The foibles of flexibility

I’ve occasionally written about parenting through a PhD and some of the perils of PhD parenting. Since the average age of those studying for a PhD is 37 most of you will have some kind of family commitment, and yes – pets count. I find it mystifying that so many of the ‘how to get a PhD’ books offer precious little advice on how to cope.

I have come to the conclusion that many book writers assume we are all full time students with no other commitments. I long for a book which acknowledges the messy reality of many of our lives, which is why I was happy when Tamara Cummings, PhD student, wife and mother of two under 3 sent me this post. Tamara is doing her PhD student at the School of Teacher Education, and the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education, Charles Sturt University. Tamara’s research is concerned with the sustainability of the early childhood workforce. She is an ardent Foucauldian, Deleuzist and Twilighter, and does a bit of parenting and partnering on the side.

Tamara writes in this post about the perils of trying to be too flexible – it certainly resonated with my own experiences. I hope you enjoy it.

So I’m now in my second year of PhD-hood (not actually quite half-way through…) and it’s taken me this long to figure something out – flexibility has its foibles.

Trying to manage the kind of on-demand deep thinking that PhD study requires, whilst sleep-deprived from nocturnal visits of 3 year old and nocturnal demands of 1 year old, has been tough. I was managing it last year by working at home a lot and having the odd afternoon nap so it was safe to drive the car.

To make up the time I lost by afternoon-napping and the odd pick-me-up trip to the shops so I felt my world did not entirely revolve around napping, driving and on-demand deep thinking, I tried to squeeze in ‘work’ time of an evening – as well as have some down time in front of the tv with long-suffering partner. I also tried to squeeze some work time into weekends, and even the odd morning, by not returning to sleep when 1 year old had been placated at 5am.

As a consequence of all this flexibility I began to be very grouchy, very stressed and really, quite unpleasant to live with.  Part-timing it was not an option as I’m on a full-time dependent scholarship, and really didn’t want to make my PhD longer anyway.

So, I said to myself, what can I do to make this work?

I recognised that it was the choices I was making, rather than aforementioned 3 and 1 year old, or long-suffering partner, that were perhaps ‘to blame’.  Rather than allowing me to successfully manage my work interests and home life, it was all becoming so flexible that there was no structure and regularity. It wasn’t good for my mental health, my family or my PhD.

Hence my number one new year’s resolution was to structure my week a bit more, and to quarantine my ‘work’ hours as work, and hold off on the tantalising supermarket shopping and afternoon naps as ‘rewards’.

I’m lucky in that I have a very inviting office space to work in (even if the drive there can be a bit busy and stressful), colleagues whom I enjoy seeing, and a fab coffee place an ‘appropriate’ distance away (ie, far enough that you get some actual as well as metaphoric ‘distance’ from ‘work’, but not so far you get that yucky feeling like you’ve skived).

So, Monday to Wednesday finds me at the office, Friday I do a bit flexibly from home, and often have supervisor meetings in the afternoon. Thursdays I do part of the day at a very nice, recently and funkily refurbished public library (with free internet access and they allow drinks and snacks, woo hoo!)

I report this works well for me! I am very focused and productive on my ‘work’ days, and if I want to do some extra of an evening I do, but as I’m not under pressure to make up time, if I don’t have to, I don’t, and it’s ok. I can ‘be’ with my kids and partner rather than feeling anxious about the work I haven’t done and will need to do,

I even have times when I think ‘hmmmm, nothing much to do tonight’ and then I read a book. Usually about vampires and romance, yep, pushing 40, who knew??

How do you cope with multiple demands of children, partner and PhD? Do you find flexibility a trap and love a routine, or is it best to play it fast and loose? What study routine would you recommend to someone starting a PhD who has a full plate of life already?

Related posts

Parenting through a PhD

The Perils of PhD parenting

24 thoughts on “The foibles of flexibility

  1. Susan Mayson says:

    I am revisiting my PhD days because I am on sabbatical and spending a lot of time in my home office researching and writing. The advice about having structured work time and other time is good. It prevents all the mental effort and anguish that goes with doing something other than work/writing (and reading blogs about PhDs)!

  2. galpod says:

    Actually, I found that after I had my kids I was much more productive using a structure similar to what you described. Before kids, I would “work from home”, and nothing would get done (except a lot of laundry and cleaning the house). But after I went back to work from mat leave (both after my first and after my second child), I found that because I know that whatever work I have that doesn’t get done during daycare time will not get done, I’m that much more focused and motivated to set and complete goals for the day. Mind you, the dishes stay in the sink for days on end and I’ve been known to go shopping for clothes for the kids instead of doing laundry, but it’s a work in progress… 🙂

    • Tamara says:

      but don’t you find as well, that when you go do other things, your brain turns things over and sometimes it’s just what you needed…!

      • galpod says:

        I certainly do, and I find that when I get a break from home (i.e., being in the office, talking to adults) I have more patience and energy for my kids, so it works both ways really 🙂

        • catrinw says:

          Totally agree galpod. Time away from the kids makes me appreciate time with them so much more. But I also find that there’s a fine line as to how much time away from my kids I can tolerate. If I end up working a hefty week or have to go away for a conference I start to get quite down and start questioning myself as a mother. Finding a balance is key.

