Sustainability of positivity – on hoping the bubble won’t burst

Not long after my fantastical conference trip to Canada, I spent a week in Denmark for research and some serious future planning for the translators’ network.

Since returning from my trip to Canada I’ve been on an absolute high. It boosted my perception of my own progress with the thesis, but also made me feel connected again to the field. Working from home can be a lonely place. It’s good to get reassurance that you’re studying something interesting and relevant (or, more importantly, that other people find it interesting and relevant!). Since the trip I’d also had a positive supervision meeting in which the whole thesis structure looked to be taking shape; scarcely imaginable to me nine months ago when I returned from maternity leave.

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The week in Denmark this month was full of meetings – including two interviews, and the translators’ network meeting (which was the primary motivation of the trip) – and a full day’s library visit. With a “whole week” to myself I’d also pencilled it as a solid writing opportunity – I mean, all that time alone, away from the kids, what else could I possibly do? Turns out that was brightly optimistic. A full week is rather shorter when you factor in travel time and looking after yourself (meals, fresh air…). Every day had one thing planned and to my surprise the rest of the time filled up. But still, I felt so positive, to be “doing” research and “being” there in meetings. Doing and being. Not exactly living my regular life with the PhD around edges.

The comedown, of course, is that now I can’t hide from myself and my work under the guise of being busy “doing” research or “being” present. The trips are an amazing privilege – admittedly with bonus fun thrown in – but they create work: writing up my conference paper and finding somewhere to publish (well, tentatively…), interviews to transcribe and their content to analyse and integrate into chapters, notes from reading to add to chapters and more reading to start as a result of that reading, and a reassuringly long to do list following the productive translators’ network meeting. But the action stops and the fear of the blank page before me gets ushered in. Where will I find time and focus again to write? Around the kids, the nursery runs, the household, preschool summer holidays, my eldest starting school in September (wail!), adjusting to my partner’s new pattern of working from home more/away from home less…

The Fear today is prompted too by me receiving my final stipend payment from my studentship. I’m in my writing up phase and there is no money or job on the horizon. I have to make the last few years worth it. The countdown is on to submit a coherent 90,000 word document within a year!

Oh Canada!

This PhD has taken me on some amazing adventures, the likes of which I can’t imagine I would have been doing in a “regular job”. I reported at length on my brilliant whirlwind first ever trip to New York three years ago (was it really that long ago?!). Last week I got to visit Canada for the first time and – oh my – was I not disappointed.

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I was attending the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada annual conference to present a paper on my latest research into Danish literature and culture in the UK. The conference takes place as part of the rather mega Congress of the Humanities, which this year was hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto.

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Beforehand, two separate Canadian friends had told me Toronto is “the New York of Canada”. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant until I got there. But it soon became clear: tall buildings. Hipster coffee joints. Fab foodie hangouts.

I stayed in an apartment relatively near downtown (well, it felt completely downtown to me, but Torontonians have a strange sense of scale about their city: they considered the area a little further out). I flatshared with a fellow PhD student from another UK university – our frugal choice was between shared dorms in a potentially grotty halls of residence (and we’d been burned before by that at a conference that shan’t be named!) and the path untrodden of an unknown apartment found on AirBnB. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The flat was well-furnished and spacious, and overall it was more fun.

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cute little lights on the subway

We could walk more-or-less everywhere. The subway was so-so, much less grimy than the New York subway, but came in handy for slightly longer trips. The streetcars ie. trams were also handy as well as being adorably quirky and retro.

As well as wandering and sightseeing and eating (okay, that admittedly feels like the most of what I did!), the conference itself was very welcoming and interesting. Unlike larger conferences, there were no parallel panel sessions, so everyone from various disciplines attended each panel, meaning there was a good mix of input from different perspectives. My piece about hygge and Britain’s white middle classes was well-received, even by a North American audience which still has to wrap its head around quite how ingrained the British social class system really still is in our society. And it was excellent to meet so many other people in the same niche field who I might not have encountered in Europe. There’s something to be said for funding application justifications which then ring true!

