Advice for PhD Parents: 7 tips on balancing family with study

To access the full blog posts in the series “Advice for PhD Parents: 7 tips on balancing family with study”, please follow the links below:

Our cleft story

Let your smile change the world, never let the world change your smile. It’s Cleft Lip & Palate Awareness Week, and these photos tell the story of Stanley’s first op, at 3 months old. His first, and second, smile.

I miss that first cheeky smile, the first smile that we fell in love with, a smile I will never forget, a smile that we didn’t want to let go, and a smile that I hope he is proud of as he grows older. Our Cleft Nurse always told us to take photos, take plenty of photos, and we certainly did! Our house is surrounded with reminders of this first cheeky smile. The emotions you go through regarding the change in appearance is immense. It was something that people tried to prepare us for, but something that we could never imagine until the little man arrived.

Although we knew it was the right thing to do, there was a part of us that didn’t want him to have that op… we didn’t want him to change. We treasured every cheeky smile of those first three months, and handing him over to his surgeon, Jonathan, was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.


Stanley’s smile was in his hands, and those hours that we waited, hours of pacing up and down the hospital corridors, they felt like a lifetime. But Jonathan is an incredible surgeon, and an amazing guy – Stanley couldn’t have been in better hands. We are super lucky to have had a second cheeky smile to fall in love with all over again.

“This could be perfect for you…”

My PhD supervisor is pretty awesome. I actually feel super lucky to have her. I’m in the final year of the PhD, currently on maternity leave, and she has got in touch to let me know about *the* perfect job opportunity. So, we’re meeting for coffee today (along with Nora), to discuss!

I say the job is perfect, it’s *almost* perfect. The only thing that lets it down is the location. It would mean a 1.5-2hr commute each way. That’s an extra 3-4hrs away from the little ones each day. It’s funny how my priorities have changed, and how in looking for a job, things like this come first. My first thought now is always – how will this work around our family? 

This limits job opportunities massively – we don’t live in a big city, and so the chance of getting a research job in my field within a nice distance would be pretty rare. I am used to travelling to work, the drive itself doesn’t bother me, it is purely the time it takes away from the little ones, especially when it’s likely to mean missing bedtimes.

On another note, this also puts extra pressure on my husband (not that he would think so, I’m sure), but he would have so much more to deal with alone. Pickups from nursery or the grandparents… bedtime routines… and whilst these may seem like small, simple things, I am more than aware of how difficult they can be at times. They can be difficult when there are two of you, let alone having to face them alone all of the time!

The job is a 2-year contract, so perhaps I could cope with the travel for 2 years. I wonder, what would I regret more – missing so many bedtimes that I can’t get back, or passing up a potential dream research job? For us, moving closer to the job isn’t an option. It’s not easy for us to pack up and move now we have 2 little ones to consider, and when we have all of our family close by. 

But anyway, before I think about these things too much… if I am going to even apply the job, I need to find time to do so! How do you manage that with a 5-week-old, and a toddler?! I barely manage to find the time to feed myself, let alone do something that requires actual brain power – applying for a job!

How do I apply for a job with baby brain?! I haven’t even looked at my CV in the 3 years I’ve been doing the PhD, and updated it with all that I have done! In just applying for this job, I have so much to do. I have around 2 weeks to figure this out. Two weeks may sound like a lot of time to apply for just one job. But, when you take out feeding Nora, feeding Stanley, changing nappies, sleeping, trying to console Stanley, time spent being unable to move because baby is (finally) sleeping on me, time spent trying to work out why she is crying, trying to get wind up, playing with Stanley, sterilising bottles, attending appointments, and the monumental task that is leaving the house… when you factor in all of this, and the fact that I only have 2 hands, I am left with zero time.

You may wonder how I manage to write blog posts, update Twitter, or post to Instagram… why can’t I use this time to apply for the job, or dare I say it, do some actual PhD work? Well, these things require little brain power, and little time. They only require one hand on my phone whilst the other is holding a sleeping Nora… and, I can just about manage these things one-handed whilst I am laying in bed at 3am and giving Nora her bottle! What’s more? I think this serves as some kind of therapy… an outlet… for time spent trying to juggle all of these things and barely keeping any of it together! 

Here’s hoping my supervisor has some words of wisdom for this afternoon…!

’cause boys don’t cry

As Stanley gets older, I am becoming ever more aware of gender stereotypes, and the world I don’t want him to grow up in. Guess what… Stanley has a pink Frozen microphone. Why? Because he loves Frozen. He loves to sing. He loves his pink microphone. Stanley also has dolls and a pushchair. Why? Because he loves to play with dolls. He loves to take them for a walk in the pushchair. He loves to feed them. He loves to look after them. He doesn’t have these toys just because they were mine as a child, he has them because he enjoys them. He has them because we have bought them especially for Stanley. 

