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I look back on my PhD with a misty-eyed fondness, as I enter the brave new world of post-docness. I find myself making glib statements to fellow students like “I would do it all again in a heartbeat!” (much to their annoyance). I all but convince mothers to do PhDs, and PhD students to become mothers. This is all I knew for the past five years, of course, and I can honestly say it was a beautiful five years. Perhaps I am forgetting the heartbreak, the hard slog, the disappointments, the mid-PhD slump, the struggle with “the beast” that was my thesis. “The beast” is now prettily packaged up in a pdf, and is on its way to two hapless, anonymous academics who will read it late at night on the weekend, or perhaps while sitting in the bath. (The latter hopefully not, if they are reading a digital version). But I digress, again.

I have written before of some tips and tricks on combining a PhD with raising small children. Both are incredibly demanding on their own. Both require a certain degree of insanity to embark upon. But let me tell you why two insane things make a beautiful, chaotic and authentic experience, one that is incredibly satisfying, and one that I will never regret.

It starts with the juxtaposition of the two events in question. One is gloriously messy and unpredictable. The other is a bit less messy and a bit less unpredictable, and can be a form of pure escapism. Fleeing the family home, littered with dirty dishes and unfolded laundry, with food still stuck on the table, and toys scattered on the floor, to a shining haven of academic journals all neatly filed in Endnote (ha ha!), perhaps a pleasant little writing task or two, some re-formatting of tables, a cup of tea and a chat with one’s supervisor? This was my little haven and my escape for five years. At the end of this self-imposed exile, I returned home with aching eyes and eager heart, ready for that most wonderful time of day – two small, enthusiastic, filthy, warm and delicious children flinging themselves into my arms.

Yes, life was beautiful. 

At the tail end of my PhD, I was drowning in the terrible anxiety of trying to move our family interstate, amidst the unknowns of not having a home to go to, grief at selling the family home, grief at saying goodbye to our loved ones, and general disgustingness of having to move house (the packing, the home inspections, the new home negotiations, the mortgages…) My supervisor was always extremely concerned at the dire state of affairs I was in. How on earth was I coping? Would I be able to finish the PhD on time? Was the PhD becoming too stressful? (I wisely – NOT! – chose to submit my PhD at the same time as moving. I do not recommend this part, at all). I think that every time we met, her brain would implode at how overwhelmed I was. This is what I said to her. The PhD is my solace. It’s the only thing I feel I can control. It’s the one beautiful, constant thing in my life amongst the chaos. 

Talk about having a different perspective on things when you’re super stressed about life.

And this is my point (yes this rambling post has a point, apparently, apart from also being my therapy today). Having children does not insure you against life happening to you. Stuff happens and it will be hard to deal with. You might worry about your finances. Loved ones become sick. Your relationship with your partner might deteriorate. Yet people run marathons after having children. They climb mountains. They do whatever it is that their heart and soul leads them to. And it is the doing of these things (the stuff of your dreams) that can insulate you against life. It can become your solace instead of your burden. It can carry you through the difficult years, the losses, the grief, the uncertainties. It’s a form of regaining some control.

I’m not saying it wasn’t hard at times, that there weren’t times when I struggled, or wanted to give up. There were times when I was bored, unmotivated, and so sick of my thesis I developed “thesis nausea” (I truly believe this is a real medical syndrome. Hey, I’m a doctor.) But being a parent gave me a huge advantage. I had grit. I knew how to stick it out. I had survived months, no years, of living on 3 hours sleep a night. Thesis? Ha! Easy peasy compared to that.

But combining a PhD with motherhood has incredible benefits, such as the flexibility of work/study arrangements. Yes, it is possible (it is even possible to submit on time, without needing an extension). You need courage, coffee, and good friends. You need to take breaks. You need to be patient. Most of all, you need to take life by the hands, and say To hell with it, I’m doing this insane thing, I’m going to do it well and I’m going to finish it. Because that’s kind of what you did when you first became a parent. And at the end of the difficult years, you say the same thing about both.

I would do it all again. In a heartbeat. 

 

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I’d love to hear from you. Have you had a different experience combining academia and motherhood? (I am aware of the fact that everyone’s experience is unique). or have you loved it just as much as I did? 

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http://www.guide2secret.com/2015/12/top-positive-new-year-quotes/

http://www.guide2secret.com/2015/12/top-positive-new-year-quotes/
http://www.guide2secret.com/2015/12/top-positive-new-year-quotes/

2015 was a sad year for me. Not that it wasn’t also exciting, full of new challenges, and jam-packed with happiness, but it was the last year for many milestones. In some ways, I’m glad it’s over, because I feel like I spent enough time grieving the many “lasts” of this year. It was our last year in Melbourne, a place which was not home until my early 20s, but, over a decade and a half, wove its way into my heart, and tugged hard when I tried to let go. It was our eldest child’s last year as a preschooler, and our youngest child’s last year as a toddler. And it was my last year indulging in that most luxurious of times for a researcher – my final year as a PhD student.

My wish for 2016 is very simple. Two things. The first, Be mindful. Be mindful so I can practise moment to moment awareness, so I can be present, so I will not waste a single day. Be mindful so I can free myself of the sadness and guilt of the past and the worries and anxiety of the future. Be mindful so I can experience in complete fullness the miracle of being with my family.

The second, Be grateful. Be grateful so that I always know how incredibly lucky I am. Be grateful, so that I will not descend into rumination, worry and fear, or at least less often. Be grateful so that I can be happier. Be grateful, so that my children too will learn to look for the positives. Be grateful so that each new experience is joyful instead of anxious.

Be mindful. Live every moment. Be grateful. Make every moment good. My mantra for 2016.

