On PhD, parenting, and having it all: A view from a “PhD mum”

By Sara Benceković, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography.

Parenting and simultaneously pursuing a doctorate degree is the ultimate conversation-stopper. Very few of my fellow PhD students identify with the world of a parenting PhD candidate, and they struggle to find a compassionate reply to continue the discussion. This made me think more broadly about the theme of parents at universities, and why the doctoral space remains, by and large, a parent-free zone. Why is parenting in such a seeming antithesis to the participation in higher education? Furthermore, how can we create a more inclusive university, and a more inclusive doctoral program? What constitutes the supportive infrastructure, which can uphold and encourage a PhD parent to remain dedicated to their research? I have chosen to do a PhD as the idea of making an original contribution to the field of financial geography resonates with me closely. When I started the journey, however, little did I know that the PhD project is not only about making the contribution to the knowledge of the discipline, but also to the knowledge of how to do the PhD itself. The goal of this blog post is to offer a personal portrayal of the transition to PhD parenthood, as well as to provide some modest remarks on how to remain connected to one’s research, and what resources at TCD one can draw upon for support along the way.

Doing a PhD is no small feat in the best of circumstances. However, managing a PhD with kids is a supreme challenge. While my pre-kids doctoral work would revolve around library and office visits, as well as long hours at the computer, my academic work now requires me to make use of small pockets of time and work in more creative ways. To illustrate, what follows is a snapshot of my day as a “PhD mom”. Early mornings are crucial. My day starts at 5 a.m., so I could get a few hours of some serious writing in before the kids wake up. If I can get a couple of hours for my work first thing in the morning, I feel less anxious through the day when our routine gives way to unforeseen plights, such as teething, fever, or anything else that makes a baby stuck to me for the rest of the day. At 7 a.m., I start meal-prepping for the day. This is when I turn to podcasts and thinking-time. This is one of the ways in which being a parent contributed to my work; by attempting to weave academic tasks into my daily routine, I diversified my information sources and learned to work through problems while conducting routine housework or minding children. This often amounts to more thinking-time than during hours I have spent blankly starring at the screen. However, some of the tasks surely

became more time-consuming and challenging. Writing is one of them. Typing takes much less time than hand-writing; however, have you ever tried opening a laptop in front of a child? It is a sure way to grab their attention, make them stop their play, and start climbing all over you in an attempt of reaching the dazzling, flashing screen. Take a note here to back up your data, as the day when the kids will successfully reach your laptop will come! For these reasons, I write in a notebook rather than even try to turn the computer on. This takes time and figuring out how to re-organize oneself now that digital folders are out of the picture. Around 8 a.m. the kids are up.  It takes time before the two are changed, washed up, dressed and ready for breakfast. We have just started solids, so breakfast is as messy as it can be. I sit with them, try to eat but spend the majority of the time watching that they don’t put too many grapes in their mouth or choke on the toast. After the breakfast, we cuddle and play. This is a fun-filled part of the day when work is out of the picture, up until their next nap. I mostly relax and indulge in the play, but sometimes this is hard. Your time and your mental energy are divided. Competing priorities of undertaking a study whilst also managing a happy home life can be overwhelming. Sometimes nap time feels like a friend in need, especially with deadlines approaching. Indeed, during those naps I power-write for anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours how long the nap lasts. When up from their nap, my twins will play together. I work in the room beside their playroom, to keep them in sight and intervene when they start fighting or simply need a cuddle. During this time, I manage to work on those simple but time-consuming tasks – inputting data, making tables, drawing maps, referencing, and alike. Focusing on reading and writing needs to happen in children-free time. Herewith, I need a mix of formal childcare and partner’s help to carve out time on my own to work on these aspects of my thesis. I am lucky that my partner, as a medical professional, works in 12 hour blocks, which also means fewer days per week of work for him and more days per week of PhD work for me. Furthermore, this is the point in time when Ireland is launching National Childcare Scheme, which will reduce the childcare costs and I will have my twins looked after by a crèche soon enough. Finally, communities of neighbors and fellow parents are indispensable. My next-door neighbor has now fully taken on my dog-walking duties, so that task is off the table. Additionally, I attend several playgroups where parents go in the room next door for coffee and chat, except I do notebook and work.

With this, I come to the question from my title. Can we have it all? Do universities provide space for parents? Does higher education validate parents, their choices and experience? As examples from my studies have repeatedly shown, work can be exploitative, blocking different ways of living and closing off choices. Does the same apply to PhD work? In one of the brilliant podcasts I have been listening during one of the meal-prep mornings, Dr. Tara Brabazon made a point about doctoral research that resonates with me – select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect and respect your journey. In 2013, TCD made a big step towards becoming a parent-friendly university by devising a Policy on Supports for Student Parents, Student Carers and Students Experiencing Pregnancy. In the Policy, TCD expresses its commitment to equality of opportunity for all its students, and that it is cognizant of the impact of diverse demands on its students in their individual lives and with their families and dependents. The Policy goes on to lay down guidelines for good practice in the TCD’s provision for those students who become pregnant or who have parental or caring responsibilities. Some of the guidelines include a range of flexible accommodations to assist such students in balancing their responsibilities at the university and at home, such as family-friendly timetables and facilities for students with young children.

It is reassuring to see that TCD is committing itself towards addressing PhD-parents unique circumstances with consideration and compassion by setting up these ‘infrastructures of care’. Be that as it may, what is happening in academic life in general, and specifically to PhD-parents, reveals an acute problem in higher education. PhD parents are competing with other researchers working overtime on a regular day, for a shrinking pool of academic jobs that are looking for an ever more specific skillset. Indeed, I have had to make peace with shorter office hours than my colleagues. I have had to learn to accept that there are times when attending seminars, conferences and other professional and social networking opportunities is not possible without unreasonable sacrifices at home. Why is it all worth it? Moreover, why is it all even more worth it now that I have kids? A PhD is special.  Not many people have one; it is a rare and special achievement. And now, my daughters are growing up seeing me doing something special and something I’ll be proud to receive on a stage with my girls watching from the audience. This is a fantasy I imagine when things all seem too much.

Sara Benceković is a PhD researcher on the GEOFIN project (https://geofinresearch.eu/).

PhD parenting blog - photo

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