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I think it was the longest I’d ever been away from my children. 5 whole nights, six days, and a whole lost day to jetlag upon my return. While I was there I didn’t fully recover from slight discombobulating jetlag and I ended up waking at around 5.30am every day… not terribly helpful when I naturally struggle to drift off in the first place. I was running on adrenaline all week, in hindsight. We managed one video call between me and the family – unusually for my trips away – but it seemed appropriate as it was a particularly long time apart. I was up at 6am (as was my flatmate/friend/colleague/pal – insert correct nomenclature – so I wasn’t disturbing anyone) and the UK was 5 hours ahead so it seemed as good a use of the time as any! The baby seemed entertained by my face on the screen, but my eldest found it hard: it seemed to upset her, so I think I’m right to usually avoid video calls on my trips away – out of sight, out of mind.

As I already knew from my last North American adventure, me and planes and sleep don’t mix, so I ended up a weepy mess by the end of the return flight and again over lunch when I finally reached home. Then I slept for 13 hours straight and it was awesome.

Finally, despite the length of the stay and the time apart from the kids, I utterly failed to get any solid PhD writing time in. I don’t know how realistic I was being thinking I might find time. The conference was really engaging, and the bits round the edges were well worth it as I’ve no idea if and when I’ll be going to Canada again soon. Back to earth with a bump this week.

Do you even though?

I almost cried in frustration in January when my dad suggested I use some of the time my kids are at nursery to go to the gym. We’re paying for that time in childcare! I can’t fritter it away on an activity for myself! I need to get some bloody work done! But with my partner working and living away from home 3-4 nights a week, and two kids to tend to, I would never find enough time during the week otherwise to make it worthwhile joining the gym, and I desperately wanted to rediscover that part of myself.

I never had myself down as a gym goer. If I recall correctly, I first properly started going to a gym when I started my job as soon as I graduated from my first degree. I’ve always hated running so I joined the gym with the intention of doing anything but. I’m at a pretty good level of fitness now, yet still running makes me feel like I’m about to collapse! I was always better at sprinting than long-distance at school sports days, maybe that has something to do with it.

The induction at the gym focused on building a programme and, fortuitously, the personal trainer I had was very keen on women understanding the benefits of lifting heavy weights. Some women are apparently put off lifting heavy weights as a false stereotype prevails that it will lead to a masculine physical body type. This is generally impossible without serious hormonal imbalances (artificial or otherwise). Lifting heavy weights makes you STRONG and lean (although any weight loss is a bonus incidental side-effect for me) and generally gets you feeling more in charge of your body. IT ROCKS! [In case you’re interested and don’t know where to start, I recommend Girls Gone Strong and Nia Shanks]

Lifting weights is my time out. It’s the only time I seem to be able to check out. When I’m at the gym, nothing else fills my headspace. For a chronic over-thinker with insomniac tendencies and a cerebral ‘job’, it is blissful. The visceral sense of focusing only on what my body is physically doing is very freeing. I can’t worry about babies and relationships and family and books and writing and money while I’m there. I can zone out and entirely decide on what I will challenge myself with today, whether I deadlift or squat, whether I can lift slightly heavier, how my muscles and energy levels feel.

I love the incremental improvements and achievements that I can’t find anywhere else in my life: for instance, right now, I am deadlifting more than I ever have before (that is, lifting a barbell loaded with weights from the floor to standing). That’s even after having had two kids! I’m not going to go full hippie and rave about the wonder of the human body, but it is such a satisfying hobby as it’s unlike anything else I do (I’m far from a manual labourer, even as a mother who tends to walk a minimum of 1.5 miles a day) and I’m only comparing myself to myself, so I get to fistbump me every time I have a great workout.

And strangely, I have made and found the time, and still get my work and parenting done. It’s worth it for the boost to my mental health.

