I am a PhD student and a twin-mum with a newborn in the midst of a pandemic. What's your superpower?
Before 2020, as probably every other PhD student, I was persuaded I had a lot on my shoulders. My days were filled with literature reviews, business trip reports, conference presentations and libraries. Lots of libraries and even more museums all around Europe. Because that is what us PhD students lucky enough to score the Marie Curie fellowship, an academic equivalent of a lottery win, are bound to do - keep moving, networking, soaking up the academic excellence from around the world and spreading the word about our own intellectual journey. Indeed, being an Early Stage Researcher is a PhD experience like no other. Ambitious mobility requirements, generous conference budget and supportive network would make anyone become a wanderlust, and a sworn vagabond that I was actually worked the best when in-between projects, trips and papers. My personal record was September 2018 with as many as 11 cities and 18 flights throughout that single month. Needless to say, I became an expert in passing the security-checks and finding the perfect airport spot to assemble my conference presentation - a quiet place close to the gate, with some plugins nearby and some fellow-minded digital nomads immersed into their world (read: laptop). With a calendar reminding the one of Cirque du Soleil on a summer tour, I certainly was busy. But then, I had to-do lists. And that is how I know that I was not overwhelmed with work and that everything was under control.
As every PhD student, I expected to submit within the three years. Because three years should be a lot of time, shouldn't it? Yet, no one warned me at the time that regardless of your plans, life happens - love and pandemics too. Thus, there I was in 2020, trying to resume my PhD after the short maternity leave - with two hyper-active, tantrum-tempered toddlers and a never-ending covid-lockdown. Finding out I was pregnant with our third boy. There was much more going on than I can recall, but I can tell it was a challenging year which required much more multi-tasking and improvisation than I ever dreamed of doing. Waking up at 4 am to finish that long-overdue paper only to realize one of my early-risers decided to 'rise and shine' before I had time to finish the first paragraph? Checked. Joining Zoom meetings while pushing a stroller around the construction site since excavators and giant trucks are the only thing that can keep them quiet and happy while I work? Checked. Writing e-mails to the supervisors while breastfeeding a newborn? You do what you have to. Having grandparents entertain kids on Viber in order to finish reference formatting? Checked. Giving toddlers a full box of rice and some water (read: sensory play) to make an uncontainable mess throughout the living room while I draft my Career Development Plan? Been there, done that. Yet, I know that there is nothing exceptional about my experience, as most of the parents, most of the workers, and certainly all of the working parents struggled to digest everything that made our lives so much more complicated throughout the pandemics. Nonetheless, I believe it was a year of personal growth for most of us. The year in which we learnt not to take for granted. Anything.
To everyone spending hours on google searching 'Marie Curie maternity leave' and generally anyone who is about to embark onto parenthood journey while still doing a PhD, these are the things I wish someone told me before.
1. People will understand
You may be scared, or confused, and probably also anxious about how you are going to manage so many things at the time, especially when the uncertainty strikes, and overall life conditions change. To be honest, when I was about to announce my pregnancy I felt almost ashamed for making everyone's life so much more complicated with the administrative burden of maternity leave, grant extension, contract prolongation and visa issues. With my second pregnancy, it felt even worse, because – who would ever trust me that as a mother of “three-under-two” I will still manage to write and publish? Every time I responded to a long overdue e-mail, every time I sent a late conference application or was unable to honor a deadline, I felt a combination of guilt, discomfort and shame. Yet, every time again my colleagues, supervisors and even random people from academia showed a lot of comprehension, compassion and support. Somehow, they make it work. Even when you think it is a deadlock, even when everything seems way too complicated, even when it takes months to put it all in place, your hosts will figure it out for you. This is when you realize that actually, you have the best job in the world.
2. You have to show up
As every new mum, I was sleep-deprived for most of the 2020. There were many, many nights when I would not get more than 3 hours of sleep before my 4 a.m. alarm would go off. And while every single time I wanted to snooze off and get some much needed sleep before the two (now three) smiling creatures crawl out of the bed, I would make an effort to show up. And every time I would be surprised about just how much I was able to do during these few hours while everyone else was sleeping. Not only that my mind was sharpest in the morning, but there is also something really gratifying about starting your day with some deep work, as it makes you less anxious throughout the day. I am not saying it is easy, but most of the time all you have to do is show up, or in the world of researchers - open up your computer and start putting some words on the paper. Of course, there are some days when even teeth brushing is a luxury leisure you cannot afford, but creating a habit of doing some work, even if it is a short e-mail to the supervisors while kids are napping or a quick note for your reading diary at the end of the (trust me, I know how long) day, will take you a long way, in the long run. Baby steps, piled in hundreds, is what will eventually get you to the big achievements.
3. Good enough is perfect
When family and professional life get too intertwined, as it is often the case with academic careers, and obligations start piling up, even the ones on the opposite side of the OCD spectrum may feel overwhelmed. Especially since we are so used to polishing, embellishing and organizing, the idea of living with tentative but perpetual chaos (as in your 'writing' folders and toys drawers) will make you anxious and frustrated. So most of the high-achievers will most of the time feel like non-achievers. When a deadline would be approaching and my paper was still blank, laundry going out of control, kids being moody and co-workers super demanding, I would feel like I am failing in every possible aspect of my existence. I wish that someone told me at the time that despite what looks like an untamed mess, I was actually doing great. Kids want our presence, not our perfection. Our PhD work too. Through time and iterations, you will be getting more skilled, more meticulous and more confident, and everything will be getting so much easier. Thus, the hardest lesson I had to learn was not to seek perfection, but just do it, in any possible way. I am not suggesting you shouldn’t put your maximum efforts into every task, I just invite to prioritise and by all means not judge yourself too harsh. Because with rampant covid pandemics, challenges of parenthood and complexity of PhD work - good enough is perfect indeed.
4. Sit back and enjoy the ride
Finally, I wish someone told me that I'll actually enjoy it. That it will be the most difficult and the most rewarding challenge of my life. That each smile of those little minions and each supervisors' "keep up with the good work" will make me feel both proud and privileged to be doing it all. And while achieving family-work life balance will probably never get easy, I am confident that surrounding yourself with some supportive people, showing up and doing the (imperfect) work is a way ahead. And we shall enjoy the every step of it.