Reaching the limit

I’m a few months into my “writing up year” i.e. the fourth year of the full-time PhD process. The finish line is both tantalising in sight, but terrifyingly real and frustratingly not quite tangible. I am on track. I have a structure for my thesis and a lot of words written. I have a lot of data and research to work with – most of which I obtained in a frenzy of activity since returning from maternity leave last autumn (for instance, 10 interviews with translators plus a handful of interviews/meetings with other key individuals for my research… phew!). The PhD hangs over me a lot – constantly? – and interferes when I’m doing other stuff, like putting the baby to bed, making tea, and walking to playgroup.

I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive family around me ensuring that I can do this. I get to the library, I get to these research meetings and interviews, conferences, trips abroad… some days the stress is HUGE, but some days I feel happy to be able to work on something I enjoy around all the utter busy-ness that is family life.

 

What’s working for me right now: 

Formal and informal childcare – it feels like we have more childcare than ever, and it’s more structured than ever. On the two days the youngest is in nursery, generally my mum collects the eldest from school to give me a full “working day”. On Fridays either my partner has a full day off with the kids (owing to his ongoing flexible working arrangements) or my mum takes the youngest while the eldest is at school. Since the summer I’ve committed to using a weekend day most weekends and a couple of hours on weekday evenings when I have the energy to keep up the momentum and get this damn thing done! We have a routine and we (I?) thrive on routine.

Living where we do – the eldest (the original “baby” of this blog’s title!) started school in September! She and we are happy with the school. The walk there is through the city’s biggest and most beautiful park. We’ve made friends locally, mostly via playgroups and other meet ups, but school too is ensuring we get to know people here and feel part of the community. I’ve also endeavoured to see “old” local friends when I can. Additionally, as made obvious above, we are massively benefiting from living near my parents! We feel settled here and like it was the right long-term decision for us.

Keeping everything ticking over – the kids (now aged 5 and nearly 2) are fed, clothed, bathed every day. I’m managing to get fed, clothed, showered every day as well! And every day the kids are read to, cuddled, chatted with, walked with outside, listened to, ignored a little (for the purposes of “independent play”, perhaps), wiped (oh so sticky), nagged at too. When we first moved out of London and my partner was still working/staying there 3-4 days a week, I roped in help from my parents as often as possible for the bathtime and bedtime routine (which, for those who don’t know, takes place at the “witching hour” when every participant is at their most tired and short-tempered!). But now, though he’s still away two nights a week, it’s fine getting on with it by myself – at least we’re mostly not all crying at once and everyone’s in the correct pyjamas and their own bed by the end of it.

Things I have limited brain capacity for right now:

Keeping the house tidy – I do the essentials including washing up, hoovering when there is a visible layer of crumbs under the dining table(!), but I simply cannot deep clean a bathroom or organise a bookshelf any time soon, and toys are left strewn on the floor overnight. Thankfully no one here thinks tidying is solely “my job”, and perhaps this level of mess and lack of motivation for tidying is true for anyone spending hours looking after small kids?! [She asks slovenly hopefully]

Planning for the (long-term) future – in the summer I briefly allowed myself to do my typical daydreaming/crossing my bridges before I get there, specifically in relation to job hunting, but I had to forcefully stop contemplating The Future in order to ensure I focus my mental energies on getting the PhD thesis done. No job or “what’s next” plan happens without the PhD being submitted and passed, so that’s all I need in my headspace right now. This has been a big challenge for me as it has required changing my usual thinking patterns! But career ideas and plotting how to get there was fuelling unneeded stress. (Frustratingly this has included putting off writing a journal article that I was massively keen to do, but again I shall leave that until after the PhD is submitted.)

Planning for the (short-term) future – My present inability to plan ahead for the Big Stuff also covers not thinking about whether we might move house within our city soon and other practical life plans… it seems such a bad use of my time and mental capacity to even contemplate this yet. Right now I cannot even bring myself to “plan” anything for Christmas – I’m hoping to delegate 90% of this to others, though Christmas is also a busy time at work for my partner, so we will see how it goes. There’s some guilt too, for instance my daughter’s birthday cake and special tea (with family) was purchased at the supermarket the same morning as it was planned!