Wishing you a fresh start, renewed energy and confidence, and a very safe New Year. I have another exciting year ahead, this time full of firsts instead of lasts. I look forward to telling you all about my journey.

What are your New Year’s wishes?

x

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hourglass-620397_960_720Last week I had what I refer to now as the “24 hours from hell”. It started from the moment a ceramic mug fell on my head while I was reading The Gruffalo to my children. One minute I was sharing some precious memories, the next I was assaulted by a rogue mug that toppled over when my son jumped onto the cupboard next to my head. (Long story). I screamed, the children cried, milk went everywhere, and milk was cleaned up and children sent to bed immediately while mummy nursed an egg on her head with some ice. That night both children wet the bed, which meant two changes of bedding in the middle of the night; the following morning my tram ride was cut short by a random strike in the city meaning I had to get off and walk three blocks to get another, and what followed was a frantic day trying to get both my thesis finished for the evening’s formatting session, and changes on a very important journal article finished by midday. It was on that day that I said to myself, “Clearly this is a sign that academia and motherhood do not mix”. The juggling, the lack of sleep, the competing priorities, the toddler-induced mug injury, the urgent article revisions with less than 48 hours notice. No, motherhood and academia do NOT mix, I thought to myself with gritted teeth.

Then I paused, because I realised that this was just one day, just one lot of 24 hours. To define my life and my status as academic working mother by these 24 hours is like making a conclusion based on an outlier. It’s simply not valid. I thought about all the mornings when things go (relatively) smoothly and I sail into the office and drink my tea while calmly writing an article, my favourite “Peaceful Piano” playlist filling my soul with serenity and sending my spirits soaring, as I think, “This is the life! I get paid to write and listen to music!” On those days, I do indeed feel wholeheartedly that academia and motherhood mix very well, thank you, and I wouldn’t give up the mix for anything.

I should apply this to all aspects of my life – I should choose to only remember the good moments, because there are so many good moments. It’s like the song goes, “Ac-centuate the positive…” In any given day, I experience an astoundingly wide range of emotions, from white hot irritation, contentment, tenderness, boredom and anxiety. My children are a bit of a barometer, with their behaviour ranging from adorable to expletive-inducing. I have made the decision to let go of the latter and hold on to the former. I try to let go of the cranky comments, the whingeing, the tantrums, and the inability to walk in a straight line. They are usually momentary (except the walking thing – when do they learn to do this?!?!) and shouldn’t define our day. I used to mentally write the day off the instant we had some bad behaviour or a tense moment – “Today is an awful day”. Now, I shrug it off, carry on, and try hard to hold on just a bit longer to the warm and fuzzy bits, which are never too far away as long as I keep my cool. My almost-three year old son grabbing my face and kissing it with gusto. Two small sleepy heads on my pillow in the morning. My daughter declaring that I’m the best and most perfect mummy in the world. The giggling and the patter of little feet in our house. The impromptu dancing. The naked toddler streaking through the house snorting with laughter. The pre-bed snuggles (minus the falling mugs).

It’s the same with my life – I am trying to remember the days that go right instead of the days when everything seems to go wrong, the days when I manage to fit most of it in – work, family, love, a nutritious meal (extra points if home-cooked), exercise, some me-time, some couple time. Not all, but most of it, and I fall into bed a very tired but happy woman. Life is made up of all of these moments, and I want mine to be mostly lovely moments with the very slightest sprinkling of the cranky, messy, sleep-deprived times just to keep me honest – and hopefully, very few falling mugs.

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My dear followers, I am really deep into some stressful times at the moment. I know life always seems stressful, but I have a PhD to complete, small children (including one that has just started toilet training…give me strength!!) and we are moving interstate shortly with no house to move to yet, and I am half without a job as my post-doc position is nowhere near finalised. At times, it gets overwhelming and I have become prone to rumination, catastrophising (“We will never get a house”, “I will never get a job”, “We are going to be so unhappy”) and obsessively checking my emails and the real estate websites.

Seeing as I am right in the middle of what is undeniably one of the biggest upheavals of my life, it is the perfect time to check in with myself and with all of you, and bring to you some well-trialled techniques to “stress less”. I was reminded of this with “Stress Less Day” which apparently was last week, and probably fell on a day when I stressed more than I should have.  I always believe in practising what I preach, so here goes my tips for any of you going through anxiety, worry, and uncertainty about the future.

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean that it is. 

This was a wonderful quote I got from my new “What’s Up?” app. In fact, “What’s Up”, an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy app, is possibly the best thing that could happen to a stressed-out person. Yes, I feel anxious, and I’m worried about all the uncertainties in my life. But that doesn’t mean things are bad. I am trying to accept that no-one goes through life without feeling anxiety at some point in time. It’s the expectation that life always has to feel good that gets us down.

Increasing my “Circle Of Influence”

At the moment it seems like there is a lot that is out of my control. In fact, it’s an illusion that we ever have control over anything. Not knowing if I have a job or a house to go to, or if I will like our new neighbourhood, certainly feels stressful. I’m the quintessential “control freak” who likes everything a certain way, and runs away from uncertainty. It helps to remember the things I do have control of – such as attending to self-care, changing my attitude, just showing up, practising gratitude, breathing.

Questioning my catastrophising

At times when I am ruminating and thinking about the worst case scenario, it helps me to stop and question it critically. What is the evidence that this will happen? What is the probability that this will happen? Then I start to realise how ridiculous I am being, and I can move on.

Exercise

It never fails to amaze me how much better I feel after a run. My head is clear, I feel confident, I have problem-solved, and I am free from anxious rumination even if it’s just for the rest of the evening.

