What to do on maternity leave from a PhD

I still feel utterly resentful that my former employer asked me for a lengthy work-related phone call 8 weeks after the birth of my first baby. In the fug of first time parenthood and sleep deprivation I felt obliged, but now it seems downright rude. So this time round I went into maternity leave determined to have a “clean break” and only float around the peripheries of the world of my PhD. But as it has turned out, it’s hard to break free! Not only because of the connected world we live in – Facebook and Twitter constantly updating me about literature, events, and so on, such is the nature of the people I follow – but also because, rather predictably, it’s impossible to simply switch off thinking about my thesis, especially as I am so used to fitting it around one baby anyway. Crucially, as it turns out, I don’t mind dipping in here and there!

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Baby 2 is now 16 weeks old. Baby 1 is three-and-a-half (so she keeps telling me). PhD gubbins I’ve completed in the last few weeks:

  • co-organising an event in Denmark for literary translators – i.e. liaising with the host-translator about speakers, programme, attendees, publicity, etc, and, rather importantly, submitting a funding application to cover all expenses
  • maintaining my role as coordinator for the online network of literary translators – for example, adding new members and passing on contact details to enable a meet-up during London Book Fair
  • keeping in the loop as a member of the organising committee for a day conference later this year in London (the conference takes place after I resume my studies)
  • sharing specific data about Danish publications in English following a request from my funders (simple enough to copy/paste that section of an existing spreadsheet)
  • final edits of my first chapter for publication following editors’ feedback – the chapter is based on my presentation at a conference early last year, and I submitted it late last year.

The latter was the hardest of all to make time for, as I had to really use my grey matter! Rather a challenge on poor-quality broken sleep. Firstly, I read the editors’ comments and suggestions for changes when I first received the email, to give me an idea of how long it would take, and also give me a chance to mull things over. Then I chose a clear weekend day when I knew my partner could take both children. I fed baby after lunch before he took both out to the park in the afternoon. It rained which curtailed their time out of the house, but thanks to him keeping both kids occupied upon their return, I was still able to complete my edits. A small complication owing to my fickle document editor meant that to finally submit my completed chapter, I had to use some time that evening (after Child 1 was asleep) on a different laptop to make final changes before sending it off!

I don’t intend to make a habit of dipping in to my PhD-related work over the next few months, but I thought it would be interesting to record what I have done.

24 Weeks and a Positive Mindset

Throughout the PhD process there are various significant time markers: the end of first month, a few months in talking about your first proper written work in a supervision meeting, the Upgrade, attending and presenting at your first conference, and the end of the 3 full years’ of funding will be one too – gulp! When I started, my daughter (‘the baby’ of this blog’s title) was just under a year old. She is now approaching 3 (latterly renamed ‘the toddler’!).

The big reveal...

The big reveal…

I am pregnant. 24 weeks – over halfway to baby 2! My life has been temporarily overwhelmed by nausea accompanied by occasional puking from week 6 to week 19. Three months. This has been less than fun. And, of course, exhausting. It has really hampered my own (perceived?) progress with my work, too. But some positives about what I have achieved while feeling so physically crap…

While I’ve been pregnant, I have been to Denmark twice (once for a research trip as described in my last post, and once to observe part of the inaugural literary translators’ summer school). In August I presented at a conference in Sweden on Nordic Literature – my first international conference.

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I have also presented at a university departmental research day, attended literary translation workshops and related events on a single day at the British Library, taught a university ‘widening participation’ session for year 8 school pupils on translation and Danish culture, attended supervision meetings with both supervisors having also prepared written work in advance, met with other students to chat studies and plans, done even more corpus research (I keep dipping in and finding more books!), and written a full draft chapter to be submitted for a conference publication this Autumn. This week I’m participating in a conference on small nation literatures in Bristol.

While I’ve been pregnant, we have successfully toilet trained the toddler (actually, she needed very little ‘training’, thankfully!), discussed plans for Tooting Baby with its founder/owner (I’m the web admin keeping content up-to-date), stayed with my parents in my hometown for a couple of weeks, planned birthday parties for me and my daughter in the Autumn, planned maternity leave dates and related antenatal and postnatal minutiae, and met with friends and kept up with general life stuff while trying to fit in sleep, puking, and PhD-ing!

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I’m out of the worst of the fug of early pregnancy now, resulting in renewed energy and motivation – whoop! – but unfortunately the scary realisation that I only have three months left before maternity leave and a To Do list expanding with my bump!

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.

Bookfairs and me

Since starting my studies last Autumn, I’ve attended three national book fairs: the BogForum in Copenhagen (November 2013), the London Book Fair (April 2014), and the BookExpo America (BEA) in New York (May 2014), and another book event called Crimefest in Bristol (May 2014). I spent the briefest amount of time at the BEA in New York, as it wasn’t officially open on the day I visited (but I attended a couple of seminars), so my impressions from this are limited. But here are some glib observations based on my experiences!

