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!

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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.

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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.

Advice for PhD parents: #5 schedule

Schedule time tor writing, or reading. Schedule a specific “writing day”, so that everyone knows “Thursday’s are for writing”. Schedule a specific time slot for checking your emails each day – and then turn them off! Going somewhere new could help with this. Find a coffee shop to go to and check your emails, and then go to the place you find most productive to write. Different locations for different activities can work. Whilst I know these things are much easier said than done (and I am really not good at sticking with them) – what I do know is that when I do them, I find myself being so much more productive. I just don’t know how to make myself stick with it (… any tips are welcome!)

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When it works, your schedule can be your best friend! And if it doesn’t go to plan (as I know too well), don’t worry – you can always start afresh tomorrow. But, as much as it is important to have a schedule, you need to learn to be flexible, too… in both doing a PhD, and being a parent! I have had so many things thrown at me along both of these journeys, that I have come to accept that nothing ever goes to plan! Expect the unexpected. All you can do is what works for you, and there is always possibility for change. Sometimes, you just have to throw the deadline out of your mind and focus on the here and now, what works for you, and what you can achieve, in that particular time.

A couple of specific scheduling techniques that have worked for me, are the Pomodoro technique, and attending “Shut Up and Write” sessions. If you are not familiar with thie Pomodoro technique, the idea is that you write (work) for 25 minutes without any interruptions, and set yourself a timer for this – this is known as a “Pomodoro”.  When the 25 minutes are up, have a short break (e.g., 5 minutes), and then do another 25 minutes of writing. After you have completed 4 Pomodoros, you then give yourself a longer break (e.g., 30 minutes). When I get in the flow of doing this, I can get so much more writing done! Similarly, “Shut Up and Write” sessions are good for getting focused if you want to add a more social aspect to it, and motivate one another! Your University might hold sessions, you could set one up yourself, or find others online and have a virtual Shut Up and Write session (such as on the the “PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents” Facebook Group that I previously mentioned)!

I guess what I am saying in this post is that I find it works if you clearly divide your time. When you’re being mummy, it’s simply mummy time, with no attempts at trying to squeeze in some PhD work. When you’re working on your PhD, it’s work time. When you set time aside to write, you write. If it’s your scheduled time to check emails – check them only during this time!

Advice for PhD parents: #4 make the most of support around you

Speaking to other parents really helped me out, knowing that I wasn’t the only one that was going through this is reassuring! Being surrounded by PhD students that don’t have the same commitments can be tough, as you can’t help but compare yourself sometimes, but this really does you no favours. You simply cannot compare your situation to anyone else, but speaking to other parents can certainly be useful! If you don’t know of any PhD parents near you, I would seriously consider joining this closed group on Facebook: PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents (of which I am an avid stalker!)

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Childcare is another important factor to get right, which isn’t always easy – particularly due to finances. My little boy is of pre-school age (and I had him four months into the start of my PhD), so I can only talk of my experiences of needing childcare! It’s really important to find someone that you completely trust – leaving them is hard enough as it is, without the added stress of worrying about who you are leaving them with. If you’re lucky to have family / friends around that can help out, they can be a real lifesaver, even if you only call on them to help get you through the final stages, or when times get really tough.

I have never been one of those people that can work in the night when the little one is sleeping, or spend the weekend working whilst I see him and his Daddy having fun. At night, I’m too tired to work, and at the weekends, I don’t want to miss out on family fun – I don’t want to miss out on seeing the most important years of his life. I never work well when the little man is around me either, if he knows I am around – he simply won’t leave me alone, and at the same time I get too distracted by all of the cute things that he does! So, doing the PhD and being a parent at the same time simply doesn’t work for me. I have to keep these two separate, for all our sakes!

But, support isn’t just about childcare. Ask your supervisor for support, it’s what they are there for! I feel incredibly lucky to have such a supportive supervisor, particularly when it has come to the needs of my little man. There have been times when he has joined us for meetings, or we’ve had supervision via Skype rather than in person. There are so many little things that have been accommodated along the way to make life that little bit easier.

Advice for PhD parents: #3 take time off, but don’t give up!

From time to time, take time out for yourself. Go sit in a coffee shop. Go get your hair done. Go to the gym. Watch your favourite shows. Listen to your favourite music. Take up an old hobby. Do absolutely nothing! Whatever it is that makes you happy – go do it! Sometimes, as a parent (or a super-busy PhD Student!), we forget to do things for us, so now and again go treat yourself.

