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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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.

Mat pay hooray

Now a few days into my maternity leave (or ‘interruption of study’ as the official university terminology would have it). I couldn’t quite picture reaching this point after planning it all those months ago after first finding out I was certainly pregnant. Starting leave at 37 weeks (full term) makes sense to me as I went into labour at 38 and a half weeks first time round. So now a waiting game has kicked off!

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I’ve had some fantastic support at university when planning my maternity leave from my supervision team and others. Inevitably I came across some typically opaque university bureaucracy and the attitude that this had literally never happened before, ever, but my primary supervisor in particular faced it head on and chased through email chains with 6 or so people cc’d (really!) to get to the bottom of whether I could access any maternity pay.

PhD students are currently in a grey area – generally in the UK, we are not employees. We are full-time students. (So we are not technically unemployed either.) Of course, there are general positives to being a student – NUS discounts, reduced council tax bill depending on your living arrangements, reduced train/tube fares, and so on – but naturally we cannot and do not claim any low income or unemployment benefits. So, because I am not entitled to claim these ‘gateway’ welfare benefits, I cannot claim Maternity Allowance. Likewise, as I am not employed, I’m not entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay. These are the two types of government-provided maternity payments which currently both stand at the same rate of around £138 per week. But full-time students (at least, those who have not been employed separately on teaching contracts over a certain number of hours per week) generally fall into a grey area where they are entitled to neither (Guardian article about this recently here: Should PhD students be classed as employees?)

My studentship is a new type provided by the university (rather than a research body with its own established policies such as AHRC, for example), and eventually after the aforementioned to-ing and fro-ing it was established that the university would and should follow Research Council guidelines for its own PhD studentships such as mine. I would be given 6 months maternity pay at the same rate as my studentship, and go on to receive the remainder of my studentship funds as planned when I return to my studies late next year. A fantastic result! Especially after my initial fear that I would be receiving no funds at all for 9-10 months! I am grateful to my supervisor who went out of her way to chase this up. Then, once my entitlement to maternity pay had been established, an administrator in my school did his job brilliantly to ensure various elements lined up on the finance computer systems so my studentship was allocated corrected and maternity pay programmed to be paid at particular times.

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for the time and money I’ll be getting during the turbulent period of new babyhood. I can’t imagine living and studying in a country like the USA where this wouldn’t be an option. It’s stressful enough anticipating the lack of sleep, getting to grips with feeding, and all the other tough stuff of the first time round, but with the added element of a growing pre-school age child in the family too!

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.

Facebook

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.

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.

Some student parent communities and resources

I had a good day today – even managed to get some work done during toddler’s naptime!

I wanted to write a short post about communities I’ve found useful as a ‘PhD parent’.

There’s a Facebook group PhD Mums, Moms and Dads – by the name you can guess it’s intended to be international, for any parents doing a PhD. So far it seems like a fairly active, supportive community! I’m not a member of many Facebook groups, but this one seems like a keeper.

The Australian blog/website Mums Who Study is excellent and I hope to contribute one day! So far particularly felt affinity with these posts: Seven Gifts of Guilt, Do you work?, and Why arguing with a two-year old is like writing an abstract (great title!).

I’m a big fan of Twitter – I really got into it during the night feeds period of new parenthood; it’s a constant stream of content! – relevant Tweeters include @PhDForum and @thesiswhisperer (one of which was where I first read about both the Facebook group and blog mentioned above) and hyperlocal Tweeters especially @tootingbaby (and the related website/Facebook group) who/which was a huge resource for me as a first-time parent in a brand new area. I’ll blog more about that another time, but I’d recommend Twitter to anyone looking to feel more a part of their local (physical, offline!) community.

Last academic year I attended one student parent/carer lunch meet up at my university (I took the baby along) and tried to keep in touch with the university union officer whose role it was to organise such things and push a few parent/carer issues to those on high, but it disintegrated pretty quickly. The meet up was only attended by three of us in any case, from the whole student body of 29,000. At the time it felt like positive things were happening, for instance the union interviewed some student parents on a voluntary basis to find out what extra support could be provided for them or how the uni could appeal to potential students with caring responsibilities. I’ll keep an ear out this year to see if anything has come of it (weary sigh).

If anyone reading knows other related procrastination resources then please let me know in the comments!