And, finally – Updating this blog – time is extremely pressed right now, hence updates being even more sporadic than usual.

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18 months, mark 2

The baby (our youngest) is 18 months old. A year and a half. A culmination of three neat, significant, yet also arbitrary, segments of six months each. He is walking and signing (baby sign language ie. a mish-mash of visual communication that probably offends those who actually sign) and makes strong attempts at saying terribly important words (including car, dog, highchair, trousers, flowers, and baby). He dances and laughs a lot and follows his sister around – mostly to try and copy her – and loves his food (every day I’m grateful that my kids are good eaters!) and loves going outside and tries every time to put on his own shoes and gets terribly frustrated that he can’t and tilts his head to the side if there’s a questioning tone and looks adorably cute!

Eighteen months old the first time round was a huge milestone – for me. Before that I wasn’t coping. But I did cope, especially to most outward appearances, because you have to. You can’t not get out of bed when you have to look after a baby. The hardest challenge I’ve had mentally was the first year and a bit of motherhood. Possibly physically too, because of the rather mixed relationship I had with breastfeeding (felt it compulsory otherwise branded myself a failure… not an unusual story). 18 months was the tipping point into this glorious stage, where the baby truly becomes a toddler, a little being with a distinct personality and preferences and proper communication – thank god, the silent dictator phase is nearly over – and for a brief moment every day you think, this is alright!

At 18 months first time round for me the balance tipped from mostly drudgery to significantly a lot more fun. And I got it. I finally got why people had children. Not why they might have more – that obviously clicked a little while later – but definitely why so many parents seemed content and like it wasn’t the end of their lives. I could breathe again. Try and be me again. Come out of the fog and see everything my partner and I had worked so hard to build and maintain.

  • As is apt, in fact the baby has now turned 19 months, and this post has been languishing ignored in draft form for weeks. The PhD pressure has ramped up as The End is both in sight and requires an almost insurmountable amount of work! Thankfully light evenings have made it plausible to work for a few hours then on top of the usual combination of childcare arrangements. This blog will no doubt continue to be sporadically updated/neglected…

 

Students and wifework – how a nanny got me thinking about what I do all day

I’m not sure of the best place to write this up, but I wanted to for posterity.

For four weeks in May this year, we had a student nanny living with us! It was a residential placement midway through her 3 year degree in Super Nannying, at no cost to us. The purpose was for her to have an extended period settling with a family, and I hope she learnt things from her time with us. She certainly slotted in really well to our family life and I learnt a few things, too. At the start of the placement Baby #2 was 4 months old. By the end of her stay, he was 5 months old – crawling already (!!!) – and, during the period of her stay, I feel we transitioned out of the newborn fuzziness stage to a more fully formed Family Of Four.

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Wifework (ie. how many people it takes to run a household without anyone burning out!)

During the nanny’s stay, family life ran very smoothly. No one seemed worn out. Meals were planned at the start of the week which resulted in the whole week being clearly planned – in order to plan meals, we needed to know who was eating together and whether anyone would be out. The three year old was a delight as she had the full attention of another adult who was happy to potter around fulfilling her whims (reading, crafting, playing in the garden).

Wifework could just as easily be husbandwork except I’m the one on maternity leave, and even before and after that I am the “more-at-home” parent, and and and arguably still mostly falls to women in a conventional heterosexual household set-up regardless of who is working outside the home (the term was coined by author Susan Maushart). Wifework is shorthand for the tasks undertaken (usually by women) to keep a house ticking over, including but not limited to the laundry, the washing up, cooking, cleaning, tidying, grocery shopping, life admin like paying bills and posting letters, and – primarily, and destructively to the aforementioned chores – childcare (umbrella term for entertaining, feeding, cleaning the little ‘uns – a job in itself, if our temporary resident’s degree and future career is anything to go by!). Some of these activities can be combined with the essential overriding activity of childcare, that is, conducted with the “help” of small children at the expense of completing it promptly. For instance, cooking the evening meal: the nanny learnt on one extreme occasion that when enlisting the help of a three year old, it’s not a bad idea to start around 4pm to get tea on the table for 6pm!

