Mommy PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (2)

Mommy PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (2)

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Image of the Walking to School Campaign, Victoria, Australia

 

Dark anger about injustice regarding freedom of movement, especially for children, definitely motivated my PhD and its focus. On the flip side, so did joy. Some of my own happiest childhood memories were made on streets. One of my earliest memories is of simply walking along a suburban street. The light is that impossible fresh green which glows through leaves during the first days of a warm English spring. I remember it as one of the happiest, most peaceful experiences of my life. These memories provided a deeper, almost spiritual motivation for my thesis. The substance of the thesis actually found its roots in these early childhood experiences. Understanding these memories as not only key motivators, but also as the essence of my real fascination helped tremendously in defining my work and writing my introduction.

Is it necessary to dig this deep into motivation? If, as a mother, your Masters or PhD process is going to stretch over several years then I think it’s crucial you get to the bottom of what angers, frustrates and really moves you. Without a real, authentic motivation the inevitable question of why you are doing this simply won’t have a good enough answer.

In my experience finding your purpose, is quite difficult to do on your own. Exercises in the book “What Color is your Parachute?” helped me. So did various More To Life courses, especially the Power of Purpose. Talking to friends and family helped.

But once found this motivation is like a mythical potion. When you feel like you’re failing, or question what you are doing, you can revisit this purpose and it will reinvigorate you when nothing else seems to work. Find it, cherish it, and keep it close.

On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend

On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend

Hi Beth,

It was good to see you yesterday, although you did seem out-of-sorts and, as you said yourself: shattered. As I sat there I was quite torn. On the one hand you were asking for my thoughts and recollections, but on the other hand it seemed that more than anything you needed to have a good howl. I hope you got that (howl) before the end of the day. So in answer to your question, here are a few thoughts. I hope they help, but I think the howl will probably help more.

The PhD process brought me to some of my lowest lows in my work life so far. Bringing our as-yet-unformed work in front of so-called experts is exposing, even humiliating. It’s hard not to feel demeaned and belittled in front of rigorous academic critique. I remember phoning Rob after one such session and choking, sobbing over the phone. That was my lowest point and I nearly, nearly gave up. On one level a PhD is simply a qualification in bloody-minded persistence. It’s about not giving up, and about keeping going through times exactly like this.

In retrospect (and I know this is probably not much consolation) I can see the emotional lows are a big part of the process. You will reach a stage where you know the answers to the questions raised by experts or you can see the questions for what they are – irrelevant. Then there you are, standing firm on your own piece of ground and robust in your position.

Remember, also, we are ‘disabled’ to some degree by our age, gender and past as practitioners. Academic language and norms are not the same as the languages we use in practice. As difficult as it is to learn a new language, so it is to learn academic norms of communication. This will feel a real struggle at first but once mastered you have a huge advantage because you will know how to speak in practice AND in academic words. Bilingual. Not all academics have that. Similarly as a woman you may struggle to be heard in your male-dominated discourse, but once you’ve mastered the use of male academic language then you have the advantage of being able to slip in-between those worlds.

So well done on getting this far. Hang on in there. Persistence is key. More than anything, just take the next step.

Warm wishes, Lisa

Mommy PhD: The last steps

Mommy PhD: The last steps

At last – the publisher! I handed over the PhD in PDF. Got the quote; approved the quote. Cleared up a niggle regarding the university regulations about hard/soft binding via and confirmed numbers of copies required. Got the invoice; paid the invoice. Then waited… remembered that I didn’t have a cover! But the kind man at the print shop made up a cover for me — very plain but suitable. An hour later. Hurrah!! A real, live, proof! I was so excited that I took a photo of Crystal behind the desk at the print shop. I hope she has forgiven me for posting her picture on Facebook – she wasn’t very happy with the pic – but I thought she was such a warm, efficient and special lady that she deserved a photo credit. And anyway I was delirious with relief.

So surely, now, time to post it off. Alas, no. Lots of niggles that I just couldn’t leave be: pages not lining up side by side; graphics, which looked lovely on the screen, suddenly seemed weird printed. I mean really, REALLY weird. Too weird to leave. And then the Figure  I had annotated with a blue dotted blob. More weird. And finally, a speed wobble in the glue. Deep, deep, DEEP breath.

Friday was not to be the day I sent off my thesis. Monday wasn’t the day either. Not even Tuesday would not be the day I’d finally send this thing off. Deep breath (again). I dig deep into my reserves of bloody-mindedness and then realise that I simply don’t have any reserves left, so I dig deep into my bank balance. At this stage, I choose to pay someone who knows how to do this kind of print-checking stuff and who has the patience I no longer have. Enough already!

TIP: Budget time and money for help at the very, very end.