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Sometimes, there may be no other option but to simply “give up” for a while. This could be through illness, or unexpected events in life’s journey. Things creep up on us when we least expect them, and at these times, we need to look after ourselves. If our little ones are unwell, and need to be snuggled up all day watching their favourite shows – let them. There is no point trying to carry on with work when you won’t be able to concentrate, it is sometimes better to simply accept it – accept the fact that you will get no work done. You will only end up even more stressed if you try to work, but can’t possibly cram everything in. Take time off when you need to. Rest when you need to. Look after yourself. Look at life’s unexpected hiccups as opportunities to refresh yourself – to recharge your batteries.

Perhaps nothing significant has happened in your life, but you have simply lost your mojo along the way. Sometimes I just can’t write. I can’t focus. I can’t work. Treat these times in the same way – give yourself some time off from writing – to rest. If needs be, an intentional break from the PhD could prove really useful (if finances allow). You can always come back to the PhD. Come back when you are feeling refreshed and recharged! Parenting can be a rollercoaster. Doing a PhD can be a rollercoaster. Parenting and doing a PhD will no doubt be one hell of a rollercoaster, but you will always get back up.

When times get tough, remember why you started doing the PhD. Little by little, you will get there. Keep going. Don’t give up. You can do this!

Advice for second-time parents; 9 “tips” on preparing a toddler for a sibling

I was recently asked if I could share any tips on preparing our 2-year-old (Stanley) for being a big brother, something I have been working on for the last few months! My initial thought was… I have no clue! What I can tell you, is the numerous things that I have been doing with Stanley over the last 6 months or so, in order to try and prepare him for a new baby coming into the family (induction booked in 2 days!). I really have no idea if any of these will have helped in any way. So “tips”…? I’m not really sure that these can truly be called “tips” (or whether I can even say this is classed as worthy “advice”!), since I am yet to have an outcome. But, I can at least talk you through some ideas that we had, and perhaps I’ll have some wiser words when the little lady is here…! I should probably also point out that Stanley is 2 years and 10 months, and so the things below may or may not apply to older or younger children.

Talking about baby’s sex: “Whatever you do, do not ask Stanley if he would like a brother or sister!” – This was one of the first tips we received when we found out we were expecting our second child, as friends of ours had first-hand experience! Our friends didn’t find out the sex of their baby, and so they spoke to their child about whether they would like a baby brother, or baby sister. Little did they realise that they would soon become adamant on having a baby brother… to the point that they even had a name for their “brother”. I am sure that you can guess what happens next – a baby sister entered the world. Cue almighty tantrums because they wanted their baby brother! Safe to say, as soon as we spotted family members going anywhere near this conversation with Stanley, we told them this story! Though, once we knew the sex of our little lady – we shared this news with Stanley too, so that we could prepare him, and talk to him about what it will be like to have a baby sister. I must say, we have had numerous scans throughout this pregnancy, and despite being told numerous times that it is a girl (and buying plenty of girl’s clothes!) – we have also be warned that girls are a little harder to diagnose. So, I still have this niggling feeling in my mind that we will never be 100% certain of this fact until “she” arrives!

Antenatal appointments: Whilst we have never taken Stanley to any antenatal appointments, this is one way of getting them involved – they may enjoy seeing baby on the screen, or listening to baby’s heartbeat. Though, I have always been a little cautious of this, as for one – hospital appointments are lengthy, busy, and relatively boring for a 2-year-old, which is not a good mixture for Stanley! Secondly, I have never taken hospital appointments lightly, I always go prepared for the unexpected to happen (I am definitely not at my most relaxed!), and so I didn’t think it would be fair to put this onto Stanley either. Instead, when we have had various scans and appointments, I have always brought something back for Stanley when we could. Throughout the pregnancy, he has had his own copies of the scan pictures, pictures of his “baby sister” that he has enjoyed showing everybody! We also got a recording of his “baby sister’s heartbeat” in a teddy, that he loves listening to, and showing to others.

