Studying for a PhD as a parent

Heather describes the difficulty of managing her time and energy while balancing her studies with her child's needs. She found it essential to schedule specific tasks into her day, being honest about her needs, and saying no if she is at risk of being overwhelmed.

Heather shares the challenges of studying for a PhD and looking after a child throughout the pandemic.

Video transcript

Students are never 'just students'. We bring to our time at university previous as well as current-continuing experiences and the word 'student' is simply a role label that sits alongside others. In my case, I am currently a mature, postgraduate student, but I am also a mother to a primary-school-aged child.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, it already required a great deal of energy to juggle and gain any semblance of balance between my working life and my home life. As a student parent you are not 100% master or mistress of your own time and actions - much depends on the needs of your child or children in any given moment and the skill of adaptability is certainly required.

For me there was a lot of partitioning throughout the day, dividing and sectioning off pieces of time here and there for work and for parenting-related activities such as lunch-box preparing; the school run; the commute to and waiting during extra-curricular activities; the bedtime routine; the play-date and party planning etc. and etc. and etc..! ; not to mention the necessity that is time to emotionally connect with my child. Parenting has a level of emotional and physical time intensity that can be frequently misunderstood, even overlooked. Being a parent whilst also a student therefore adds a layer of complexity to a university experience at the best of times.

Within days of the announcement that schools were closing, and home-schooling was starting in March 2020, I was feeling the weight, scale and overwhelm of the challenge that is fulfilling both student and parent roles. The pandemic basically made the problems of student-parenting before it even more obvious, and my student and parent roles were in conflict.

The main big challenge of my student-parent pandemic experience, from which all the other challenges stem, relates to 'time' - in terms of the amount of it available totally mismatching the tasks that I need to complete; in terms of feeling subject to external timetables (the university's; my child's school's; even my child's daily routine-time-structure that they need to continue for their own wellbeing), none of which coordinate or relate to one another in any way, (ultimately resulting in me having limited sense of an ability to control the management of my own time, especially in the lockdowns.). And importantly, also in terms of a total absence of 'me' time - and by that I mean essential rest time.

Parenting is a full-time job; PhD research is also a full-time job. At the best of times there is a fine balance that can be maintained with the support of things like childcare, family or friend help etc., so perhaps it should have been obvious that overwhelm was something I was going to experience when these support elements were removed as a consequence of the pandemic. Despite fighting to continue 'as normal', it became simply impossible to do two full-time jobs simultaneously, especially when one of those jobs really did need specific, lengthy periods of ‘thinking through ideas time’.

I began to get frustrated that there was little recognition of the abnormal situation in which student-parents were now having to exist and that circumstances were overruling what I personally knew I could do better. I felt powerless, as well as completely exhausted. I also began to feel isolated - I didn’t know any other students at my university who were parenting or dealing with the stress of home-schooling alongside their work. And I also felt support mechanisms weren’t reflecting or relating to the reality of student-parent need or experience.

The nature of the pandemic has obviously changed since the first lockdown, and so too has the nature of being a student and a parent simultaneously during it. Living in a pandemic, in the same way as being a parent or a student, is not to experience a fixed state, and therefore it's important to remain open to new ideas about how to manage and cope with ever and rapid changing circumstances.

I continue to have to be flexible in my work if there is a need to respond to overnight changes in my child's circumstances (like if they're ill, or if they have to be at home isolating due to a school outbreak of the virus etc.). A year earlier than where we are now this would have been very stressful for me - I like to organise and have a fixed routine but that is simply not possible in the current circumstance. I still have moments where I can feel panic rising, but I have got to the point where I've developed principles and actions to live by as a student-parent in the pandemic.

One thing I have found to be vital is honesty. Prior to the pandemic I might have hid or minimised stresses associated with my parenting role - now I find it important, even imperative, to remove a sense of shame and be honest with myself and others about when my roles are in conflict.

I say 'no' when I can see that overwhelm is on the cards; rather than pushing ahead, I make (justified) changes to my research activities when I can foresee clashes; I keep my supervisors informed when I am struggling with role conflicts; I engage in proactive actions to avoid stress, like rejecting meeting requests that collide with school pick-up times; I accept when my work is 'good enough' rather than aiming for 'perfect'; I make time for and prioritise physical activity - walking and dancing are things I cannot live without! And I acknowledge the individuality of both my parenting and student experiences, no longer comparing what I do in either role to other students and/or other parents - everyone’s experience is different. I also am using this time to begin a conversation about mental health with my child - it's never too early to talk and introduce activities like gratitude diaries, crafting and yoga.

I suppose in this way you could say that having been a student-parent during the pandemic, I have become more proactive rather than reactive to situations as they arrive. I am proud to be a parent and a student, seeing them as equal elements in my identity, and one can contribute to the success I have in the other. That is something to take forward into whatever 'new normal' develops for student-parents within university.