Why taking my baby to a conference is different now

My “baby” is now nearly 2 and a half. Gulp. That is probably the main reason taking my “baby” to a conference is different now (so you can stop reading here if you like). In fact, I didn’t really take her along to the conference as such at all!

At Edinburgh station - travelling light!

At Edinburgh station – travelling light!

I attended a Nordic conference for research students and postgrads in Edinburgh in February. As I’ve said before, we don’t use a typical full-time nursery, so initially the plan was for me to travel and attend the conference alone while my partner took annual leave from work to take care of the toddler at home in London. But then a good friend with a little baby (3 months old!) decided she’d attend the conference as well as a delegate – inspired no doubt by my success when I attended a conference in another city with our (exclusively from-the-breast-fed) 4.5 month old! The conference in Edinburgh coincided with the holiday available to her husband, so the plan was for him to take the baby while she attended sessions. Our friends have more flexibility with their baby as they are mixed feeding (definition for non-parents: bottles of formula alongside breastfeeding) which meant the mum-delegate was able to attend the conference in longer stretches away from her baby.

Why taking my toddler to this conference was so different from my previous experience taking a little baby:

  • The journey was FUN! Well, fun might be overstating it, but the 4 and half hour train ride either side was pleasant enough. The four/six of us chatted and read and looked out at the view. We had snacks. We had toys. Two things stick in my mind about driving to the conference with a baby in 2013: 1) stopping and feeding in a dreary service station car park and worrying whether I was doing the right thing by going at all; and 2) missing the motorway junction for Norwich which meant a rather convoluted route to get back on track, which made us all stressy.

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  • I barely saw her! So in a way, I did attend the conference on my own. I attended all the sessions I wanted to. I could freely chat to people in the coffee breaks and at lunch. I tried to get the most out of the event for the benefit of my studies – that had to be the point of us spending time there. My partner and our friends got to see Edinburgh and pop to a museum, whereas I didn’t go out beyond the remit of the organised seminars and conference dinner. This time I wasn’t known by all as the person with the baby. I’d spent every break at the first conference breastfeeding ostentatiously(!) so – whether I liked it or not – I was soon identified as the delegate with a little baby. It was admittedly a good icebreaker and made me rather memorable, but this time being a speaker on the first panel with a slightly unusual format of presentation was the icebreaker, and I much preferred that!

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  • I felt more like me! Four and a bit months into first-time parenthood is not me. I was shell-shocked, sleep deprived, hadn’t had an academic conversation for months, let alone attended seminars or even read a book. I was still adjusting and – in hindsight – so far off feeling like myself. Sixteen months into a PhD is me. I felt happy with my presentation (very glad I went on first and got it out of the way!) and I was keen to talk to people and learn. I got to chat about research and meet new people and not constantly wave a baby in people’s faces. (I’m not sure I even got much better sleep though this time round as we stayed in dead central Edinburgh and I was only blessed with earplugs for our last night away!)

My two experiences of taking a child to a conference have been very different, mostly for practical reasons relating to her age and related needs. Given my experience this time, despite it being very positive, I probably wouldn’t drag my partner and child along to a conference again, even (or especially) in an exciting new place, because I’d get so little time to enjoy the visit with them! We spent the most time together on the journey and in the evenings. By extension, because I was with them (and our lovely friends, to be fair), I didn’t arrange to meet anyone else I know who lives in or near Edinburgh as there wasn’t a minute to spare. And I missed out on visiting a few places I probably would have gone to if I’d been kicking around on my own with time to fill. But I still attended a fantastic, welcoming conference and had a great trip as a little family with some good friends.

Upgraded!

At the end of January I had my Upgrade and I passed! The Upgrade is a formal (yet informal) review meeting held around 12-18 months into the PhD process. It’s the only external review of my work until the very end after I’ve submitted the whole thesis when there is a viva with an external examiner. (It’s called an Upgrade as technically students enrol for an MPhil before being ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status after this meeting)

The Upgrade meeting included one of my supervisors (my secondary supervisor on paper, though actually they have both had a pretty equal role so far), an academic from another department to lead the discussion, and an academic to oversee the meeting (though in the event he also participated). So, three people talking about my research plans and work so far. Potentially a bit intense.

Everything I was told beforehand was true: most of the preparation was in writing the upgrade portfolio of work itself (submitted just before Christmas) so there was very little I could do in advance of the meeting except be familiar with what I’d written. The meeting was friendly and natural, and I received insight from new perspectives and useful things to mull over. In fact, it’s such a privilege, two academics from different yet related fields, reading my words and giving me some positive feedback and new ideas. Everyone I spoke to told me this would be the case, but until you actually get through it, there are still some nerves – after all, it’s the great unknown! I googled for top tips for getting through the Upgrade but in the event, the pointers from websites and friends were absolutely right – relax and be ready to talk about your research, you’ve already done the preparation.

