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.