Parenting through a PhD (or 5 ways not to go completely insane)

PhD students are an interesting cohort. At our university the average age of a PhD student is 36, which means you can safely bet that most students have some family responsibilities – either to a spouse, elderly parents, animals or children.

Parenting is challenging for PhD students because, in addition to the caring work that you have to do, there is huge potential for WORRY and GUILT. Children get sick, they fall over at school, get stung by bees, have problems with their playmates, stick coins so far up their nose that they have to have their stomachs pumped (true – and don’t ask).

Added to this, parents must constantly have one eye on the future consequences of the actions they take today. In fact, you name an activity – usually a fun one – and there will be some expert out there who can tell you how bad it will be for your child and how much it will screw them up as an adult. You can’t win – but you can try, so here’s my top five tips for parenting through a PhD:

1) See the positives of daycare

My son was 8 months old when I started my Masters degree and 7 years old when I finished my PhD. The poor little guy is probably the only kid at his school who knows that doctors don’t just look after sick people. I was able to do this because of Day Care, which some people will tell you is evil. Well – not in my experience I have to say.

As Hilary Clinton said: it takes a village to raise a child. I’m no child raising expert – but daycare people who bought up my son with me were. They patiently taught my son to eat with a spoon, drink from a cup, go to the toilet and dress himself, amongst many other things. They also helped him learn to manage his feelings, talk about them and make friends with others. As a result I think in many ways my son is more emotionally mature at 8 than I was at 18.

Daycare professionals helped me be a better parent.  They gave me advice about toilet training, sleep issues and any number of funny rashes. When I was feeling like I was doing a crap job, they reassured me that everything was ok and that my son wouldn’t turn into a serial killer. Oh – and they didn’t have a television there, which leads me to point two

2) Get yourself a Tivo / PVR or IQ

Someone very wise and funny once called the TV an off switch for children. Certainly large amounts of my Masters and PhD were written using the electronic baby sitter. I’m not proud, but that’s the way it was, no point in denying it.

I did assuage my guilt about TV time by forcing the poor child to watch mainly educational programs. Rather than spend a fortune on DVDs, we bought a TiVo so we could control what he watched. Before he could read this worked well because he couldn’t even turn it on without me. Now of course he can delete all my ‘Grand Designs’ and replace them with ‘Scooby Doo’…

3) Reach out to other PhD parents

It’s great to make friends with other PhD students who have kids if it’s possible. If you are lucky and your kids like each other there is potential for play dates and sleepovers. It’s probably good for your kid to see that other kids have to put up with a PhD in their lives. Even if you only strike up workplace friendships, the benefits of a therapeutic moan with someone who knows what you are going through cannot be over estimated!

4) Be proud of what you do

I tried not to be apologetic about the time that the PhD took away from my family. I felt like this would send all kinds of bad messages to both partner and child. Whenever I would have to say ‘no’ to doing something on PhD related grounds I would explain to my son that the PhD was important to the whole family, not just me. I was studying to make a difference to our future; a PhD meant a better job, a roof over his head, food in his mouth and other fun stuff.

I made sure to show him how much I liked PhD study. Some weekends I would take him into my office and work for an hour or two; setting him up on his own desk with some ‘work’ for my PhD so he felt like he was helping. Then we would go out for cake and explore the campus while talking about what uni is like and why it is a great place to be. He still remembers these fun times and wants to do his own PhD  – which will be about volcanos :-)

5) Sometimes it’s better just to give up

My son was 3 when the chicken pox vaccine came out. I trotted off to the doctors as soon as possible, only to be told that they were out of stock for two weeks. That very day the creche posted a sign saying that a child had been diagnosed with it.

Too late.

Brendan came out in lots and lots of spots. Naturally this happened right before a major milestone presentation, so I was stressed out. But Brendan felt terrible – all he wanted to do was sit on my lap and watch ‘Toy Story’ repeatedly for three days. I tried to read, but after the first day I went into some kind of stupor. It’s hard to read Heidegger and listen to Buzz Lightyear argue with Woody, so I just gave up. I sat there and cuddled him for 3 days and you know what – it was kind of beautiful. When I went back to study I was quite refreshed.

