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Writers’ Lab: PhD Writing with a Baby

Today in the Writer’s Lab I have invited Kristin Haase to share her experiences on writing her doctoral dissertation while being a new mom. Kristen is a doctoral student in nursing in Canada and proud mother of a wiggly one-year old.

On the road to a PhD there seems to be endless work. Unfortunately, for most women, our PhD years overlap with our most fertile years. So, with the clock ticking down, I blindly jumped into the fray. This is the story of my PhD plus baby.

Pre-baby, my typical PhD day would include heading to the office around 9, reading and writing until around 5 or 6, interspersed with a few breaks for lunch and tea. I’d head home around 6, and maybe do an hour or two of work and call it a day. My husband and I lived in different cities (I relocated for school), which meant I didn’t do a lot of work on weekends, but had lots of time during weekdays.

I won’t get into how pregnancy impacted my work, because pregnancy is a temporary state. A baby is forever.

First things first, I had plans to get back to work immediately. I didn’t have realistic expectations as to how my little human would impact my life, my brain and my body. I know people who jump up and head back to work within weeks, but I was not one of them. And I don’t think it is something to glorify. In the first three months, I spent a lot of mental energy wanting and trying to work; this was seriously counterproductive. Plainly put, I was exhausted from a baby who breastfed every 2 hours- which meant he, nor I, really got any sleep. This is not for lack of preparation, as a nurse and someone who has a lot of experience with babies and children, I knew what to expect, I just didn’t know how it would affect me.

Second, I was allowed one year of parental leave from my program, but I opted to take 4-months. This was decided because the awards I received were not dispersed during my maternity leave, but needed to be used during that financial year or they would disappear (they could not be on hold). I met with my committee at 3 months and I felt fine to return, but not super focused (this may also have been related to other challenges with my committee). In hindsight, I should have taken more time off.

Now that the baby has just turned one, I feel like I am starting to develop some semblance of work-life rhythm, but it has taken effort. Returning to PhD work and teaching post-baby has required time and support. Pre-baby, time was elastic, your time is your own fluid commodity to spend as you like. In baby land, you work during naptime. I like to think of naptime as a mystery pomodoro– typically I get 1.5-2 hrs of work, but I might get more and I might get less!

Childcare is another huge issue. If you’re lucky enough to have a supportive spouse, family and friends (I am), they can allow you to attend meetings without the baby being in daycare full time. Having good childcare is probably one of the most important aspects of new parent retention in PhD studies. If you are at ease with your caregiver, you can focus on your work. When I first sent my 6-month old to daycare, there were many days I sat in front of the computer, not doing anything, just wondering what he was doing. Now I am much more confident in his care, and think he really enjoys spending time with his ‘friends’ at daycare.

Of course we all feel that there is never enough time, but now every waking minute of the day needs to be measured out. Once I had a child I realized that my time is not my own, it does not belong to my supervisor, my employer or even my spouse. This doesn’t mean I can’t take on responsibilities or meet deadlines, it just means I have to be more efficient with my time and allow minimal distractions when I get a chance to work. I also try to maximize the time when I have childcare. For example, I don’t take a long lunch between teaching classes, and instead do revisions on a paper or, in the evening when I used to watch TV, now I’ll do at least 25 minutes of writing. It’s amazing how productive I have been with these small chunks of focused time. This time crunch has really made me focus on prioritizing what is important, what needs to be done and what reasonably can be done.

My final comment is around mental health. Adjusting to parenthood is a huge challenge and I think academics are especially prone to adjustment difficulties given our over-achievy type-A nature. Staying up all night once every couple of weeks to finish a paper or work in the lab is not the same as having 2 hours of sleep every night for three months. The highly unpredictable nature of babies makes planning and preparing for parenting extremely challenging. As a new parent I tried to give myself space to adapt and feel out my new role. I definitely put too much pressure on myself at first, but I quickly learned that I needed to adapt my expectations and my priorities. I had a good support network of other new moms, and my own mother to support me. However, for some people, this isn’t enough. Post-partum depression is a real and serious illness and just like other post-birth complications, you should ask for help. Don’t be too brave.

For those of you contemplating PhD plus baby, I think it’s very doable. Just be realistic about your expectations and be kind to yourself. Your child needs a mommy or daddy that loves them and takes care of them and doesn’t give a damn whether your paper gets rejected from the journal with the highest readership in your discipline. Chances are they will have a drooly kiss for you no matter, and you can always revise and resubmit your paper somewhere else.

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