Mommy PhD: The Downer

Mommy PhD: The Downer

Shortly after finishing the PhD people starting telling me that it was really common to get depressed after handing in and “did I feel OK”? The answer was “yes!” I felt lighter than I had in over a year. How ridiculous to think I would be down. What is not to like about seeing long neglected friends and family, and having those languid lie-ins and aimless wandering through shops? That was the first ten days.
The second ten days were a bit less indulgent and involved settling ooooold invoices, catching up on doctors’ appointments, unpacking boxes left over from our move but still seeing friends, getting my hair cut and updating my wardrobe. How could I not like this?
After the second ten days I woke up one day feeling really low. For me “low” looks like ratty, joyless, aimless, forgetful and compulsive sugar eating. One Saturday morning I sat on the edge of the bed and mumbled to Rob: “I’m not in a great space.” And then I burst into tears.

 

I decided to get professional help. I was feeling, I finally realised, bereaved in some way. It made sense, the therapist reassured me. A huge presence in my life had fallen away. This PhD had been a constant companion for over six years, had structured my daily ritual, how and when I exercised and ate, my focus, who I did and didn’t spend time with, my interests, my reading, my way of thinking about the world. It had provided me with some of my identity, and perhaps most importantly it had given me permission to live in a particular way. In a way which was unusual for mothers. Who wouldn’t miss that?

“You are in free fall” the therapist said. “The ground has fallen from underneath your feet. It’s scary.  Question is, where do you want to land?” Where indeed?
Where do YOU want to land post-PhD?
PS. This is the last blog post of me blathering on about my PhD. Next blogging outing will be in a new format blog and about where I landed after that downer! See you on the other side.
Mommy PhD: Biting tails

Mommy PhD: Biting tails

Over the last few weeks of my PhD my Facebook posts grew in number and prophetic statements: “Nearly there!!” I wrote. “So close I can almost smell the printer!!” “Days to go!!” “Hours to go!!”

Well, how naive was I. Those last few jobs stretched on endlessly and took about four times longer than expected. “The tail of the lizard,” my Zimbabwean husband chimed in, “is always the hardest to eat.”

Knowing this, don’t be a fool like me, and think that those final jobs will be done in a flash. One of the big reasons for my delays were leaving those tricky-to-find page numbers of quotes till last. I realised too late that the page numbers for those classic quotes don’t get any easier to find just because you have procrastinated about them for a few years.

Sure, Google did a great job finding some of the sources, but those classic quotes I had from material dating back to 1937 ended up staying in the drafts folder. By that stage of the process my tired eyes simply couldn’t scan the page for quotes anymore.

TIP: Bite this bullet early on and find the quote page number, or ditch the quote.

Mommy PhD: Guilt

Mommy PhD: Guilt

In the midst of PhD completion crisis management I felt Guilty all of the time. Guilty about the lack of order, the lack of time, energy, attention. Guilty about the toilet paper and cereal running out. (“Really” said the devil on my shoulder”, what kind of a mom does that?!”) and guilty about the outbreaks of frustration that would erupt from time to time and turn me into a whirling dervish of the not-so-saintly kind. White guilt, mothering guilt, working class guilt, I was capable if it all, in whatever shade or hue you wished to see.
Fast forward then to the end of my PhD studies when the light is clear at the end of the tunnel and the chaos is receding. What do I do? Do I start ticking off those (by now voluminous) mother-to-do lists and start feeling holy and self-satisfied?! Are you kidding, I help start up a very worthy but very time consuming NGO and I move house. Several people close to me asked:”are you mad?!” In a way, I was. I was so ingrained, so practiced, so habitually used to feeling guilty that I selected things to do which just perpetuated that feeling which had become “me”. But of course it wasn’t really me. So thanks to some wise counsel I am experiencing the giddy weird experience of paying bills on time, gardening, shopping and doing the Domestic Goddess thing. Strangely difficult for a recovering Guilt Martyr but quite fun when I allow it to be.
Mommy PhD: The last 500m

Mommy PhD: The last 500m

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Last 500mSurely, I thought, I will get to the printer today?! All I need to do is to convert my Word file to PDF and then we are done?! Well, it seems that every step of the PhD process is designed to test your fortitude and iron will.

There must be a special place in hell reserved for the programmers who put together the software for converting Word to PDF documents. Maybe they had some real belly laughs around the water cooler about those random errors generated by the Word to PDF conversion of long documents. Haha!

When you finally, finally decide that the thesis is finished and that you are ready to take the next step and that the next step is a mountain called Adobe is sore indeed. I probably should have smelt a rat when the publisher laughed when asked him if he did the Word to PDF conversion in-house. Hahaha.

