"Mummy Studying" by Brendan Mewburn, aged 4
“Mummy Studying” by Brendan Mewburn, aged 4

Thesis Whisperer Jnr was eight months old when I started my Masters degree by research at RMIT and was seven years old when I graduated with my PhD from the University of Melbourne. In retrospect, the decision to go back to post graduate study with a very young child seems slightly insane, but I remember it making perfect sense at the time.

Some thesis tasks fit around parenting quite well. I remember reading Foucault in the playground and doing edits of my PhD printouts while waiting to pick Thesis Whisperer Jnr up from primary school. I treated both degrees like an extra job (which they were as I continued to work part time), so I didn’t spend time doing parent helper stuff or making stuff for the mothers day stall. I don’t remember feeling like I was ‘fully present’ for about 3 of those six years of parenting.

I often worried I wasn’t being a ‘proper’ mother to Thesis Whisperer Jnr during this time. I rarely got down on the floor to play trains. We had ‘breakfast for dinner’ (toast or cereal) quite often. I’d forget about doing his reader some nights and I’d always forget to fill in the permission forms for school excursions until the day before. I worried about this a lot. Would daycare turn my son into a psychopath like Steve Biddolph seemed to suggest in his ‘Raising Boys’? Or would he just hate all things academic and end up being a school drop out?

When the guilt got to be too much I would to take Thesis Whisperer Jnr to campus with me on the weekend, give him some note paper and a pen and let him amuse himself on the floor of my office while I worked. The image above is one of the drawings he made for me in those mother-son weekend campus visits when he was about four years old. He told me this was “Mummy Studying”. Apparently I am in a space suit and giving serious thought to both UFOs and clouds, which, when you think about it, is quite a good depiction of PhD study. Its strange, insightful weirdness captivated me at the time and I keep pinned up on my board at work ever since.

I do wish Bailey Bosch’s ‘Mums who study’ blog has been around at the time to make me feel more, well – normal. Recently Bailey has released a delightful picture book called ‘My mum studies’. Since my baby is now 14 (and, I’m happy to report, not a psychopath or someone who hates school), Rebecca Gelding kindly offered to do a review for me.

Rebecca Gelding (@rebeccagelding) is a part-time PhD Candidate at the Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia. She’s researching what is going on in the brain when people are imagining music. You can read about her and her work in a blog she’s just started, here.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d ordered it just based on the title “My mum studies just like me” and front cover (I know, never judge a book by its cover; but what can I say – it had me). Plus it seemed to me like every time I was on Facebook, someone in the PhD & Early Career Researcher Parents Group was saying their copy had arrived and I had serious case of FOMO.

The day the book arrived in the post, my kids (6-year-old daughter & 4-year-old son) couldn’t wait for me to read it to them. And though it probably is aimed at slightly older kids, the pictures are so great that even my younger one was drawn in. And so we started to read….

As we began, all I’m thinking is “yep, I can relate to that….. yep I can relate to that…. Yep…” But it wasn’t until we got to the page with the messy house when my daughter exclaimed “we have toast for dinner sometimes too!” that I knew Bailey was on to something, especially as I looked around my own messy house.

It seems this page resonates with most mum’s that have read the book – a real tear jerker moment. So what is it that brings us to tears? Perhaps it is that realisation that its ok not to have it all together all the time…… so the kids had toast for dinner, so the house is a shambles – this season will not be forever. In this season, its ok for some things to be less of a focus.

Perhaps also it is in the vulnerability that we appreciate. Bosch herself has admitted the whole toast thing sticks in her own mind as a moment she felt like a failure. In academia we often share our successes with one another, but I think it is through vulnerably sharing our failures (or perceived failures) that we can truly inspire others.

For me personally though, it was at this point in the book, I felt myself exhale in relief as I realised…..I am not alone.

Being a PhD mum is amazing but can be strangely isolating. I’m only part time, so I’m there for school pick up / drop off and lots (not all, but lots) of the other school mums don’t “get” why I’m studying; or why I don’t have university holidays; or why I would do a degree that would take so many years (“haven’t you finished yet?”). I’m sure they think it’s some sort of strange hobby.

Meanwhile at university I’m faced with the other side of the coin. Where I arrive for a meeting at 10am and I have already been up since 6am; organised breakfast; prepared lunches for all 4 members of the family; gotten myself ready; gotten two kids dressed; bags packed; hair done; teeth brushed; homework done and packed; hats and sunscreen on; walked up to school, then preschool to drop off, only to have to run to catch a bus. And that’s a standard morning when there are no dramas (“she’s trying to touch me with her porridge”… “he started it”…).

While I wouldn’t change it for the world, I feel like the friends and colleagues I have at university (and I’m fortunate to have found some great ones) can’t really identify with my life outside of university. So I’m left feeling like I’m always flipping between two very different worlds.

But in reading this book, and in meeting other parents who are doing / have done their PhD (thanks here to the #survivephd15 MOOC for helping me make these connections!) I realise, I am not alone. There are many around the world in the same boat as me (in fact there is even a Facebook group of PhD Mums based in my city). And we can all encourage each other along the way!

Now, to be honest, my kids couldn’t understand why the mum was upset about giving toast – my son would have peanut butter toast and a banana for dinner every night if I let him! So I didn’t get teary until the very end of the book, when the mother’s learning inspires her child to do their best (something close to my heart which I’ve written about before in my blog); but this sentimentality was short lived because when we finished the story, I asked my 4-yr-old what his favourite part was he shouted “the sloth!”. As soon as I’d finished they demanded an immediate re-read, which I think is the ultimate honour that can be bestowed any kid’s book!

So thanks Bailey for making studying as a mum “normal”. Thanks for reminding us its ok not to have it together all the time; that we can be vulnerable about the tough times; and that our love of learning can rub off on our kids. And personally, thanks for reminding me that I am not alone.

If you are interested in getting a a copy of the book, or just want to read more about being a mum who studies (perhaps you are thinking of starting a family whilst doing your PhD, or just would like some more resources and help) check out http://www.mumswhostudy.com.au/

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