Now the hard bit is keeping up the momentum and not letting it be too much of an anticlimax! I’ve passed, now I actually have to do some of that work I said I’d be doing…

Social networking and new motherhood

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the fantastic ability of women – and it is women – to network and support one another through a time of massive change as life gets busier and more pressured.

My partner and I moved from North London to Tooting when I was 7 months’ pregnant. It was an odd time to start getting to know a new area – I waddled around in the September sunshine with no indication of how much my map of the world was about to change. I had no idea that I’d want or need local mum friends, I was oblivious to how much support you crave when tirelessly looking after a little child.

When I had a little newborn, my world got smaller for a while. I went for a walk with the pram around the streets nearby, maybe for a couple of miles, but never too far to get back home comfortably. The occasional trip further afield was a mission requiring expert planning. For the sake of getting away from my own four walls, I explored many an accessible local cafe to sip coffee (often decaf as I was still unduly worried about how much caffeine was transferred through breastmilk!), but feeding in public alone still felt like the stuff of nightmares.

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Meeting new people on very little sleep seemed like a bad idea, so for a while I stuck with my own company and met up with (child-unencumbered) friends from my Life Before Baby. Those friends who met up with me during that period are still extra special to me.

Twitter

At the time of moving down, I found a local Twitter account called @tootingbaby – perfect for our new baby-related adventure in SW17! I soon discovered @tootingbaby has a website with a calendar of local playgroups and events for babies and toddlers, and a private Facebook group. After dipping my toe, the best thing for me about Twitter during all the sitting around breastfeeding (day and night, night and day) was being able to gradually follow more and more local people and businesses. I began to feel like I was getting to know this new area all from the comfort of my bed at 3am! A few local restaurants opened around the same time of our move down (late 2012) so it was great to see their online and physical presence develop – I felt like I was part of the community straight away by being up to speed on what was going on outside.

Facebook

I joined the aforementioned Facebook group and before long regular weekly meet-ups were being arranged for mums on maternity leave with babies born in Autumn/Winter 2012. We met and ate cake and made small talk with heavy eyelids about how little sleep we were getting and how feeding was going (breast or not) and who we were before this all kicked off. It became a lovely, loose-knit group of women who initially only had in common the area we lived in, our new role as mothers, and our keen use of a social network! Now, coming up to two years on since joining the Facebook group, I count the local mothers I see most often as some of my closest friends.

After all my exploring – and grateful for the support it had offered me – I offered a Google map of baby-friendly local cafes to the Tooting Baby website. This had the unintended consequence of being asked ever so kindly to be an administrator for the website, as @tootingbaby now had her hands full with two babies and a demanding job! I started in Autumn 2013 – at the same time as starting my PhD. It feels like a hobby in comparison with everything else, and I really enjoy being able to contribute to the community like that.

It grates when people dismiss Twitter and Facebook as narcissistic shouting into the ether – sure, it can be that for some people, but networking on social media gave me a massive sense of community in a new area as a first time mother, and it has directly provided me with the opportunity to make new friends and get support for our new family.

Am I still a new mum?

I am still learning how to do parenting. I don’t know when you ever start or stop, nor how you know if you’re actually following a ‘parenting approach’ or just winging it, badly or well. My only limited experience with children is with my own, and her peers. Now – at 26 months old – she is entering the terrible twos (a phrase which I hate, but I suppose it’s a shorthand most people understand), and I feel like I should be educating myself using best practice manuals and solid research. But it’s incredibly hard to change your behaviour and parenting based on all the clever ‘how to do it right’ stuff you read, as if you don’t just react on instinct at lightning speed in the moment that your child is tipping milk all over the table/throwing bricks hard at you/trying to throw herself out of the pram on a busy pavement, as if you don’t know outside that heated moment that saying no or shouting or making bribes or threats (‘stop that or you don’t get this’) isn’t great parenting, but how do you stop yourself?

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They sound like such small insignificant things written down. Almost every day feels like the first day I’m doing this. I wonder where the time went (has it really been over 2 years?!) but also when I’ll stop feeling like a ‘new mum’. I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I still get that funny feeling in my gut sometimes wondering why on earth I’m left to look after a small human without any training or qualifications! The PhD and parenting both have their challenges. In comparison with studying, parenting still feels so new to me. I am not a new student, but I am still a ‘new mum’.

How I’m getting on, 15 months in

The final third of 2014 was rather intense in comparison with earlier months of my PhD. As well as chairing a meeting in Copenhagen for the translators’ network, I was preparing a portfolio of my research and project so far, and what I intend to do next. So now I have submitted two sample chapters (approx 20,000 words in total, ack!), chapter titles and abstracts for the remainder of the project, a proposed timeline of research for the next two years, and a bibliography.