I had already read the horror stories online and had decided to enroll help to do this. But what should surely have taken two minutes ended up taking nearly six hours. You would think converting Word to PDF simply means the output PDF pages would look exactly like the output Word pages, right? But no!!

Figure captions, which were perfectly placed in Word suddenly unmoored themselves and floated around the page in the PDF; labels on figures would similarly go walkabout; page numbers would fail to correlate and most mysteriously the notes formatting simply failed.

In the end I checked it again, sent a little prayer and whisked it off to the printer, reassuring myself that the reader wouldn’t be familiar with the Word version and so wouldn’t know what they were missing out on.

TIP: Leave yourself wide margins of time at the end. Find a friend, or pay someone to help you with desktop publishing. By then you really won’t give a damn about line spacing, but first impressions and the finishing touch really do count.

Mommy PhD: Practical tips to overcome a crises of writing confidence

Mommy PhD: Practical tips to overcome a crises of writing confidence

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Just write

Write for an audience: Print off a list of all the people who want to read what you are writing and write for them

Revisit inspired times: Flip through your notebooks to reconnect with energy and enthusiasm from earlier in the process

Intellectual nourishment: Reread an inspiring paper

Seek out the muse: Check out the latest writing of someone I admire

External affirmation: Print off the nice things people have said about me and my writing and put them on a board

The right context: Create a more beautiful physical space for my writing

Work to schedule: Make time in my diary for my writing

Play to a schedule: Make time in my diary to do fun, happy things

Just write.

Anything.

Now.

Mommy PhD: The 21st kilometer

Mommy PhD: The 21st kilometer

I tried to explain it to a friend: “It’s like the 21st kilometer of a half marathon,” I said. “You know the end is near but you are so tired it takes all of your energy to just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all you can do… keep shuffling forward.”

Never having run long distances herself, she gave me a blank stare. By this stage my own long-distance running was a hazy memory but the last kilometer of those three half marathons I managed to complete, were seared into my memory.

The last stage of the PhD was so arduous that it really felt like the best analogy. The good intentions, the clear purpose and the joy that got, and get me going, on this journey had all but vanished along the way. All that kept me moving forward was bloody-minded determination to cross the finishing line despite the pain.

Like running, like child-birth, like nothing else I have experienced before, I just kept going with the PhD because I couldn’t not finish. And I just didn’t have the energy to decide to do anything different.

Mommy, PhD: Ice-cream and endings

Mommy, PhD: Ice-cream and endings

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The day I dispatched my PhD I was, frankly, exhausted. It followed a week of nervous jangling with layout and photo resolution issues, a month of seemingly endless checks on the thesis text, three months of wrangling with my supervisor and six months of tying up empirical loose ends. Exactly as some friends predicted, I was completely depleted. I ‘celebrated’ with a huge glass of red wine and a bowl of ice-cream. Inebriated, and with an ice-cream headache, I slumped on the sofa and fell asleep in front of the TV. There was an anticlimax and a feeling of complete disorientation. Some lightness, yes, but also the realisation that while so much was completed, I now had the viva voce process to face. I wrote nervously to my supervisor: “what now?” My supervisor wrote back with hearty congratulations and some kind words but also a reminder that the process was far from over and that the viva could well throw up more revisions, and some months of work.
When would it end? Well, of course it wouldn’t ever really end. The day came when I called myself Dr Kane for the first time. A type of closure. The learning, understanding, expanding, growing, that very process that I had yearned for, in fact the reason I started the PhD in the first place – that hasn’t ended. I’m still doing that and, probably will still be doing that for some time to come. That was and is me.
The pushing, the proving, the tightening, the endless, endless, pulling together of a PhD? Yes, that ended. Hurray.
What are you looking forward to after your PhD?
Five reasons I’m glad I did a PhD

Five reasons I’m glad I did a PhD

Now that the PhD is finally done here are my tops five reasons why I’m glad I did it.
1. It scratched my “itch” in a way that nothing else could. It answered a yearning which I was worried could turn into a regret if I didn’t answer it. My PhD tries to answer a question that has bothered me ever since I arrived in South Africa in 1996 – why is road engineering here the way it is? The book which answered that question hadn’t been written and the PhD helped me write my answers to it. If my “itch” had been how to make the finest stroganoff or how much profit can be made in investment banking then a PhD wouldn’t have cut it. But for my itch, the PhD was the most sensible route, even though it looked to others like insanity.
2. It helped me prove something to myself. I’ve always been restless. I’ve been accused of being unable to fulfill long term goals. The PhD took seven years to compete. That dragon about me not being able to complete long term goals? Slayed.
3. I got to grow and learn and be stretched. Doing the PhD was a challenge. In practice it was far more of a challenge than I ever expected it to be, and I grew up. A lot.
4. It gave me a refuge. It was a place where, in the midst of mothering and all the giving that entailed I could be entirely selfish and self-directed. It was a space of freedom which liberated me from my circular, perfectionist fretting about whether I was a good enough mother. It allowed me to escape from teas with competitive uber-moms and to side-step all the mother-competition stuff. In the end I swapped the anxieties of mothering for other sorts of anxieties, but for the most part I don’t regret that time. And I do think I was a better mom, on the whole, for having made that choice.
5. Last but not least: eventually, it gave me a qualification. Which sometimes is useful, but less often than I imagined!
Why are studying? What are your reasons?
Mommy, PhD: Finding time – saying no