(all meme images stolen from interwebs)

CV and what fits in the gaps

Today during the baby’s naptime (and while the eldest was at preschool) I decided to update my long-neglected CV to make sure I didn’t miss anything out from the last few years. This was prompted by a perhaps foolish move on my part to glance at another PhD student’s CV. A PhD student without children or similarly life-dominating commitments. It initially got me down that (s)he had seemingly been able to take on more work experience around the edges of the PhD: teaching and translation and other publications. So I decided it might be best to record what I have actually done while I remember, and it turns out it is quite a lot after all. By the end of this calendar year, I will have actively presented at 6 academic conferences since 2013 and attended still a few more. I’ve written a published chapter. I’ve founded and coordinated a professional network. I’m on track to submit my PhD on schedule. That’s no small feat.

When people discover I am doing a PhD in translation studies, they often ask whether I fit in any freelance translation ‘on the side’. It’s all I can do not to scream, WHEN?! But usually I demure to explaining that any ‘spare’ time I have around the children is for my PhD. Any time I have not caring for small people and all related aspects of parenthood is necessarily devoted to my studies. So when the kids are at nursery (part time), I do not lift a finger to do any housework until they return. Laundry and washing up can be done with the kids running around, transcription and reading and writing and high-level thinking cannot. Maybe I could do translation in my evenings? But, yet again, if I have any energy left in the evenings – and it’s rare that I do – it really should be for my PhD. After all, I have a studentship.

I studied for my Master’s part time and worked full time in a commission-based graduate level job (4-5 days) alongside it. I managed to fit in freelance translation then. And volunteering as an events coordinator for a local community group, and web administrator and trainer for the group’s website. And going to the gym, and evenings out with my partner and friends, and weekends away. That is how it is without kids, your time is your own and seemingly never-ending. I enjoy being busy – my mental wellbeing thrives on being busy – and it is hard to reconcile that productive feeling with the less self-absorbed enforced busy-ness of parenthood.

I have made peace with the fact that being less ‘productive’ for my CV right now is okay. This is how it is at the moment. In future, whatever job I have may well be mostly be conducted outside the home, where the line between parenthood and ‘work time’ is more clearly delineated. Parenting is time and tasks impossible to record on the CV.

Week on, week off

We had two weeks out of routine this month. My partner and I swapped places in the first week – currently he works (and lives) away for most of the week while I hold fort at home. But he took holiday from work while I went away for a few days to study, meet colleagues, conduct research, visit the London Book Fair, and facilitate a translators’ network meeting. He stepped into my shoes of running the household – the usual rinse-and-repeat routine of meals, laundry, washing up, nursery runs, waking up early, and so on. I had a brilliantly productive week and created a bunch more work for myself to get on with! While we as parents swapped, the kids were not out of routine and everything went smoothly. Then we went and lived elsewhere for a week in order to visit family.

I won’t call it a “holiday” in hindsight, although I appreciate that sounds unfair – it rained almost solidly, Kid Two spent half the week oozing snot from his nose, eyes, and ears (impressive) and Kid One was a treated to a 24 hour upset tummy (possibly from the on-site restaurant where food was served perturbingly quickly). Most pertinently, Kid Two regressed to waking a couple of times a night and then at 5am for the day, in turn waking both parents and Kid One who is usually an excellent sleeper (they were sharing a room) and on top of that I’m a terrible sleeper at the best of times and had two insomniac nights lying utterly awake. Yes, I’m ungrateful to complain and sound terribly privileged. But it was exhausting. So far, so typical of any trip with preschool-aged children, I guess.

Because of our usual living/working/studying arrangements, my partner exclusively uses holiday from work for me to [bugger off and] do my PhD work. A friend remarked beforehand how unusual and perhaps lovely it would be to actually see each other while he was on annual leave! (Perhaps the first time in a couple of years?!) This hadn’t crossed my mind for long enough to dwell, thankfully, as the luxury of time together for a week was immediately muddied as we both bumbled around in survival mode and used evenings to try and top up our sleep.