Introducing baby through a story: There are plenty of books out there that could help prepare your little one for having a baby around the house. We happened to spot “Za-Za’s Baby Brother” (by Lucy Cousins) in a charity shop (and actually long before we were pregnant with our second!), and we had to get it – because we knew how much Stanley loves his Maisy books. We thought this might do just the trick if we were ever lucky enough to have our second. Fast forward a couple of years, and this book has come in handy. I can still picture Stanley’s face when I read this to him for the first time… the look of amazement… and him exclaiming “my mummy’s got baby in her belly too!”. When I read the story to him, I treated it like any other new book – I made no comparisons between the story and mummy having a baby in her belly, but the way that he immediately could relate to this was so lovely to see.

Don’t try and force them to be interested! Similar to above, and the way that I didn’t make the story all about us having a new baby, I started by trying to talk about babies more generally. I followed Stanley’s lead. When Stanley made the connection between Za-Za and us, then we would talk about. But, if he’s not interested in talking about baby, we don’t talk about baby. It is pretty easy to see whether or not they are showing any interest, and at first, I wasn’t sure that Stanley was ever going to be interested at all! His interest in talking about baby has certainly grown alongside my belly, and also his understanding of having a “baby sister” has grown, as he himself has grown. I would say that it has only really been these last couple of months that he has shown any real spontaneous interest in baby. I am not sure whether this is the result of Stanley growing as a person and developing more understanding, or whether this is because there are now more visible changes taking place – mummy’s belly is certainly much much bigger for one, and the house is now prepared for a newborn baby once again.

Talk about babies: Since Stanley has shown more interest in baby, we’ve spent more time talking about what having a baby will be like. In particular, we have tried to prepare him for the fact that babies cry a lot, sleep a lot, and need feeding a lot! We have also tried to get him to come up with his own ideas about what he could do when baby is crying (his response: “cuddle her… kiss her… and hold her hand’’!), we’ve talked about playing games with his baby sister, and asked him what he would like to teach her (“I can show her how to put a DVD on!”). He also enjoys playing with dolls, so we have had lots of role-play that includes changing nappies, feeding baby, and helping to get them to sleep (hoping that he may enjoy playing with his baby, whilst mummy is busy with another!)

The growing belly! Stanley has definitely shown more interest since my “belly has got bigger and bigger“(!), and as such, we have spent times sitting with Stanley and trying to feel baby kicking when the movements are strong enough! Sure enough, he gets fed up of waiting for baby to have a wriggle at times, but others, he enjoys pretending and telling other people that “baby kicked”! At the same time, I’ve tried to explain to Stanley that baby can now hear him, and that she loves to hear him talk, sing, or read a story to her! Now, there is nothing cuter than Stanley running up to my belly and saying “hello baby” and giving her the biggest cuddle! We also talk about what we think baby is up to in mummy’s belly, and Stanley will often pretend to feed baby through mummy’s belly… or even play dentists and pretend to take all of her teeth out (I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I’ve warned him now that baby will come out of mummy’s belly with no teeth left!)

Buying baby items, and presents: If you are buying things for the new baby, get your toddler involved as much as you can – whether this is picking an outfit, or a toy. I dug out Stanley’s old toys, and we had a play with them, and talked about how baby might like to play with them when she arrives. We also had the idea of getting baby a present from Stanley, but wanted it to be something that Stanley could really get involved with, and daddy had the most wonderful idea – a “taggy”. Stanley has always had a thing about tags on clothes, and so getting him a taggy was the best thing we did (I don’t think they have parted since!). This is the best present that Stanley could have got her, and he has picked a lovely one for his sister – choosing the design and colours himself! I think he is actually a little bit excited to give this to her! But, the present I think I have had the most fun in preparing, is the present from baby to Stanley! I have this all packed in our hospital bag, ready to give to Stanley as a present from his baby sister, when he visits her for the first time. I hope that this will help a little with the initial bond that he develops with her. We (“baby”) have got Stanley a Spiderman rucksack and filled it with a things: a Paw Patrol magazine, a new taggy, a snack, a “best bro” t-shirt, and a personalised book “Big Brothers are Great”. I hope he likes it!

