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.

Pregnant PhD-ing

Following on from my positive mindset post of a few weeks ago…

I’m now 32 weeks pregnant (i.e. 8 months). Now more convinced based on experience that attempting a PhD while pregnant is harder than “just” being a PhD parent. I started my PhD studies when my baby was around 11 months old, and that presented its challenges as I – or rather, we, as a family – worked out how to fit in studying, parenting, everything. Now she is a strapping toddler who demands a lot of brain-exertion (answering “whyyy?” countless times a day). As previously mentioned, the start of this pregnancy was the usual sickness/nausea/tiredness which floored me. That lasted until around week 20 of pregnancy. Our paid-for childcare arrangement is a 45 minute average commute away, which I now reluctantly admit is more-and-more physically exhausting for me. I am bad at studying in the evenings at the best of times – I’ve always known that about myself – but now after a day combining commute, reading, writing, toddler wrangling, I’m just too shattered to do much at all after 6pm. I’m proud of myself I manage to prepare our evening meal! On top of it all I’m sleeping poorly as it’s physically uncomfy what with the mega bump and achy hips and waking in the night to wee (yeah yeah, tmi), and then unlike the first time round we have a small child waking us up before 7am so recovering sleep in the mornings is not an option!

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It’s hard to remember the first time round (when I was pregnant with the now-toddler), but I was working in an office job so had better control over my workload and therefore my mental and physical exertion. People keep telling me to take it easy, but it’s impossible when the majority of my time is actually spent looking after a very active small child. A friend of mine in a comparable situation (pregnant with a toddler) points out that her child is in nursery 8 hours a day, so she is able to take it easy, and I should cut myself more slack. But I go stir-crazy if I stay in the house with the kid all day, and we don’t have a car, so I inevitably end up walking or taking a bus to a playgroup, friend’s house, or playground to keep her entertained. It would be more mentally tiring not too. So combined with the occasional commute to childcare, physically I am certainly not “taking it easy”.

It’s been 5 weeks since my last supervision meeting. I am working on a specific chapter and wish I had more to show for it. I don’t know where the time has gone. I know I spent one nursery/workhub session shattered from lack of sleep and trying to recharge by mooching online and then round the shops. Not proud of that. I’ve even been into uni and to the library a few times. I’ve certainly done some reading. I finished a separate chapter/article to submit for publication – a conference paper of sorts – which took longer than expected. Unfortunately for my PhD, I have also completed other “nesting” tasks including writing a to do list of what we need to get before Baby #2 (not much, mostly a mattress and a cot) and buying Christmas presents for family (due date is Christmas so I wanted to be ahead of the game!). It’s not a lack of motivation – I’m very keen to get this chapter done before I take maternity leave – it’s just everything’s taken even longer than before (with “just” a child to took after) as my body does its thing and grows another baby.

Upgraded!

At the end of January I had my Upgrade and I passed! The Upgrade is a formal (yet informal) review meeting held around 12-18 months into the PhD process. It’s the only external review of my work until the very end after I’ve submitted the whole thesis when there is a viva with an external examiner. (It’s called an Upgrade as technically students enrol for an MPhil before being ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status after this meeting)

The Upgrade meeting included one of my supervisors (my secondary supervisor on paper, though actually they have both had a pretty equal role so far), an academic from another department to lead the discussion, and an academic to oversee the meeting (though in the event he also participated). So, three people talking about my research plans and work so far. Potentially a bit intense.

Everything I was told beforehand was true: most of the preparation was in writing the upgrade portfolio of work itself (submitted just before Christmas) so there was very little I could do in advance of the meeting except be familiar with what I’d written. The meeting was friendly and natural, and I received insight from new perspectives and useful things to mull over. In fact, it’s such a privilege, two academics from different yet related fields, reading my words and giving me some positive feedback and new ideas. Everyone I spoke to told me this would be the case, but until you actually get through it, there are still some nerves – after all, it’s the great unknown! I googled for top tips for getting through the Upgrade but in the event, the pointers from websites and friends were absolutely right – relax and be ready to talk about your research, you’ve already done the preparation.

Now the hard bit is keeping up the momentum and not letting it be too much of an anticlimax! I’ve passed, now I actually have to do some of that work I said I’d be doing…

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!

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.

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!)

First forays into publishing and fandom

I submitted my first written work to my supervisors in mid December and have already discussed their feedback, which was really positive and productive. That was a real boost and assures me I’m on the right track! Now I feel like I have many, many more strands of research and ideas to follow, which is exciting but also has the potential to be overwhelming, so I am trying to write up a few “to do” lists this weekend. I’ve reassured myself that my method of combining study and childcare seems to be working so far (see previous post), but looking ahead I would really benefit from some longer stretches surrounded by books so I will look into that!

The objective of my first literature review was to gain insight into the UK book market to put into context my corpus of texts (Danish literature published in the UK since 1990). An understanding of the publishing business and marketplace will provide a crucial foundation for my research project. It was also important to define terminology (e.g. “marketing”, “literature”, “success”) and find out which areas would be valuable to research in more depth (i.e. what’s next?).

So in my first period of study I found out a lot more about publishing (looking at the industry itself as well as the marketplace for selling books) – very interesting for someone who has studied marketing before (the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Diploma in Marketing Communications), but knew very little about publishing specifically.

I also got very keen on investigating taste and cultural value, the “sociology of genres”, if you like – put simply, where does the British reader place, for example, crime thrillers, Mills and Boon, a translated foreign novella, and celebrity autobiographies, on a scale of ‘high’ to ‘low’ culture?

Danish telly – including The Killing and Borgen – is very cool right now, and a certain fandom has been created around them, particularly via social media. It’s like a quirky “in club” of Scandi-drama lovers (no value judgment, I’m essentially one of the crowd, after all!), who have the potential to build a relationship based on their interest. I’m keen to look into how far people’s interest in certain cultural products becomes part of their identity (self-defined and defined by others). Taste is very subjective and insightful. Admitting you’re a fan of DR/BBC4’s Borgen and admitting you’re a fan of ITV2’s Peter Andre – My Life is likely to garner a different response depending on who you are and who is judging you, but why’s that then?