Breathing

When I stop and take a deep breath, I suddenly realise how tense my shoulders are, how tense my whole body is really. With each breath, I can feel the tension slowly melt away – not completely, but it’s palpable.

Laughter

This may sound really banal, but I feel a lot better after laughing at something really silly – my favourite things are Youtube videos. “Babies Scared Of Farting Compilation” or “Funny Cat Videos 2014” have been my favourites.

My children

I wrote a post about How My Children Keep Me Sane. Yesterday we had a lovely day off, and they invited me to an indoor picnic. We sat around a blanket and my daughter poured me some “tea”. My son and I pretended to eat plastic muffins very noisily, with appreciative “Mmm mm” sounds. My daughter served me a random selection of unlikely picnic food like a wooden mushroom and a plastic eggplant. My son then decided to make a soup, and grabbed some plastic food, vigorously whisked it together in a bowl, and served it to me proudly saying he had made some “Baymax sugar”. I have no idea what “Baymax sugar” is but I was so grateful to them for letting me share a bit of their magical world, a world free of stress and worry.

Gratitude

When all else fails, practising gratitude and a positive attitude can work wonders. I’m practising looking out for the things that go right in my life (like my son doing a poop in the potty yesterday – imagine being childless and never knowing the joy of such an occasion!!) and my daughter and I regularly practise our “three things I am glad for” exercise.

With all of the above tricks, I am keeping afloat, and I know I’ll come out of this period in one piece. What about you? What helps you “stress less”?

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teddy-bear-524251_1280I used to say, whenever someone expressed admiration for my ability to function coherently at work despite being a mum to small children, that coming to work kept me sane. And this was, and still is, certainly true. Work means order, quiet, predictability, intellectual stimulation, adult conversation and having lunch without needing to clean the floor afterwards. It most certainly helps my sanity.

Yet in these last few months of increasing pressure, with a PhD deadline looming, multiple new responsibilities, and the impending stress of an interstate move, heralded by frantic searches of real estate websites for the perfect home, something quite odd has been happening. It is my children that are keeping me sane.

It is my children who bring the immense relief from overthinking, from mental strain, from all this striving. It’s like taking a complete break from worrying, ruminating and hand-wringing of my life of late. My children bring me straight back to the most important place- the present moment – remind me what is most important – fun, love, silly jokes (and food) – and most of all, love me even if I havent written the perfect chapter or figured out what we are going to do next year. Regardless of how my day went and what challenges I have failed to master, they bound towards me at the end of the day with faith in my abilities as a mother. Just being there validates my worth to them – you’re here, mum! That’s fantastic! We love you. One warm hug, one set of tiny arms wrapped around my neck, and the workday melts away.

My children make me laugh, which is a powerful stress reliever. They make me realise that even the smallest things can matter, and this is beautiful. Stopping to pick a flower. Enjoying a sunset. Looking forward to icecream after dinner. Delighting in the bubbles in the bath. All of these things are exciting, magical experiences that are exquisite in their simplicity and accessibility. Happiness is right there within our reach. The look on my son’s face when he has a bowl of grapes all to himself is a reminder that there is so much to love and be thankful for. The moment when I am walking my children to daycare, completely absorbed in my worries about the day, and my son points to the sky and cries out “Look mummy! A helicopter!” And I suddenly come back to the present moment. The times when my daughter announces, from her bed, that she is coming to give me something that I really really need, and climbs out to plant a kiss on my cheek. “There,” she says. “There is all my love. Now everything is ok.” And tears well up in my eyes when I realise that, of all the people in the world, my children might be the wisest of them all.

My children have no fears or worries (yet). Problems can be solved incredibly easily in their innocent minds. There are no barriers in their minds – everything is possible. It’s breathtaking. I feel like such a downer whenever I say “That wouldn’t work” or “It just doesn’t happen that way“. Where did I learn these phrases? How did I become so rigid, seeing all the negatives, the things that get in our way, how something couldn’t possibly work out? Surely once I was that pure innocent and stunningly creative little soul. Somewhere along the years, I learned that “it’s not that easy”. I’ve stopped exploring options beyond my narrow scope of “what might work”. I became an adult. And it makes me weep to think of all the possibilities I gave up.

Yet I know what lies ahead for these children. I know the pain of rejection, of disappointment, of things not quite turning out the way you thought they would. Failure. Humiliation. Puberty. I know too that they will survive these, and will have vastly more wonderful, inspiring and triumphant experiences, but that as human beings they will eventually remember the things that go wrong before the things that go right. My job is to gently and persistently steer them towards the positive, towards resilience, towards making sense of adversity, and overcoming challenges.

But these months of rushing around, hustling and worrying, have undeniably been tempered and made sweet by these two beautiful human beings. As will the next few months. Somehow, very unexpectedly, I have come to realise that I cannot do it without my children – without their cheerful faces, their ready kisses and hugs, and even without their toilet humour (the “poo poo” jokes are currently all the rage). Because if one cannot laugh at a fart joke, one has lost all the spirit in life.

An example of a joke my daughter told me this morning: 

Zero plus zero equals zero! (Cue manic laughter)

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sports-shoes-115149_1280Years ago I certainly did not do any regular exercise. Admittedly I was a junior doctor working stupidly long hours at the time, but the truth is I didn’t like exercise, or perhaps I didn’t understand the immediate benefits it could have on my life. Over time I resolved to make it a part of my life, and now exercise at least four times a week.
Our motivation to incorporate healthy habits into our daily routine often depends on the short-term benefits rather than long-term, so I know that the promise of longer life, lower risk of cancer, and lower risk of dementia and osteoporosis may not work for many (especially younger) people. So I’ve included a number of reasons why I exercise to feel good now. If you’re struggling to make this a regular thing, try picking one or two reasons from the list below to motivate you to get your 1.5 hours in a week.

