I’m almost 16 months into my PhD, and I really thought I’d have the whole parenting with full-time study thing down by now. In truth though, it’s a constant juggling act of prioritising, compromising – and not always getting it right. My family are fully behind my choice, as a 40-something, to study for a PhD. But they don’t always make it easy.
November, and it’s the morning of the UHI postgraduate conference, with a long drive ahead of me, and an hour of family chaos to get through before I exit the house with any pretence of togetherness.
The cat meaws constantly, relentless and annoying, snaking between my legs, as if he’s some sort of neglected kitten-stray that’s never been fed. I stuff a flabby envelope of jellied meat into his dish, my face contorting involuntarily at the smell, while trying to put the dishwasher on which should have run the night before.
It’s not a good start to the day. There are no spoons.
The dog hops excitedly, waiting for his meal, and it’s then that I realise the washing machine still contains all the school uniform. I hurriedly extract my daughter’s essentials, draping trousers over the AGA and carefully feed her soaking wet jumper into the oven while I make coffee. It’s a fine art, the oven method, hitting the sweet spot between dry, and the unmistakable orange tinge of singed polyester cotton (the mark of an amateur).
Already now late, I rush upstairs with a cup of tea to my husband, who is comfortably propped up in bed, leisurely reading the paper online, an apparent late start at work.
I tell him about the jumper.
‘You know she’s not going to school today, don’t you…’ he says as he browses. ‘She’s not feeling well. Sorry, I thought you knew…’
I reach for the last micro-bead of inner Zen I have left. I am looking forward to being away, to the calm of a tidy hotel room, and escaping family chaos. I hope the room has a Teasmaid.
I hurriedly pack for the conference, trying not to include the dog’s ball which he keeps throwing at me optimistically, mistaking my agitated dance between wardrobe and suitcase for a game. Husband asks me questions, about Things He Knows But Always Forgets When I’m Going Away.
‘Which bin goes out today?’
I say goodbye to Daughter, in bed and not feeling well.
She looks at me with big eyes.
‘How long will you be away for…remember the last time you went away and my guinea pig died. Things happen when Dad’s in charge…’ she whispers.
An image of the cold little grave at the foot of the apple tree flashes before my eyes.
She’s right. Every time I go away, something happens to one of the pets.
The cat expired dramatically while I was away on a trip. Another time, the dog got pancreatitis and ended up in doggy intensive care. It’s as if I’m invisibly keeping them all alive with my energy.
Dad needs to step up to the job. Maybe there’s an app for that.
I kiss her goodbye.
‘You’re not taking the hair straighteners with you, are you?’ she asks.
My daughter’s face, on receiving news about the hair straighteners
It’s still dark when I leave the house and head off for the conference, picking up fellow UHI PhD student Annie along the way. The drive is long but majestic, five hours through the Highlands; winter has made an appearance, with snow on the mountain tops, the lochs glassy. Annie is great company; we chat about our PhDs, art, sexism in the workplace; the value of women supporting other women. Our University campus is scattered, so an opportunity to talk to another PhD student is so valuable, as is the conference we are heading to, where students from all over the Highlands and Islands (an area the size of Belgium) will gather.
The conference is both stimulating and fun; it’s nice to be away, not least to swap stories with other mothers juggling PhDs and parenting. (Men, I know you do this too, and that there will be challenges for you also. Please write about them, we need to hear it). The overarching theme of our conversation seems to be one of guilt – at not getting it right, at having to prioritise the needs of our research over the needs of the children sometimes. I should add that my children are teenagers, so it’s easier to pass responsibility on to them. I don’t know how mothers of young children manage a PhD and the all-encompassing needs of the early years child, the sleepless nights and the potty training.
Wrangling teenagers is a much easier business: pizza is a great motivator.
Even when I’m away, I’m still the family helpdesk.
In spite of all the electronic tools available to Man, via PC World or any other outlet, I am still the Keeper of the Family Diary.
‘What time’s her lesson on Tuesday?’, my husband texts.
Or other questions like: ‘Where do we keep the [insert item which has lived in the same place for ten years]?
Or ‘How do you put the dog’s cream on?’ [Wear latex gloves. Apply cream to his bottom. And don’t rub your eyes or scratch anything afterwards].
The dog’s cream
Maybe it’s me, maybe I’ve just not trained them well enough. I certainly tried when I was working, pre-PhD. I need to re-establish the boundaries. I remind them that at times they cannot call me at work, unless it’s for reasons of ‘blood, fire or bone’.
‘Why don’t you ask Dad, you know I’m away with work?’
‘You’re SO much better at this than him’, comes the response. ‘And besides. Your approach is more ‘Fine Surgery’, whereas dad favours ‘Amputation’’.
I am slightly heartened by this, as it suggests that I am selected on the basis of skill, rather than gender. But all the same, work is work. And sometimes the children will just have to endure ‘amputation’.
I’ve not long arrived at the hotel and I get a message from my daughter. One of the fish is floating in the pond, a bright little neon slash, its mouth gaping, in full view of the kitchen.
It’s dead. Mabel is dead.
Guilt descends on me. The animal curse has struck.
I slowly unpack my case, and realise that in the rush to leave the house and the chaos of family, I have forgotten to pack any underwear.
I lie on the bed and retreat in my mind to the 18th century and the world of my research, where conversations are conducted by wax-sealed letter, at monthly intervals in a cursive script; the smell of wool and peat smoke, and the comfort of starched 18th century linen.
I like it in there.
I can’t hear the chaos when I’m 267 years away.