Getting it done

My best start to a week recently was a Monday when the baby was napping in the pram in the hall, my eldest was watching children’s TV in some kind of post-Christmas haze, and I sketched out a couple of conference proposal abstracts on my laptop, sitting on the sofa. I felt pleased to be snatching time where I could.

I had a couple of ‘lost’ work days before Christmas, very frustratingly. The baby was too ill to attend his two days of nursery, so I looked after him, and then the following week – long after I was sure I’d escaped catching the same illness – I was struck down! So even though both kids could go to nursery, I was too ill to do anything remotely productive on those days.

Over the last few weeks I’ve variously worked on the sofa in the evenings, at the dining table when the kids are out at nursery, in my parents’ home office (a very short walk from our house since we moved!) when the kids are being looked after by someone else at home (usually their dad, of course, but sometimes their gran), on trains to and from London, at the university library, and in a cafe.

I’ve been reading and writing and staring blankly and feeling inspired and on top of things and then equally massively overwhelmed and as if I’m at the bottom of a very large mountain. I am aiming to get all my research done by June. I have more interviews lined up soon. Always plenty to read and re-read. Lots of different documents open with different draft chapters and sub-chapters. A good start to the year so far, but still so much ahead.

 

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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.

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!

Meet a Mum Who Studies

I did an interview for the fab new Australian blog and website Mums Who Study.

Here is a link to the full interview.

EDIT: That website has been rejigged, so in case the link breaks again so I am replicating the interview here for posterity:

Tell me about yourself and your family?

My partner and I have been together for ten years – we met in London during my first year of uni – and in 2012 we had a baby daughter. She has just turned two. My partner works full-time during the week and is also studying via distance learning (Open University) for his first degree. We still live in London.

What are you studying at the moment? Was there any particular reason why you chose this course?

I am studying a PhD in Scandinavian Translation Studies, looking at the market and dissemination of Danish literature in the UK. The PhD studentship is co-funded by my university and the Danish Arts Foundation, and its public engagement element has involved creating a network in consultation with literary translators of Danish into English.

I completed my MA in the same field in 2010 after studying part-time and working (almost) full-time, and I always knew I’d go back to do a PhD one day, if we were in some way financially able. I assumed this would be when I was retired! When this studentship was advertised I leapt at the chance! In some ways the timing was perfect – a year earlier and I would have been about to give birth so unable to take the position, a year later I might have settled into my job or already moved elsewhere in my career.

 What are some the things that motivate you to keep studying?

I enjoy the lifestyle and balance this offers our family. I know it would be impossible in most full-time jobs: I spend most of my time with my daughter and fit in my studies around her. When my partner and I first talked about having children, a really significant thing we agreed on was that we wanted the majority of her pre-school care to be done by one of us (in fact, we originally assumed it would be him as I was earning more at the time) or close family – idealistic I know! But we have somehow managed it. Ultimately, studying generally makes me happy, and that is so important.

What are the most challenging aspects?

I never feel like I’m doing enough. It’s an extra layer of stress I could do without! I snatch time here and there to read, write, or study – during her nap time occasionally, evenings if I have enough energy, and the more formal arrangements with nursery and family.

But I constantly compare myself to an imaginary ‘other’ who is childless and able to ‘properly’ study full-time. I generally don’t need to be at university very often, so I find it frustrating when meetings or events are announced at short notice or at awkward times meaning I have to scramble to arrange childcare. Often I have to opt out of attending entirely.

Who or what supports your study?

We use a mix of solutions, better get comfy while I list all these! We have a fantastic combined nursery and work hub relatively nearby where we pay for a set number of monthly hours (my partner’s Childcare Vouchers via his work salary cover the majority) and they give us the flexibility to book the hours where we need them.

 For example, most often I book a 5 hour slot every few days where my daughter plays in the nursery while I work in the open-plan office upstairs. I’ve used them on a couple of occasions when I need to attend university in person as well – dropped her off and picked her up a few hours later (this makes my commute so long I can’t even bear to compare it with a child-free commute!).

