The doctoral student’s guide to distracted parenting

IMG_3307It’s the fodder of the Sunday papers. It goes by the name “helicopter parenting”, “hyper mothering” or “over vigilance”. Call it what you like, I’ll call it too much time on your hands. And there is a cure. Do a doctorate.

Yes, if you decide to take a minimum of four years out of your life for higher study whilst raising children, I can guarantee that you’ll have the kind of “let them fend for themselves” attitude that is supposed to build a child’s resilience and self-esteem.

I speak from experience. Simply be too busy to go the extra mile, and you’ll have praise showered upon you as your children develop reserves of inner strength, imagination and (best of all) cooking and other “life” skills. They will never utter those words “I am bored” because they know that you, too-busy doctoral mother, will retort “I don’t care – I have a deadline!”

Years ago I met a young woman at a conference who told me that when her mother was doing her doctorate, everything was reasonably okay until the final stretch. That’s when her mother started buying appliances that turned themselves off.

How I laughed. Oh, back then I was a stay-at-home mother, freelancing, consulting and doing my Masters. Sure. I had two kids, but what did I know? The pressure of a PhD is vastly different to an MA. Then add working full time as well as studying – and it’s easy to see how those elaborate birthday cakes and over-the-top children’s parties have become a thing of the past, cosigned to the sort of hazy nostalgic memories that Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones had about Hailsham boarding school in Never Le Me Go.

So, from one mother who did it all (and over did it), to the mother who takes every short cut in the book and then some, here is my Cheat Sheet for any other doctoral student and mum out there.

10 Tips for Mothering and Studying

1. It’s all about timing

My number one tip is don’t try to do “brain work” when you just get home from work and the kids demand your attention. Now is the time for multi-tasking, and by that I mean doing “brain dead” busy work like the essential housework. Again, never waste your time doing housework when the kids are preoccupied or out of the house. Use your time wisely. And be ruthless with your time. Tell the kids “now is not the time”, or “I have no time for that” or “my time is running out – I am on a deadline”. Set firm bedtimes for the kids and relish a quiet house and thinking time. Military style discipline is the only way.

2. They will send reminder notices

Schools are used to slack parents. You are not slack but distracted. Don’t worry, the notice will come out again, and other mums will call to ask if you got the invitation to their kid’s party. Everyone wants to get the numbers, it’s like politics.

3. Be selfish

  • Men are very good at this, women – especially mothers – not so much. Some people think I am a monster because I refuse to let my kids into my study without permission. They are never allowed to touch my computer (unless I need IT support) and when they were toddlers, I locked myself in and ignored their pounding little fists on the door as my parents babysat. Stop being so available to your children, carve out time for yourself, and demand they find something to do while you are working. Remember you need to parent for independence and resilience. And finish your PhD.

4. Never (EVER) volunteer.

There are always trophy wives and earnest mums with nothing better to do than suck up to the school, teacher, or your friends. Let them go for it. You cannot afford to compete, much less be actually seen at school unless it is crucial. For instance, has your child been hit? Hit someone? Won a prize? Or about to be thrown out for incompetence? If none of these apply to your darling, then you do not need to set foot in the school. And please, if they ask for a cake for a bake sale, send money instead. My mother did this when I was growing up. I learned from the best. Remember, hyper-parenting leads to volunteering. And frankly, no kid really wants to see mum at school. You are fooling yourself if you think they do. Also, it should go without saying that you never volunteer to have children for a sleepover. Especially if they are what is called “challenging”. Avoid at all costs. Sudden boats of gastro will keep any suggestions at bay.

  • 5. You can have it all but not all at once

Only do what is absolutely necessary when it comes to housework and cooking. Now is not the time to be a domestic goddess. Now is the time to survive. Ditto yoga classes, the downward dog can wait. Do enough exercise so you remain healthy, but let’s face it, when the final lap comes around and you have months before handing in, everything goes to seed while you study. Every marathon runner limps to the end. On the mother-front, remember, for that reason, there is nothing wrong with rotating the same two or three meals throughout the week. If the kids get bored, let them cook.

  • 6. Be realistic

You are not attempting to get a Nobel Prize. You are doing a PhD. Put it in perspective.  You are pushing knowledge a little way, standing on the shoulders of others. You don’t have to start your research from scratch. Likewise, you do not have to start dinner from scratch – buy vegetables pre chopped. If you socialize, don’t offer to bring food – bring wine and expensive chocolate instead.

  • 7. Embrace caffeine

In all its forms, caffeine is the boost you need to zoom through the day and the night. You are not an Olympic athlete whose urine is going to be tested for banned substances, so have a coffee, and the another. But know your limits. I tried one of those energy drinks once and felt so sick I’d never do it again. It’s a bit like fake tan, really. You have to know when to stop. For the same reason you drink coffee, never let your children near it, even if they are teenagers. Children need to be in bed at night – early – so you can study. The words “children” and “stimulants” should never be used in the same sentence, not if you value your sanity.

  • 8. Never Give Up

A friend gave me this advice when I was starting out on the doctoral journey and seriously contemplating giving up as domestic life got complicated. “Keep at it with a terrier-like disposition. Of course, whether it is a doctorate, a thesis, a piece of work, see it for what it is: an investigation, an effort at pushing the envelope. For that very reason, you should not give it up.” I have had this taped to my study door for the past four years. It has become my mantra.

  • 9. Everything Can Be Bought At the Supermarket

Now is not the time for Farmers’ Markets. Don’t be creative, adventurous or interesting. Forget those home made cakes, and thoughtfully chosen gifts for the endless birthday parties your primary school child gets invited to.

Shop your supermarket. Look at the gift cards. What child doesn’t want plastic voucher for something? While you are at it, you can pick up the milk you forgot and the bread for the lunches. When it comes to birthday cards, go to a discount shop once a year and buy in bulk generic cards (ones with puppies are gender neutral). They have cheap gift wrap, too. If you buy silver, it will also do for Christmas.

10. Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones, there is only one goal – to complete

Yes, procrastination can be good. This is brain dead fallow time, or sheer bloody exhaustion time, when you have done an all-nighter (a lot harder after age 40 than when you were a fresh faced undergraduate, especially if kid is sick or needs to be at the sports complex by 6 am). But don’t confuse sorting the sock drawer and sorting the deep freeze with anything other than an avoidance of doctoral work. The endless domestic tasks that make up motherhood will all be there when you complete. The dust will just be thicker.

 A final thought

Remember – you lead by example. The frustrations, hard work, false starts and dead ends and the sheer determination to see the doctorate through to completion will teach your kids more about what it takes to succeed than all the outings to the museum and bushwalks that you missed taking them to. Also, remember that 95 % of any social outings that you engage in should be child centered. It’s really a lot of fun boring everyone at school functions and scout events by speaking about your doctoral research.

The other 5 % of social functions should be university centered, and there you can bore your fellow students with stories about your children. After all, what else do you have to talk about?

 * No children were harmed in the writing of this blog.