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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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I took some time off recently, just a week, but it was a much-needed week of reflection and a break from the usual routine and from my computer screen. I spent time with good friends and family, and with my children. I had a child-free weekend doing adult things like only having to feed, dress and toilet one person – me. My best friend and I talked about a lot of things, including how and where our careers were going.

Career is one of those dirty words in a mother’s vocabulary. Almost as terrifying to say as “formula-feeding”, “born by Caesarian section”, or “crying-it-out”. And yet, career is not just a dirty word to mothers – when I was a young doctor starting out on an academic path, enrolling in a Masters, a clinical supervisor referred to me as a “career possum”. I always wondered if he would say the same thing to a male doctor, but I never got to ask him.

Let’s get this straight. My family is the number one priority in my life. Unequivocally my most profound and tender priority. My family is the blood running through my veins, the beat of my heart, the love of my life. Most of all, what I know in my deepest heart of hearts is that my family is made up of people, of fellow human beings, two of whom carry half my genetic information, who have my eyes, my smile, my hair. My family needs me, and I cannot be outsourced, replaced by someone else. I can outsource daily care for a number of hours a day, I can outsource cleaning and cooking, but I cannot outsource what I mean to them. I also need my family. We are a mutually connected and loving unit, often chaotic, mostly imperfect, but they are as inseparable to me as my breath is to my lungs and circulation.

My career is a different thing – I can certainly be replaced. Another GP, another researcher, another academic. Someone with exactly the same skills can slip into my seat and carry on where I left off. If circumstances ever meant I needed to throw it all in – a serious illness, for example – I would have no hesitation in leaving my laptop and handing over to someone else. My career is a thing, not a beautiful breathing living person with a heart, a mind, hands that need to be held, a soul that needs to be nourished.

So what does it mean to me then? Why do my children go to daycare, why am I not there at every 3pm kindy pickup?

To put it simply, my career represents my hopes and dreams. So I am disappointed, no, furious, when parts of “modern” society continue to insist that a woman cannot have a career and be a mother (or be a good mother) at the same time. I got these messages (along with other supportive ones) when I wrote a post about working and stay-at-home mothers. Some comments were: “Children should be brought up by their mothers”. “Childcare is simply barbaric”. “Mothers should be at home with their children”. “What do you think happens when you go off to have your career?” And recently I read a curious blog post about why daycare is bad for children and why working mums are the scum of the Earth. I was infuriated. Apparently if I am not there whenever my precious little ones fall over, I have failed as a mother because I am sending them a message that they are not worthy. Never mind that they run to the arms of their loving carers who are trained in first aid and hugs and who act as my “village”. I. Just. Can’t. Even. I have gone to great lengths to promote tolerance and mutual respect between mothers who choose to work at home or outside the home. I get worked up when I see women deliberately try to tear this down and inflame some kind of ridiculous “mummy war”. But I should stop ranting. And acknowledge others out there who are trying to do the same thing as I am – repair relationships, build tolerance, like this lovely blog post “We Are Not Rivals”.

Consider this. If a little girl says she dreams of becoming a scientist, or an astronaut, or a successful business owner, or whatever it is little girls want to be nowadays, who would dare take that dream away from her? Do we say to our daughters, that’s all well and good darling, but you know you wouldn’t be able to be a good mother at the same time, so you would have to stop once you have children, so why even try? And I am quite certain that we would never say that to little boys.

Is it because of the enduring image of the selfish career woman, daring to put her hopes and dreams above the needs of her family (which is clearly, to be slavishly present in their lives 24/7)? How dare a mother have her own aspirations beyond the family, to have needs of her own! Selfish woman!

Is it also the incredible demands of some professions, requiring long hours of “face time”, travelling, shift work, and inflexible hours?

I have heard, also, of parents putting their career aside for the preschool years and then aiming to revive it once the children are in school. While the 0-3 age is certainly an important time developmentally, childcare becomes a given (from 9-3) once kids are in school, and children are less physically demanding once they are in school, I get the feeling that the demands of parenting schoolchildren can be even greater, in some ways, than those of parenting pre-schoolers.