This week, Stanley lied. He lied about the fact that he had dolls… because he was questioned. “These aren’t yours are they Stanley?… boys don’t play with dolls… What are you doing buying dolls then?” My heart broke. My 2 year old boy, lying, because he was questioned over playing with a doll. What is this teaching him? That boys don’t play with dolls. That boys don’t look after babies. That boys can’t be caring, and emotional. That dads don’t have the same roles in bringing up children as mum do. Stanley has also been called a “princess” because of his Frozen microphone. 

Stanley is 2 years old. He is doing what he loves… and even if that means dressing up as Elsa, then so what? It scares me that people are giving him these messages, and that he is taking them in. I want him to be strong. I want him to be confident. I don’t want him to feel that he has to lie. Instead, I want him to question others – “what’s wrong with playing with dolls?” I want him to stand up proudly, doll held aloft, in some sort of “Rafiki and Simba” pose, shouting “yes! These are my dolls, and I enjoy playing with them!

I want our children to do what they love, to feel confident in liking whatever it is they like, regardless of what other people think they “should” or “shouldn’t” based on gender. Stanley loves football, and Spiderman, and playing with toy cars. Stanley also loves dolls, a pink Frozen microphone, and he likes to copy mummy in playing with mummy’s make up. I hope that as Nora grows up, she equally enjoys doing all of these things too, and isn’t made to feel that she can only enjoy pink toys! The whole pink and blue differentiation really bugs me, and we have even tried to stay clear of the typical blue clothes for Stanley and pink clothes for Nora. Instead, we choose colourful clothes… and what’s even better? Unisex clothes… we love love love Little Bird by Jools!

I also notice the gender stereotypes in behaviour. Stanley has started to like fighting (and this is partly influenced by others teaching him that boys like fighting!) As a result, Stanley now wants to play fight. He wants his Spiderman and Iron Man toys to fight. This isn’t ok with me when it becomes aggressive, and when it starts to influence Stanley’s behaviour… when it isn’t “play” anymore. It is not ok for Stanley to be aggressive, or fight, simply because he is “a boy”. It is no more ok for Stanley to fight, than it would be for Nora to fight. In the same way, it is no more wrong for Stanley to play with dolls, than it is for Nora. It is no more acceptable for Stanley to hit another child, than it would be for Nora. Similarly, it would be no more acceptable for Stanley to hit another boy, than it would be for him to hit a girl. But, people don’t see it this way. We have been told that if the boys were to play “rough” around Nora when she’s older, then it wouldn’t be accepted… but if Nora isn’t around, then this is fine. 

In addition, there are times when Stanley has been upset, when he has been crying, and people have told him not to cry. Why? Because “big boys don’t cry“. Again, what is this teaching him? That boys can’t have emotions. That if he gets upset, he shouldn’t show it. On the other hand, if it was Nora in the same situation, it would be perfectly acceptable for her cry. Perhaps, as a female, it is quite the opposite if you don’t show emotion. From personal experience, and being somewhat emotionally inhibited, I have been called “cold”, “shy”, and “ignorant”. I wonder if the same would be said for a man who didn’t show emotion for every situation? I want Stanley to know that big boys do cry. I want him to know that boys can show their emotions too, just as equally as girls can. Showing and sharing your emotions is healthy, regardless of gender, and it is so important for Stanley to learn this.

All of these issues are based on gender. Why are we teaching children that it is ok for boys to show aggression, but not girls? Why can’t we teach them that aggressive behaviour is always wrong? Why are we teaching children that it’s not okay for boys to cry? Why can’t we teach them that showing emotion is a good thing, regardless of gender? I am scared that no matter how much I try to instil my beliefs in Stanley and Nora, that they will be influenced by the world, and the people, around them. I want to live in a world where these gender stereotypes don’t exist. Where Stanley can be free to do whatever he likes, regardless of his gender. But, I fear we are still a long way from this.

1 month old; crying, co-sleeping, formula feeding, not sleeping through the night, and I don’t care!

I was so proud of you for bottle feeding” – how often do you hear those words? I was told this the other day and for the first time, I felt proud of myself. I wasn’t made to feel ashamed of the choices I made, I felt confident. The pressure as a mum to breastfeed is unbelievable, and the guilt for not doing so is almost unbearable. So much so, that I felt the need to lie to people, or to explain my way out of why I wasn’t exclusively breastfeeding. Some people simply don’t have a choice. Others have a choice, and still choose not to. We are all doing what is best for us. So long as mum and baby are happy – so long as baby is fed and healthy – why does it matter? There is so much to feel scared, guilty, or unsure about as a new mum, why add to these feelings, and make someone feel even more guilty over the way that they are feeding?

