PhD candidate insights into balancing research and motherhood

By Katie Woolaston
PhD candidate, lecturer
Griffith University

I am an awarded and published PhD candidate, researching the interaction between law and the human-wildlife relationship (#Immodestwoman). I am also the mum of two vivacious and demanding children. My typical day might involve submitting a conference abstract, then scooping poop out of the washing machine. (This actually happened. I literally have no idea how.) Doing a PhD is no small feat in the best of circumstances. Doing a PhD with toddlers (my kids were one and three when I started) is a legitimate health hazard. My mental health oscillates on a daily basis between ‘I am brilliant and killing this adulting thing’ to ‘I am such an imposter who will fall apart at any given moment’.

Despite the many wins of the feminist movement, mums who work are still subject to a higher workload than dads who work. Women are still largely responsible for the ‘mental load’ that is running a household with children; remembering excursions, which day is library day, how much milk is left in the fridge, when the dog needs a groom. There is not a minute that goes by where I am not thinking about what the kids need, or what to make for dinner, or when I’m going to get to the shop to pick up that present for the fairy party on the weekend. In addition, there is barely an hour that goes by that I am not thinking about the PhD and everything that involves. Have I submitted that abstract? What am I going to do about that chapter that isn’t coming together? When am I going to find time to finish that marking? There’s also the small matters of trying to be a good person, getting enough exercise, eating well and taking some time for me. My mind is busy, my life is hectic.

Given the daily struggle, I decided to turn to others for advice and inspiration. In line with the studious PhD student that I am, I did some research into managing a PhD with kids. The results were enlightening. I’d like to share the main tips, so that it may help some other parents battling the guilt:

  1. Write in the morning. The first piece of advice I found was to wake before everyone else in the household to get an hour of work done before the day gets serious. Ok, what? My kids are out of bed before 5 am EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING. My 3 year old is some kind of mix-breed of vampire/human who requires less sleep than I do, which means I get less sleep than I require. So how much earlier am I supposed to wake to get a bit of writing done? Not to mention the fact I am entirely useless for the first hour after I wake up, due to having been up four times already during the night, finally giving in to the inevitable and sharing the bed with both children, who proceed to sleep vertically across it and kick me in the face every half hour. No. Just No. Mummy needs sleep.
  2. Write in the evening, after the kids are in bed. Ok, so I need to come home after a day of not resting, make the dinner, get kids bathed, into bed, then sit down and write. There is just not enough coffee in the world. Again, no.
  3. Involve the kids in the process. This seems like a fun idea. It would be good for the kids to have some appreciation of what I do. However I won’t make the same mistake as last time and explain the marking of assignments to them. I’m not entirely sure the undergrads really appreciated the extra toddler scribbled comments they received. I’ll just practice a conference presentation with them. Twenty seconds in, applause. Oh, great, how affirming! Twenty seconds later, proceed to get booed off stage. This is the stuff of nightmares. Maybe not such a great idea after all.
  4. Take the kids to conferences. I have seen parents at conferences with their kids and it is lovely. Really. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing another parent winning at life. There are even those amazing mums who breastfeed while presenting or moderating a session. But these people haven’t met my son, who calls everyone ‘poo-poo bum’ and randomly yells ‘tickle time’ at the top of his voice and expects you to comply. I just can’t see group tickle time becoming a conference thing, as awesome as that would be.

Hmmm, where does that leave us wannabe parental researchers and philosophers? There are a few things I have learned. First, screw the advice (I promise, this isn’t advice, just a well-intentioned run down of what has helped me). No one understands your unique situation. Don’t try and mold yours and your family’s life around the lifestyle of others. Find what works for you and run with it. It might be snack-writing in a play centre, or ditching the adorable children for a weekend to cram write.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be it from your supervisors, the university, a psychologist, your partner, parents or friends. Outsource if you are in a position to be able to do so — my cleaner is an angel sent straight from atheist non-existent heaven.

Third, let go of the guilt. The guilt will be the first thing to destroy you. Being a parent is the hardest job on the planet. Combine that with the immense pressure of a PhD and you are a superstar for simply trying. Take your time, the PhD isn’t going anywhere. And finally, remember that screen-time isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is; Peppa Pig is totally educational!

Thinking of doing a PhD in the field of Law? Find a supervisor here.