Let’s get another thing straight. I enjoy my work. It brings me meaning, purpose, direction. I enjoy having goals to shoot for. I also enjoy providing for my family. I do not see why this has to be a dirty thing. Why can’t a woman find satisfaction outside of the home? There is mounting evidence that spending time in daycare is generally not detrimental to children’s emotional and academic development, and having a working mother may confer some benefits to children, especially for their daughters. I take pains to ensure that my children attend a high-quality centre. I am offended at the suggestion that they may develop behavioural problems because of daycare. They most certainly do not.

I do not spend my time attacking stay-at-home mums. I admire and love them as my dearest friends. They are simply mums just like I am. Why do some SAHMs, however, feel they must defend their decisions, the way I am having to defend mine?

But I am clear on this now. I won’t ever let anyone make me feel as though I should give up my hopes and dreams.

I will, however, make a pledge to make this work. Somehow, I will walk that tightrope of being engaged and present for my children and family, while striving for excellence in my career. There will need to be give and take from both – I cannot be at every assembly, I will not be able to be at the tuck shop once a week, my children will have to go to after-school care some days every week. In the same vein, I will not be at every conference, I will turn down some committee memberships, and some papers will have to wait while I have a holiday with my children. But I will be there, morning and night. I will be present on weekends with no covert emailing or working on the laptop unless it is an extraordinary situation. I also want workplaces and schools to buy into family and work-friendly practices. I will lobby for schools to give parents adequate notice before scheduling a Mother’s Day morning tea at the god-awful time of 11am with only a week’s notice, setting working parents up to fail immediately. I will encourage my colleagues and students to strive for work-life balance, not endless hours at the desk. And every night, bar unusual circumstances, I will sit down with my family to dinner, and kiss my children goodnight. Each day I hope to make my children understand that their mother loves them and values them above all else in the world, but that does not mean she has no responsibilities and no joy outside of the home as well. I will also somehow find it in me to demonstrate to my children that a woman, dare I say a parent, can work and raise a family with joy and presence. And if I can do this, I will be able to leave each morning and chase those hopes and dreams with a clear conscience and clean heart.

 

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By TawnyNinja
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By TawnyNinja

About a year or so ago I wrote a little post on working and stay-at-home mothers. I had few followers on my blog at the time; blogging was something I did for “fun” and to practise my writing skills. I sat down one evening to pen some thoughts in response to blog posts I had read that attacked both stay-at-home and working mothers. What bs! I thought. There’s two sides to every story. So I wrote a letter, from one mum to another, addressing it to dear friends of mine on both sides of the fence, but also addressing it to myself. I remember getting a tingly feeling after I posted it. Perhaps I had a premonition of what was to come. But never did I expect that it would be viewed by almost 2 million people, that our server would crash because at one stage it was getting 2,000 views an hour, and that my inbox would be flooded with emails from emotional mums and eager magazine editors.

Social media can be brutal as well as enormously supportive and rewarding, and I bore the brunt of some very negative commentary, which only seemed to validate the importance of my message. Some said I was out of touch with real working mothers, such as those without a profession, and those who did NOT want to work. Point taken. Another major criticism of what I wrote was that I was perpetuating the myth of the “good mother”, of the need to put the family needs first (for example, getting up early to exercise).  And that was a very very bad thing.

Since then, I have been thinking about this A LOT, and I have also blogged about the damaging “cult of motherhood” which exhorts self-sacrifice with the promise that it is “all worth it”. And I have to say that I am no longer that mother in those “Letters”. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago that I entitled “The One Thing I Want Mothers To Stop Saying” which explains it.

I’ve heard this too many times. I hear it from patients, from friends, and colleagues. I have said it myself. But even though there is truth in it, I really want mothers to stop repeating this phrase.  Enough is enough.

“It makes me a better mother”.

“It” is usually something the said mother thinks she shouldn’t be doing, or feels guilty about doing. “It” refers to time away from her family, often enjoyable, usually self-care, and is somehow regarded by many people as selfish, unnecessary, or indulgent in some way. “It” is often –

  • time at the gym
  • going to work
  • going for a walk
  • going out for a meal without the children
  • yoga
  • any activity that implies the mother has some protected time away from her children.

