PhD plus baby
I was standing in front of the closed door with sweating palms and – most probably – a red face because I felt it burning. It’s not so easy to get me that nervous but I had been preparing for that talk for weeks. No. To be exact, for three months. I was in the forth year of my PhD in molecular biology, which means spending your days – and preferably evenings and weekends – in the lab performing experiments, collecting data, analyzing results. It was expected of me to finish my projects in less than a year, then publish two articles in high-impact journals in co-authorship with other scientists, write up my thesis and finally successfully defend it.
It was my boss’ door in front of me, and I was about to tell her I was 12-weeks pregnant. More than that, I was going to mention our plans to move to a different city in just three months. Of course, I’d already played the worst-case scenario in my head: the risk was that I’d lose my chance to get a degree, and all that after 5 years of studying in the Russian university, 2 years of Master’s in Holland and almost 4 years of my work in that lab.
You know what the “Acknowledgements” of my thesis begin with? “I have always thought of myself as of a person who got a lucky lottery ticket. Mine was an unusual prize though: meeting great people in life.” That line is very much true with regard to my boss. She is a mother of two children, she had to make her way in science all by herself, both times having given birth during her postdoctoral research. Her reaction to my statement was: “What a great news! I’m so happy for you! Is everything fine?” I couldn’t wish for better.
After that, I had to make a plan how to squeeze all the extended studies in those three months that I had left at the lab. I had to update her about my progress every week (which was my own initiative to keep things going fast enough) and start writing up along with rounding up the practical part of my study.
I was very lucky to have quite an easy pregnancy, I constantly talked to the baby in my belly asking her to be patient, and she responded accordingly. Otherwise I have no idea how we would be able to move 6 times in the following 5 months, and one of them to another city. The reason was that the perfect place we found needed a complete renovation, and it wasn’t possible to stay there in the meantime. But that is a different story, a story of our home.
After I finished the lab work, we moved to a different city, and I started writing up. In the last trimester, I felt sleepy, all the time. My midwife advised daytime naps, and after such a nap I felt fresh enough to keep on working. Later, after giving birth, I looked back at what I managed to finish up and thanked myself greatly for everything I had done back then. Firstly, information tends to fade away from your brain quite quickly (think of returning back to work after a long vacation). Secondly, despite the eternal renovation problems, lack of sleep and a light fatigue during my last pregnancy months, it still felt like there was plenty of free time in comparison with the first months with the baby.
So if you’re working on something during pregnancy, my two tips would be: 1) finish up as much as possible before giving birth, 2) write up literally everything: what it is that you exactly do and why you do that.
When we were a couple of weeks away my due date, a friend, a father of 1.5 years old toddler at the time, told us something we couldn’t really believe at first but slowly turned out to be true. He said that the first months with the baby would be the easiest: she sleeps and eats, and from time to time you have to change her diaper. So the second week after Aveline’s birth I decided to continue writing my thesis, and the plan was pretty straightforward: when she was doing naps, I was typing.
With time, I worked out a routine for myself: use as much time as possible for science during her naps and do other chores when she’s awake. It was not perfect as sometimes I had to do naps together with her but generally it helped a great deal. In the whole writing phase, I had only one pause of 2.5 months when we lived in Russia with my family. When we got back, I started working on my book again.
With a great help of my husband, boss and family, I was able to publish our articles and finish writing and designing my book when Aveline was 7 months old. In two months after that I finally defended it.
There were several tips I found useful to work efficiently having a baby. We came up with some of them in the process, others were given to us by more experienced parents. Here are they:
- When our baby is awake, I have several sets of activities to keep her busy if I need to work.
- When Aveline was 8.5 months old, we decided to let her sleep in her crib both during the day and at night (before that we co-slept). Surprisingly, that made her sleeping rhythm more consistent, and nowadays she sleeps around 1.5-2.5 hours per nap twice during the daytime.
- Another parent told us once that his children went to bed at 20.00, which meant that the whole evening was for himself. After that, we shifted the bedtime of Aveline from 22.00 to 20.00. That went smoothly, and she didn’t even start waking up earlier in the morning.
- I am not the most organized person, however it appeared that daily routine worked best, both for us and for our baby.
If you are about to start or are now working on your PhD (or actually any other project) and thinking about having a baby, I would say it’s possible. Surely, you’d need to adjust, and the support of your colleagues, boss and family helps a great deal. But it is possible. If you have a chance to plan it, I would say, give yourself a bit of time to do the hardest part of the job/ the practical part of the study before your get a baby. However I now think that if this would happen earlier, I would be just fine too. Best of luck to you with your projects!
Aveline is wearing BabyMORI bodysuits and a Moobles & Toobles bloomer (all the pieces are organic and ethically produced), her adorable hand-made Penguin is from Cuddle+Kind, my black and golden watch is from CLUSE.