 

Sanity.

I exercise for my sanity. Any less than 3 times a week and I feel unmotivated, depressed and increasingly dark. After a run or a walk, it’s like my brain receives a boost of happy neurochemicals (well, this is actually what happens). Exercise is my antidepressant. (Now, if you’re actually depressed, this may not be enough to lift you out of major depression, but it certainly will help, along with other things).

 

Vanity.

This is not actually a high priority on my list but I put it together with Sanity because it rhymes. Exercise keeps you looking good – your muscles are toned, you look great (because you’re sane!), it keeps excess kilos at bay.

 

Sleep.

I sleep much better when I get regular exercise – my head hits the pillow and I’m away. This has marvellous benefits beyond just feeling refreshed – it balances out your hormones, particularly reducing stress hormones, and keeping weight off. Sleep more, weigh less? Yes please!

Exercise helps me sleep like a baby... Hah! That's a lie. We all know babies don't sleep?!
Exercise helps me sleep like a baby… Hah! That’s a lie. We all know babies don’t sleep?!

Energy.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but exercise increases energy levels rather than depletes them. Not exercising for a few days makes me feel incredibly sluggish, as though my system has virtually ground to a halt. People ask how I can have the energy to exercise and work and parent but I would answer, I have the energy because I exercise.

 

Me-time.

The holy grail of parenting. Going for a run is one of the best forms of me-time I could think of. I choose a podcast and savour the 30 minutes of not having to deal with tricky revisions on my latest chapter or misbehaving toddlers. I come home feeling pretty good too. I love having massages but I rarely get them because a regular run is a better form of me-time.

 

Outdoors time.

If you’re like me, you probably spend a great deal of time indoors (my department, in particular, has decided to house PhD students in an airless box that has the atmosphere of a dungeon). Getting outdoors is literally a breath of fresh air! I like to run around nature, like a park, and the green of the trees rejuvenates my weary eyes and head.

Use exercise to get back into nature. Talk about multitasking!!
Use exercise to get back into nature. Talk about multitasking!!

Eating.

You can eat a little bit more (but not too much! A 30 minute run will only burn about 200 calories – that’s just a small yoghurt), unless you’re trying to lose weight.

 

Epiphanies.

You might need to be a regular exerciser for a while before this happens to you (yes I admit it’s painful when you get started and you’re very unfit but your fitness catches up quickly, so don’t give up!) I have the most amazing epiphanies when I run. Solutions to major life dilemmas, a new idea for the Discussion chapter in my thesis, an idea for a new project or blog. It’s like my brain starts sorting out the mess in my head and arranges it in startlingly vivid, orderly and logical patterns. I go home with a fresh brain full of brilliant ideas and insights.

 

Example.

I know that I’m modelling healthy behaviour for my children, and that in the future they will know that mummy used to run three times a week so perhaps I should get off the couch and do something too. That parental example will be ingrained in their brains and I will have given them an advantage, not a disadvantage.

What about you? What are the reasons why you exercise? Share to motivate others on their fitness journey! Happy moving to you all :)
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strawberries-660432_1280I was at the airport on my way to a conference, travelling solo for once, and visited the bookshop. I had brought along papers to read, but the thought of reading an actual book seemed so much more appealing. And I was intrigued by the title of Laura Vanderkam’s book. It seemed smug, as did the promise of finding me extra time in my busy week. Hah! I thought. The last time I read a time management article that promised the same, I found out it was written by a childless, single woman. I did a quick tally of what I did every day and found that on average I had twenty minutes to myself after work, commuting, the whole dinner and bedtime circus, and housework. I texted a friend saying that I felt like punching this woman in the face. Metaphorically, of course.

Then I turned the page and read Vanderkam’s bio. She has not one, but four children. Ok, kudos to you, lady. Then I read her compelling introduction, punctuated by the sweet line, “The berry season is short“. And read about joy. And bought the book.

Vanderkam’s book is no quick fix, no magic strategy repeated over and over again in different forms just to fill the book, unlike the offerings by many lesser beings out there who manage to wrangle a book deal. Vanderkam is the real deal. I love that her book is based on data (actual time diaries) not assumptions, and not anecdotes. Anecdotes are biased snippets that may not represent the whole truth. I know this deeply as a researcher. Cold hard data, however, tells the real truth. And we have been sold anecdotes for a long time – we only hear and remember the negative ones, of course. We have based the narrative in our heads on this hodge podge of cautionary tales from others. Namely: Having a career and raising a family at the same time is hard. Only exceptional and very rich people manage it. It’s not possible. You won’t sleep. You’ll have to work long hours. Your hair will fall out from stress. You might as well lean out now.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve bought into this narrative increasingly this year. I’ve read, and internalised, articles on how hard it is to “make it” as a postdoc, the gruelling hours that an academic must put in to build that CV and research output, the uncertainties with funding, the disappointment, the long hours you must put in in order to finish your PhD. At times, this has led me to stomp around the house feeling resentful as I put away dishes or laundry, fuming internally. I’m doing a PhD, dammit! I don’t have time for this! And I certainly don’t have time for myself! I’ve been operating on a a time scarcity model, never feeling like I have enough, and yet find myself frittering away bits of time (“time confetti” to use Brigid Schulze’s analogy) by endlessly rechecking email and Facebook. And increasingly worried about my workload as a postdoc – yes, no more PhD, but a return to clinical work, new responsibilities, and the ever-present “publish or perish” rhetoric  harping at me like some monkey on my back.