I freely admit I hated losing PhD time after such a busy productive week mere days earlier. The change of pace was challenging. I didn’t officially schedule a “week off”. I was fantastically thrilled for the full day I got child-free for transcription, and the snatched hours on a couple of other occasions.

Our week “off” brought into focus that the kids and I have really been thriving on our weekly routine this calendar year so far. In fact, maybe I’ve been more productive than ever: drafting and redrafting three chapters since Christmas. I’ve managed trips to London, library time, supervision meetings, and research interviews with various professionals for my research, and had two conference paper proposals for later in the year accepted (woot!). My weeks have fallen into a pattern of two days full childcare (combination of nursery and grandparent help), plus every other Friday as a PhD day (when my partner has his flexible working day “off” ie with the kids) and usually a few hours – occasionally a full day if necessary – at the weekend. I feel like I’m on the right trajectory. It’s all rather invisible from the outside though as evidenced by someone recently asking me whether I was still studying. I’m able to say yes, despite appearances while at playgroup or the park.

It is perhaps the busiest we’ve been though, both fitting in full-time work – however you define that – around the equally full-time job of looking after kids, without full-time childcare arrangements. The pace has really picked up for me. And I feel this desperate pressure that we need to keep up the pace to ensure that I actually submit my thesis on schedule. Back to normal again this week and I’m finding it hard to hit the ground running. Trying to kick myself out of feeling paralysed by the pressure and instead glad to be back on track. The routine is in place and I need more weeks on than off!

The Valley of Shit

Sigh… just realised I went through the Valley of Shit before Christmas! This bit of this blog post totally resonates:

“The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.”

Things are really back on track now. Though it’s tough to find time to update my blog!

The Thesis Whisperer

I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidencein himself, his topic and the quality of…

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Speech to text to thesis

Transcribing interviews. I’ve been doing a lot of it. Quickly managed to move beyond hating the sound of my own voice. Fascinating picking up on things I didn’t ‘hear’ when face-to-face.

 

I’ve only spoken with articulate, well-educated professionals, but it’s still tough accurately transferring speech into the written word when nobody actually talks in nice neat distinct sentences! (I’m reminded of this when I read transcripts of Trump speeches/interviews: he speaks as well as an orange perched on a jelly, so I feel sorry for anyone transcribing him – they must worry their transcript makes their work look shoddy)

 

I’m excited about this part of my research. It helps me see where my ‘original contribution to knowledge’ might stem from. I’ve still got a reading list a mile long. I’ve still got tiny notes-to-self in draft chapters that will actually be HOURS of research or reading or whatever. I read someone else’s brilliant thesis recently and sank into my chair realising how very far I have to go. But I will get there. I’m feeling motivated by all the patterns emerging and information acquired from these recorded chats with passionate people.

 

Transcription is also quite a good task to do in the spaces between children and crippling tiredness. An hour in the evening. Using headphones on the train. After a broken night’s sleep and a very early start when nothing on the day’s To Do list looks realistic as I just can’t focus. Sit and listen and type it up for a while – feel instantly productive – plus the added bonus of re-hearing the conversation and getting ideas for chapters, sub-chapters, sections, and where it might all fit together.

 

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Getting it done

My best start to a week recently was a Monday when the baby was napping in the pram in the hall, my eldest was watching children’s TV in some kind of post-Christmas haze, and I sketched out a couple of conference proposal abstracts on my laptop, sitting on the sofa. I felt pleased to be snatching time where I could.

I had a couple of ‘lost’ work days before Christmas, very frustratingly. The baby was too ill to attend his two days of nursery, so I looked after him, and then the following week – long after I was sure I’d escaped catching the same illness – I was struck down! So even though both kids could go to nursery, I was too ill to do anything remotely productive on those days.