Stanley was diagnosed with a cleft at our 20 week scan, so we knew prior to his arrival that breastfeeding may simply be impossible. As such, I hand expressed colostrum antenatally so that if he couldn’t latch on when born, at least he could have this via a syringe. As we anticipated, he really struggled to latch on, but we had a jolly good go at it over his first few weeks. Life pretty much revolved around feeding when he arrived – it could sometimes take a good couple of hours to feed him with his special squeezy bottles, and if he wasn’t being fed via the bottle, I would be expressing, or attempting to breastfeed. We had so much wonderful help with breastfeeding, and expressing, but it was so difficult, and Stanley would get so frustrated. We used a combination of pretty much everything during this time – he was syringe fed, cup fed, bottle fed, breastfed, and fed with formula! But eventually, after a few weeks we accepted the fact that formula feeding with his squeezy bottles were the way forward. Everything else was just too much. Formula feeding was less stressful on everybody. I felt so incredibly guilty making this decision, and prolonged making the decision because of the guilt, but when I finally did, I also felt a sense of relief. Things suddenly became easier, mostly because I was more relaxed and Stanley was spending less time frustrated! At this point, I told myself that if I was ever in a similar position again, and breastfeeding wasn’t working out (for whatever reason), I wouldn’t put us through that stress again – at least not for as long as I did with Stanley. 

I also expressed antenatally before Nora arrived (as a result of being diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes, and colostrum helping with blood sugars)… and I also hoped that I would exclusively breastfeed. However, with the rush of her arrival, we forgot to take the expressed colostrum to hospital with us, and as such, when she failed her second blood sugars, a midwife asked us if she could give Nora some formula. My response? Of course! This poor midwife appeared almost reluctant to ask us about formula feeding, as though we would have been offended by her suggestion to do such a thing! If it is going to help her blood sugars… why the hell wouldn’t we want what’s best for her? Yes, in an ideal world we would have remembered to bring the colostrum to hospital… but that’s life. Here started the guilt again (I am learning that feeling guilty is a permanent feeling when you’re a mum)! Both me and Carl (hubby), were feeling incredibly guilty about forgetting the colostrum… perhaps her blood sugars would have been okay if only we had remembered to bring it. As a result of this, I was combination feeding from the offset with Nora – breast, bottle, syringe, cup, formula, expressing… doing all that I could! I did this for the first couple of weeks, but breastfeeding just wasn’t going as I had hoped. Nora was struggling… I was struggling… it was painful… and so I made the same decision to stop. I expressed what I could manage, but since then, she has been purely formula fed. 

Despite what we went through with Stanley, and telling myself that I wouldn’t put us through the stress again, I still did (albeit for not quite so long). I still felt incredibly guilty about making the decision to stop expressing… to stop trying to breastfeed… guilty for giving up on her and not providing her with “the best”. It’s tough, especially with the pressure from other people. I was repeatedly questioned on my choice of feeding Nora (by one midwife in particular) whilst in hospital… it felt as though I was doing the wrong thing. After giving birth, with hormones all over the place, and already feeling guilty over a number of different things… you simply don’t need the added pressure from others.

What a relief it was when I finally met a community midwife that, in response to telling her how Nora is being fed, told me: “stop! I don’t need to know anymore! I don’t care what you’re doing, so long as you’re happy and baby is ok“! Funnily enough, this midwife had a grandson with a cleft, so perhaps she had more awareness of the struggles of feeding and what we had to go through. But, why don’t more people have this outlook? If a new mum can’t, or simply chooses not to, breastfeed… make her feel proud too! Whatever you do, whether you have a choice or not, you are doing the best for your little one… and so long as they are happy, who cares! 

Sleeping. “Is she good for you?” A question that I, along with all other parents of newborns, are repeatedly asked. This question usually translates to: “is she sleeping for you?”. I have also had (in Nora’s mere 3 weeks of life!): “Is she sleeping through yet?”! She is 3 weeks old, and I am glad that she isn’t sleeping through… she needs her food! It scares me to hear people proudly announce that their baby slept through the night from birth. Newborn babies need feeding regularly, and particularly in their first few nights. People thought we were crazy when Stanley was born… we set our alarm during the night to ensure that he wasn’t going too long between feeds (not that we needed an alarm!)