I do a weekly childcare swap with another mum – she’s self-employed and, like me, most of her time during the week is taken up with childcare duties – our children are the same age and we found each other through a local parenting network. We alternate between each of our homes where we each take an hour or so to work at our laptops in another room while the other mum takes care of the kids, then we swap, and after both of us have had our shift, we all have lunch together.

When my parents visit, my mum is a fantastic and enthusiastic granny who loves taking care of her first grandchild! The plan when I started my degree was for them to visit at least once a month, but this has had its ups and downs owing to some unforeseen health issues. We’re extremely grateful for their visits; it’s hard for most families I know who live in London as close family so often live elsewhere.

My partner has recently started ‘compressed hours’ under a flexible working agreement with his employer, it’s brilliant and I wish we’d thought of it sooner. He works the equivalent of 10 days’ hours in nine days. This has meant adding on an extra hour (in the morning) to each workday – so he’s in the office 7.30am-5.30pm (Written down that looks incredibly long! But his commute is only ten minutes and he gets lots of good coffee). On day 10 he has a day off, so now every other Friday he is able to take over childcare while I study. Finally, my partner and I take a weekend day each as ‘our’ day for studying, but recently having every second Friday back like this has meant we get more family time, too.

In what ways does your study impact your daughter?

She is too young to know any different! She recounts back to us ‘daddy goes to work’ and ‘mummy goes to work’. It was important to us to ensure the terminology was the same, when I go to my desk or leave the house because of my degree, she should know I am going to work, just like daddy. She’s amusingly aware that we often do ‘shifts’ looking after her, though, for example when my partner comes home and she waves ‘bye bye mummy’ even when I’m not going anywhere!

What would you say to other mums considering studying and what tips can you offer?

It Can Be Done!

In fact, I was in touch with another student parent via a local parenting website recently and here’s what I said to her: I never manage to get any work done if it’s just me and the toddler, so I try and fill our time with playgroups and meeting friends and then I don’t feel like I should be studying, though occasionally I’m able to use nap time when I have the energy.

My partner and I use a shared Google calendar so we can easily see what we both have on e.g. deadlines, time allocated to work, weekends we’re busy, might be worth setting up something similar if you don’t have it already? Don’t be afraid to take your kid to uni for non-classroom-based things, for instance I’ve taken my daughter to the university library if I’ve had to return/pick up books from the issue desk and it’s never been a problem.

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!

How do they do it?

The toddler had her first ‘full’ day at nursery on Friday. 9.30 til 5.30 – as long as most people’s work days! Usually we stick to occasional 3-5 hour bursts while I use the workspace. My partner was at work – I did nursery drop-off, he did pick-up (in rush hour, unlucky him!). I was a bit nervous for her spending all day away… I shouldn’t have been, of course: she ran off to play when I dropped her off and didn’t seem that fussed when her dad arrived to collect her. I went to uni to use the library and have a supervision meeting. It was great, like being a ‘real’ student again, (or at least how I rose-tint it perhaps) spending a good stretch of time surrounded by books in a quiet library and being able to focus on what was discussed in our meeting – though the gear-change from breakfast and commute with a toddler to high-falutin’ academic discussion is somewhat huge!

It got me thinking about what being a full-time PhD student entails and how others perceive it. I’m not convinced some people take the ‘student’ part of my life very seriously, especially as I often upload/share photos of the time I spend keeping the toddler entertained. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the urge to upload a photo of me reading, writing notes, writing abstracts, sitting in the library!

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I’m also unsure of whether I’m ‘doing it right’. Some days I spent little or no time on PhD work. Most of my hours are spent on childcare. We have a set number of hours per month of formal childcare, plus the help of friends and family where possible. Some days when I potentially have some time to myself (nap time/evenings) I just don’t have the energy to do very much.