Over the last few weeks I’ve variously worked on the sofa in the evenings, at the dining table when the kids are out at nursery, in my parents’ home office (a very short walk from our house since we moved!) when the kids are being looked after by someone else at home (usually their dad, of course, but sometimes their gran), on trains to and from London, at the university library, and in a cafe.

I’ve been reading and writing and staring blankly and feeling inspired and on top of things and then equally massively overwhelmed and as if I’m at the bottom of a very large mountain. I am aiming to get all my research done by June. I have more interviews lined up soon. Always plenty to read and re-read. Lots of different documents open with different draft chapters and sub-chapters. A good start to the year so far, but still so much ahead.

 

PhD, Babies(!), and Me – can it be done?

Okay, it was a little ambitious to plan to start the PhD again when Baby #2 was just 9 months old. I’d envisioned it would be fine, as Baby #1 was only 11 months old when I’d started in the first place, way back in 2013. I’d be a more experienced parent, I’d be more familiar with the PhD workload. The PhD in the first place was the light at the end of the tunnel of my first maternity leave. But of course having two children instead of one is rather a leap, and maybe those two months in age make a bigger difference than I’d realised.

I hadn’t countenanced having such a poor sleeper after a relatively good sleeper first time round. Baby #2 waking up at least twice a night until very recently (he is now 11 months old and waking either once or not til morning – major breakthrough!). I’m on my own with both children overnight most of the week now. On a good morning the kids wake as late as 06.30, but usually Baby #2 is awake by 05.45 these days. One way of coping for me is having early nights, which after tidying round once the kids are in bed leaves me with no discernible evenings to get any work done. It’s tiring. Enough to make me miserable sometimes. It’s usually okay, but leaves me feeling like I’m mostly muddling through.

Why did I think I could carry on full time? 

I panicked after my first supervision meeting after maternity leave. It didn’t sound to them as if I would be working ‘full time’.

But I had been super optimistic because I have more formal and informal childcare than ever! 

For the first couple of years, with only one child, we used a combination of: a flexible workhub nursery, babysitting swap, my partner’s flexible working arrangements, weekends, and family visits to ensure I had time to work on my PhD. It was a bit piecemeal, but I am well-organised and we made it work! It wasn’t conventional, but I got my work done.

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The complication of having two children – rather obviously – is that they both need to be elsewhere while I am studying. Child #1 attended our local state school nursery in London during my maternity leave (free to us as it was covered by the government’s universal education grant for over 3s). This was three hours a day, 5 days a week, term-time only. In practice, those three hours every morning became more like two hours when factoring in drop-off and pick-up. If I had not had Baby #2, those measly two hours a day might have been useful time. Especially coupled with evenings, weekends, and every other Friday when my partner is around.

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But finding a realistic solution for childcare needed to ensure Baby #2 was also out of the picture at the same time. I’d tried using naptimes first time round and, while they are a good bonus, they shouldn’t be relied upon because that way lies frustration! The logistics of where to put Baby #2 if using the same school nursery for the eldest became silly to think about – should the baby be at another childcare setting nearby, or maybe both children should go to one nursery or childminder?

The thing is, we were living in south-west London. A friend where we lived has two children the same age as ours who attend a private nursery, three days a week. Cost: £1600 per month. That’s another full wage. That’s paying out the month’s rent (if not more) again. For part time childcare. That’s unimaginable to anyone living elsewhere in the UK.

So one of the reasons we have moved cities is to find affordable childcare that works for us. We did our research as we knew already where we wanted to live, so we were happy enough to get on the waiting list for the nursery a few months in advance. Two days a week for the baby, three shorter days a week for the eldest (a term-time only class, mostly using the 15 hour education grant). Family on hand for occasional pick ups and wraparound care. Weekends and partner taking annual leave and flexi-time days off as before.

Copenhagen station, early morning

Copenhagen station, early morning

It has been a couple of months now since that first supervision meeting and I’ve been finding my feet. I am still studying full time. I’m working out what I can do when in this new set-up: when is best for reading, writing, transcribing, emailing… all those different tasks. I am happy that I am still on track, albeit knowing that there will be flexibility in the schedule in future if needs be. I’ve even had another trip to Denmark since restarting, which coincided with cutting down on breastfeeding the baby. Practical and physical considerations!