Making changes to routines, and preparing for hospital: If you need to make changes, I would suggest making them as early as possible, at least this is the approach I have taken with Stanley (since I know what he is like with his routines). We have always tried to explain to Stanley that there is a baby in mummy’s belly, even when this wasn’t quite so visible, and that this makes things a little more difficult for mummy. So, for example, when he asks for mummy to pick him up, we always try to offer for daddy to pick him instead. Of course, this doesn’t always go smoothly, but the more we have done this, the easier it has got. his understanding has grown, and hopefully, the more prepared he will be for when baby is here. I have tried to make as little changes to Stanley’s routines as possible, just little alterations here and there, such as getting daddy to do more (e.g., get daddy to start doing the bedtime routine if he doesn’t already!). Of course, there is no doubt that some changes to routines cannot be avoided, and one of the biggest changes that will affect his routine will be mummy going to hospital. Stanley has a lot of routines, and this is one that I am most definitely worried the most about. It is one of the reasons that I wished I could have a home birth, but having being diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes, I have little choice but to go in hospital (and at this rate, to be induced on Friday!). I have no idea how long I will be in hospital, but I have tried to talk to Stanley about this, and explain that mummy will be hospital for a little while. I have found this so hard, not only because you don’t know exactly what will happen yourself – but it is even harder to know how much of this he really comprehends.

Focus on your toddler! As much as possible, I have tried to keep the focus on “Stanley becoming a big brother”, rather than a new baby coming into the house. I don’t want Stanley to feel pushed out, jealous, or that baby is making all of these changes happen, and so I’ve tried to turn everything I can into a positive – and make it about Stanley! I am sure there are bound to be times when Stanley will want something, or want me, when I am having to focus on the new arrival, there will be times when he will no doubt get jealous, and I am sure this is perfectly natural. But, if we can somehow turn the attention on to him too, and prepare him for this now, I am hoping that this will help. I am hoping that when the little lady arrives that we can continue to keep Stanley interested in his baby sister, and helping mummy out with all of the cuddles that she will need! I have also made an effort to make the most of the last few weeks that we have together as a family of three, and before life starts to get much busier once again. Take time out to relax before your new arrival is here, have fun with your toddler, do something special – something they love, even if this just means lots of extra cuddles on the sofa watching their favourite films! Whatever it may be – treasure these moments, which may be few and far between when your family starts to grow. I am also hoping that we can still have some Stanley-and-mummy time once the little lady arrives, as I am sure I will be having plenty of time with the new addition. Equally, I think it’s just as important for both our children to have their own daddy-time. But of course, most of all, I now simply cannot wait for us to have family time… as a family of four! The wait is almost over…

Advice for PhD parents: #2 have fun; remember the work-life balance!

Enjoy your research! There is no doubt that at the beginning of the PhD, it is exciting! But, as the years go by, there is a possibility that you lose sight of the love you once had for the research. If this happens, think back to why you started the PhD – why are you doing this? I sometimes have to remind myself that I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be doing something that I am passionate about. And, whilst my research is of a serious and difficult nature, I can still enjoy what I am doing. I enjoy trying to answer difficult questions, and I enjoy all of the wonderful things that come with doing the PhD – attending workshops or conferences around the world (bonus: choosing family holidays dependent on where conferences are being held has always been a win-win situation for me!) Take time for holidays. Take time for days out. Make time for family. Have fun whilst you study!

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It is so so important to find the right work-life balance, but it has to be one that works for you. My supervisor always reminds me not to compare myself to other PhD students, especially if those around you don’t have the same family commitments. I sometimes look at those PhD students that were around at the start of my journey and realise that most of them have now graduated – and where am I? Why haven’t I got as far? When I’m feeling behind, I have to remind myself of the other things I have achieved since starting my PhD (namely, 2 PhD-babies!).

The PhD is no doubt important, not only for the research itself, but to (hopefully) provide for my family. In the past, when I started to feel behind in terms of my work, I remember being told “don’t stress… family is more important”, and I now know they are right. When we have children, at least for me, our priorities change. My work is unquestionably important to me, and always will be, but my outlook on life has completely altered. Stanley comes first (as will the little lady when she arrives!), and especially whilst he is young. Precious moments when your children are small simply cannot be replaced. Do not miss out on those big moments in their lives because they whizz by so quickly. The PhD will get done, when it gets done!

It can be difficult finding the right balance between work and family, but I think one of the most helpful tips I received was to treat the PhD as much like a 9-5 job as you can. This is what I have always strived to do, whenever possible. For me, evenings and weekends are purely family time. Of course, I occasionally have deadlines I need to meet where things spill over, and there are times when I feel terribly guilty for not working into the early hours of the morning and getting as much work done as my colleagues. But, for me, sticking to this motto has so far worked out well. Have fun whilst you can, and remind yourself to enjoy the PhD journey!