Yes, in most cases, mums do come home refreshed and a better mother, better able to engage with her children, happier, and less stressed. And this is a wonderful thing, a positively reinforcing cycle. Health care workers often use this phrase to somehow entice mothers away from their profound responsibilities of caring for their families. The oxygen mask analogy is trotted out – put your oxygen mask on first so you can then attend to your children and family. You can’t care for them if you’re not well. Etc etc. I’m guilty of using this to encourage my patients to take better care of themselves.

But it has to stop.

Why? Because we are human beings first and mothers second, or third, or however we choose to see it. Why is it that once a woman becomes a mother she is expected to put her needs at the very last? We know that working mothers feel so guilty about not being with their children 24/7 that they will sacrifice their own sleep and leisure time to see to their “responsibilities” when at home. Stay-at-home mothers have to justify every minute that their children might spend outside of their care, for example in childcare. But why is it that we must always reference our roles as mothers when justifying time “off”? At the risk of grossly over-generalising, how often do we hear fathers saying “Oh man that was a good night out with the boys. It really makes me a better father”. While I am not suggesting that this phenomenon affects all women, nor that fathers do not ever put their families’ needs above their own, I base this post on what I have heard over and over again in the past few years as a mother, a doctor, and a friend. Why, just in the last week, I have heard it four times from different mothers.

When we lose the ability to consider that we have needs too, that we are human beings, when we start believing that our needs for sleep, relaxation, social interaction (with adults!) and physical activity are only important in the context of our ability to perform the role of mothering, we fall into very dangerous territory. We martyr ourselves. We put conditions on ourselves – when you do this, will you come back a better mother? Will your children benefit? We send a message to ourselves that we have no intrinsic worth as human beings beyond the work we do as mothers.  

I want all mothers to look after themselves, and to proudly say that their self care makes them a better person. It makes them a healthier, happier, more relaxed person. It enhances their quality of life. It gives them energy, brings a smile to their face. I want mothers to say that they go to the gym because they freaking like to go to the gym, not because they come back a better mother. They are going to see their girlfriends because they miss them and want to have a laugh with them. I want mothers to assert their needs for self-care irrespective of the fact that they have children.

And that, my dear followers, is why I am no longer the Mother in those “Letters” any more. I am slowly putting myself back in the picture. I am systematically exterminating guilt while continuing to think about the combined needs of my family – which includes me.

Amen.  

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By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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I hate to jinx it, but very recently my children have become easier, for want of a better word. They are five and two now, and are the best of friends. They play adorable games together which allows me to have cups of tea in peace. My five-year-old can wipe her own bottom (yay!), shower herself, and get her own snacks. My two-year-old is talking well now, and can tell us what he wants; while we still have tantrums, and the sight of him in restaurants still conjures up a mix of pity and terror from fellow diners, he can sit still for longer, have conversations, and is generally happy. At times, I am even that mother sitting and reading while her children colour or play quietly. (For about five minutes).

Proof that life has become a little bit more bearable is this.

Making a prawn and fennel bisque. Like, from Gourmet Traveller! From scratch! Who would have thought?
Making a prawn and fennel bisque. Like, from Gourmet Traveller! From scratch! Who would have thought?

I’m cooking again. Real cooking. Not throwing things hastily into the oven, churning out boring casseroles, or relying on good old spag bol. On weekends anyway, I feel remnants of the old me returning – the one who loved to cook elaborate meals, involving many ingredients, much simmering and sautéing and chopping, and the type that is celebrated with the clink of glasses at the dinner table and “Compliments to the chef!” I am able to do this mostly because my two-year-old has now been surgically extracted from my leg, and no longer needs to be in bed by 6:30pm.

This state of affairs sounds quite delicious, I know, to other parents who are still in struggle-town. I was there not long ago. I do not remember now what exactly made it so hard – the pain is all a blur. I do remember that it was freaking hard, and that I was miserable at times, and that I cried occasionally. I remember everything being a struggle with my toddler – each simple task of living like getting dressed and eating was an enormous and often physical and loud battle. I remember the 12 months or more of 5am wake-ups – of sitting on the couch in the dark with a wide-awake baby, the whole household asleep, wondering how on earth I was going to stay awake until 8:30pm. I remember being so tired at night my eyeballs felt like they were going to fall out of my head. I remember a lot of food on the floor.

