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Self-care: PhD while Parenting Version

Today I’m inviting Lucy Baker to share her thoughts on self-care in academia. Lucy is a PhD candidate at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, researching mainstream and fan adaptations that change the gender of one or more characters. My research interests are primarily around feminism, gender, literature and media. Besides that, Lucy is also a mother.

I’m a PhD candidate, and I am also mother to one, with a partner who works full-time, and not nearly enough funding to cover enough childcare to give myself a full 40 hour work week on my research. So I cram, squashing space and time.

These are my self-care tips, and what it actually looks like in my life:

The usual duo of sleeping and eating. I know this is so common as to go unstated, but it really isn’t. Sleep, in something like regular blocks, and treat it with the care and love it deserves. I’ve become a great proponent of sleep hygiene, which can be hard when you’re a student. Staying away from backlit screens for an hour or longer before sleeping? Some days I don’t manage it, but I bought an e-reader specifically to help with this. There’s something similar to be said about eating too – approach it mindfully and with love. Two minute noodles and coffee can get you through when you’re on a deadline but sometimes you need to give yourself a bowl of proper noodles, with real vegetables and protein and a sweet and sticky sauce that makes you smile and makes your tastebuds sing. So some days it’s eggs for dinner while we scramble around the table like ravenous wolves, but some days I plate up like I’m on Masterchef, simply for the joy of it. Sure, that article doesn’t get read, the paper doesn’t get the fifteenth edit, but I eat and I am happy. And I don’t go full Snickers.

Which brings me to rewards. Try them, they’re great. It might be five minutes clicking around on the internet, or a coffee. It might be that awesome picture on your desktop when you close your document you’re working on. But don’t set yourself up to fail and punish yourself through the reward system. I worked with children for an extended period and I always found that the effect of a reward was always an overall positive and that while punishment might end up with compliance, it also had a number of negative effects that just made it not worthwhile. So treat yourself with kindness.

That’s my main one. Treat yourself with kindness. There’s a misconception, a received wisdom, in academia that we have to be cut-throat, hard as nails and vicious. And some of us are. But we can still be kind. Kind doesn’t mean letting that obvious misquote pass, or work to remain undone, but it doesn’t mean reading emails at 2am and weeping because you have no more hope. If I’m working on something and pulling my hair out I flick an email to a peer, to someone I can trust to tell me something kind. Protect yourself too – if that person isn’t, or could never be, your supervisor then you might need to change that. In the meantime find your people that you can call out to for a cheer squad moment.

Be kind to yourself, and to those around you, so that you have the energy and motivation to continue. In my house, in my life, this looks like fun coloured sticky notes through my texts, it looks like studying on the couch while my daughter watches a movie, it looks like almonds and dark chocolate for afternoon tea, it looks like coffee with my supervisors, not a scrambled meeting in a corridor. It looks like not answering my emails after 8:30pm and not expecting a reply if I have a sudden insight. It’s about riding those moments of inspiration until they’re dry, and doing admin when in drought. It’s refusing to hold myself to a standard of work that has nothing in common with my lived experience, my talents, my instincts. I don’t do well with writing schedules – like Kameron Hurley I do writing binges (or ‘bootcamps’ to be more academic). I don’t do well with routines that depend on my family following a schedule – two people with ADHD do not make for a scheduled lifestyle, no matter how hard we try. I do spectacularly well when I acknowledge that my writing comes in fits and starts. That I edit in the down times. That I am able to read a text in small chunks and take notes and synthesise. That I like cataloguing data. If something doesn’t work, let it sit, and look elsewhere.

I have a good therapist and a good GP which helps too. Don’t wait until things have fallen apart before you try to fix them; pre-emptive care works best. A PhD is stressful, and can be awful, but it doesn’t have to be. Put yourself in the strongest position and keep yourself there – don’t work until you’re empty before you try to change your habits.

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