The sample chapters were especially fascinating and challenging to write – it all seemed to tumble out of my brain from nowhere after months of reading. Meetings with my supervisors were extremely helpful and motivating – I gather from reading about the average PhD student experience this is not a given so I am cheered by my experience so far! I started writing the chapters in earnest in August and they were completed by mid December (although I’m still not one hundred percent happy with them, natch). All the while fitting in time for my partner to study when he wasn’t at work, playgroups and playdates (I hate that word… but what’s a good alternative?) with the toddler, being administrator for a local parenting website, and getting into my weight training at the gym. Looking back now, around fifteen months in, the first year of my PhD was used for important reading and to provide a foundation for my research, but also for finding my feet and our pattern as a family to enable me to do my work and still have someone looking after the child!

I can't always work like this!

I can’t always work like this!

A small change in 2015 which I hope will have a big impact is that we are upping our monthly hours at the nursery/workhub to give me more study time generally and also more flexibility. I still prefer to use it like a short workday (9.30-2.30, meaning the toddler gets lunch and a nap!), but occasionally need to extend the day so I can pop to uni, or have a few short ‘morning only’ bursts if working regularly rather than in longer stretches suits our plans that week.

Now for the upgrade meeting/viva in January (fingers crossed) and onto the next concrete stage of research!

Mini one-day guide to Copenhagen for n00bs

I recently got this email out of the blue (identifying details removed, natch):

Subject: Copenhagen Recommendations?

Hi Ellen,

I hope you’re well. I saw your business card up on the notice board in the work hub saying that you’re a Danish translator.

Just wanted to see if you have any recommendations for what to see in Copenhagen. I’m going there on Thursday only for a day to a conference and it’s my first time I’m going to Denmark so I’m really looking forward to it.

Any tips for Copenhagen would be appreciated!

Now, I have never lived in Copenhagen, but I’ve visited on many occasions, and if you were to ask me what I did the last few times I was there the answer would genuinely be that I made the most of the time alone by chilling in my hotel room with pastries, occasionally going on the hunt for good vegetarian food (hunt is the right word).

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But this was a nice challenge. What would a Londoner with no experience of Denmark want from Copenhagen? How could I tell a stranger how to make best use (not even all of) one day there?

My reply:

Copenhagen is pretty compact and very walkable, so you’ll be able to wander and explore a lot, depending on how much free time you have of course!

Strøget is the main shopping street, it’s pedestrianised and runs from the town hall square (Rådhushaven) to the square by the theatre/the harbour (Kongens Nytorv). Incidentally there is massive construction work going on in both those squares (expanding the metro) so they aren’t very picturesque! You’ll mostly find high street shops on Strøget – the same as you’d find in London – so you might want to explore the streets parallel, for example Studiestræde and Læderstræde. You’re lucky as Thursday evening is usually ‘late night shopping’ meaning many shops which usually close at 5pm will stay open til 8 or 9pm. Nyhavn (on the other side of Kongens Nytorv) is the brightly-coloured harbour area with lots of pubs which you see in lots of postcards of Copenhagen. If you walk to the end of Nyhavn there is lovely view of the Opera House across the water, and then if you walk up with the water on your right you’ll reach Amelienborg (the royal residence). Walking through Kongens Have (a landscaped park with a view of Rosenborg castle [pictured above]) to the National Museum of Art (Statens Museum for Kunst) is lovely. If the weather is awful and you’ve had enough of being outdoors, the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) actually has a fascinating exhibition on the history of modern Denmark. Both those museums are free. You might need to check out these places on Google maps, I’m not necessarily listing in the right order! But that’s a rundown of the sights I can remember.

Best takeaway coffee is from Joe and the Juice, there are lots of them around. They do good sandwiches too, actually. A great bakery chain is called Lagekagehuset, there is one near the town hall end of Strøget and one at the main train station for example, so definitely get a Danish pastry or two from there! There’s one in the airport too – a few weeks ago when I visited I brought home some pastries for my partner, that’s a good souvenir! For other souvenirs, as you don’t have much time I’d recommend the department store Magasin du Nord (near Kongens Nyhavn) – the basement has foodie stuff (posh liquorice is very ‘in’ at the moment!) and the kitchenwares/lighting floor has a sort of trinket section with some lovely Danish design (I’ve bought some lovely mugs there as presents) and the kids clothing section is full of Danish designers too. By the way you can pay almost everywhere with a credit card so don’t worry too much about getting too many kroner in cash.

I’ll let my out-of-the-blue correspondent’s words round off the post:

Amazing! Thank you so much for this incredibly detailed description. You should really publish this as a tour guide!

