My baby, my taskmaster

Hello PhD mamas and readers interested in the PhD and/or motherly way of life!

I was thrilled when Nelle mentioned to me that she started a blog AND that I could contribute, being a recent grad myself, but not feeling in a position to keeping up with one on my own. I met Nelle in birth preparation classes while I was in my sixth year of grad school for French literature. I have to admit, it was reassuring to meet another woman brave, or possibly nuts enough, to have a baby while trying to write a dissertation. I loved having a blog back when I would do anything to avoid working on my diss, but it’s easy to imagine why I finally had to give it up.

My PhD took me seven years from start to finish and I can enthusiastically second Nelle’s theory of baby induced work efficacy improvement. I mostly hem-hawed around through my first five years of school, with the occasional wild burst of activity for the purpose of securing fifth and sixth-year funding. But with one chapter written in a year and a half of candidacy sans baby, and two chapters, an introduction and full revisions completed in one year with baby, I believe I have proof positive. I went from having all the time in the world and little to show for it, to having, at the beginning, three 30-minute nap slots each day for dissertating. Baby made me want to get OUT of grad school as soon as possible and since his papa wouldn’t let me drop out, I might as well just finish what I started. My son got a big shout out in the acknowledgements for his amazing cooperation and willingness to learn to take longer naps as he got older. Aside from being the PhD enforcer, my husband Fab also supported me morally and financially through the final chapters (good luck getting 7th year funding!).

All those months working away in short feverish stints, glancing nervously at the baby monitor as I typed out something really important, (if not totally ground breaking in the domain of the 18th-century novel,) I fluctuated between the absolute certainty that I could definitely DO this, and the paralyzing fear that something would happen to prevent me from turning it in by the looming deadline for graduation. The reality is that if my son had gotten sick or given up sleeping, I probably would have adapted my plan, as rational people often do, but I had wasted enough time, so I had to banish the thought of any other alternatives that might allow me to draw things out even longer.

But hold on a sec. Lest I paint myself as some kind of magic supermom/woman who never takes a break, slacks, wastes time on Facebook or naps myself, let me just say, while I have exponentially improved my productivity, as I think a lot of new parents learn to do, I am always painfully aware of the limits of that productivity. Sometimes I am too tired. To do anything. The grand plans for all the things I would finally have time to do AFTER graduation have been tempered by the grim realization that the days remain stubbornly consistent in length. All that precious nap time is now inexplicably filled up by things like sorting through 16 or 17 months worth of out grown baby clothes to be stored away, cleaning out my own closet, catching up on all the unpleasant things I just could not bear to do with a dissertation hanging over my head.

It’s almost like having a baby at one of the most critical moments of grad school is actually what finally motivated me to get my act together and finish. I was amazed at my friend Abbey’s resolve to finish her dissertation just a few weeks before her baby was born AND to go on the job market, but I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by what I was able to make myself do, too. A dissertation is a really, really long demoralizing, barely a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel kind of process. Going in seven years ago, I honestly figured I’d drop out somewhere along the way because the exams, defenses and dissertations just seemed like things I would be incapable of ever doing. I guess I kinda felt the same about childbirth. Who actually does that?!?

Disclaimer: I am not trying to make the case for doing the diss the way I did. It’s probably not for everyone. And I know many people have done more in even more challenging conditions. But for me personally, some mysterious combination of potentially really incompatible circumstances, personal growth and dismal lack of anything better to do all conspired in my favor. I still can’t believe I’m a mom after 18 months…better make that Dr. Mom.

In spite of the fact that I somehow managed to accomplish things I never truly believed I could do, it has taken me a whole week just to get this blog entry written – and I really wanted to do this – I am going to do my best to make sure it won’t be the last. I guess it’s just one of those sobering reminders that whatever huge, incredible, unlikely thing we manage to do, there’s always the next impossible feat (big or small) just waiting to be achieved next.



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