Why It is Possible (and Beautiful) To Combine Motherhood and a PhD
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.
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?
4 thoughts on “Why It is Possible (and Beautiful) To Combine Motherhood and a PhD”
Nice post with a ring of truth. But what about being a single mother and starting a foreign PhD. Is this possible at all?
I am a PhD in Biochemistry and a mother too. I am from Italy but I leave in the Netherlands since two years form now. I just had my baby girl two and half months ago. I am still on maternity leave and in January I’ll back to work.
I wanted to ask you if you have some practical suggestions to give me on how to combine these two hard works (being a mother and the PhD).
I am finding really difficult to survive the lack of sleep (even though I am lucky, my daughter sleeps 6-7 hours every night, still for me is really tiring). Moreover, I am in a field that I did not really study during my bachelor and master (I’m a chemist and now I am doing lots of biology) and for me it’s hard to always learn again from scratch everything. Finally, I would like to have another baby in a couple of years (which means I’ll be towards the end of my PhD but still not done yet) do you think it’s doable? You have two kids, when did you have then? Both during your PhD?
Please let me know what was your experience in practice during your PhD, it would be really nice for me to share our experiences and to learn from you some tips and tricks :)