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Exactly seven years ago, my life as a self-assured, fresh-faced, pert thirty-something who spent her weekends blissfully attending Friday night drinks followed by yoga and pilates classes on Saturdays came to a sudden, screaming, abrupt end. Oh, how I thought I had it together at that point!

Along came our very much awaited baby, Star, after a dream pregnancy. Apart from some horrendous morning sickness, I sailed through the rest of the pregnancy like some beatific goddess, posing for bikini shots at 22 weeks, running until 28, walking and swimming until the day I went into labour.

From the moment I heard her wail, and saw her tiny little face, everything changed. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past seven years.

 

I learned that I could love in a way I had never known before. A fiercely protective, at times obsessive love. And then I learned that I could love more than one child, even when I thought it was impossible – that I could experience the same tenderness with another little human being. I learned that the first love you have with your child is like an infatuation. You’re addicted to them. Is it the hormones? Perhaps. But intoxicating nonetheless. I learned that looking into your child’s eyes, seeing them smile, and having them kiss you is one of the most sublime experiences in the whole world. I learned about joy, bliss, and utter fulfilment.

I then learned that ambivalence is normal. This took me many years. I learned that you can love being a parent, and feel utterly and completely broken at the same time. I learned that postpartum depression can take many many years to surface, that the early months of sleep deprivation and self-doubt are nothing compared to the times spent sobbing silently in the car on the way to or from work when the babies are all grown up. I learned that you then get out of the car, wipe the tears away, and somehow let a bit of colour back into your life again. I learned that self care is so much more than the throwaway phrase “me time” – it’s not about massages and pedicures. Self care is about a commitment to allow yourself space to reflect, to prioritise what your real needs are, to make difficult decisions. Self care is most of all about creating a stronger self awareness, and being brave enough to do what needs to be done. It is about picking up the phone and getting professional help. It’s about saying you’re not coping instead of pretending you’re doing just fine. I learned that even though you think you’re being resilient by getting up, showing up, and pushing through that endless sleep deprivation or the work-family juggle,  once you push the “dig deep” button too many times, the cracks will start to show. I learned that everyone has a limit.

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I have been through more change and done more work in the past seven years than in the previous thirty-four. Every day I struggle to make sense of what I am doing. Every day I question what I do. Every day I look for ways to get closer to the answers of how to lead a good life, to be a role model, to not be an asshole. And I’ve learned that I’ll only get closer to this but I may never get there. I’ll always be trying. And that’s ok.

I learned about being flexible, that there were so many things I thought I would not do that I eventually did as a parent. Let the kids watch TV. Use disposable nappies. Let my toddler eat off the floor. (It was clean!) Use formula. Send my toddler to daycare. Work full time. And so I try to bring this flexibility and openness to the rest of my life. I try to remember that I’m not always right the first time.

I learned that being a parent is a lifelong journey of worry. Every new stage brought with it new fears, uncertainties, a sense of the unknown. It was frightening at times. And so I learned to let go. I saw our lives stretching out with challenges and milestones like an obstacle course – teething, sleeping, toilet training, primary school, puberty, sex, disappointment, failure, rejection, leaving home. And so much that I could not control. It was like a movie. I started crying a lot more during movies. And experienced the breathlessness of letting go and stepping into the void.

I learned that there is nothing quite like the friendship you can forge with certain mums, whether they be strangers or women who are already family or friends. I leaned on the warmth and support of so many other mothers – including those whose children were long grown up. I learned that a kind word to a confused, sad, fiercely protective and vulnerable new mother goes a long way, and that, conversely, a flippant comment can wound deeply. I learned that sharing each stage together created bonds that are stronger than steel. I learned about empathy, compassion, humour, and friendship in a way I had not experienced before.

I learned that guilt is a bitch, and you have to kick that bitch in the ass. I learned that unconscious bias is alive and well, and often perpetuated by women. I learned to tune out messages about the perfect mum in stock photos, with her perfectly coiffed hair, her smiling children neatly dressed in designer clothes. That mum never had grey roots or avocado on her blouse. Those children never had dirty faces or unruly hair. That mum never yelled at her children, drank too much wine, or spent too much time on Facebook because there was nothing else to do during the mind numbing hours between pre dawn wakeups and the first nap of the day.

