Using your PhD maternity leave

I initially drafted this post in January 2018 and didn’t find time to actually finalise and post it. This is because I found out that a baby’s second year of life is a LOT more intense than the baby’s first year of life (where did my sleepy newborn with simple physical needs go, and who is this emotionally demanding toddler?!). I found 12-19 months the hardest, but every baby is different. I have also, since Jan 2018, submitted my thesis, had my viva, done my corrections, resubmitted and popped out another sprog - introducing Benji, now 11 days old. Perhaps I’ll get to write a follow-up on ‘using your second PhD maternity leave’! But, I suspect I’ll just be sleeping instead. Watch this space!

I didn't write many blog-posts in 2017 and there's very good reason for that. He's called Evan and he's more demanding than the most gruelling supervisor. His emotions can be quite volatile, he screams a lot but he also has a winning smile that will make you do almost anything for him. He's my beautiful little 11 month old son. This past year has been more of a culture shock than 9 months of fieldwork in Tanzania, and more tiring than completing my part-time masters with a more than part-time job whilst getting engaged and planning to live in South Sudan for 9 months. It has also been a whole new kind of rewarding, which any of you who have the pleasure of spending time with small babies will appreciate. Additionally, by some miracle, I have also managed to present at 4 conferences, co-organise a post-graduate workshop on research communications with DARG, bash out a second draft of my methodology chapter and mark 30 undergrad assignments. All babies are different, everyone's experience of becoming a parent, or primary carer, are different and everyone's relationship with their PhD is different. Because of this, I'm cautious to propose any sort of winning formula for a PhD-productive maternity leave. However, I thought I'd share some of the hacks and compromises (as well as outside help) I employed to keep a toe in the door and keep going with the PhD during my maternity leave.

1. Leave your PhD in a good state when you embark on your leave

I started my maternity leave in February 2016 after getting feedback on the full first draft of my PhD thesis. The feedback was helpful, providing me with a long list of questions that needed to be addressed to get my thesis ship-shape for submission. For me, having a full first draft finished was a massive psychological barrier breached and made me feel very confident about taking some time away from the thesis transcript.

Now, you can't always plan when you're going to fall pregnant. However, once you are pregnant, you have 9 months (or let's say 8 since you're clueless for at least the first month) to get the PhD to a good place before you take a break. Other good milestones could be finishing a literature review and planning the fieldwork, or analysing your fieldwork data and coming up with a comprehensive writing plan. You could organise your references in your referencing software so that all your articles and books are organised under chapter headings (if you don't use a referencing software yet, it is crucial and will save you a lot of time, I use Zotero - perhaps there's another blog in this). Break down what you need to do before you go on leave into teeny-tiny chunks. When your cognitive functions are impaired by sleep deprivation, you'll appreciate such prescriptive cues.

2. The right tasks for the right time

I was quite intentional about using my maternity leave for presenting at conferences. Often with a PhD, you're so preoccupied with writing targets that taking time out to prepare for a conference feels like a distraction. However, my maternity leave was a perfect justification for putting the thesis to one side for 8-9 months and putting my mind to something else. Because I'd written a first draft of my thesis, I was in a good place to start presenting these ideas to the world and, helpfully, getting feedback. Before Ev came along, I submitted abstracts to conferences with no expectation that they'd be accepted. Then, they were all accepted. So, there was nothing left but to rise to the challenge. 

Now, presentations take a lot of thought and practice to get right. And I would say at least one of the presentations I delivered was unsatisfactory. However, I already had all of the ideas in my chapters and all I needed to do was refine them. By refining them I was contributing to making my thesis better since I could feed these ideas back into the thesis in due course. The tasks required significant concentration, but were small enough that I could fit it around Evan's schedule (more in the next section).

The conferences were also excellent for networking. It seems obvious, but going to several conferences in the same conference season meant that I met a lot of the same people and started to get to know more about who was doing what in my field of study. There's nothing like presenting in front of a room to get yourself noticed - for this reason, even when the presentation was not perfect, it was still worthwhile putting myself in front of people.

Other things you might want to use the leave for could be blog-posts - similarly short and snappy tasks which may help you get some ideas out and improve your visibility. Organising an event often requires lots of small admin tasks which fit really well into a more fragmented schedule. You may want to draft a journal paper or book chapter, look into funding sources and write proposals for upcoming conferences or fieldwork. Think about tasks that can be picked-up and put-down but that will contribute to your overall PhD goal. Don't spend your leave agonising about what you're not doing on your thesis!