Co-sleeping. Before Stanley arrived into the world, I was convinced that we wouldn’t co-sleep. The thought of it petrified me because I thought that this was one of the most unsafe things that we could do. How my outlook changed when Stanley arrived! I now know that it can be safe to co-sleep, so long as you follow the advice, and as such, we spent much of Stanley’s first year co-sleeping. He simply wouldn’t settle elsewhere (possibly because of the amount of skin-to-skin we had). Stanley pretty much became another limb during the day, and so how could we expect this to change at night?! When Stanley transitioned to his big bed, we started to lay with him until he falls asleep. The time it takes for him to fall asleep (and us being in his bed) has gradually reduced… and the time at which he wakes up and runs through to our bed has gradually got later. To start with, he would sometimes wake up before midnight and end up in our bed, but now… he sleeps through usually until 5 or 6am. With Nora, we knew of the likelihood of co-sleeping again, but wanted to make it a bit easier (and possibly safer) on us all this time. As such, we bought the Snuggle Nest. We are in love with the Snuggle Nest! It fits nicely between us in bed, and is easy to carry around the house, or take out with us. We even manage to squeeze the four of us in bed with the Snuggle Nest (admittedly it’s a bit of squeeze!), and Stanley loves it! Stanley loves climbing in with Nora, and he loves to press the button for the music when Nora starts to cry!

Crying. (Not!) surprisingly… Nora cries. Mostly, this is when she struggles with wind and reflux (or if we’re not quite quick enough with milk!) – but this doesn’t make her a “bad” or “difficult” baby. Yes, it can be hard, especially when you can clearly see that she is in pain, but this is not her fault. This doesn’t make Nora difficult – this means it is difficult for her, and difficult for us to see and not be able to help. She is a new baby, getting to grips with lots of new things, and this isn’t easy. The sensations that she feels are all new to her, and as our GP said, some babies just make more of a meal out of things than others: “oh look at me everyone… I’m having a poo now, and I want you all to know about it!” So yes, she cries, and sometimes a lot(!), but this is just part of being a newborn baby… not that she is “bad”. 

What do we do in response to Nora (and Stanley) crying? We cuddle them, and make sure that they know we are there for them. No matter what the reason… whether Nora is crying for food, or attention… or Stanley is crying because he’s been told no, or is scared… I want them to know that we will always be there for them. So, I am always there for a cuddle, no matter what, we love them all the same.

Advice for PhD parents: #7 be kind to yourself

Sometimes, you just need to breathe (and getting some Headspace may help with this)! Remember, nobody is perfect and whatever happens, you are doing the best you can, and that is really all that matters. You are doing what works for you, your family, and your PhD. With the PhD, opportunities will come and go, and whilst you can make the most out of what you are offered – don’t stress about them if they are simply too difficult. Bigger and better opportunities will likely come along as you progress through your career, so be kind to yourself. With your children, on the other hand, you simply cannot go back in time. Enjoy them whilst they are little, and try not to stress. Don’t guilt trip yourself – you are doing amazing!


To all the PhD parents, to all the academic parents, to all the parents that juggle both studying and being a “full-time mummy / daddy”… and to those that are there to support them along the way… this is for you. Be kind to yourself, and enjoy the ride! You are doing an awesome job! What is greater than having accomplished both a PhD, and a happy family life (however long it may take!)?

Advice for PhD parents: #6 be proud that are you are both a parent and studying

You can never ultimately completely separate being a parent, and studying. “We are all full-time mummies (or daddies!)” – and this is what makes it hard. Whether we are unemployed, work from home, or go out to work for 40 hours or more per week… we are all full-time parents. We never have a break from being a parent, as Harriet (from Toby & Roo) points out. There is never a moment that Stanley or Nora are out of my mind. When Stanley first came along, I thought that going into the office would give me the space and freedom to focus purely on the PhD, but I soon realised that it wasn’t quite this simple. You can’t shut off from being a mum. Whether it’s worrying about how Stanley is doing at childcare, feeling guilty for leaving him, or just subconsciously thinking of him – there is never a moment that he is not with me.


What you can do, is be proud. Be proud that you are doing a PhD. Be proud that you are a parent. I feel that I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do both of these. I hope that by studying, whilst being a parent, I can instil some kind of good message in my children. I like to talk to Stanley about what I do, and get him involved (as much as I possibly can). I want my children to see how proud I am of what I am doing, and how much I enjoy what I do. I try to do little things, like taking him into the office for an hour or two (Stanley has had many trips to the labs!), or set him up with his own little computer (he likes to pretend to do his “work” too!), and I try to make him feel as though he is helping out when I can! Start them young and show them the enjoyment of learning.

There is also a fab book “My Mum Studies – Just Like Me”, that follows a child’s experience of having a mum who studies (written by Dr Bailey Bosch, and stemming from her own PhD research). It is fantastically written, and although it is most likely aimed at school-aged children, I still enjoy reading this with Stanley! Definitely worth a purchase if you are both a parent, and studying.