I learned that so many simple things that I used to take for granted were actually so so joyful. Being alone, for example. I crave being alone, where before I would do anything to have company. But now, solitude is like the holy grail. I fantasise about plane flights and hotel rooms on my own. There are other things that a parent rejoices over that I would have thought bananas in the past. A poo in the toilet. Sleeping in until 7:30am. Sleeping through the night. 

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They say it takes seven years for the skin cells in our body to complete renew themselves. You’re literally a new person after seven years. And I feel like a completely transformed woman. There is still the old me in there – she comes out like a mischievous imp whenever we have a babysitter for the evening. She is charming, witty, carefree, funny and loves karaoke.

The new me has a sadness to her, as though she’s seen something she cannot unsee. But there is a depth and a richness to her. She understands the ups and downs of life, the tragedy, the inevitable grief. She cries with more intensity, she spends a lot of time in contemplation. She’s authentic. She has a grit to her, and a “scary mummy” voice that would make grown men stand to attention. She has a tenderness to her she didn’t have before, a real softness, strangely tempered with a razor sharp edge. Her knees no longer shake when she speaks in public. She understands her patients’ lives and their struggles. She looks toward the future with anticipatory grief, but also with courage. And most of all, after seven years of being a mum, she is finally learning that to be the best kind of mum, she needs to look after herself first. She’s finally, finally taking her own advice.

 

Dedicated to my beloved children “Star” and “Owl”. I am so grateful for the lessons you continue to teach me, your endless love and forgiveness for the times mummy gets cranky and shouty, and the way you make everything light up.

 

And to all the mums out there. Happy Mothers Day for Sunday. xxx

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Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.
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Leaving Melbourne for Sydney may seem like a small move, a mere 963km, but it was a enormous upheaval for me. I felt like a tree that had dug very deep and comfortable roots that were suddenly and painfully ripped out.

We are now putting down new roots, waiting for them to get deeper, take hold, and keep us stable when the storms hit, as they do from time to time.

The first few weeks were particularly difficult. One of my priorities, apart from settling everyone into their new routines, was to find a new running route to replace my beloved and well-worn track, the iconic “‘Tan” in Melbourne. Three or four times a week I escaped to this haven, to hear the crunch of gravel under my trainers, breathe the crisp fresh air, pass fellow runners and mums walking their prams, and just disappear into my spiritual home, the place where I felt strong, safe, relaxed, confident, renewed.

My last run around the Tan, or Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, day before we moved out
My last run around the Tan, or Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, day before we moved out

When we got to Sydney I explored different running routes. I was completely underwhelmed with running around my suburb, pleasant as it is, but pounding pavement next to family homes is not my thing. The Spit to Manly trail was interesting, but too isolated to warrant solo running as a vulnerable female. I ran to the surrounding suburbs and while I found the hills challenging enough, I just didn’t feel it in my heart. My heart and soul needed to soar, and I needed to return a stronger, happier woman, especially when it sometimes felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I returned sweaty, but something wasn’t right. Until I found this place.

The start of my run - the gorgeous Shelly Beach.
The start of my run – the gorgeous Shelly Beach.

It’s not like I didn’t know about Shelly – but I decided to jump in the car and drive there to start my runs, and then I ran along this place.

Iconic Manly beach.
Iconic Manly beach.

And then, ending up in this place, which means going up and down and impressive hill, and then back again to Shelly, for a nice heart-pumping 7 or 8K with hill training in between.

Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.
Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.

And as I ran along the beach(es), with the waves pounding (or sometimes just lapping), the salty air in my face, the kids riding their scooters and surfers racing towards the water with their boards, the ocean swimmers in their swim caps, the tourists taking it all in, I felt something familiar. I felt a lifting of my heart, a singing in my ears, a smile on my face, and a sense of flow, of everything being perfect in that moment. I had found my new spiritual running home.

I wish I could say that I have been here religiously every week. Actually, I have for most weeks, but it’s harder to get here now because it’s a car ride away. But I do know that my soul longs to be there, to drink in the sea air, that my ears need to hear the sounds of the surf, that my feet need to pound that pavement. So I go, as often as I can, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, just so that I can keep on going.

Because sometimes putting down new roots means finding new routes.

Post Script. Recently, an extraordinary storm hit Manly and the walkway between Manly and Shelly Beach was destroyed. I wish all of those who experienced storm damage the very best in their rebuilding and look forward to seeing this very special walkway rebuilt soon. 

