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Balancing being a mum and doing a PhD.

This week’s blog post is from Katherine Bird. Katherine was awarded a Mental Health Research UK PhD scholarship at the University of Nottingham in 2020. Her project title is: Understanding pathways to self-harm and suicide ideation in high risk young people: an unmissable opportunity for suicide prevention. She describes how she has learned to balance being a mum with her full-time PhD research.

Balancing being a mum and doing a PhD.

Separately, being a mum and doing a PhD are challenging and, at times, unpredictable. People often ask me how I successfully juggle both. The short and honest answer is: I don’t always feel I do. But when I look back at the past year, I realise that I have learned to juggle both rather well. Rather than ‘juggle’, I prefer the word ‘manage’. Juggling implies everything could come crashing down, and I don’t like to think that that would happen.

During this past year I undertook several training modules to develop skills I need to achieve the aims of my PhD. These involved weekly lectures and several assignments. I also began a systematic literature review, presented at, and attended, numerous conferences and meetings, began developing an online tool to use during my PhD, and produced a 10,000-word end-of-year review of my PhD to date which I recently presented to an assessor.

I did all this alongside the usual parental duties; washing, ironing, cooking, shopping, hair-washing, the playing of games, taxi-service to and from parties, karate, Brownies…the list is never-ending. And how can I forget three-months of home-schooling? To my amazement I realised that I had met the PhD-related goals I set at the beginning of the year alongside all that. So, I decided to identify what skills are needed to balance parental- and PhD-work.

I am lucky to be well-organised, focused, and self-motivated. Being well-organised allows me to plan my days and weeks regarding what I want to achieve for my PhD and as a parent. Planning also ensures I allow sufficient time for both. Being focused and self-motivated means I can stick to my plan though there are times when something urgent crops up, so I just have to respond to that and return to my original plan when the matter has been dealt with.

I have had to make changes in my approach to certain things. Historically, I have been rather particular about how household tasks are done so did them all myself. However, I soon realised this left little room for family-time let alone my own wellbeing. Clearly, I had to make compromises. So, I have had to reassess what is and isn’t important. So, for example, my daughter is now 10-years old and perfectly capable of performing some chores, so I realised I didn’t need to do all the housework.

I began guiding her through performing age-appropriate household tasks. These tasks are now her responsibility, and I can rely on her to do them (with only a little cajoling!). Changing my approach to household chores has taken a weight off my shoulders and at the same time is teaching my daughter independence. Most important of all, it means there is more time for us to spend together as a family. I know that it has also reduced my stress levels and increased my focus and productivity.

So, as well as all that I am learning in the course of my PhD, I have also learnt a lot about myself and the importance of a work-life balance. Something that I hope that I shall be able to maintain in the years to come.

Katherine Bird

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