And yet I worked and studied full-time, nine days a fortnight. Truth be told, going to work was an escape in many ways. Whenever I was tired, I reminded myself that being at home would have exhausted me just as much. Still, looking back, I don’t know I did it. I do remember making a pledge to connect and engage with my children to the fullest, despite the challenges, and to live these precious and exhausting years with more joy and less guilt. I do feel that I have done that. I have kicked mother guilt in the ass. And while I have trouble remembering the exact details of the pain, I remember the exquisite joys as though they were yesterday. I can taste and smell them; I can feel the little hands in mine still. These are etched in my memory.

I am not much different to any other parent. I do not have extraordinary challenges – just the everyday, mundane challenges of parenting small children while working. I do have flexibility, a reasonable salary (as a GP anyway, not as a student…) and find meaning in my work. But mostly, I coped because I took things one day at a time. (I had no choice really). And I know that new, different challenges are to come. But I want to pen some encouragement to every parent who is still in that dark, hazy time of raising small children. (Studies show that parents are generally as happy as compared to people without kids, except for those with preschool-aged children. These people are pretty unhappy and stressed). Perhaps you have the dreaded combination of two under two. Perhaps you have a ten-week-old, and have just been through the most difficult ten weeks of your life. Whatever the case may be, I want to say this to you, with all my heart.

Take things one day at a time.  

But make a promise to do your best every day. 

Some days, your best will disappoint you. That’s ok. Be kind to yourself. You’re just doing the best you can, and you’ve never done this before. Every phase makes you an absolute novice at parenting again. But tomorrow is another day.  

Some days will be very dark. This just means you are right in the middle of the tunnel and the light cannot be seen yet. But if you keep moving forward, there is a light. It’s bright and very beautiful. It will make you cry tears of joy.  

Every day, connect at least once with your children, and once with yourself, even if only for a moment before you shut your eyes at night. Be grateful at the end of the day, breathe, and start again tomorrow.  

It’s ok to “lean out” during these years. It’s ok to say you’ve got too much on your plate right now. You have. It’s crazy. But it won’t last forever.  

If the days are too dark, talk to someone straight away.  

One day at a time, the days will roll excruciatingly slowly into weeks, and months, and then a year or two. You will look back and that cliché will escape your lips-  “They are growing up too fast!” Stupid cliché. But it’s true. 

But I know that seems far away now. I know how hard it can be. But don’t blink. Take it all in. 

One day at a time. That’s all you need to do. The best is yet to come, but in some ways the best is with you right now. That’s the exquisite conundrum of parenting.

When you come out of that tunnel, I hope you come out with more joy, less guilt, and no regrets. And eventually you too will be stirring prawn bisque in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand, like me. (If that kind of thing floats your boat). 

x

 

By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
At the very least, photographs of tantrums make for hilarious 21st birthday party slideshows. By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!
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Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!
Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!

At the start of this week I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. I was facing a week of extraordinary juggling of roles and responsibilities, and to put it plainly, I was grumpy. Grumpy that I had so much on, grumpy, even, that I had said yes to some of the things I had. Let’s take a look at the week that was and how it went, because it’s clear from the title of my post that I found unexpected (or perhaps expected) joy in much of what I did.

Monday morning: Go to baking store with four year old. Spend $120 on cake making equipment for her birthday cake. Perhaps I should have outsourced? Never mind. Browsing aisles of coloured fondant and plunger cutters gave me so much glee it almost felt illegal. 

Monday lunchtime: Meeting with Kindergarten teachers about the nut allergy incident from last week. Get handed a bunch of forms to fill out. Brain explodes slightly, but am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this very serious issue, which has now been resolved. 

Monday afternoon: Submit journal article to none less than the Lancet (which has a 99% rejection policy). Get quite excited when I don’t get rejected within the first 3 hours. 

Monday evening: Frost first birthday cake, followed by work on conference presentation until 11pm. Exhausted. 