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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. 

 

x

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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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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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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This is a difficult post for me to write, and I have put off writing it for far too long. Today is World Family Doctor day and it is time to put pen to paper. I have made the sad decision to leave the clinic I have been working at for the past eight years. Next week is my last clinic session at the Whole Health Medical Clinic. My family and I are moving to Sydney for a lifestyle change, to be in warmer climes and closer to the beach and surf, which we love. I am also taking a six month sabbatical from clinical work to concentrate on finishing my PhD. Juggling the clinic, a full-time PhD and a young family has taken its toll on me recently and I have to take my own advice and attend to self-care and self-preservation; my health and my relationship with my family has to take priority. I cannot replace myself at home but I can easily be replaced, I am sure, in the clinic. But in doing so, I am incredibly sad to say goodbye to my patients, and yet grateful for the lessons they have taught me.

So I just want to say, to my patients, even if you are not reading this: Thank you for the privilege of being your family doctor for the past eight years. Thank you for trusting a fresh young GP (not so fresh and young now!) with the care of your health. Thank you for the times you were patient and understanding when I ran very very late. Thank you for letting me into your lives, sharing your deepest secrets, so that I could better help you. Thank you also for taking care of me – for the kind inquiries as to how I was, the warm wishes and presents and cards when I left you for two maternity leave periods, the welcome when I came back. Thank you for the laughs together, and the times we cried together as well. A huge thank you for putting up with my frequent absences, and for the gradual reduction in clinical hours due to kids and then PhD. Thank you for “gas bagging” with me about kids, babies, parenthood and life. You have all taught me so much about life and medicine. Clinical life has been so rewarding and has given as much to me as I have to it.

I wish you all the best of health and many healthy and happy years ahead. I hope you will continue to try your best to eat well, stay active, and look after your mental health. I hope you will treat all family doctors as generously and warmly as you treated me. And thank you again, for everything.

Much love

Dr Carolyn Ee x

 

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This is Part I of my thoughts to that lovely post by a father who calculated what his stay-at-home wife and mother to his toddler would cost him if he had to pay for all the services she provides. But really it’s an open letter to all primary income earners in families, who are lucky enough to have a stay-at-home spouse, whether they be dads or mums in heterosexual or same-sex partnerships.

This post was important because it highlights a couple of key facts about partnerships. One, it is the woman who still shoulders the lion’s share of domestic duties, even if she is employed outside the home. Two, this work is unpaid. Three, this work is often goes unrecognised, which is what this lucky dad wrote about. He hadn’t realised, up until recently, how much his wife meant to him – in very practical terms as well as emotional. Him having a stay-at-home spouse allows him to go about his work without worrying about childcare dropoffs and pickups, what to cook for dinner, whether he has a clean shirt, whether the gas bill is due, or whether there is milk in the fridge. It is this kind of happy arrangement that has benefitted men for decades and that Annabel Crabb writes about in her brilliant book The Wife Drought. And I applaud Steven, and I know he probably feels like hiding in a corner at the moment with what sounds like an enormous response to his heartfelt post. I’ve been there. But as a woman and a mother, who has been both a SAHM and working mum, here’s a few suggestions as to how you, Steven, and all the other fortunate people who have a stay-at-home spouse, can really repay your beautiful wife (or husband). I apologise in advance if you are already doing all of this. You sound like a great guy, so it’s quite likely that you are. If you’re not, here’s what you could do.

1. When you come home, she needs to have a break. Even if you worked flat out without a break today, you at least had some quiet time on your commute home. So when you walk in that door, remember that she has had a full day giving your toddler all her attention – she’s been working, too.  She might not even have had a proper lunch. So you take the toddler, reconnect with him, and tell your wife to go and do whatever it is she has been longing to do all day – go for a walk, read a book, hide in her bed.

2. Let’s talk about groceries. Have you ever done groceries with a two-year-old? When you call her during the day, ask if there’s anything you can pick up from the shops. Chances are she’s run out of wipes or milk or forgot to buy garlic. Pick it up on the way home. On the weekend, offer to do the weekly grocery shop or better, ask if she wants to go to the store. Alone.

