How to do a PhD when you have three young children: lean on your support network, get enough sleep, and remember the reasons why you're doing it.
Doing a PhD while mothering three young children is absolutely nuts! I certainly have optimistic and ambitious goals: I set up timelines for my PhD work, I join ‘extra-curricular’ groups, and I have visions of dedicated, free-time spent playing with my kids. But the truth is, it’s a slog.
A doctoral program is something I always wanted to do but working as a flight attendant during my Master’s program led to some other projects (i.e. moving across the country, marriage, moving back across the country, growing our family, and starting a home-renovation company with my husband). Five months pregnant with our third child, I applied to the PhD program in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics. It was an absolute thrill to be accepted, but also a little daunting.
How, exactly, is this going to work?
Pre-pandemic, we made it work by trying to keep a ‘dynamic routine’. This routine kept us grounded as we addressed all the work that needed to be done but allowed for adjustments as required by our three children who were 5-years, 3-years, and 4-months old when I started the doctoral program. The older two were in school but our infant was still nursing frequently and not quite sleeping through the night. The need for a routine was apparent after the blur of orientation week which not only introduced me to campus and the PhD program, but also introduced my husband to just how much he would be taking on as a result of my academic pursuit. He rescheduled his business-work hours so he could take on more home-work, giving me time to concentrate on coursework. We also enlisted the help of my mom, my aunt and uncle who live in Guelph, our neighbour, and even my PhD colleague’s wife to lend a child-care hand. It really did take a village, but we were able to maintain our dynamic routine.
Then the pandemic hit and our routine became uncontrollably dynamic. Sure, I was already used to being home 24/7 with our toddler but having the other two at home made every day unpredictable. Even ardent dedication to following a schedule – when I had the energy to do so – didn’t facilitate large windows of productivity because children are little, dynamic beings (stapled to the wall behind my computer monitor is a reminder: “Learning how to solve problems and manage emotions is the primary task of childhood”). Everything is fine one minute then suddenly it’s total emotional chaos and I need to switch gears between thinking like a 4-year old to thinking like a 1-year old then debrief with the 7-year old.
Once everything’s settled again, there’s the mental gear-grind back to thinking profoundly and academically. And this says nothing of the invisible mental load of managing everything about three little people: online classroom schedule, who has and has not brushed teeth, doctors appointments, and always, always knowing where Elmo is should he be needed. Trying to be productive under these conditions is exactly that: “trying”. While I certainly don’t have a steady balance of life and work, I do have some targets that keep me (and my family) from tipping over.
In order to live and work well, I have had three rules from day one of this academic endeavour. In order of priority, they are: get enough sleep, eat dinner together as a family, and workout. When I am doing these three, I’m a better mom and a better student. There is nothing in those rules about doing readings, writing papers, or networking with other scholars, because all of that has to come after taking care of myself and my family. Being a mother while pursing a degree provides incredible perspective and, for me, this perspective comes in two forms. First, I’m highly motivated to do my PhD because my research is, broadly, concerned with climate change mitigation for the sake of ecological health for future generations. Second, my work as a parent is just as critical to this goal of ecological justice as my PhD work. Raising children that care for one another, their environment, and our dog takes time, attentiveness, and constant adaptation. I fully recognize the privilege that allows me to be in the roles that I’m in and so I make space in the slog to remember the 'why' and enjoy the process.
Rock on, motherPhDers!
 I literally finished typing this sentence and my 7-year old comes up to me “can I have a gum ball? how do I open this bag of gumballs?”. Argh! "Where there’s a will there’s a way, kid! …and I love you. Now go."