Mommy, PhD: Finding time – saying no

If you’re going to find time then you’re going to have to start saying “no”. This may be one of the toughest tasks for a mamma doing a PhD. No to birthday parties (your friends’ and your children’s). No to nights out with your bestie, with your partner. No to time with dear family. No to ‘unmissable’ movies, shows, openings. No to must-attend school events. In the end no to even the essential things – the walk, the exercise class, the weekly shopping, the Doctor check-ups. For me the only way to finish was to adopt, for a time, the life of the ascetic. Pared down, inward looking, intensely centered and removed from social context.
And although it had its costs (to friendships in particular) it had a simple, restorative beauty of its own. And through it I discovered a real gratitude for down time doing the simplest of things which I reconnected with post-PhD. Yay to coffee and cake with a good friend. The joy of it. After months without it.
Mommy PhD: Writing drafts

Mommy PhD: Writing drafts

“Sorry!” she wrote, asking for feedback, “it’s very draft!”
I remembered my own early pieces submitted to supervisors and their noble quest to find something to cheer about them. I am so grateful for their grace.  “Wow,” they would say, “you really are uncovering some interesting material.” Looking back now, I see that those pieces were barely notes. Her “draft” was far better thought through than anything mine had been. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to articulate anything in the early PhD stages, when so many options are still open, so much is unformed and there is so little (theory, experience, data, information) to hold onto. I was lucky to have experienced supervisors who understood that early PhD writing is a struggle and they saw my efforts for what they were: hard won fragments scraped together with much effort. I’ve seen other supervisors in action who were far less empathetic, and timed their critique so badly that it crushed the young shoots of research work.
My view is that everything we write – everything – is a draft until that very last day when we hand it in and it’s done. Revealing those drafts can be humbling and scary. Do yourself a favour and find people who will see your drafts for the acts of struggle and courage that they are. Avoid like the proverbial plague those readers who confuse ‘support’ with poisonous criticism, personality attacks or ways of boosting their own sense of power. And be grateful for the graceful.

Mommy PhD: F-f-f-formatting

The biggest time sink as hand-in date approached was no-one’s fault but mine and it boiled down to indecisiveness about formatting. The classic procrastination was over labels on figure numbers.  Do I choose “Figure 8: Classic picture” or “Figure 8 Classic picture”? Who cares really? It doesn’t matter that much. In that late-PhD fog though, I just couldn’t make up my mind and so I ended up with 40 figures with colons and 50 without. Changing that around at 1am was, to put it mildly, a drag. I wish I had given it a bit more thought and been brutally decisive very early on.

Similarly, references came back to haunt me. Wanting to push ahead I had paid a student to build up my database. Oh, what was I thinking? Using an undergrad student who didn’t know the difference between journal article names and journal names! Scary but true and pretty alarming to discover half way through your reference list.

TIP: Use willing students to help where possible in your research process but check their work!

The biggest time drain, though, was simply due to formatting a PhD size document. By the time I was finished my thesis clocked in at 353 pages. (That’s not untypical). A simple check on header formats would take an hour. Even adjusting and checking chapter headings took half an hour because there were 15 of them. Before you get too far into the document indulge in a day or two to choose formatting that really works well for you. And then stick with it.

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars

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Cover of children’s book “Let’s Pretend” via Pinterest

 

It’s so important to have separation while studying, but how do you make sure that the necessary separation doesn’t become hurtful? How do you avoid resentful children en route to a lifetime of therapy? This was a tough one for me. I didn’t want Brett and Hannah to feel that they couldn’t have access to me but I also needed them to know that my PhD room was a different room from the others in the house.

When they were very little I would leave them with care-givers and tell them that I was “going to Mars”. “Going to Mars” they understood, really meant going down to the shed-study at the bottom of the garden, but in their vivid imaginations I was on Mars. If they wanted to contact me they would use the “inter-planetary” phone. And of course there were exceptions to the galactic separation. Needing a cuddle with mama was reason enough for warp-speed space travel, with me happily beaming back down to earth, because cuddles are available at any time – no questions asked.