3. Laundry. Ask if you can help with a load of laundry. Every day. If there is a pile unfolded on the couch, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT ask why the house is messy. Simply pick up the clothes, fold them and put them away. If you see your wife coming out of the laundry with a basket, tell her you will put it up.

4. Spend a day with your toddler. Alone. Send your wife out for the day to do whatever she wants. At the end of the day cook dinner for your wife. This way you will really know what she goes through every day. Your appreciation for her will skyrocket. Extra points if you use minimal TV.

5. Never ever ask why the house is messy. If you start doing this, repeat Number 4. (I don’t mean to offend, your wife might keep an incredibly tidy house; if so, pay her double).

6. Let’s talk about finances, paying bills and all that admin. There are of course advantages to being able to do things during business hours like go to the bank. But lots of admin tasks can be done online. Yes, online, in the evenings, after work. Take over some of these. It’s a huge burden for your wife to look after EVERYTHING.

7. On the weekends, you are equals. You share childcare and domestic duties. You both deserve a weekend off. Her job of being exclusive carer to your child is not to spill over onto the weekend. Does your boss expect you to work on weekends and after hours? No? Remember, he is your child too. Do the diapers. Cook a meal. Give him a bath.

8. When your toddler wakes in the middle of the night, take turns to go to him. Yes I know you have to wake up and go to work but so does she. Take. Turns.

9. Holidays. Your wife needs a holiday every now and then from her job. See Number 4.

10. Just remember these four magic words that you should repeat as often as you remember. “How can I help?”

I promise you, if you do these things, you will repay her far more than any dollars will. She will feel equal, something she has probably struggled with since giving up her paid employment. Nothing is more polarising than having a family revert from a double to a single income. What she does is priceless, yes. But she doesn’t have to do it all. Once we start moving towards a more equal distribution of domestic labour, this parenting stuff will get easier. And if you’re already doing all of the above, well done. You really do get it. :)

Part 2 to come soon 😉

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I-try-to-take-one-day-atBeing a GP isn’t easy, but there are some aspects of my job that are quite simple. Like asking a few well-placed questions about lifestyle with every patient that walks in the door. I am constantly surprised at how commonly lifestyle factors contribute to illness – and feeling overwhelmed is a major culprit when it comes to poor lifestyle habits. The way I see it, becoming overwhelmed is the result of expectations exceeding capacity -either the expectations have increased, or capacity to cope has decreased, or both.

I am not immune to becoming overwhelmed. When my son was a baby and my daughter a toddler, I would get the same comment whenever we were out and about (him in the baby carrier, her in the stroller) – “You’ve got your hands full!” You bet I still have my hands full even though they are older now. I juggle two careers (GP and academia) and a family and in between I must run (as in jogging, not running away!) or I will go bonkers. And yes, at times I do become terribly, desperately, crying-in-my-GP’s-office overwhelmed. It’s tough being an adult, no?I know only too well how this leads to a vicious cycle of poor habits that exacerbates the situation. Let’s have a close look at how being overwhelmed affects our health:

My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health
My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health

Is it sounding depressing? Don’t be discouraged! Life is dynamic, not static. It’s how we roll with the punches that defines  the outcome. When you’ve come off course, don’t beat yourself up about it. Realign yourself with your destination and get out of that vicious cycle. I’m not a counsellor, but I’ve counselled many patients about this, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Here are some of the lessons.

1. Ask yourself: Is this temporary?

Many situations are – a colleague is sick and you must pick up their shifts; a family member falls ill; you’re moving house. There are many “overwhelmed” periods in my life that were absolutely worth it, like passing final exams, having babies, or finishing a thesis. If it’s temporary, go into survival mode, and plan a recovery later. Try as much as you can to limit alcohol, take short breaks, and do some kind of exercise.

2. If it’s not temporary, is it worth it?

Diet and lifestyle are now considered the biggest threat to our health. Consider this: over time, and with genetic susceptibility, a poor diet and lack of exercise leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – all risk factors for chronic illness and major causes of death such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. This might be a wakeup call, a time to re-prioritise. And leads me to number 3:

3. Talk to someone about it.

The most powerful thing you can do is to say, out loud to someone else, what YOU need to do to improve things. This is when my job as a GP becomes dead easy. I sit back and ask a question like “Have you been exercising?” and a long monologue ensues which ends with my patient saying “I think what I need to do is…” And all I need to do is listen, and be witness to that. Amazing!