  3. Jayne Persian says:

    Yes, childcare is your saviour! I had my second child a year into my PhD, and completed without working at night or early morning at all. Treat it like a job, with appropriate childcare.

  4. dr_eff says:

    I started my PhD before I found my partner, married her and had our first son. There was, however, nine months of overlap at the end where the days and nights were very long…

    The first 6 months of my PhD were done living at home with my parents with no real structure other than the occasional compulsory meeting at uni as well as reading and taking notes until dinner time.

    Cut forward to meeting my girlfriend (now wife) at university (also doing a PhD) who showed me the error of my unstructured ways. Working on-campus provided the clarity and interaction with people (sorry parents) that I didn’t realise I needed – the whole PhD recluse thing was very tempting but slightly chaotic.

    It wasn’t until the final 18 months that I found managing the flexibility amid the absence of scholarship funds to be an unforeseen challenge. In addition to weathering the ‘never-ending morning sickness from hell’, there were the countless sleepness nights (and days) before my blessed son learned to sleep through. At one stage I was working 3 or 4 jobs and playing in several bands too – what was I thinking?!?! Oh and I too undoubtedly shirked more than my fair share of the chores and parenting on (regular) occasion. Thankfully they still love me (note: grovel profusely in your thesis acknowledgements).

    Perhaps the worst thing among it all though is (when you finally get to sleep) dreaming about your thesis. Sometimes it’s imagining writing whole sections and waking up to find you didn’t (rats!), sometimes it’s stressing about content that you haven’t addressed, and ofcourse there’s the nightmares that you won’t get it done on time – now someone needs to do a blog on Ph-Dreams (can I copyright/trademark/patent that?).

    In my experience, I would say don’t be afraid to push yourself and to keep going when you’re on a run – but know your limits. By all means take advantage of baby and family sleeping, but your body and mind will punish you eventually for depriving them of shut-eye. There will be times when you’ll think that you’re partner doesn’t know what they’re on about when they say, “hun, I think you need some sleep” and there’ll be other times when you should just damn well indulge them and say, “you’re right, I do feel like a zombie”.

    Best wishes Tamara for your completion – you are a brave soul!

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Dr Eff! I second your idea of a blog on Ph-Dreams, I sometimes have anxiety dreams about my supervisors, so can totally relate!

  5. Rosemary Torbay says:

    What is it about mature age study and the attraction to vampire fiction? I’m currently reading Christine Feehan’s Carpathian novels as a study wind down before sleep!

  6. Ben says:

    All I had to do when writing up my thesis was write and procrastinate. I did a good amount of both but the difference seems to be that I was “writing” all the time. From the moment I woke up the the moment I went to sleep I would “write”. The inverted commas mean that I may also have been procrastinating, but in a way that felt like I was working so I didn’t really benefit from it.

    If I condensed all of my productive hours then I know that a regime like the one you describe would have been much more healthy and would probably have allowed me to finish more quickly.

  7. catrinw says:

    Thanks for sharing this post – boy does it resonate with me. Although, the only difference was that, being a single parent of a 3 year old and a 1 year old when I began my research in January, I knew that I couldn’t be too flexible as I had no way of clawing back the time later ie. no partner to say can you make supper/put the kids to bed etc while I do some work. So, I set myself working hours from the start, and I’m fortunate that my university have given me a nice office to work in, so I truly can convince myself that I’m at work. I work the same hours every week, and while I’m at home I’m at home and while I’m in the office I’m super productive. Actually, on that note better get back to work! xxx

  8. Christina Welch says:

    I did my PhD as a single parent with 2 young boys. My parents did a school run once a week as did my ex-in-laws, but the other days I childminded for a few hours (my 2 boys + 2 other boys). I did PhD work during the time my boys were at school and once they were in bed, and at weekends when I wasn’t doing household chores, helping them with their homework, or sleeping.
    It is hard but I did it (and I am no superwoman – it took me nearly 4 years); the house was always a bit of a mess but there was always food in the cupboard and the clothes were clean (although never ironed)…actually, that hasn’t changed ;o)
    I am very honest with my PhD students about the lows and highs of PhD study and I think it helps us both, so bring on more blogs like this…

  9. Sharon says:

    I’ve always said the price of flexibility is…flexibility. I had a very flexible work environment, which basically meant I was on call 24/7 to do my boss’ bidding, but that I could come and go as family commitments required. Now being a freshly minted researcher, I am finding the same issues at play i.e. I can never just turn off the thinking. Maybe structure is the antidote to flexibility?

    • Susan Mayson says:

      I think structure means that you can give yourself “permission” to do something else unrelated to work projects eg factor in time for visit to the gym or to go for a walk or run or the supermarket shopping!

    • Tamara says:

      I’m coming to think that with academic work, you don’t really ever turn off your thinking, even if it’s only happening in the background…

  10. Tamara says:

    I’m so heartened by all these responses – here I thought I was the only one struggling with finding balance in flexibility! And the only one finding a little solace in the supermarket ; )

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