Your wish is my command, stranger.

Maybe we don’t work as hard as you think we do

My mum told me she was very impressed with my partner and I for our discipline in both finding time to study: “I’d just spend those two hours sharpening pencils and colouring in study charts!”. It made me realise that people must think we’re more industrious than we are! I get a few hours here and there, he has a few hours here and there, but nobody gets down to work straight away when they sit at their desk, we are human! Yesterday morning (on ‘his’ study day) my partner spent ages researching TV stands for our new TV. I almost always open all my tabs/documents I’ll need for the day (currently: draft chapters, chapter abstracts, timeline, email) and then take a good while having a read of my Twitter feed. We pencil in time every week on our shared calendar for our respective studying, but sometimes that time needs to include some ‘me’ time as we get hardly any otherwise. I’m constantly battling to stay disciplined and do some reading or writing every single day. I let myself down a lot as some days I can’t manage it, especially after a long day of playgroups and soft play!

Books without baby in Copenhagen (again!)

I’m in Copenhagen for the Book Fair (BogForum) and the related programme of networking events for translators hosted by the Danish Arts Foundation. This year I’m even chairing a meeting for Danish-English literary translators (as part of my PhD I’ve been helping establish a network for translators).

This trip seems very symbolic to me as a marker of how far I’ve come since enrolling on my PhD last September. Last November’s trip to Copenhagen was my first overnight stay (4 nights, in fact!) away from my first-born. She was still breastfeeding so every morning while I was away I expressed some milk (for my comfort). It felt like a curious thing to be doing, waking up early and performing something so intrinsic to being a mother yet so far from home. When I returned we carried on for a couple more months.

This year and last year I undertook the same seismic shift from all-day childcare duties to being alone in a familiar foreign city within a few hours. The time alone was exhilarating, I got so much done every day and revelled in having the freedom to do what I pleased. My first blog post was about that trip, the sense of joy is tangible.

Now my daughter has just turned 2, it feels very different on a personal level. The context has changed. In my everyday life it feels like I get a little more time to myself, and taking care of her feels much less all-consuming than a year ago. Of course it’s still exhausting at times, but my PhD research has crept into the gaps in my days and my mind more and more. I’ve had many more nights away from her, mostly on trips related to my research. This trip to Copenhagen I have the headspace to feel a bit more like my “normal” self: nervous of having to speak a foreign language I hardly get opportunity to speak any more, nervous of the various events ahead of me this week… it feels less like a holiday than last year.

I’m worried the toddler will be more acutely aware that I’m gone, but she doesn’t yet have a great grasp of time and place so I doubt it’ll concern her, she’ll just be curious. I told her I’m going on a plane. She thinks planes are very, very small (she has only seen them in the air, far away!). We’re very lucky to have her wonderful grandparents taking care of her for two days, and my equally wonderful partner/her dad for the following two days, so she’ll have a great time. I’d like him to experience one of my more mundane days while I’m away doing something atypical – a morning at playgroup, for instance!

Some student parent communities and resources

I had a good day today – even managed to get some work done during toddler’s naptime!

I wanted to write a short post about communities I’ve found useful as a ‘PhD parent’.

There’s a Facebook group PhD Mums, Moms and Dads – by the name you can guess it’s intended to be international, for any parents doing a PhD. So far it seems like a fairly active, supportive community! I’m not a member of many Facebook groups, but this one seems like a keeper.

The Australian blog/website Mums Who Study is excellent and I hope to contribute one day! So far particularly felt affinity with these posts: Seven Gifts of Guilt, Do you work?, and Why arguing with a two-year old is like writing an abstract (great title!).

I’m a big fan of Twitter – I really got into it during the night feeds period of new parenthood; it’s a constant stream of content! – relevant Tweeters include @PhDForum and @thesiswhisperer (one of which was where I first read about both the Facebook group and blog mentioned above) and hyperlocal Tweeters especially @tootingbaby (and the related website/Facebook group) who/which was a huge resource for me as a first-time parent in a brand new area. I’ll blog more about that another time, but I’d recommend Twitter to anyone looking to feel more a part of their local (physical, offline!) community.

Last academic year I attended one student parent/carer lunch meet up at my university (I took the baby along) and tried to keep in touch with the university union officer whose role it was to organise such things and push a few parent/carer issues to those on high, but it disintegrated pretty quickly. The meet up was only attended by three of us in any case, from the whole student body of 29,000. At the time it felt like positive things were happening, for instance the union interviewed some student parents on a voluntary basis to find out what extra support could be provided for them or how the uni could appeal to potential students with caring responsibilities. I’ll keep an ear out this year to see if anything has come of it (weary sigh).

If anyone reading knows other related procrastination resources then please let me know in the comments!