Tuesday: Clinic. Am grumpy because of impending teleconference at 7:30pm. Think of pulling out. 

Tuesday afternoon: Teleconference cancelled. Mood lifts! Text husband, who immediately suggests we go and watch the Avengers. 

Tuesday night: Go out for dinner and watch Avengers Age of Ultron, which was tolerable because of my favourite character Ironman was in it. Kids are with Mum who is visiting us from interstate. Eat a choc top. Bed at 12:30am. Yawn!

Wednesday morning: Parent helper morning at kindergarten. Bring birthday cake along. Four year old is very excited, says it is a “really special day”. Listen to some awful knock knock jokes. Learn some Italian songs. Four year old cries when I leave, makes quite a scene. Wonder if I have done the right thing.

Wednesday afternoon: Supervision meeting with my Honours student, followed by practice presentation for upcoming conference talk. Get lots of “feedback”. Realise I have to change half my presentation. Brain starts to throb slightly. 

Wednesday evening: intend to go for a run but am too tired. In bed when the kids go to sleep. Paper is still not rejected by the Lancet! Get a glimmer of hope. 

Thursday morning: Work on presentation. 

Thursday afternoon: Hairdresser appointment. Finish reading Brene Brown’s book. 

Thursday evening: Run followed by dinner and then frost second birthday cake which, to my relief, was a success. Fondant is easier than I thought to work with! Why have I not done this before? Consider offering to make birthday cakes for our our friends and family. Slap myself a little bit. 

Friday morning: Paper is rejected by the Lancet. Resubmit to another journal. 

Friday lunchtime: Give a tutorial. Thoroughly enjoy being around “young people”. Their jokes are funny! Feel a little bit young again. Also feel thankful that I had my grey highlights covered the day before. 

Friday afternoon: Home early to make decorations from fondant with my four year old, to put on the cake. The cake is finally done and all ready for the big party on the weekend! 

Well that was my week. Looking back, it was such a wonderful and full week, and I came out of it feeling really really good. Why? Because I had made the decision to make every single scrap of my day count, to spend it only doing things that were meaningful, rejuvenating, important, or that would make someone else important to me happy (or me happy). And the teleconference, for a voluntary position on a committee, was one of the things I had reluctantly said yes to but felt that I shouldn’t. Once that was taken out of the equation for the week, the rest of my week was authentic, honest and very satisfying, inasmuch as it involved jumping (leaping?) from one role to another.

I feel like I am giving an Oscar speech now, because I cannot do this juggling without flexibility. The nature of what I do is not time-based but outcome-based. This makes my week very flexible, apart from my clinic day, and allowed me to take two hours off to volunteer to sharpen pencils at kindergarten. Of course it’s not about sharpening pencils but about doing something that meant a lot to my daughter. But yes, thank you flexibility, and may you grace the work weeks of everyone else.

I also cannot do this juggle without a healthy disdain for meals that require hours of preparation. Meals this week consisted of baked salmon (in the oven and off to the gym!) and tacos with grilled pork and guacamole. In the big picture, time doing things I love is more important than spending hours in the kitchen, but I still do pump out home-cooked meals for every single weeknight.

Thirdly, sleep. I skimped on it for the first two nights and started to feel pretty grizzly. Then amazing after catching up on sleep. Sleep is the working mama’s secret ingredient.

Fourthly, fun and self care. Respect for the “date night”. Making the time in a busy week to get my hair done. I’ve given lip service to self care before and this week I had to force myself to pay attention to it (or rather the state of my hair forced me).

And lastly. The realisation that I am juggling very very good things and even things that bring me joy. Sitting in on an kindergarten Italian lesson and laughing at four-year-old jokes? Joy. Making birthday cakes? Joy. Even the tutorial, tacked on to the end of the week and seen as yet another time stealer, was joyful because I was teaching, and because it was fun. So I am filled with joy and gratitude, on this Saturday morning, for the week that was. An amazing week of work and love. And choc-tops. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a birthday party to organise :)

PS. Sunday evening. Party was a success. I cannot believe she is almost five. They do grow up fast… after the toddler years :)

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Two days ago, during a meeting, I got the dreaded phone call from kindergarten.