Vanderkam’s book is a game changer. Peppered with examples of how incredibly busy women “do it”, it’s a goldmine of practical and well-tested strategies together with a massive shift in the narrative. Yes you have time. Everyone has time, even these women. Most of all, we have a choice with what to do with it. It’s these choices that make the difference between being able to “do it” and feeling like you need to “lean out”.

The women in Vanderkam’s book are from a variety of backgrounds, and all command a salary of over $100,000. Clearly this offers them an advantage in terms of being able to outsource, and in particular use nannies or au pairs if needed. However, not all of them did, many choosing to work “split shifts” instead, and using flexibility to the utmost. I was pleased to see I already carried out quite a few of these “successful” habits with work, but chagrined when I got to the “Home” and “Self” chapters. Here is where I have fallen behind. Sure, I have wrought plenty of time with my children, I leave weekends free for family time, and I exercise regularly, but it has been with a sense of duty. The fun has gone from my life, replaced by an almost military sense of needing to keep everything in precise order, and again with the background excuse of “I don’t have time for that” when a fun activity is proposed. I have become a party pooper. I cannot recall the last time I read a book. Yet, I must have spent hours every week sinking into Buzzfeed browsing and Facebook re-checking.

I have believed the anecdotes over the truth. Vanderkam’s book also surprised me with the level of involvement these women had in their children’s lives. We all hear and believe stories of parents being so out of touch that they don’t know their child’s teacher’s name, but Vanderkam’s book gives examples to contradict this stereotype – women who volunteer to go on school excursions, for example, something I had previously pooh-poohed with the familiar phrase “I don’t have time for that!

Encouraged and somewhat embarassed by the fact that these enormously successful women work more hours than I do, shuttle their kids around to activities, have hobbies and exercise an average of 3 hours a week compared to my piddly 1.5 (and still appear somewhat sane and coherent), I have resolved to make changes. Firstly, making a list of fun things to do – for myself or with the family. A list of things to do with my time confetti – watch a TED talk, breathe deeply, go for a quick walk, listen to music. A plan for the exercise I could be doing. Most of all, renewed confidence that I can do it, even as a postdoc working fulltime with two children. I can lead the good life. Undoubtedly, my life is getting easier, whereas in the past it truly was difficult and I had significantly less time. My children are becoming more independent, so I have been left with pockets of time which I then spend “puttering around” or doing laundry. But I don’t want to die and have on my tombstone “Here lies she who did a lot of laundry“. I want to tick things off a bucket list, not a chore list. Most of all, I want to be free from the narrative of not having enough time and not being able to have it all.

Vanderkam’s book is not about promoting the image of an impossible supermum. She chronicles the lives of women who are ordinary women like you or me, no superpowers except for having more disposable income. A number were single mothers. Yet, these women were leading full and happy lives and importantly, they were working far fewer hours than expected. Granted, they worked more hours than the average person (44 hours) but this is much lower than the 70-80 hours that many successful people claim they work. Instead of trying desperately to reach some mythical “balance”, Vanderkam encourages thinking of our lives as a mosaic, with tiles of different colours and hues. It’s up to us how to fashion this mosaic, and decide which colours go where. Doing a time diary and logging your actual time spent on different activities can be illuminating.

Most of all, Vanderkam’s book validated my life while highlighting exciting areas where I could change. I already have and use flexibility. I fit self care in. I read to my children. I take breaks. But the berry season is short; and I could do more, while doing less of the useless stuff. I can turn the canvas of my life into something even more vibrant than ever before. It is possible, once I get rid of the narrative and use data instead. I will lead the good life. I invite you all to come along with me once more on this journey.

Some super strategies from the book:

Think about your life in terms of the 168 hours of a week rather than 24 hours in a day. You may not tick all the boxes in work, home and self every single day but over the course of a week it’s possible to fit in time for all of these.

Rethink the need to have meetings.

How to strategically use “face time” to your advantage, without spending hours at the office. (For example, being seen at the end of the day is valued more than coming in early. You can use the middle of the day for “self” care).

Ten secrets to happy parenting including making breakfast the family meal of the day, thinking through and planning your evenings, and playing with your children.

Apply the “Let It Go” technique to housework and emails. (Do not attempt Inbox Zero).

How to make the most of a commute.

Make time for a hobby. It’s so nice to create something by the end of the night instead of watching TV. (But watch TV if you find this enjoyable).

The berry season is short. Seize it and create a good life :)

Disclaimer: This is my first book review, and the links will take you to Amazon, providing me with a small commission off anything that you buy on the site. This will support my blogging work as I navigate my way through the last few months of my PhD and then into the glorious Post Doc period and beyond! If you buy the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it :)

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drawing-428383_1280My daughter goes to a sessional kindergarten. It’s gorgeous. She now paints like Picasso; she speaks three languages; she is thriving and has made beautiful friends. I love the teachers. But I didn’t love what I am about to write about.

Earlier this year we were sent an invitation to a Mother’s Day event. All mums were invited to attend an afternoon tea at 2pm on a Wednesday. (We couldn’t go as we were overseas). I helped the children mail their invites on the day I acted as Parent Helper.

A few weeks ago we were informed of the Father’s Day event – scheduled for a Sunday morning at 9:30am. To say I was disappointed at this discrepancy between mothers and fathers is an understatement. Some might think I am being a ranty mother at this stage, but allow me to be a ranty mother for a moment.

There are so many reasons why this decision could have been made differently. Clearly it was not made to deliberately disadvantage working mothers. It most probably happened as a result of unconscious bias. But let me summarise why a more equal approach to these events, especially in kindergarten, is vital.