I only have one child as you can probably tell, so other people probably have many more coping strategies than I do – I would love to hear them.

36 thoughts on “Parenting through a PhD (or 5 ways not to go completely insane)

  1. In the middle of my PhD my son was born. Towards the end of writing up, just as my scholarship ran out, my wife went back to work 4 days a week and I became primary carer, working one week-day a week and on weekends. When the time came to give my final seminar it was on a day my wife was at work, so I packed my then 9-month-old son up and we went in to the uni. For the first half of the hour-long seminar he played on the floor at my feet. Then he started to get a bit cranky, so I picked him up and he fell asleep on my shoulder during the second half.

    I tried not to take it as a comment on how interesting my presentation was.

  2. Great post. I’ve got four children and do relate to your concerns: every time I relax I think there is something I ‘should be doing’. I am learning to plan my time, use it well but live in the moment when children are around. My wife is amazing and without her I wouldn’t be able to hold down my job as a Senior Lecturer never mind PhD student! She is ‘at home’ but we try to avoid the stereotyped image of mum doing everything and dad just ‘going off to study’. I’ve actually realised that (apart from writing, which I guess will be yet another challenge) lots of PhD work is done in my head – sort of in the background – as I try to make sense of what I’m reading at the moment. Our children and partners are a blessing on the PhD journey but, yes we do need to not pretend we’re not climbing a very big mountain! Live the blog, btw.

    • 4 children! I bow to the master :-) by the end of the phd you and your wife will be able to write the book on the subject of phd parenting… Perhaps we need a blog just for that!

  3. I just wanted to add that sometimes McDonalds is a perfectly acceptable dinner option.
    On a more serious note, I started my PhD full time just this year and as a consequence, although I am home much more than I was before (used to be a full time teacher), the brain is often far, far away. Consequently, the kids and I are spending time after school exploring all the local parks as I am finding that it is easier to switch off when we are all sliding down a slippery dip. When I succumb to peer pressure and start a PhD blog the slippery dip photos will have to be included.

      • But scrambled eggs on toast is a proper dinner. Wait till you start letting themselves help themselves to cereal as an evening meal …

  4. I am 8 months into my PhD and have a 2 year old. I’ve found I’ve learnt three really important lessons since he was born, and particularly during this year of my study.
    1. I have to look after myself.
    2. I have learnt to recognize when I’m beginning to fray around the edges and ask for help early. Help usually comes in the form of babysitting or sleepovers so that I can either concentrate on my thesis or have a sleep in.
    3. I have learnt to study while my son is around. This has meant moving my desk into the loungeroom so that I can study while he plays. It’s also meant learning to focus for 15-20 minute blocks as I inevitably get interrupted when the ball has gone too far under the couch or the lego tower has fallen over and an expert engineer (with more refined motor skills) is required to re-establish the foundations.

    And yes, childcare is fantastic! We are so lucky to have such high quality services for our children.

    • I agree that looking after yourself is really important… My step mother delights in telling me how useful the play pen was when she had 3 young kids and wanted to read. She would put herself in the play pen!

  5. I agree with Ian about ‘being in the moment’ when with your children. I don’t find it useful to have one foot in a train set and one foot in my PhD work. I just enjoy my time with my son (and then pray that he will be in bed when he should be!).

    • I was bad at getting in the moment – I’m not sure if it was the PhD or that I was just not good at playing with kids. I always say I will be a great mother of a 30 year old, 3 year not so much :-)

  6. I like reading my blog.
    I’m an international PhD student with three kids. I’m in my last year and should submit early next year. So the decision was made to take my kids back home with my husband who will be taking care of them while I finish writing. It is a very difficult situation.

    It has only been 4 weeks but feels like ages. I’m thinking of going for a visit but I’m not sure how this will affect them now that they are settled in a good routine with their dad and with my mom also helping.
    While I did progress well these last few weeks, I don’t think I can persist for another 4 or 5 months.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • You must miss them terribly… I can only be in awe of and applaud your strength in doing what you think is good and right for them – and your husband for taking on the single parenting role.
      Grandmothers should have been on my list! Where would we be without them?!
      Is anyone else in the same position I wonder?

