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”!

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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!