It’s tough having setbacks when there’s a gap in childcare – for instance, when the baby is too ill to attend nursery, or school term holidays when the eldest is not at nursery. But there are unexpected bonuses too: I’ve been able to use my occasional train commute to London to do work (1 and a half hours of uninterrupted reading or transcribing, for instance) unlike previous commutes to uni which were on buses and tubes and often with the child most of the way, so complete ‘dead time’ in terms of productivity!

Nearly at the end of the calendar year, Baby #2 is not far off turning one. Feeling positive.

Students and wifework – how a nanny got me thinking about what I do all day

I’m not sure of the best place to write this up, but I wanted to for posterity.

For four weeks in May this year, we had a student nanny living with us! It was a residential placement midway through her 3 year degree in Super Nannying, at no cost to us. The purpose was for her to have an extended period settling with a family, and I hope she learnt things from her time with us. She certainly slotted in really well to our family life and I learnt a few things, too. At the start of the placement Baby #2 was 4 months old. By the end of her stay, he was 5 months old – crawling already (!!!) – and, during the period of her stay, I feel we transitioned out of the newborn fuzziness stage to a more fully formed Family Of Four.

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Wifework (ie. how many people it takes to run a household without anyone burning out!)

During the nanny’s stay, family life ran very smoothly. No one seemed worn out. Meals were planned at the start of the week which resulted in the whole week being clearly planned – in order to plan meals, we needed to know who was eating together and whether anyone would be out. The three year old was a delight as she had the full attention of another adult who was happy to potter around fulfilling her whims (reading, crafting, playing in the garden).

Wifework could just as easily be husbandwork except I’m the one on maternity leave, and even before and after that I am the “more-at-home” parent, and and and arguably still mostly falls to women in a conventional heterosexual household set-up regardless of who is working outside the home (the term was coined by author Susan Maushart). Wifework is shorthand for the tasks undertaken (usually by women) to keep a house ticking over, including but not limited to the laundry, the washing up, cooking, cleaning, tidying, grocery shopping, life admin like paying bills and posting letters, and – primarily, and destructively to the aforementioned chores – childcare (umbrella term for entertaining, feeding, cleaning the little ‘uns – a job in itself, if our temporary resident’s degree and future career is anything to go by!). Some of these activities can be combined with the essential overriding activity of childcare, that is, conducted with the “help” of small children at the expense of completing it promptly. For instance, cooking the evening meal: the nanny learnt on one extreme occasion that when enlisting the help of a three year old, it’s not a bad idea to start around 4pm to get tea on the table for 6pm!

Importantly, however, while the nanny took on the bulk of these tasks relating to the children, it did not mean my time was entirely my own. I was unable to delegate breastfeeding the baby, doing mine and my partner’s laundry, household admin, online shopping… but I was able to fit all this in around more pleasant “downtime” that I rarely get, such as reading blogs and magazines and just having a daytime lie down. Similarly, the nanny was able to prioritise the children’s needs for 11 hours a day and then have a full night’s sleep all on her own. As it’s her job, she gets the psychological bonus of knowing she is off duty at the end of the long working day. I am never off duty, which adds to the mental exhaustion.

The result was two adults at home keeping on top of things but not feeling burnt out. A third adult who came home from ten hours at the office to a relaxed, tidy household and almost none of his usual household chores left to complete. Then came the realisation of how much I actually do every day, even with a very involved partner who does the eldest’s bedtime routine and certainly doesn’t expect his tea on the table or clean clothes in his drawer (but is lucky enough to get that anyway!). All these activities take physical and mental effort and precious time. The fact this blog post took me until mid July to sit down and finish is certainly example enough. All these tasks combined with my many overnight wake ups, no wonder I still feel so tired!