Children take on social expectations at a very early age. We try our best to model these at home; going to a kindergarten is an additional, and very powerful, influence. Having a Mother’s day event in the middle of the day on a weekday sends a strong message to children. One: Your mother should be available at this time (and at relatively short notice). She should not be at work. Work is bad. Two: If your mother can’t make it (because of work) she is a bad mother. Look at all the other mothers who could make it. Three: Women shouldn’t work after they have children. Four: Your daddy can have a career. He is important enough to have a separate event on a weekend, so he doesn’t need to disrupt his working week.  

What is even more frustrating is that this is an artificially created way for working mothers to fail. And it is not restricted to my kindergarten – I have heard similar stories from other mothers. Mothers day morning tea – 11am Wednesday. Fathers day breakfast: 8:30am Friday. 

The very reason I am sending my daughter to kindergarten is the very reason these persistent social expectations need to change. I want her to reach her full potential, whatever that may be. For many women, this will be outside of the home as well as within the home.

Below is an unedited email I sent to our kindergarten (name removed). I meant what I said about appreciating the kindergarten. But gender equality starts now, at kindergarten. It is my firm belief that we should not hold our daughters back in this way, by modelling a 1950s version of family life and perpetuating unconscious bias. To all mothers who can make it to 2pm afternoon teas, I applaud you. I am one of those mothers who has that flexibility. Not all do. I want all working mothers to feel a little less guilty. Especially when the guilt is artificially induced.

“Dear Kindergarten Committee

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback – it was very welcome. Thank you also for the hard work this year, the children are thriving as a result and our daughter, new to the kindergarten this year, is extremely happy. 
I did provide some feedback about the events requiring parental involvement, but I hope you don’t mind me sending another email about this as I filled out the survey before we received an invitation to the Father’s day event. Both fathers and mothers clearly enjoy sharing special days with their children at kindergarten, but the planning this year seems to have disadvantaged working mothers in particular. The Mother’s day afternoon tea was planned for 2pm on a Wednesday, which can be a difficult time for working mothers who do not enjoy a lot of flexibility, whereas the Father’s day event is planned for a weekend, which allows all fathers to attend. 
I think this creates an extraordinarilly difficult situation for certain working mothers, and a very artificial one, as if they cannot attend a midday event on a workday it immediately sets them up to fail as “bad mothers”, and this is entirely out of their control. Moreover, their child does not care if they do not attend at 2pm on Wednesdays, usually – it is only that the mothers who cannot come are the ones who stand out, as their children end up feeling left out. 
I happen to have a very flexible work week currently, and can make daytime events if given enough notice – one week is insufficient for most, and many would appreciate at least 2-3 weeks, or as long as possible. However, some mothers cannot do this (leave work with short notice). It creates an artificial situation in which the mother “fails” her child, and damages their relationship. 
I realise that this may only affect a small number of mothers, but I feel that in the interests of supporting all parents, and working towards embracing a diversity of home situations, as well as championing gender equality, it would be wise to consider changing the time for next year’s Mother’s day event. A time that is similar to what is offered to dads would be very welcome by all working mothers I am sure – if not, then adequate notice, and an event that is first thing in the morning (like 9am) would be easier to fit into the workday. 
Next year there will be a new group of mothers, and it may be quite different to the group this year – there might very well be a lot of working mothers, and I encourage and urge you to make them feel welcome, and appreciated, by considering what would make the “juggle” easier. 
Furthermore, in the interests of treating both genders equally, it would be a marvellous gesture for the kindergarten to plan the Mother’s and Father’s day events in a similar fashion rather than assuming that all mothers are available (and at home) at 2pm on a Wednesday. 
Thanks once again for all the hard work and all the best for the rest of the year. 
Carolyn”
I’d love to hear from you. How has your child’s school or kindergarten accommodated the schedules of working parents? 
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I don’t know if I’m brave enough to love you, only to have to let you go.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to wake up without seeing your little heads next to mine on my pillow.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to watch you learn to ride a bike, to see you put on a school uniform, tie your laces, and head out into the big wide world on your own.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to watch you navigate the schoolyard, make friends and lose friends.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to walk you to school without you wanting to hold my hand.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to see you fall in love, have your heart broken, and try so hard to find the right one.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to watch you try to find out what it is exactly that you want to do, and then try your hardest to succeed in it.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to see you sail the rough seas of adulthood, away from my protective wings.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to be your mother, to hold your hearts in my heart, and feel them beat even when you’re not with me.

Each moment with you is like a pearl, strung on a thread linked to my heart, with the pearls falling away one by one; an endless necklace of memories that I can barely touch before they slip out of my grasp.

Each memory is impregnated with tears, joy, laughter, exhaustion, frustration and tedium.

I don’t know if I am brave enough to love you the way I should. But I get the feeling that it doesn’t matter, because my courage comes from your eyes, your smile, your touch, and the things you say that make my heart soar and break it at the same time. Like “You’re the best mummy in the world”. I feel like this is true, and not true, all at once. Whatever courage I have, it mostly comes from you. 

You are the ones who are brave. My deep well of courage comes only from your enthusiasm, your innocence and yes, your boldness. I put my hand in your tiny ones, take a deep breath, and go forth each day with hope, love and no regrets.

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baby-84626_1280How do you do it? I am often asked, as though I am standing on my head right at that very moment. The question is about how I am managing to do a PhD and raise two small and very cheeky children. Actually, I am convinced that the question should be rephrased as “How is it that you have pants on today and are speaking coherently while you spend time on both your PhD and your kids?” Well dear reader, while I fear I that sometimes I am not really doing “it” at all, most days I do manage to get said pants on and have reasonably coherent conversations that indicate I am retaining a modicum of my sanity. So I decided to procrastinate instead of writing my thesis share some tips with you. This series of posts is to encourage parents to follow their dreams, with a major focus on how to complete a PhD.

