This post is by Tricia King, who successfully articulated from a Masters to a PhD at QUT in February 2017.
Mine is a tale of what not to do. Or what to do. I’m not absolutely sure to be honest, there’s a healthy smattering of both. So you decide.
So it’s seven weeks prior to your confirmation date. You are painfully behind, woefully actually. Not because of slackness on your part – you’ve really really been trying – but thanks to this thing called life, survival and, well lets be honest with each other here… kids. You can feel the screws tightening around you, squeezing the air out of your lungs. And then suddenly the harsh high pitched ring of the school bell erupts, echoing through every pore in your body.
Your children are on six weeks of school holidays.
Your heart sinks as you try to frantically work out some crazy logistical brilliant, almost mathematically choreographed solution of getting this document written whilst still being an okay mum. The math just doesn’t add up with the weeks.
The next six weeks are the most critical finalising weeks of the confirmation document and the kids certainly don’t understand why mummy needs to be glued to the computer. The task of reconciling life and study and work seems insurmountable. You LOVE time with your kids and always give them everything of you but school holidays… right now?! Really?! Everyone else is laughing as they race out of the school gates – “I can’t wait for the next six weeks with little Tommy”, “we are spending three weeks at Stradbroke Island”, “I have so many fun activities planned”, and you stand there feeling like the worst parent ever because you kinda want to cry.
This is where I found myself at 3.01pm on Friday 10th of December last year (2016).
Those six weeks were crazy. I survived by doing one super you-have-my-full-attention kids activity in the morning (gallery, museum, anywhere with air con) and then an afternoon either of their own running riot around the house or some device time or better yet visiting a place they could have fun and I could bring my laptop (indoor playcenters, small parks, preferably places with air con and wifi). It wasn’t easy. The afternoons would turn into squabbles or constantly hungry bellies or needing elaborate painting kits set up or fetching things to make cubbies. It wasn’t what I’d call quality writing time – one day I took note of how many times they disturbed me (just to have quantitative ammunition to fuel my later breakdowns) and counted 26 times in a four hour period. However, you just have to make the best of what you can get and be creative and/or adaptive. The amount of times I saw sunrises was monumental – setting the alarm to wake up an hour and a half before the hurricane of the youngest would normally wake so I could get in a bit of extra time.
There were several nights where I was on the brink of breakdown wondering how on earth I’d be able to make it in time for confirmation. The date had been set, panel invited, it was immovable. I was all “woe is me” on Facebook, publicly acknowledging my complete and utter failure silently hoping someone would come pick up the pieces and get me through. Nights like those the best thing I did was take a break, get a good night sleep and reassess the next day (and delete my Facebook posts in all the shame of self-pity; see image below).
Now things worked out fine. I don’t know how, but I did it. I confirmed, I was proud of the document I produced and the presentation I gave. I moved on to the next phase of the PhD AND kept two children alive over school holidays. Total win.
I would never do that again however. So as a parent who has survived pure chaos and returned from it’s depths triumphant, allow me to reflect on my failings and celebrate my ingenuity and pass on these five suggestions of how to parent, how to school holiday and how to meet a tight deadline – all at the same time.
- Start straight away. I can’t stress this enough and whilst your supervisors and your candidature team will all advise this, I’ll put my hand on my heart from one parent to another and look you in the eyes with a pleading kind of honesty and say ‘please start now and don’t stop’. When you push your literature review aside one after to look after little fires that are erupting all over your house be sure to go straight back to it. Better still. Leave the house entirely. I found that working from home – even when the kids were at school – was super hard to be disciplined. The dog had that look in his eyes ‘please walk me’, clean cups had long become a thing of the past, something needed doing somewhere right now. And so I’d walk away, clean the cups, loose my train of thought and struggle to return. Deciding to catch a bus each day to campus was a revelation. Let’s face it, the solitude of a bus ride without the kids alone was worth leaving the house but having devoted time away from distractions was incredible. You want to be on top of this before school holidays so you can be that parent that skips out of the school ground kicking their heels with glee (they do exist). I wasn’t on top of it. This was my biggest lesson.
- Forget about parental perfection for a while. There’s probably nothing more that would make your kids happier than extra time on the iPad or in front of cartoons. And it’s not going to damage them. Remember this is temporary time. It’s a lead up to confirmation, it has an end point and after that it’s still hard work but you have two years to pace yourself and find your working groove. Strip back this notion of perfection about parenting and being an adult. The house doesn’t need to be spotless – everyone has a pile of washing they call Mt Washmore hidden in their bedrooms, they just don’t tell you about it. You don’t need to spend every second with your kids, they need to learn to be bored in order to invent their own games. Happiness and survival is much greater than a perceived notion of perfection.
- Use the Library. If you need to go to the library spent time in the curriculum center at KG – there are thousands of books across all ages as well as educational resources (read: puppets and toys). Grab your books, set the kids up with a range of books and toys and pull out your laptop. KG library also a media room with playstation games you can book out and a specific parent’s room where you can lock yourself away and your kids can draw or read at the desk in the space beside you. My kids thought the KG library was the best place ever.
4. Get creative with your office. My kids are the first to say they loved these school holidays as we got out of the house lots. I tried to think about safe places which were super fun, didn’t need my direct interaction but I could keep an eye on them whilst I worked. At first I felt guilty about taking my laptop to the indoor playcenter or to rollerskating but when I looked around every other parent was looking at their phone. I felt invigorated that I was using my time so wisely when everyone else was Instagramming! I could look up and watch them, interact, call out, put my book down and chase but I was also able to take time to read or jot down ideas and take a moment to think, even if I wasn’t able to bash out a thousand words.The images are of a few of my favourite offices, including kids play areas.
5. Keep your eye on the prize – and show the kids the prize too! During school holidays I had to meet with my supervisor and there was no way around this. So I took the kids with me. They got to experience the flexibility of academic life and meet my supervisor in person – after hearing me talk so much about her. It humanised the process for them – consider that they really have no idea what a PhD actually means! Having kids means there is no procrastination time, it means you already know how to juggle fifty balls in the air at one time, it means you already know the value of hard work.
Understand this and you realise that you are half way there so celebrate this crazy journey with mini-you’s at your heels and realise you are showing them how to take initiative, how to work hard for something you are passionate about, how to survive when times are tough. My kids have decided when I get my PhD I will be called Dr Mum and they are so proud to see me working towards this goal. So think of kids as a half sized support crew. Let them encourage you and see the reflection back of the way you encourage them to pursue their dreams.
Now your kids may not be as old as mine, the stage of your PhD may not be the same and your circumstances completely different but the take home message here is be creative and don’t panic (much)!