4. If it’s not temporary, can you change something?

Can you increase your capacity (learn a new skill, ask for more help? Can you resign from the PTO?) What isn’t necessary in your life, and what are you doing only to please others, or what can you reasonably say No to even if it’s a one-off or for a short time?

5. Connect with your body first. 

Yoga can be a quick, powerful way to reconnect with your body and listen to what it needs. I have a few favourite yoga poses (that don’t require athleticism…) when I need to remind myself of this. Breathe. Exist in your body for just one or two moments and not just in your mind. Aerobic exercise, of course, is a brilliant way of kickstarting wellbeing and motivation.

6. Practise mindfulness.

I find this really difficult when I feel overwhelmed, but I try very hard to stick to it as much as I can. However, it’s even more challenging when I haven’t attended to Number 5 above – connecting with the body first.

7. Practise positive psychology.

The negative spiral often includes a good dose of negative self-talk which is of course counter-productive. Be vigilant and consciously practise positivity. Start a gratitude journal. Start the day with positive affirmations. Challenge your negativity. But also be kind to yourself.

8. Take a mini-break. 

This might only be a couple of hours, or even half an hour if things are really dire. But take a break from what’s on your plate and get a different perspective. My children force me to do this every day and it does help, most of the time, to keep me balanced.

So here I am putting my money where my mouth is. Over the past few months, I’ve been the definition of overwhelmed. I’ve exercised less, eaten more junk, stayed up late, drunk way too much coffee. My skinny jeans have gotten a lot skinnier. I went through the steps above. Yes, it was temporary. It was worth it. I talked to someone about it. I changed things (I am about to take a sabbatical from clinical work for 6 months to finish my PhD). And I’m now exercising religiously at least every second day again. Diet, hmm let’s say Easter got in the way, but I’m getting there.

In fact, this makes me feel positively encouraged. It reminds me how much health and wellbeing is determined by what we do, and is in many ways within our control. Just as the negative spiral of poor lifestyle habits leads to the consequences of low concentration and mood etc that promote the feelings of being overwhelmed, so can a positive spiral lead us back to optimal health. I’m also grateful, in many ways, because these experiences of feeling overwhelmed allow me to completely emphathise with my patients. It makes me a better doctor. I’m on my way back to better habits – just as soon as I finish the kids’ Easter eggs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to bed early.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s imperative that you talk to a health professional and be screened for depression and anxiety, which require more management than what I have described above. Don’t be afraid to tell your GP. It’s very therapeutic. 

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It’s official. I’ve had 2.61 years of career disruption due to kids. I have all the dates; I even have a signed letter from my supervisor to confirm my years of maternity leave and part-time candidature. I need this for my fellowship application, because my “research output” will be assessed “relative to opportunity” – a new concept but a welcome one for others like myself who have taken a break, leaned out, along the years.

I have been saying to my colleagues that “This PhD is a doddle; building an academic career is the thing that is difficult”. I have wondered how life might have been without children – working ten hour days, weekends, writing and publishing and presenting and researching, building that “track record”. I’ve even had moments of fleeting envy when I leave at 4:30pm and see my childless colleagues free to stay until all hours of the evening, and on weekends to know they have the freedom to keep working, keep writing, keep up that research output.

And yet I have come to realise the truths that perhaps only parents understand: productivity is about quality, not quantity. Six solid hours is realistically what I can produce in one day; I have grand plans for the evening but after wrestling two small children into bed, lying down with them for half an hour, fending requests for water and a special blanket and more kisses, my brain is mush and I would rather watch cat videos on Youtube than write a paper.

Even more than this, my children give me something more than wide hips, grey hair and a quiet, desperate wish to one day complete my morning ablutions without an audience. They bring me meaning. They connect me to life itself. When I hold a tiny, chubby hand in mine, when I kiss a round cheek at night, when I breathe in that gorgeous warm just-woken-up smell and hold a soft little body in my arms in the morning, I know why I am here and why I am doing what I am doing. This is not to say that people without children do not have meaning in their lives; they do, of course, and in fact they have so much time to contemplate this sense of meaning too. Perhaps this is why, as a parent, connecting with our children is one of the most breathtaking experiences, because it occurs in the midst of utter tedium, repetitiveness, even boredom.

