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 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!


2 thoughts on “Three ways having a baby helped prepare me for a PhD

  1. Really interesting post, thank you! (Just stumbled on your blog from twitter, and looking forward to reading back a bit further).
    I’m finding some similar challenges/rewards trying to balance a child with freelance home-based work – it doesn’t quite have the long-term goal orientation of a PhD but is similar-ish. Nearly three years now and I’m slowly learning a degree of serenity – in that, my plans always always have to be flexible, and if I can really surrender to that then I’m happier. There’s no point fretting and fuming if I’m trapped in a darkened room with him for hours in an evening when I’d really hoped to get some other task done, because that just won’t help – best to decide to take it as a chance to rest myself. (That, or keep myself supplied with work that I can just grab and take in when I’m sitting with him, hunched over it by torchlight)

    • Hi Helen, thanks for your reply. I’ve had a skim through your blog and it looks like we have a surprising amount in common (you’re living in my home city for a start!), but also some other things you’re feeling. Congratulations – it looks like you’re working really hard!

      What a great point about ‘giving into it’ and learning some serenity. I find if I plan something I *must* do one evening after putting the baby to bed, I never get round to it – that’ll be the night she takes ages to settle down, that’ll be the night she gets ill, that’ll be the night I’m thoroughly exhausted (well, more than usual!). Pre-baby I was fixated on completing my day’s To Do list, but now I have to give myself more time or I’d expire from self-imposed stress!

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