The Realities of the PhD Baby

Our guest blogger this week is Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell. Maxine is a third-year PhD student at the University of Stirling. Her PhD project, titled ‘The Young Scottish Reader in the Long Eighteenth Century’, is funded by the AHRC through the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities, is supervised by Dr Katie Halsey and Dr Bethan Benwell and is supported by her PhD assistant – Mollie.

I remember sitting at my university office computer, less than five weeks pregnant, searching for blog posts or articles about what PhD life pregnant, on maternity leave and with a baby might look like. I was a little disheartened to not find a whole lot! There were the standard “why your PhD is like having a baby” posts (spoiler: it’s not because, thankfully, never once has my PhD made me projectile vomit or kicked me really hard in the ribs…) and then quite a lot of negative ‘Just don’t do it!’ posts.

“Too late” I thought, and also I had planned, and thought very carefully, about starting a family during my PhD for a number of reasons. It made financial sense (I’m lucky to be funded and therefore have access to six-months paid maternity leave), it made sense for my career to not take a break straight after finishing the PhD when there would be added pressure to publish and find a job, and finally it made sense for my husband and I personally, we were ready to start a family and so the PhD would have to wait.

Having said that, the third year of a PhD has been complicated slightly by simultaneously incubating a small human. As I start my maternity leave, I wanted to share some of the ways that this has played out for me over the last eight months, and what’s helped me stay productive and (hopefully) prepared for my return to PhD life in a little over a year’s time. As I don’t yet have any PhD baby pictures to illustrate this post, I’ve used photos of my PhD puppy Mollie instead. (Turns out she isn’t quite up to the task of PhD assistant so I’m having to grow another one).

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Mollie the PhD puppy sleeping on the job

 

I had, perhaps, been a little naïve about thinking PhD life would carry on, more or less, as normal. I’d seen friends and colleagues carry on with their roles as teachers, managers and lecturers while pregnant and assumed, because they didn’t complain about it, that it was easy. It’s not. For me, particularly in the first trimester when you’re often just trying to get through the day without vomiting and when you can’t really share what’s going on, and in the third trimester, when you’re suddenly overcome with tiredness and lose your ability to remember simple words, let alone write insightful academic ones.

The things that helped me were:

A supportive (and realistic) supervisor

I’m lucky in that I already had a great relationship with my very understanding supervisor and as she had recently returned from maternity leave she was well-placed to advise me and manage my own (sometimes unrealistic) expectations about what might be manageable both before, and after, maternity leave. But her best advice so far has been to ‘listen to your body and know when to rest’. Which brings me to my next hard-earned lesson:

Managing my own expectations

There was a short period of time, between about weeks 16 and 32 when I thought I could achieve anything and was genuinely quite productive.  If you get that time as well, take advantage of it but don’t feel guilty if it never happens – I know women who have been ill throughout their whole pregnancies. For me, the rest of the time I’ve had to really come to terms with the fact that making a person is hard work, and that third trimester morning (read ‘all-day’) sickness is a thing people don’t tell you about.

Tools to stay productive

I’ve tried to make use of the many coping strategies I’ve learned over the past two and a half years of my PhD to make sure that I still got things done. Lucie has already blogged about the benefits of writing group and a writing retreat – both of which helped me immensely to stay on track with writing, and the forest app is always a winner for me. Accepting help in other areas of life has also been a big lesson for me – thankfully, my husband is a kind soul who has done the bulk of the dishes, laundry and dog care over the past months. (Though keeping up with dog walks has been crucial to my sanity so those have stayed)

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Dog walks, the perfect PhD therapy 

Limiting the other things (while staying involved)

A couple of things have definitely fallen by the wayside for me over the past months, twitter and my own blog being the biggest casualties (though these may also be general third year casualties) but also conferences and training events. However, there were a few things that I’d already committed to that I was glad I could focus on: publications, a couple of well-chosen training events (though be prepared for any that focus on careers to provoke a bit of existential angst) and a public talk all helped me maintain a sense of my academic identity.

The ‘academic-fomo’ is real and something I’ve been feeling acutely this past week as colleagues and friends are at one of the big annual conferences I usually attend in Canada. But I was really pleased to be able to co-write a paper with another scholar who very kindly presented for both of us there and so was able to be there in academic spirit!

Sharing the news with a close PhD friend

She actually rumbled me at about 9 weeks as I was pretending to lift heavy furniture as we moved offices and had become suspicious at my sudden lack of interest in drinking at our weekly pub quiz. It was a massive relief being able to share what was going on with someone who understood why the whole thing might be more challenging in third year! It’s not the done thing but if you want to confide in someone early on, you definitely should. The first trimester is a bit of a lonely place anyway and to do that alongside a PhD, without someone to speak to, would not be easy.

I hope this has shown a slightly more positive (and realistic) side to what pregnant PhD life might look like. Babies and PhDs are both great, why not have both at once!

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