“She’s had an anaphylactic reaction”, they said. “The ambulance is on its way. How soon can you get here?”

It turns out they meant an allergic reaction, thankfully, but still that call was enough to send my heart pounding, and see me racing to collect my things in a slightly delirious haste, and run out the door.

But even though this unfortunate mistake of both kindergarten parent who sent birthday party food in with nuts accidentally, and teacher who didn’t check, meant that my child’s face swelled up and she threw up three times, I am grateful, once crises are over, that they come along at all.

I am grateful because nothing puts your true priorities into focus more blindingly than the experience of running down the street desperately trying to hail a taxi so you can get to your sick child’s side.

At that moment, it’s crystal clear what’s really important. And I’m ashamed to say that of late, it is mostly these crises that remind me. I tend to forget and become focussed on what doesn’t really matter. Just that morning I had a thought, as I scurried around Uni doing this and that, being “busy”, that I was so absorbed in work that I wasn’t really living the moment.

But during an emergency, I suddenly remember.

My laptop and what’s on it isn’t the most important thing. I couldn’t care less at that point.

Money isn’t the most important thing.

Having clean floors is definitely not important.

The most important, the dearest and most precious things to me, are the people that I love, and making them happy and safe. Being with them. 

Health is important. So valuable and so underappreciated, until it’s gone.

Time is important. Time to spend with the cherished ones in your life. Living each moment to its fullest.

I’m not saying that it’s good to live with crisis after crisis, unresolved; this is extremely stressful and damaging and sadly, is the reality for many people. Neither am I suggesting that we should neglect planning for the future, and managing our finances. These things clearly are necessary, though they tend to pale in comparison when the safety of a loved one is at stake. Who would rather have lots of money in the bank than be able to hold a frightened but healthy and alive child in their arms, or speak to Mum on the phone to hear that her biopsy results were all normal?

Our little crisis settled quickly, with the help of antihistamines, the reassurance of the nice paramedics, and lots of TLC. The appropriate steps have been initiated to strengthen the policy around not bringing nuts in. The poor parent rang me to apologise from the bottom of her heart, which I appreciated.

Crises like these are what I call my “reset” button. All the rubbish that was building up in my head is now cleared. I’m back on track again. But I don’t want to rely on crises to help me rethink my priorities, so I’m (re) starting a daily gratitude practice, to ensure that I’m fully appreciating and living every single day instead of missing out. Because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

What about you? What helps you to “reset” your priorities?

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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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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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When my daughter turned four, I asked for birthday gift ideas. One was for a fairy door. A miniature door attached to the wall, where imaginary fairies emerge from. Given she is a huge fan of fairies in general, I went with this idea. Instead of ordering a $35 door marketed as a fairy door, I thought I would order a dolls house internal door (a hack I read about on the internet). I found a dolls house store on eBay and ordered a white wicker outdoor chair, a door knob, and some adorable accessories like a tiny broomstick, but yep, you guessed it, I forgot to order The Actual Door.

That was nine months ago.

Since then, “Order door” has been on my to-do list, but it has consistently made it to the bottom of the list below “Pay car insurance bill” and “Fill out kindy forms”. In other words, it became non-important, non-urgent. Time and time again that door order was bumped right to the bottom while I swashbuckled my way through a year of being a full-time PhD student, GP and mama. I wrote papers. I organised workshops. I took my kids to the dentist, allergist, and cardiologist. I analysed data. I did Christmas. And that fairy door was faithfully transferred from one list to the next, never quite making it up there. Until today.

Last night I awoke suddenly to a realisation. My daughter is going to be five soon. Before I know it, she will be six. Then seven. Then a teenager. Slowly, and yet not slowly enough, she is changing. She says Sesame Street is boring. She only wants to play with her friends (not me). She spends a lot of time alone in her room playing by herself. Life isn’t going to stop for us – the dentist appointments (sadly) will continue, the bills will keep coming in, my career will continue to burgeon and demand my attention. I will have school lunches to pack, recitals to attend, pap smears to get done (yay!)