  7. I concur with some of the comments already here: you just need to realise that time must be spent with your kid(s) and you just cannot expect to get any research done in this time. I find it much easier to be goal oriented and not worry too much about what week of the year it is.

    I find it kind of strange that I am doing my PhD in four days a week and my supervisors are telling me how fast I’m going. Must be due to my private sector days .. :-)

  8. I’m about 3 months into my PhD and 6 months pregnant with my first baby, and at 23 I’m the youngest on the course! A friend of mine pointed me in the direction of your blog and twitter as she thought it might be useful for me to read the experiences of someone else in this position.

    It’s such a relief to see that other PhD students have managed to juggle the challenge of parenting along with the thesis – a lot of my non-academic friends, including my partner, are very unsupportive of my desire to continue with the PhD after the baby is born, many think I shouldn’t have started it in the first place – so it’s good to see that it can be done after all, even if it may take a bit longer than usual and requires mastering some different skills.

    I take my hat off to all of you and certainly hope I can follow in your multi-tasking footsteps!

    • I am wondering how this has been going for you? I am finishing my undergraduate thesis right now and applying to PhD programs this year. I have a 2 year old and it has been very challeniging to say the least. Grateful to find this site!

  9. Most posts have been about having young children. I started my studying journey at 43 (college then Uni) when my children were 5 (twins) & 8. Now they are 13 & 16 I am writing my MA dissertation and applying for a PhD. I have a very supportive partner who has taken them on long weekend’s away when deadlines loom. My eldest has just finished her GCSEs and I hope that my ‘late in life’ studying has encouraged her to revise, and work hard. I am lucky that I don’t ‘work’ so most of my ‘studying’ and writing has been done in school hours. Sacrifices have been made, I have missed out on the social experience of Uni, and module choices were dictated by timetabling. I am looking forward to my Phd journey accompanied by my teenagers. The challenges change, I have to fit my studying around ferrying them around, and the TV no longer keeps them quiet. Writing to loud Pop music is a challenge as is listening to tales of friends & school when I am in the middle of writing an essay. They are used to it now though, it’s been there their whole school life!

  10. I loved this post, Inger. Thanks for flagging it. I think a lot of the stuff you’re talking about here is relevant even for those who are no longer doing their PhDs but trying to make headway on research + juggle home + teaching, etc.

    And – just FYI – ‘breakfast for dinner’ is a regular gig in this household! When I lived alone (when I 1st moved to Melbourne), it happened a LOT. Since I had kids, it happens enough. :)

      • Here’s what I wrote (as a FB note) on my first day back at work after having my son back in 2008:

        Wake up. Shower. Dress. Make baby breakfast. Make self breakfast. Feed baby and self. Clean baby. Make lunch. Brush teeth. Listen to yelps of alarm from other half when he discovers that baby is some kind of freakish genius baby who has learned how to open doors using the door handle and one can no longer use the bathroom in peace. Hug baby. Clean baby vomit from nice first-day-of-term outfit. Brush teeth again having forgotten that you’ve done it once already. Prepare to leave. Realise you are still wearing your slippers and no earrings. Rectify situation. Hug baby again. Kiss other half. Leave. Get to work. Drink vat of coffee to remedy tiredness induced by staying up too late last night reading (Stephen King’s new book ‘Duma Key’, rather bloody good). Twitch a lot. Hyperventilate at sight of hoardes of UGs roaming the halls. Drink more coffee. And so it begins…

  11. I can relate! I have a boy (nearly 8) with Asperger’s and also a step child (11) who lives with us full-time, and another who is with us some of the time.

    I am in the writing-up stage and, while I am fairly seasoned at compartmentalizing, I find the shifts in thinking difficult. Way back in undergrad a friend who was doing his PhD at the time once told me to think about what you are studying while you are doing the dishes, vacuuming or taking a shower.

    Twice a week these days I put the kids in after school care and study in the office at uni. I find that this helps to separate-out from all of the ‘I should be’s’ that are overwhelming and immobilising at home.

    I’m glad to read on here that there are many others in the same situation. I know other PhD students with kids with special needs, so that helps as well. I guess it is all about managing the shifting weights that each aspects has in your life at any particular tome, and shifting it back the other way when the need arises.