Size:

Naturally the Javits conference centre in New York for the BEA is huge. But that’s to be expected. When I visited the London Book Fair I was surprised by how big and empty it all felt, there were people milling about but it didn’t feel packed, but maybe that’s down to the size of the venue. I was most surprised by how large and busy the BogForum was – especially the amount of media attention it gets (on the morning television news, for example) and the huge number of stands and events, mostly focused around Danish authors and literature, not books in translation. Half-jokingly, one might think how can a country as small as Denmark have so many books?! It really brought home to me what a bookish nation Denmark is, despite regular paperback bestsellers costing the equivalent of around £20, it is a country of devoted readers.

Crowd:

The London Book Fair is primarily only for trade visitors, i.e. people who work in the publishing industry. In places it felt a bit surly and stand-offish to people like me just wandering around browsing; industry professionals arrange times to meet at each publisher’s stand and shake hands wearing suits. There were seminars, for instance I attended one on ‘Beyond Nordic Noir’ hosted by Nordic literary institutes hoping to widen interest in genres other than crime fiction from Scandinavia. But a cursory glance round the room revealed they were talking to themselves – a room of translators and people I recognised from other Nordic events, very little “outreach” to publishers or agents looking for something new! Denmark’s Bogforum is a huge national event, open to the public, and I saw many children and interactive activities for all ages and interests. The BEA falls somewhere in the middle – many of the exhibitors are there to talk business, but there were still book signings and book giveaways for the keen readers who attended. Crimefest was a lovely smaller event for real aficionados. I got the impression many delegates knew each other either from the social events surrounding the conference, or even from previous or similar get-togethers. There was perhaps a disproportionately higher number of older/middle-aged women than in other crowds, but I was surprised to see some younger delegates (in their twenties) too.

Position of translated literature:

London Book Fair‘s Literary Translation Centre was well-attended and got a fair bit of social media buzz, there are some good write-ups and videos around online of the seminars and discussions that took place there. For BEA, 2014 was the first year it had a section of the event called the Translation Market, devoted to books in translation, which is telling. I attended some seminars as part of the Global Market Forum ‘Books in Translation’ series, and – despite some excellent panellists – they felt a bit slapdash, rushed and marginalised, to be frank! Both BEA and the London Book Fair had stands for publishers from different countries (including Nordlit, see an earlier blog post of mine). Curiously I can’t remember the BogForum having the same, though it did have some publishers of translated literature, especially of non-fiction where related products could be marketed e.g. celebrity chefs. Crimefest had a remarkably well-attended and well-produced panel called Euro Noir, where translation was mentioned a number of times explicitly (including one translator being part of the panel!) and there were a lot of insightful and informed questions from the delegates. I also saw Swedish panellists Lars Kepler (a pseudonym for a husband-wife duo) interviewed in another panel on the same day, and the programme featured other Nordic Noir panels across the whole event.

Best coffee:

Back onto an inconsequential topic, Crimefest was near Park Street in Bristol which has a branch of Boston Tea Party, a lovely south west chain of coffee shops. At BEA I paid something silly like $8.00 for a regular Starbucks coffee, such is the mark-up at a conference centre! It was surprisingly hard to find coffee at London Book Fair, I arrived craving caffeine and wishing I’d taken advantage of the coffee cart outside on the way from the station. Bogforum had the best coffee – a few little espresso coffee carts dotted around with quick service at great value, a pleasant surprise.

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”!

Nordic Noir event at All You Read Is Love pop-up cafe

My write-up of the informal panel discussion about Nordic literature and translation.

Nordic Noir: The Scandinavian Crime Book Club

Reading and Translating Nordic Literature and Nordic Noir to a Contemporary British Market

A rainy dark January evening in suburban London was an appropriate setting for discussion of Nordic literature and translation.

A panel discussion took place with UCL Scandinavian Studies PhD students Nicky Smalley, Anna Tebelius and Ellen Kythor led by senior lecturer in Scandinavian literature at UCL, Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen.

Each of the PhD students started by introducing the topic at the forefront of their minds in relation to the event’s title. For Ellen Kythor, this was the concept of Scandinavia as a “brand” as perceived by Brits, and how translators and publishers of popular novels may be creating and reinforcing the brand. Anna Tebelius discussed translation and art – her PhD project involves translating an experimental text from Swedish to English, and she has recently tried an artistic approach to translation using audio-recording equipment. Nicky Smalley’s PhD…

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Taking a baby to a conference

Or: How to have a baby and keep one foot in academia

In April last year I attended the Nordic Translation Conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. More precisely, I was a delegate and my partner and 5 month old baby came too!

I’d been doing occasional freelance translation jobs so I was keen to keep in touch with the industry. I didn’t know at this stage that I would be heading back to uni so soon but I hoped it would be on the cards in future. This particular conference takes place only every 5 years so I knew I’d be kicking myself if I decided from the off that I couldn’t go just because I had a little baby.

The baby was exclusively breastfed, when she demanded it – this means she only consumed breastmilk (babies start solids at 6 months old, and milk is still their primary food source until around 12 months in any case). She had never taken to being bottle-fed (not that we tried very hard) so she needed to go wherever I went, and vice versa.