One day I might wake up and it might be too late for that fairy door. That tiny piece of wood with six panels will only be that to her – a piece of wood. Not a magical doorway into fairyland and her imagination. That poor neglected door might finally arrive, if I ever get down to the bottom of my to-do list (it’s like the laundry – virtually impossible to clear) and she might not care a hoot for it. Non-important and non-urgent. But today, it went to the top of my list. Important and Urgent.

Urgent because time is passing as I busy myself with the tasks of raising a family and building a career, as we see birthdays, Christmas and Easter come and go each year like the ebb and flow of an unceasing tide. Tree goes up, tree goes down. Presents are wrapped and unwrapped. Each year marking a little bit more of a loss of this precious time, when imagination is at its peak, when my little girl starts every sentence with “Pretend I am…”

When will she stop pretending? When will she no longer believe in fairies and unicorns? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be too late.

So today, after taking a pause in the middle of writing yet another paper, I ordered the fairy door. And two tiny cat bowls (fairies have cats, don’t they?) A miniature pink mail-box, where she can put a tiny note to the fairies in. And a side table to go with that white wicker chair. (I almost ordered a set of four little celebration cakes and a miniature flower pot but I sensibly stopped myself).

Any day now, that door will arrive in the mail. We’ll paint it and put it up on the wall together with the fairy’s chair and table. And she’ll wait each morning to see what the fairy has done overnight. Eventually she’ll get bored of it and it will be forgotten. But not before I’ve had the chance to enjoy, to fully embrace, the marvel of childhood. The simplicity, the innocence, the beauty of this short time, before the fairy doors and unicorns and dolls and teddies are given away and packed in boxes and my children emerge into independent adults who no longer believe that fairies exist.

So much of child-rearing is important but not urgent. Today I learned that much of it is more urgent than we think. Over in a heartbeat, they say. During the long difficult baby and toddler months and years, this seems ludicrous, but the older my children get, the more I am appreciating it.

Important, and Urgent.

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By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Time is a funny thing. When I became a parent, and then a working parent, it became a precious commodity. I am obsessed with it. Each half-hour of my life is carefully plotted out on an Outlook calendar. Like Annabel Crabb, I use the whole day like an Italian farmer uses every scrap of the pig. One thing was sure – I never feel like I have enough of it. Time, that is. But then odd things sometimes happen – I will fall into a pocket of free time, and not know what to do with it. And, coming across a tiny patch of “leisure time”, I do what any other adult with a smartphone would do – check Facebook. Or Twitter. Click on a link and read funny “Engrish” signs or watch cat videos on Youtube. Which is all very entertaining, and I do subscribe to the idiom “laughter is the best medicine”, but watching another video of a cat on a Roomba is surely not the best way to spend my life and fill up those empty “windows” that pop up unexpectedly – like when the kids are playing quietly instead of fighting over me. Additionally, I have started to become more anxious, with self-doubt starting to rise again. I felt rushed, but also like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Yesterday I read a quote by Carl Sandburg that went

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you”. 

This was my first “aha!” moment for the year. I am going to manage my time firstly by living the life that I want to live, that I am meant to live – not the life I think I should live, or what others think I should  (though I am always open to suggestions). I can only be who I am – and that includes being a mother to two (currently small) children, and someone who doesn’t (yet) possess superhuman skills. Me with all my unique talents, quirks, personality traits, aptitudes, shortcomings, weaknesses and commitments. I am certain that this alone is enough to allow me to lead a wonderful life. I think the anxiety arising from feeling pressured to be someone else was contributing to the sense of feeling rushed and not having time, and paradoxically, driving me to hide in non-threatening activities like socialising on Facebook. I am going to be me, but will aim to be the best version of me that I can be. And that version will involve a little more reflection, learning, integrity, self-compassion, and that elusive concept, balance. I will attend to Quadrant II – important but not urgent activities. I will exercise conscious choice and cease the habit of reacting that I have slipped back into. Time is no longer something to be managed, but something to be spent wisely. So, I should really re-title this post “How I Plan On Spending My Time”.

I leave you with some words from Steve Jobs.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

 

What about you? Do you feel as though you are spending your time the way you should? How do you decide how to spend your time? 

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