3. Naps, naps, naps

Now that I have first hand experience of caring for a baby, I have the humility to accept that some sleep easier than others. However, I'm also a social scientist working in childhood studies and I spend too much of my time thinking about structure versus agency to ignore the fact that babies are probably born on a sleep continuum and in the right enabling environment you might just be able to help them move towards the 'sleeper' end of the continuum. What I'm saying is, if your baby does seem to want to nap at all, ever, don't give up. If you give up on getting them to nap, you will be too exhausted to think about doing anything else. So, I am by no means a baby sleep expert, but I was very persistent with Evan and from about 3 months onward I knew exactly when he was going to nap, roughly how long for and therefore how much work I might be able to get done. So, I'll let you know what worked for us.

For all my nap and sleeping advice, I followed this lady's blog. She's very sensible, I like her rationale and, well, it worked for us so that's enough for me (baby stuff is all about trial and error)! We had our low points. Around the 6 month mark I calculated how much time I must have spent listening to Evan try to settle himself to sleep... 16 days was the figure I came to (this sounds crazy, but if they're napping 3 times a day, then there's bedtime, then settling between night-time feeds, and they fuss for 10-60 minutes for each nap/sleep time - including going in to pat them, give them Calpol, another feed - it quickly adds up). That's a lot of time and, it's agony. But, for each day that they struggle to settle, they'll have many more when they do settle just fine within 5 or 10 minutes. There's far too much out there on baby sleep, so I won't get into it. If you're happy to cuddle your baby for every nap, then that is really wonderful. I love cuddling Evan while he sleeps and it doesn't do anyone any harm as far as I'm concerned. But, if you want to get stuff done, you really need to crack the nap. Babies can sleep up to 4 hours a day. That's half a working day you can scrape back if you get them to nap well. So, read up, experiment and see what works for you.

And, what about those 16 days when your baby is fussing and your parent brain can hear and think of nothing but the whining baby in the next room. Well, that's when I do physical tasks that require no brain-power - washing up, putting the compost out, hoovering downstairs, washing another load of nappies, for example.

4. Money

Some PhD scholarships offer you maternity pay, and this can depend when in the programme you take maternity leave - do look into this if you're actively planning to get pregnant during your PhD. However, I had Evan in my fourth year and my funding didn't include any maternity benefits. It was by sheer chance that I had happened to accumulate enough working hours and pay to be entitled to Maternity Allowance (MA) which was, at time of writing, £520 per month. Not loads, but considerably better than £0 per month and enough to take the pressure off finding a job during my maternity leave and therefore jeopardising getting the PhD finished.

The MA application is lengthy and requires a lot of supporting documentation, but the people on the helpline were really, well, helpful! They gave lots of advice on what could be included and what couldn't and seemed like they genuinely wanted me to be able to claim as much as I could. Luckily from doing 1 day per week nannying for my friend's children, plus tutoring and marking work at my university, I managed to piece together an application for MA. If you're not entitled to maternity pay in your scholarship, I would highly recommend getting some paid work on the side of your PhD so that you can qualify for MA (I think it only has to total £110 per week for something like 14 weeks in a fixed period before your due date (60-something weeks) to be entitled to full MA, but please check the current figures). MA also contributes towards NI credits. Babies are expensive, so every penny counts!

5. Help

So, like with any good work, you always need to include your acknowledgements. There is no way I could have done all I did over the past year without a flexible and willing co-parent who values my career as much as theirs. Flexible is key, because I have chosen to continue breastfeeding throughout my maternity leave which, like it or not, means that you can't spend too much time away from the little one without them getting hungry or your breasts exploding. Evan has taken expressed milk in a bottle on and off, but this has in no way been reliable enough for me to leave him for longer than half a day. Since being weaned it's a lot better, but he's allergic to cows milk and the logistics of leaving him are a little tricky. This has meant that Evan and Andy accompanied me to all of my conferences, including one in Sweden! This has meant that Andy has either had to use up his annual leave or work remotely. This may not be feasible for everyone, but perhaps there is a willing grandparent, aunt, uncle or good friend who may be up for a trip to some obscure conference location for a day in order to hold the baby while you present. Some conferences have creches (big up the RGS-IBG Annual Conference). Or, you may choose not to breastfeed, or manage to get your baby to take a bottle, in which case childcare logistics are much easier! But, you also need the co-parent to be happy with you working the occasional evening and weekend. Sure, in pre-baby days there's no issue with working a few evenings a week and doing work stuff over weekends, but when a baby comes along everything is stretched. You are now juggling a full-time 24 hour care job on top of everything else, so your rest-time and together-time with your partner will be really important. It's not worth taking it for granted, in my view, so make sure you're both on board with throwing effort into your careers as well as your new little bundle of joy, and putting rest-time on the back burner for a little while.