There are a few caveats I must state here:

1. I have not yet finished my PhD but I have written more than half of my thesis, have a key findings paper under review, and am putting slides together for my completion seminar, so I’m on the home stretch. I am about to start on my Discussion chapter. I know, where did the time go?!

2. I have a supportive partner who works from home. We do not have any immediate family in town, apart from dear mum who spends a few weeks several times a year with us to let us have a break.

3. My children are pre-schoolers and I do not yet know the joys of primary school, extracurricular activities and the like. We have also been too busy to take them to a multitude of violin and karate lessons decided to let them have unstructured play during their time at home.

4. I write as a mum, GP, and PhD student. But I am not an expert on any of this; think of it as letters from a soldier at the trenches rather than an essay by a military specialist. What works for me certainly won’t work for all. Which is why I’d love to hear how you’ve managed to make it work too.

The other parts of this series include “Getting Organised”, “Taking Breaks”, Self-Care”, “Embracing Imperfection”, “Nurturing Relationships” and “Managing Energy”. But let’s get started on the biggest challenge – Time Management.

Let’s face it now – time is one of the most difficult things to juggle here. Raising kids takes time. So does a PhD. It can often feel like a desperate give-and-take situation, trying to slice off minutes from one to spend on the other, and never feeling like there is enough for either let alone sanity-saving activities like having a shower, and then there are the pesky details of keeping the house in a non-destitute state. And one generally likes to graduate from a PhD with both a floppy hat and an intact relationship with the spouse. All these take an investment of time.

So let’s say you are staring down the long bleak road of three (or more) years of a PhD, with a toddler clinging to your leg and a heavy feeling in your heart. Here are some tips on how to start managing your time. Clearly what works for me may not apply to everyone and I would encourage you to try a few different things to see what does make the days tick over a bit more smoothly.

1. One word. Childcare.

If you have preschool-aged children at home, you need childcare. It doesn’t matter if it’s your spouse, a grandparent, a friend, a nanny, daycare, whatever. You need reliable, loving, nurturing, responsible adults to be you when you can’t be there. Because you simply cannot be there and do your PhD. At times, when you are doing tedious tasks that do not take a lot of brain space (like ethics applications) you can work from home with your children around and nobody else to help you. You can also work at night when they are sleeping, but this can take its toll (see self-care later). But for large parts of your PhD, you will need to be physically removed from your children, in a space where you can work without endless interruptions, pooey nappies needing to be changed, children to be fed, food to be cleaned off the floor, the incessant chatter of a very adorable but increasingly annoying three-year-old, etc etc. Put it this way. You can parent well and do a PhD but not at the same time. As well as this, it’s decidedly unfair for children to spend three years staring at the top of mama’s (or papa’s) head peeking over the laptop. This is especially so in those precious last months “writing up” the beast. In fact, I’m fond of writing retreats, if you can get away to one. Our student group organises a yearly three-night break to write without distraction. It’s become my yearly treat to myself!

2. Divide and conquer.

Your day will be divided into three distinct segments. Time with family. PhD time. Other time. When you are with your family, forget about your PhD. Roll on the floor with your kids, tickle their little toes, sing them to sleep, embrace the freedom of not being a PhD student just for a few hours. They’re only little once. When you return to your PhD, sit your butt down and get the work done. I like to spend the first four hours of my day on the “business” of my PhD. Lately this means writing, and a lot of it, so I set myself a goal of writing 2000 words a day, first thing in the morning. In the afternoon I will do those other bits things like write an unrelated paper, reply emails, write a conference abstract etc. But the work. Gets. Done. No. Matter. What. If you are disciplined with this, it will balance out those inevitable days when you can’t seem to get anything done except drink coffee and wring hands, and you will also feel 100% engaged when you return home. It also creates a valuable “buffer” for those inevitable sick days that you have to take off. In my “other” time I schedule the “daily life” things like balancing our bank accounts, booking doctor’s appointments, and some nice things just for me (the hairdresser, a lunch date with a friend – see self care later). This strict and discrete division of my time helps me cope with the “juggling”. Mum at home. PhD student at the Department. Trying to be a coherent (and coiffed) adult at all times.

3. Batch your tasks.

This is a simple and effective technique that can be used at home or at the office. Write a list of little tasks you have to get done – get reimbursed for conference registration, (other examples). Then, when you have finished with the main business of your PhD for the day, spend an hour or so going through these tasks in a batch. If you can, batch meetings as well, although PhD students tend not to have as much control over this area. It’s also a great way to feel productive when you’ve lost motivation temporarily.

4. Be efficient.

The Pomodoro technique is an excellent way of avoiding having the day disintegrate into a useless mess of procaffeination with naught to show except palpitations and frown lines. Many universities will also run a “Shut Up And Write” session using the Pomodoro technique, and you can run your own sessions with your student group.

5. Outsource.

So you’ve had a productive day and you arrive home with two starving children, and then the reality hits you – laundry, cooking, cleaning, bedtime awaits. It can bring the strongest person to their knees. I am here to tell you you can outsource. Sure, outsourcing to a paid professional like an au pair or housekeeper is a dream come true but not within the reach of too many students. But did you know you could outsource to your (gasp) spouse, or even your kids? And that you can outsource to machines? Those machines include tumble dryers, slow cookers (or Thermomixes if you can afford one!!!), and ovens. You can even outsource to supermarkets by getting a few ready-made meals here and there (vegie pizza and lasagne are some favourites in this household).