  12. I really needed to read this. I am in the beginning stages of my EdD dissertation, have 5 children, and a private counseling practice. My schedule has been overloaded and I have not been able to balance. The guilt over not spending as much time with the children as I would like consumes me at times. Nevertheless I am pressing, because they really want me to be done… and SO DO I!!

  13. I found this post while googling ‘PhD and parenting’. I am an international student studying in the UK. I have two young children and my husband is also a PhD student. It’s comforting to read about other PhD parents experiences. It’s really hard studying far away from home with no family and not being able to afford childcare. I am in my writing up stage so I do kids things during the day and hope that they sleep early so I can get my writing done at night.
    Great blog you have here….

    • That’s tough – we had lots of family support and it really made a difference. It’s really hard to ‘context switch’ between kid stuff and your own work. One thing I learned was that you can do a surprising amount of reading done at those play centres! They also wear your kids out, which means they go to bed a lot earlier and sleep longer :-) Best of luck with your studies

  14. I am at the beginning stage of my PhD research in Engineering with a baby (1 year old). Progress has been slow all this while as I am working full time as a lecturer. Thinking to go for full time but the allowance is just enough for me and my family to survive. Would like to ask for your opinions on the full time or part time option. Please share with me.

    • I went part time for my masters when I had a young child and full time for my PhD when he was 5 – I did my PhD in 3 days of the week and worked the other two as a researcher. I think I could only do this because my work was related to my study. We had one full time wage and one half wage for this time. It was tough. I think every one has to work out their own way through, but I believe that working while I did my PhD was crucial to employment after. Friends who did the full time study thing with no other work had trouble getting back into to the workforce later. I think you have to take the long term view – finishing quickly may not always be the best way to go

  15. Dear thesis whisperer, I love getting your posts in my inbox, but particularly the ones on parenting through a phd. I don’t think I’d have the skills to do the phd if I wasn’t a parent, but I find it incredibly challenging to study in such a part time, bitsy way. I find the most common words coming out of my mouth at the moment are “I would love to go to (insert research seminar/writing group/faculty afternoon tea etc here) but I just can’t get childcare. My children are the most impossibly beautiful things in my life, but sometimes I just want some more time for me and the books.

  16. Pingback: The foibles of flexibility « The Thesis Whisperer

  17. Thanks for sharing. I have two young kids and often feel guilty for not being more ‘there’ for them (Or guilty for not being more ‘there’ for my research). Luckily my hubby’s really patient and supportive. Sometimes though, I wonder if it really is all worth it (am mid way through and things seems to be going in circles) especially after hearing all the horror stories of academic publishing. So it’s good to read your post and the comments (thank you all for sharing). It’s not been easy trying to connect to other PhD parents on my campus aside from a couple in my HDR office (guess everyone is busy). Thanks again.

  18. I was an intl PhD student in Engineering;
    I had a baby in the last year of my thesis. My wife was not working and my scholarship was very small. I had to work part time to support my family.

    It was hard, but it was nothing compared to the time AFTER THE DEFENSE. I had to struggle finding a job after a PhD, I managed to do everything to support my family…

    Crazy journey. Now I am 34 years old entry level engineer with PhD and kids. No house, no saving. no career. Nothing;

    All for a worthless paper, I don’t even remember where I put that piece of paper…

  19. Pingback: Parenting your way to a PhD | The Thesis Whisperer

  20. I’m 43 with a 3 year old – not in day care, and only starting Kinder two days a week in two months time. I’m ‘on leave’ from my PhD while trying to finish it all the same, as I have only 6 months to submit when I return from ‘leave’.
    I’ve had pretty much full-time care of my daughter since her birth (about 3/4 of the way through my PhD).
    It’s great to read other people’s stories! It’s reassuring, that you’re not the only one out there battling away (-:
    I’m learning a very big lesson in patience – as someone who likes to ‘get on’ with things I’ve had to slow right down (I only get 6 hours a week on my PhD if I’m lucky). It’s hard sometimes to remember that I will get it finished when I’m moving at such a slow pace.
    But I hold onto that thought (that I’ll get it finished one day) like a life-raft!!
    Thanks for being able to share my thoughts here. And good luck to everyone!!

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