But then I wonder how full-time PhD students who don’t have caring responsibilities or part-time work organise their time, and I don’t know if I’m really doing so much less. Maybe they have hobbies that occupy some of their time. Maybe they stay up all night and sleep until midday if they want. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, only to spend most of those on Facebook and fit in a two hour lunch break. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, and write 2,000 words a day! Maybe they get time for beneficial side projects which enrich their studying – translation, for example, which I would love to pick up again… in a few years. I genuinely don’t know, and there probably isn’t a ‘typical’ PhD student anyway. I’m just always thinking about whether I could be fitting more in, we only have one fairly contented toddler to keep an eye on, after all!

A break from routine, and creating a new one

Oh, to live in a commune. Or at least with more family close by. For just over two weeks in August the toddler and I upped sticks and went to stay with my parents (my partner/toddler’s daddy came for weekends while still working in London). The routine worked beautifully and I’ve been doing lots of writing and assembling of thoughts, much more than during a regular fortnight. I even managed to get to the gym practically every other day, and see friends!

The routine we quickly established: we had breakfast together then I holed up with my laptop in the office room for some reading/writing/editing while the toddler went for a walk through the park with my mum (mormor to the toddler), and did other bits and pieces like play in the garden and “help” with the shopping. After lunch, my mum and the toddler napped (mormor is recovering from an op, though to be frank I often need a nap after a morning with the toddler!) while I did some more work or went to the gym. Occasionally we shifted things round a bit, for example one day we went to the city farm which was lovely. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for their time, especially as I’m sure it meant my dad (who’s self-employed) got much less done than usual.

Now I’m thoroughly, desperately trying to learn from this routine and see if I can do it alone.

Firstly, the longer stretches of time-with-laptop worked well for my productivity. We have a flexible arrangement with a nursery/workhub where I’ve regularly been booking 3 hours (e.g. 9.30-12.30) every few days, but I think I need the period of time to be longer. Once I’ve folded the buggy, made a cuppa, faffed a bit on Facebook and Twitter, that’s already *coughs* half an hour(?!) wasted. Factor in a few more distractions, and allowing for thoughts to percolate and sentences to be rewritten and articles to be reread, then the longer, the better. My theory behind heading home in the middle of the day was that the toddler would then nap, giving me more time to work, but in reality I was using this time to eat lunch, and really it made my “work day” far too fragmented.

Lastly, we saw a real change in her sleep – we’d had a nightmare few weeks of hours at bedtime with her screaming and “negotiating” with us until she finally conked out exhausted at 9pm. Of course by then I/my partner were equally exhausted and stressed and thoroughly unable to salvage the evening for any studying. While staying with my parents, the toddler’s daytime nap was much earlier in the afternoon and the bedtime routine was less dragged out (quick bath, books put away after reading, pyjamas on, into bed and no talking/negotiating!).

We’ve been back a few days and so far, so good.

A plan in words – utilise nap time!

Unlike in Denmark, where at least one of my professional contacts has been on holiday since the third week of June until 1st August (I believe this is fairly typical!), this summer has become a busy time for me in relation to my PhD work. I’ve been forced out of my “reading and flailing” phase and into a more focused “aaargh I have to actually form this into a coherent jumble” phase. I have started planning for the Upgrade Portfolio which effectively means creating and assembling lots of written work (including a sample chapter, chapter abstracts, annotated bibliography), knowing what my chapter headings actually are, and writing a plan of action.

Today I have worked in the following places:

  • at the workhub while the toddler was in the nursery downstairs;
  • while I was eating lunch at home while the toddler was napping (she gets a tasty lunch at nursery *shakes fist in jealousy*);
  • and while sitting outside the toddler’s door (at her insistence!) as she fell asleep this evening.