Importantly, however, while the nanny took on the bulk of these tasks relating to the children, it did not mean my time was entirely my own. I was unable to delegate breastfeeding the baby, doing mine and my partner’s laundry, household admin, online shopping… but I was able to fit all this in around more pleasant “downtime” that I rarely get, such as reading blogs and magazines and just having a daytime lie down. Similarly, the nanny was able to prioritise the children’s needs for 11 hours a day and then have a full night’s sleep all on her own. As it’s her job, she gets the psychological bonus of knowing she is off duty at the end of the long working day. I am never off duty, which adds to the mental exhaustion.

The result was two adults at home keeping on top of things but not feeling burnt out. A third adult who came home from ten hours at the office to a relaxed, tidy household and almost none of his usual household chores left to complete. Then came the realisation of how much I actually do every day, even with a very involved partner who does the eldest’s bedtime routine and certainly doesn’t expect his tea on the table or clean clothes in his drawer (but is lucky enough to get that anyway!). All these activities take physical and mental effort and precious time. The fact this blog post took me until mid July to sit down and finish is certainly example enough. All these tasks combined with my many overnight wake ups, no wonder I still feel so tired!

 

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!

Pram-free freedom

I’ve had a few whole weeks recently during which I didn’t use a buggy at all. Not even for long trips. Such is the freedom of having a 2-and-a-half year old toddler instead of a baby (and being physically able to lift/carry her if needs be).

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Admittedly, this means things take a little longer than usual, as she walks at her toddler pace – unless I can convince her of how fun it would be to run instead – but the slower wander is counter-balanced by the wonderful real sense of freedom of travel. We can hop on any bus we choose, rather than wait for one with space for a buggy (often the wheelchair space is already full, which to most London bus drivers means occupied by two buggies or a wheelchair, though the latter is much rarer). In particular this has made our commute to our childcare setting much less stressful. We can take any route on the tube or train, not worrying about huge flights of stairs and constantly thinking about step-free access. We do however ideally need public transport door-to-door, for instance I’d choose a longer bus ride over a shorter train ride if it meant we didn’t have to walk very far at either end (as I said: walking is slow going, and she’ll often end up asking me to carry her). We had a nice journey one Sunday sitting at the front of the top deck of the bus all the way from Tooting to Waterloo. Lots of fun for her, much less stressful for me.

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She has been walking for a long time, but part of the reason for taking a buggy for longer trips – especially into central London – used to be that she absolutely needed to nap somewhere. Now it is less crucial – I can either wait until we get home in the afternoon, or risk pushing through until bedtime… she has always been a nap resistor anyway! It is a bittersweet freedom, as it puts me off every having a baby again! Though perhaps I would be more inclined to use a good sling for as long as possible (which we didn’t have until a good few months into her existence – Baby Bjorn carriers should be burned!).

One of the things I hated most about commuting with the buggy is the feeling of taking up ‘too much’ space. Especially if she had a strop and wanted to get out of the buggy, so we’d end up with an empty buggy taking up precious space on the bus while she sat on my lap or – worse – sat next to me, rather than being in the buggy with me standing up next to her. I don’t think I am being precious by suggesting this is a feminist issue. I hate taking up too much space in public, as a woman, as a mother, with my child. My (male) partner takes the attitude that a small child is entitled to take up a seat on the bus. (They can’t stand up safely anyway!) It genuinely doesn’t occur to him to feel the ‘too much space’ guilt. Pregnancy kicked off or perhaps compounded this sense of wishing to have as little impact in public as possible – I often needed a seat on the bus or tube as I was physically uncomfortable, yet I felt guilty for my massive presence as I claimed a seat for myself.

Social networking and new motherhood

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the fantastic ability of women – and it is women – to network and support one another through a time of massive change as life gets busier and more pressured.