Before registering to attend I emailed the organisers to see how amenable they were to my idea of bringing the baby and also contacted a former lecturer who’d had a baby during my first degree, keen to see if she or anyone she knew had been in a similar position. Deep down I felt strongly that having a baby should be no impediment to participating, but theory and ideology do not necessarily translate into practice. I was realistic that my expectations might not correlate with what’s normally accepted at these events, so I told myself that if I got any hint of the organisers trying to put me off then I would just not attend, it wouldn’t be worth the stress.

As it happened, my former lecturer and the organisers themselves were incredibly positive and supportive! The organisers even insisted I let them know if they could be of any assistance during the event. In the end, a few attendees with older children brought them along, too (although this was not apparent to most delegates as they were being entertained elsewhere).

Accommodation was available on the university campus, which made everything much more straightforward. We booked a family room which would fit the travel cot. We rented a car – the amount of stuff you need to take for a couple of nights away when you have a baby is ridiculous! – and the drive from London to Norwich was surprisingly smooth. For a journey of that length with a baby that young it was inevitable we’d have to stop once or twice, but I still made it in time for registration on the first afternoon.

The venue was perfect – it all took place in one building, with seminar rooms and a lecture hall, and one coffee area for use during the breaks. For the first two sessions, while my partner was unpacking us into the campus B&B, I had the baby with me. As babies go, she is fairly quiet and contented, but in a well-attended seminar session, I was suddenly all too aware of her chattering and babbling – we’d never been in a scenario like it before. So for one of the sessions I kept stepping outside with her, which in hindsight was probably more disturbing than just staying put and sitting at the back with her would have been. But I felt self-conscious – I had never seen a baby in a professional context like that, and I didn’t know what people might expect. After all, they had spent the time and money to attend as well. During the break after this session I breathed a sigh of relief when another delegate approached me and cooed over the baby, saying how lovely it was to hear her happy burbling during the session!

For the next couple of days of the conference, my partner and I agreed that he would take the baby while I attended sessions, and I’d feed her in the breaks – but if she communicated that she needed me while I was away, he’d text me. In the end, I didn’t have to leave any session early… by a quirk of fate she was happy with our plan! From my partner’s perspective, there wasn’t much to do other than walk around with the pram (UEA’s campus is to be commended on being very pram/wheelchair accessible!), occasionally stopping back at the conference break area or going back to the B&B room. He couldn’t drive anywhere or get the bus into Norwich as that would risk taking her too far away from me.

It was excellent to be able to focus my mind on something not baby-related for the first time in 5 months, and I enjoyed livetweeting some of the sessions (#nordictranslation). I even attended the evening meals to socialise and catch up with attendees I already knew from my degree (the world of Nordic translation is rather predictably pretty small!). It was so uplifting that despite having a little baby so dependent on me I could still be participate as myself (the translator, academic, whatever, but not “just” a mother).

Breastfeeding didn’t pose any problems. I just found space in the coffee break area, even chatting to fellow delegates while doing so – hopefully doing my bit for normalising breastfeeding in public! After all, the baby would not have got fed at all if I hadn’t done it this way, and I wouldn’t have been able to attend if I couldn’t bring her.

Of course, I am lucky in many regards. My partner was able to take annual leave. The baby was going through a lovely phase of sleeping very well overnight, and still napping a couple of times in the day. She wasn’t yet crawling (she started that at 6 months) so she was happy being held or sitting in the pram (once babies start moving around they are less content with this!). As someone else put it, having a 5 year old running around would’ve been much more disruption, so it was a perfect time to attend. It can’t be played down either that if you’re looking for a family-friendly discipline, Scandinavian studies is probably one of the best. My story would have been very different in other disciplines, I’m sure.

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I will (hopefully) never know if any delegates felt uncomfortable or irritated by the presence of a baby, but blissfully we only detected good vibes from those who did engage with us. I met some lovely people and made some great contacts – a baby is a good icebreaker!

I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on babies in academic settings like this, please add a comment below. And do let me know in the comments if we met at this conference, it was a really friendly event!

Danish Book Launch: Murder in the Dark and Conversation with the Translator – video

This was an event I coordinated on 4th November for Norvik Press/the Nordic Noir Book Club. The most enjoyable part of the preparation was reading the novel (in translation) and doing a trial run of the video chat with the translator in advance. Thankfully it all went off without a hitch and the evening was a success!

Click through to view the YouTube video and the full post on the Nordic Noir blog.

Nordic Noir: The Scandinavian Crime Book Club

In partnership with Norvik Press, the Nordic Noir book club held a reception at University College London on 4th November 2013 to celebrate the publication of Dan Turèll’s Murder in the Dark. The book’s translator Mark Mussari took part in an interactive Q&A during the event, live via video link from the USA. You can watch the full video below (27 minutes).

The video Q&A was hosted by UCL’s new PhD student in Danish-English Translation Studies, Ellen Kythor, and the launch was made possible with support from the university’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society.

You can purchase Murder in the Dark now via the Norvik Press website.

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