reply to emails and do admin bits while the baby is napping. This evening I can’t do anything as I’m so drained from putting her to bed (she is going through what I assume from desperate Googling is the 18 month sleep regression, or in her case SCREAMING for over an hour, resisting settling down to sleep *grits teeth*).

I really hope to have a ‘normal’ month in June and spend lots of time getting my head stuck into books and typing up notes!

Where do I study?

We just changed childcare provider, from a small crèche and workspace in Brixton to a slightly more established nursery and workhub in Wandsworth. Both are a similar distance away (we get there by bus), there were a few reasons we chose to change but I’d heartily recommend them both. As far as I know, these two are still the only flexible hotdesk/childcare places of their kind in South London, if not all of London. We only use this childcare arrangement a few hours a week (20 hours a month currently, to be precise) for practical and financial reasons, but it works very well, generally it’s for 3 hours in the morning so the baby gets a bit of a play, I get a bit of a break, and I get a solid few hours in front of my laptop. It has been nerve-wracking for a few weeks settling her into a new place, especially as, because it’s so sporadic, it will take her a lot longer to warm up to the new people and surroundings. But so far, so good. She gets better lunches than me when we’re there!

I still occasionally still relish the opportunity to work “on campus” at university, either in one of the libraries or a graduate workspace. Unfortunately in the last few months it has been very busy (end of term essays/exams for undergrads and taughts MAs) – on one occasion I actually couldn’t find anywhere to sit at all in the main library which was a bit of a shock! The atmosphere of being at university usually motivates me to make the most of my time, especially if I’m referring to a book I can’t or don’t want to borrow. It’s rare I can get the chance to be there for long at the moment though.

A room with a view (reflected, too)

A room with a view (reflected, too)

My desk! We’re very lucky that our attic bedroom is big enough for us to have a “proper” desk (uh, not pictured! My partner uses that one) as well this rather odd fitted dressing table, which was here when we moved in. Rather narcissistic to be sitting in front of a mirror the whole time, you may think, but quite a motivation when I catch my own eye after dossing around on Twitter instead of working, so I can give myself a stern look(!). Generally I use the attic desk space at weekends (while my partner is with the baby) and on the weekly occasions I do a childcare swap with another mum friend, where we take it in turns to use this desk while the other looks after both kids. It’s useful to have a space to pile up all my books and keep paperwork.

And finally, the sofa. From where I am reaching out to you right now! A particularly useful space for doing work in the evening, when I don’t want to hole up in the attic, and would rather have some dross on telly as background entertainment, or when the baby naps and I just fancy knocking up a few emails or the (sadly too rare!) blogpost.

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 and we talked through myriad other solutions, 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.

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Oh dear…

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

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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.