6. Embrace imperfection.

I will elaborate on this in another post, but first of all you must accept that “good enough” will be your mantra for the PhD and at home. “It’s a PhD not a Nobel Prize” as the saying goes; a completed journal paper or thesis that is “good enough” is better than aiming for a flawless thesis that never gets finished. Ditto for the home – ditch Pinterest or anything that makes you feel like you should be baking organic muffins for your little one, while lovingly creating exquisite art and craft activities within your sparkling home with its perfectly organised kitchen cabinets (ahem). You are not that parent. You cannot afford to be, time-wise. There are more important things to do with your time including self care and bonding with your children. Also, nobody can be that perfect parent – it’s a myth. The same can be applied with relish to almost everything in your life. Have a list of “nice thought but not right now” things, like running a marathon this year. But do have minimum standards (like never leaving the house without pants on, feeding your children nutritious food, and avoiding vermin infestation of your kitchen). Just kidding. It is entirely possible to have things in relative order at home and with the PhD, and you will have moments of perfection, but they will not last.

Part-time or full-time?

This decision needs to be made after a lot of discussion with your supervisors and your family. It needs to take into account the unique demands of your research and your financial situation as well as your personal preferences. There are pros and cons to both.

Advantages of being part-time, and disadvantages of being full-time.

1. You get to spend time with your kids when they’re little. This is arguably the most compelling reason to be part-time. Your time with your children at this age can never be replaced. Your PhD, on the other hand, almost always can wait. You can balance 2-3 days of PhD work with days at the park, playdates, babycinos, swimming lessons, and just hours and hours of soaking in your babies. I have such precious memories of cooing babies, sitting on the couch with them sleeping on my shoulder, spending cold winter mornings watching Sesame St in our pyjamas, making home-made play dough, and other delightful things. Just delicious.

2. You get to claim this time as a career disruption. Oh so important when you are applying for fellowships, grants and promotions. Your research output will be assessed according to the years you spent on research, and will not include the years you spent rocking babies to sleep, pureeing baby food, and pushing them on a swing. When you are full-time, you do not get this luxury.

3. Childcare will cost less.

4. You have twice as long to finish your PhD. (This can be a con for some people).

5. You can catch up on household tasks on your days off, making the PhD days a bit less hectic (think cooking double batches of food to freeze, etc).

Advantages of being full-time and disadvantages of being part-time.

1. It can get tricky holding on to your “train of thought” in between PhD days. I find that a break of more than three days means I fiddle around for hours trying to figure out where I left off. This is more of a problem at some times than others e.g. during data analysis and writing up, I would have found it challenging to be part-time.

2. You take twice as long to finish your PhD if you are part-time. Which means – living on a scholarship for twice as long, and a “real job” is further away. Also the risk that you are so incredibly sick and tired of your PhD at the end of six years.

3. In Australia, part-time scholarships are taxed but full-time scholarships are not. I know! Makes no sense at all.

4. You have to watch out for the time creep – when you end up spending almost as much time on your part-time PhD as you would if you were full-time. As a friend of mine said “Part time is never part time, and full time is never full time”.

My pearls of wisdom here are to keep it flexible. Do what works for you at that particular time, and you can always change if it’s not working out. Do what you will not regret – I held off from making the decision to go full-time until I worked out a way to spend one day a fortnight with my kids. I couldn’t quite let go of those precious days at home with them just yet.

Some time hacks you might like to try

The tag team

One parent leaves first thing in the morning and comes home earlier to pick the kids up, or one person does the morning shift and gets to come home a bit later. This can work really well, but the stress of getting two kids ready on your own in the morning can negate the advantages of this technique.

The early riser

Wake up at 5am and get a couple of hours of work done before the kids wake (if you’re lucky). Clearly requires discipline to go to bed early, and the strength to get out of bed in the middle of the night. Also leads to crankiness in the evening due to being very tired. Many parents swear by this though.

The night owl

Getting a chunk of a few hours of work done in the evenings once the kids are in bed, instead of watching Netflix or cat videos on Youtube (ahem). Can work well if one gets “on a roll”. I don’t find that I have enough brain energy in the evening to do this but have resorted to it at times of intense grant writing for example.

The weekend warrior

One of the parents works on the weekend so that they can take care of the little ones during the week. This reduces your childcare costs and allows both parents to enjoy time with their children, but it also means you do not have days off together as a family.

When to return from maternity leave?

Again you need to check what the rules are with your institution and with your particular scholarhips and balance this with your personal preferences and your family situation. There is absolutely no “right” or “wrong” answers here but there are a few simple facts that might make your decision easier. Firstly, if you are breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 4-6 months. Once your baby is well-established on solids, it gets easier to sneak away without having to pull out the old breast-pump or hurry home for a feed. Your baby is also ready at 6 months and onwards to learn how to self-settle at night (if this is important to you) which will make it a little easier to manage the night-time wakings, if teaching them to sleep is what you would like to do. With both my babies I returned to very part-time work/study at 7 months and found this a great time to do so, but it is also such a delightful time in your baby’s life and can be hard to slip away and leave them with grandma, daycare or whatever. So there just isn’t a perfect time but you have to do what works for your family and your PhD.

In the later posts, I will also write about managing guilt, energy, the importance of taking breaks, refreshing yourself, and nurturing relationships.

All in all, your kids need you to be around for a good part of their young lives, and you will want to be there as well, as you simply cannot go back in time. Yet, opportunities will arise regardless of where you are on your parenting journey, and it is not impossible to make the most of these even while staying engaged with your children. To me, there can be few things as satisfying as having two outcomes at the end of a PhD: happy, bright, resilient children as well as a completed PhD  (and for those who are partnered, an intact and thriving relationship with your spouse). To all the PhD/academic parents out there who are enjoying the juggle, here’s to you!

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