Now, at 21 months old, she almost always has a 1.5 to 2 hour nap in the afternoon after lunch. After a long time of there being no routine to be certain of, I feel confident that if I plan for it I can use this time every day to do something productive. At the moment I use nap time to recharge my batteries, but I figure people working a “regular 9-to-5” don’t get that chance, so maybe I should change my mentality. I was inspired by a US-based translator I spoke to recently via video call who knew that her toddler (a year older than mine) always napped around 1pm so she fitted in some work in that time. It dawned on me that the net trickle effect of even just one more hour’s work a day could be very useful for my productivity! So here I am putting it in words, I’m going to utilise nap time!

EDIT (5 days on): Well, this has been unsuccessful so far. Two nap times this week coincided with travelling to/from visiting friends who are on maternity leave. Another nap time she refused to sleep, and consequently didn’t nap all day (this has happened a few times before, she is very sleep-resistant!). That was particularly frustrating as I had in mind a couple of things to do that day. It’s very hard looking after a toddler, she needs constant entertainment and supervision when awake, I think some childless people wonder why I can’t just whip the laptop out and work while she’s playing nicely in the corner. Sigh.

Things to do instead of actually writing

Y’know, there’s always something else to do…

  • Lift heavy things at the gym
  • Meet another student to chat about Bourdieu
  • Go to playgroup, sing about bananas
  • Attend a literary discussion event at Free Word Centre
  • Send email to a translator who’d been left off the original mailing list about the translators’ network
  • Arrange meeting with supervisor to discuss case study
  • Arrange childcare for meeting with supervisor, including phone call to nursery to ask about afternoon pick up
  • Spontaneously go to IKEA and finally get the last bits of furniture for the living room
  • Send email to potential US coordinator of the translators’ network
  • Have lunch
  • Place online grocery order (prompted by lacklustre lunch)
  • Work out how many hours teaching/marking I did this year and whether I’ve been paid
  • Speculate on the best childcare option and commute for next year’s teaching
  • Go to the city farm with toddler and her mormor (my mum)
  • Meet a friend with WordPress expertise for lunch on the other side of London to discuss building the translators’ network website
  • Collect a bargain buggy from a local mum (found via Facebook selling website)
  • Meet a (pregnant) friend for dinner in Soho and talk childbirth and parental leave (among other things)
  • Have a picnic on the common with the toddler
  • Phone and then email the publisher’s marketing department of the novel I’m starting a case study about
  • Meet a North London friend and her toddler in the middle at Coram’s Fields
  • Research a close family member’s recently diagnosed illness and compartmentalise until later
  • Read three journal articles by a prominent literary theorist
  • Write a blog post (arf!)

Days turn into weeks turn into months…

Time seems to be passing at a phenomenal rate. I am now 8 months into my PhD! This last month in particular has whizzed by, and it seems like so much of my time is devoted to being with the baby. My previous post outlined where I study, and it happens in dribs and drabs.

At the beginning of last month I facilitated the third meeting for the translators’ network – I proposed and started building an online space for the translators to keep in touch. At the end of last month I had a meeting with each of my supervisors (to discuss my most recent written work i.e. literature review). All the discussion and feedback left me with a list of topics to investigate and texts to read, most of which I’ve got my hands on, all nicely piled up on my desk.

Yet I’ve barely found any time to sit and read! A lot of time in front of my laptop has been spent working on the translators’ network and related presentations (including one coming up abroad next week – I will certainly be writing a long blog post about that trip, watch this space!). I have admittedly had a few weekends away as well, a couple planned since January, but these things always seems to coincide with busy times nonetheless. I tend to reply to emails and do admin bits while the baby is napping. This evening I can’t do anything as I’m so drained from putting her to bed (she is going through what I assume from desperate Googling is the 18 month sleep regression, or in her case SCREAMING for over an hour, resisting settling down to sleep *grits teeth*).

I really hope to have a ‘normal’ month in June and spend lots of time getting my head stuck into books and typing up notes!