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.

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9 thoughts on “PhD, Babies(!), and Me – can it be done?

  1. I feel the pain. I have a full-time day job in academia plus pursue phd and have a now 5 year old (she was one when I started) and now 1 year old. I literally was still working on course work the day I gave birth and through my three week leave. Anyway I graduate in May!!! Have dissertation defense proceedings soon. Hang in there. We’ve got no help here. Just me and hubby and switch shifts so we just watch the kids. It’s hard.

    • Thank you for your reply and massive high five to you! Sounds like you’ve been working unbelievably hard. All the best with your defense, fantastic about graduation.

  2. I can see that this post is a few years old but I thought I would add my perspective as I have just passed my viva with 6 weeks to go until my baby is due!!! My advice if avoid getting in this situation if you can as it’s not easy BUT if you do decide to study whilst pregnant it is totally doable (I’m the evidence!) I’ve written about how I did it in my blog which you can find here- http://lifeasabutterfly.com/phd-pregnant-race-biology/

    • Hi Hayley, thanks for your reply. This post is only a few days old though, not years! I had planned pregnancies every time so don’t worry about that. I have found great support on the Facebook group for PhD parents I mentioned on another post, so that would be my advice to anyone else. Thanks for the link to your blog and super Well Done on passing your viva! All the best with your birth and baby.

      • Oh I’m sorry, can I blame baby brain!? 😉 I haven’t heard about that group-I’ll look it up, thank you! And thanks for your kind wishes, best of luck to you with everything too!

  3. Hey, nice to connect. I’ve an 8 month old – I started my PhD when she was 4 months. Muddling along, each month easier than the last….. I feel the need for sleep though 🙂

    • Hello! Nice to connect and I hope your PhD journey is going well. Sleep gets more achievable as they get older!

  4. Hi Ellen,
    I am starting PhD in Engineering at UCL this September, with a 10 month old son. I can’t tell you how inspired I am by your blog! Do you have any suggestions for a good daycare facility near the uni? I am not getting a place for him at the university crèche for September, also, it’s too costly! I am planning to stay in Croydon, where I have some friends and send my son to a nursary there, may be three days a week, while I attend the university. Does that sound like a good plan?! My husband will be staying with us, but he will have to go to work almost all weekdays.Kindly give your suggestions. It would be great to get in touch with you in person, when I join in September. Thanks for your posts!

    • Hi Ahsana, lovely to hear from you! Childcare near where you live always seems the best bet – commuting in and out of London with a baby is not much fun. I can see your email address from your comment so I’ll get in touch directly 🙂 In the meantime, I highly recommend the Facebook group PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents, so many helpful posts and comments for people in the same boat! (I also wrote this post about supportive online stuff for PhD student parents a while back)

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