How to Finish a PhD while Raising Small Children, and Keep Your Sanity Part 2: Mind Management
Well, hello there! I feel very guilty for not following up with Part 2 of this series in a timely manner. Thank you for reading and commenting, and sharing amongst your fellow PhD mothers (and dads). The response to my first post on how to finish a PhD with small children really surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have – I should have known there is such a great need for support and advice during this time. A PhD is daunting even for those without small humans to feed, love, burp, toilet train, and sing to sleep.
Some of you have asked about my children in the context of my PhD journey. When my first child (“Star”) was 8 months old I started working casually as a research assistant on the project that was to be my PhD. It was funded by an NHMRC Grant and based on a pilot study I conducted as a Masters student (I handed in my thesis for that when I was 35 weeks pregnant). My supervisor was the Lead Investigator. Some six months later, my supervisor suggested I turn it into a PhD saying “you just have to write a thesis at the end”. Ha! famous last words. So I officially began a part time PhD with Star as a 15 month old. Two years later I took maternity leave for my second child, “Owl”, for 7 months, then returned part time initially for a few months, later switching to full time for a year.
So here you are, PhD mums and dads – Part 2 of my series on How to Finish a PhD while Raising Small Children (ok, maybe the series will just be two posts. Feel free to let me know in the comments what else you would like to know!) I will apologise that this post is largely written for PhD mums. I recognise that dads play a huge role in children’s lives and often face the same insecurities but I argue that unconscious bias means that the experience of being a PhD dad might be slightly different from being a PhD mum. But I’d love to hear from you about this.
Managing my mind? What do you mean by that?
In my first post I wrote about time management. This is super important. A strategic approach to your very precious time is key to your success. But even if you manage your time like a ninja, you will still have to deal with the thoughts in your head, and ultimately, how they make you feel. So this is about managing your mind (and your emotions, and energy).
1. First, ditch the guilt.
Guilt about not being with your children, guilt about not making them organic purees to eat every day, guilt about handing them over to a carer while you work on your PhD. Being a PhD parent can be incredibly guilt-inducing. There are so many different types of the guilts that we are subjected to. Basically, particularly if you’re a mother, society implies that your role is to stay at home with your cherubs, baking cookies, making play dough, taking them to Gymbaroo, colour coding the nursery, singing nursery rhymes while you cook a nice hot meal for dinner. Not dropping them off at daycare and then heading to the lab. The guilts can come on quite insidiously – a flippant comment from a colleague. An article about Ten Top Craft Activities for your Toddler. My favourite line, said to me by a slightly snarky (non PhD) mum was “Oh, I couldn’t do what you’re doing“. And not meant in the positive way.
I want you to ditch the guilt. I unsubscribed to any social media or newsletters that perpetuated my sense of guilt (think Kidspot, etc). I learned to accept that everyone has opinions and are entitled to them, but it doesn’t mean they are valid, and most of all, they have no business commenting on my decisions. DITCH. THE. GUILT. Hasta la vista, baby. You have every right to choose a meaningful life. You are contributing to knowledge. And motherhood was never designed to be endless years of staring at your baby as it babbles. Mothers all around the world have continued to work, bringing their babies along in a basket on their backs, or leaving them with the village/older children. It’s only in our society, with its peculiar cult of intensive motherhood (look it up…) that we get the guilts about not being with our children all the time.
If you feel guilty about daycare/childcare, please head over to my (somewhat outdated) post on on it.
2. Remember, you are important. Yes, YOU.
Question – who is the most important person in your life? Is it your gorgeous eight-month-old? Your cheeky, rusk-throwing two year old?
No – it’s you. YOU are the most important person in your life.
Look after yourself first. Like, not just because you will be the best version of yourself, and won’t be the crankypants version. Not because you want to be less irritable with the children, more productive with writing etc. Because you deserve to be looked after, as a human being. Repeat after me. I MATTER.
3. Be kind to yourself.
Being a PhD student AND parent is pretty nerve-wracking. You always feel like you’re never “good enough” as a PhD student, there is so much to learn, you’re out of your depth. It’s the same with parenting. You are always dealing with a new stage – once you get over the teething, then there are the tantrums, and the toilet training (why do these things always start with T???). I can’t tell you how many times the phrase “I have no idea what I’m doing” came to me during parenting or PhD-ing.
What helped me immensely was practising self-compassion. I learned to be really kind to myself. I gradually worked to remove the nasty voice in my head that said negative things about my performance at all times of day. Now, there is a gentle, encouraging, and wiser voice that picks me up when I’m down and challenges assumptions when I start going down the rabbit hole of “I suck at this”. I’m so glad, because it turned out I didn’t suck at anything at all – I raised two beautiful children and finished my PhD submitting it one month BEFORE THE DEADLINE and after moving interstate and starting two new jobs.
You do not suck at this. You rock.
4. Get help.
You can’t do this alone. During my PhD candidature I went to my Uni counsellor regularly. She was a very kind woman who sat and listened while I told my stories of woe, overwhelm, insecurity. She validated how I felt. She listened. She understood.
You will no doubt seek support from family and friends, and I hope you are lucky enough to have a loving household setup to support you. But there is something about seeking a professional’s help to walk next to you on this journey that can make all the difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A counsellor, psychologist, your GP are all highly skilled and qualified to help you optimise your mental health. Please see your GP if you are struggling with anxiety or depression (low mood, feel flat all the time, tired, and not enjoying anything any more). I’ve been honest about my own struggles with mental health and I really encourage you to honour yourself by taking care of your mind and emotions. You are important!
5. Take breaks.
It’s exhausting being a PhD parent. You need to take a break from both. Go on holidays (difficult during COVID.. but maybe a staycation). Have fun. Get someone to look after the cherubs so that you can have a day off just to do nothing, or a night off to have dinner with your partner or friends. Take a break from the exhausting grind of nappies, rushing out the door, cleaning up after toddlers, scraping poo off tiny Crocs (true story), and dealing with the pressures of the PhD. At the end of the day, can you steal a quiet moment, even if it’s lying next to your demanding toddler at night, to breathe and connect with yourself? That’s a break too. Go on. You deserve it.
6. The “no regrets” rule.
Throughout my PhD tenure I lived by one rule. Whatever decisions I had to make, I carefully considered if I would regret them years later. This meant that I ended up deciding to do some hard things, but not other hard things. For example, I was struggling with being part time – I just wasn’t getting the traction on my writing that I needed to. But I didn’t want to miss out on some of the lovely aspects of being a parent to small children, like spending the morning in pyjamas, visits to the park and zoo during the week, playdates etc. So I decided to switch to full time but spend a 9 day fortnight on my PhD (and additional work as a GP). One day a fortnight I woke up, didn’t check email, didn’t write, and planned catchups, playdates, play dough, Story Time, whatever it was that I wanted to do with my children. Those were some of the most precious memories of my time with them as tiny children. But it meant that I was also able to progress well on my PhD.
I don’t have a single regret about my time as a PhD mum. (I wax a bit lyrical about it in one post – please note that I had rose-coloured glasses on at this time as I had finally done the bloody thing!!) Well, one. I wish I had been kinder to myself. I wish I had learned how to manage my mind better. I kind of stumbled on it along the way. I am grateful for this experience, because it really highlighted how much I needed to be on the ball to manage my own mental health. Once I realised I had to work on that too, everything fell into place a lot more easily, and I have continued to learn difficult lessons through my postdoc.
Please write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), comment, add your experiences (be aware that the above experience is just one PhD and everyone’s is completely different), give me feedback. Share with your PhD parent friends in case this helps. Maybe it won’t. and that’s ok!
May the Force be with you all!