My partner and I moved from North London to Tooting when I was 7 months’ pregnant. It was an odd time to start getting to know a new area – I waddled around in the September sunshine with no indication of how much my map of the world was about to change. I had no idea that I’d want or need local mum friends, I was oblivious to how much support you crave when tirelessly looking after a little child.

When I had a little newborn, my world got smaller for a while. I went for a walk with the pram around the streets nearby, maybe for a couple of miles, but never too far to get back home comfortably. The occasional trip further afield was a mission requiring expert planning. For the sake of getting away from my own four walls, I explored many an accessible local cafe to sip coffee (often decaf as I was still unduly worried about how much caffeine was transferred through breastmilk!), but feeding in public alone still felt like the stuff of nightmares.

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Meeting new people on very little sleep seemed like a bad idea, so for a while I stuck with my own company and met up with (child-unencumbered) friends from my Life Before Baby. Those friends who met up with me during that period are still extra special to me.

Twitter

At the time of moving down, I found a local Twitter account called @tootingbaby – perfect for our new baby-related adventure in SW17! I soon discovered @tootingbaby has a website with a calendar of local playgroups and events for babies and toddlers, and a private Facebook group. After dipping my toe, the best thing for me about Twitter during all the sitting around breastfeeding (day and night, night and day) was being able to gradually follow more and more local people and businesses. I began to feel like I was getting to know this new area all from the comfort of my bed at 3am! A few local restaurants opened around the same time of our move down (late 2012) so it was great to see their online and physical presence develop – I felt like I was part of the community straight away by being up to speed on what was going on outside.

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I joined the aforementioned Facebook group and before long regular weekly meet-ups were being arranged for mums on maternity leave with babies born in Autumn/Winter 2012. We met and ate cake and made small talk with heavy eyelids about how little sleep we were getting and how feeding was going (breast or not) and who we were before this all kicked off. It became a lovely, loose-knit group of women who initially only had in common the area we lived in, our new role as mothers, and our keen use of a social network! Now, coming up to two years on since joining the Facebook group, I count the local mothers I see most often as some of my closest friends.

After all my exploring – and grateful for the support it had offered me – I offered a Google map of baby-friendly local cafes to the Tooting Baby website. This had the unintended consequence of being asked ever so kindly to be an administrator for the website, as @tootingbaby now had her hands full with two babies and a demanding job! I started in Autumn 2013 – at the same time as starting my PhD. It feels like a hobby in comparison with everything else, and I really enjoy being able to contribute to the community like that.

It grates when people dismiss Twitter and Facebook as narcissistic shouting into the ether – sure, it can be that for some people, but networking on social media gave me a massive sense of community in a new area as a first time mother, and it has directly provided me with the opportunity to make new friends and get support for our new family.

Am I still a new mum?

I am still learning how to do parenting. I don’t know when you ever start or stop, nor how you know if you’re actually following a ‘parenting approach’ or just winging it, badly or well. My only limited experience with children is with my own, and her peers. Now – at 26 months old – she is entering the terrible twos (a phrase which I hate, but I suppose it’s a shorthand most people understand), and I feel like I should be educating myself using best practice manuals and solid research. But it’s incredibly hard to change your behaviour and parenting based on all the clever ‘how to do it right’ stuff you read, as if you don’t just react on instinct at lightning speed in the moment that your child is tipping milk all over the table/throwing bricks hard at you/trying to throw herself out of the pram on a busy pavement, as if you don’t know outside that heated moment that saying no or shouting or making bribes or threats (‘stop that or you don’t get this’) isn’t great parenting, but how do you stop yourself?

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They sound like such small insignificant things written down. Almost every day feels like the first day I’m doing this. I wonder where the time went (has it really been over 2 years?!) but also when I’ll stop feeling like a ‘new mum’. I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I still get that funny feeling in my gut sometimes wondering why on earth I’m left to look after a small human without any training or qualifications! The PhD and parenting both have their challenges. In comparison with studying, parenting still feels so new to me. I am not a new student, but I am still a ‘new mum’.