And those years of career disruption? To be sure, my career WAS disrupted. I have no papers published during that time. No conference presentations to put on my CV. It’s a gaping hole, that 2.61 years. And yet, on the other side, it was marvellous. It was filled with muslin wraps, long walks with the pram, sleepless nights, spew on my shoulder, delicious baby gurgles, toothless smiles, babycinos, trips to the library, quiet moments at home, noisy moments at home, dancing, scribbling, and lots of cleaning food off surfaces. It was marked by a feeling like I could never love more than I did that very moment, like my heart was exploding out of my body. It was a sense of awe, that I had been entrusted with the care, feeding and raising of these very special people. (It was also the hardest thing I have ever done. I have written of this previously.)

And so, to my children, I want to say this. Thank you for “disrupting” my career. Thank you for those years, the best years of my life.

Thank you for the way you love me without hesitation, without any judgement; for forgiving me for all the times I am distracted because I am thinking of my work, or my research, for loving me even though I am nowhere near perfect. 

Thank you for the way you remind me to be mindful and grateful of every single moment.

You are my guiding stars. Every evening I pack up my laptop and race home because I cannot wait to hold you in my arms again. (Sometimes I go for a run before holding you. But you know exercise makes mummy less cranky).

And every single morning, you give me a reason to get out of bed, to keep showing up. 

Thank you for making this trip worthwhile. 

 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this mission of mine to slow down in 2015. I’ve had lots of metaphors going, but the ship metaphor has been my favourite. It doesn’t just apply to slowing down – it applies to many areas of my life that make me feel anxious, nervous or unbalanced. I was inspired in the first place by the following quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper:
“A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
So here are the reasons I am going to be a mother ship in 2015 and beyond.
1. Ships are strong.
They’re designed by experts to weather the storms at sea and last for decades. They’re the world’s mightiest vessels. This helps me feel less vulnerable if I’m facing a new challenge with trepidation, or feeling a bit fragile or rough around the edges. (You know those moments when you feel like hiding under the quilt?) Ships are strong. I am a strong mother ship. I don’t crack under pressure.
2. Ships are made to weather the storms.
Kind of like (1) – ships are strong. They forge through a storm. I’m not a hopeless little rubber dinghy being batted about by the wind and waves. I am built to last through wild weather and then sail into calm waters. Because the storm always passes, eventually. I must remember this.
3. Ships need regular maintainence.
This is one of my favourite parts of the metaphor. Ships may sail out to sea but they always return to port, and have their barnacles lovingly scraped off, all bits checked and tuned, and repairs carried out. They’re only as good as how well they are maintained. This essential maintenance is scheduled in, to keep it strong, to extend its life, so it can keep on carrying its cargo. So in 2015 I am objectively scheduling in MY maintainence. To be honest, I am not actually sure what my maintainence should be, but it sure is an interesting exercise thinking about it. For me, at this stage of my life, I think I need regular physical exercise, down-time, some pampering, some reprieve from tight scheduling, and some fun. I need quality time with the kids and my husband. I need to see my girlfriends and have a laugh. I need mentoring. Inspiration. Kindness. And something to look forward to. Always something to look forward to.
4. Ships are graceful.
Not only are ships strong, but they exude a mighty sense of grace. They don’t get grumpy or flustered. They are as graceful as they are mighty.
5. Ships go places.
As in the quote, ships are made to sail the seas and explore. Ships do not hide in harbours, fearing the open sea. As long as the maintainence has been attended to, ships are built to take on risk. And, hopefully, this metaphor will help me as I face the changes that loom in the future – with more enthusiasm and less trepidation.
6. Even when ships are going fast, it feels like they’re not.
Instead of paddling a flimsy kayak furiously and going nowhere fast, if I go with the ship metaphor then I can imagine myself sailing effortlessly to my destination, wherever that may be.
It hasn’t been an easy week. I feel daunted by what I need to achieve this year – an 80,000 word thesis is in there somewhere. I’ve been meditating, almost desperately, to try to relieve some of my anxiety, which is probably counter-productive. But slowly, with practice, I’ll be able to transform my self image from tiny helpless kayak to strong, graceful mother ship. I’m looking forward to a more stable journey, a greater sense of strength, and of course, the maintainence.
What about you? How are you travelling at the start of 2015? What do you think your essential maintainence would be? 
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