What motherhood taught me about writing

Should I tell my PhD supervisor I'm trying to get pregnant?

3rd-year PhD student

This question – posted anonymously on Twitter recently by a third-year PhD student – really got me thinking about my own PhD journey.

I had my first baby in my second year of my PhD and my second two years later, but it wasn’t in spite of these ‘blips’ that I finally managed to finish writing my PhD (too many years later), but because of them.

Here's what becoming a mother taught me about writing.

Mini doughnuts

Snack writing is better than binge writing

I used to worry that if I didn’t have a whole week to write, or a whole day, or even a whole afternoon, then I wouldn’t get anything of value done. My answer: not to write. But motherhood showed me this was just a story I was telling myself.

Research has repeatedly pointed to the benefits of writing in short blocks of time.

Snack writing can help with productivity, publishing success and confidence (e.g. Murray, 2014). But it wasn't until I lost those endless blocks of time stretching ahead of me and needed to snatch those precious 20-minute naps or feeding slots (I was amazed at how quickly I learned to type with one hand), that I realised how much I could get done in sporadic slots of time and how much the word count adds up over time. And that the writing wasn’t that bad, after all.

Chocolate

Celebrate the small wins

It’s true what they say – an inch is a cinch, a yard is hard. Sometime during my second period of maternity leave, when I had absolutely had enough and was sick of the entire thing, I realised that I needed to celebrate the small wins in order to stay motivated and make progress toward that seemingly unattainable 80,000 word count.

Being the geek I am, once I had an idea about the chapter contents for my thesis, I made myself a beautiful Excel spreadsheet with the word count for each chapter and each section neatly broken down. Excel kindly added up the count for me as I wrote. How satisfying to be able to see that word count creep up day by day.

Celebrate the small wins. I changed the background colour for each section heading from red to orange and then – at last! – to green. I’d then reward myself with a milestone treat: chocolate, wine or sleep – whatever I needed most that day!

Pile of chocolate truffles. Caption: A milestone treat: chocolate truffles

Celebrate the small wins

It’s true what they say – an inch is a cinch, a yard is hard. Sometime during my second period of maternity leave, when I had absolutely had enough and was sick of the entire thing, I realised that I needed to celebrate the small wins in order to stay motivated and make progress toward that seemingly unattainable 80,000 word count.

Being the geek I am, once I had an idea about the chapter contents for my thesis, I made myself a beautiful Excel spreadsheet with the word count for each chapter and each section neatly broken down. Excel kindly added up the count for me as I wrote. How satisfying to be able to see that word count creep up day by day.

Celebrate the small wins. I changed the background colour for each section heading from red to orange and then – at last! – to green. I’d then reward myself with a milestone treat: chocolate, wine or sleep – whatever I needed most that day!

Sand timer

Perfect is the enemy of done

Yes, this. It’s ok to be a C student. I’ll say it again: it's ok to be a C student.

Like most PhD students, I thought I was an imposter and that someone would find out and expel me. Everything I produced needed to be perfect or they’d know I wasn’t meant to be there.

It took me about a year to hand anything in to my supervisor. There was always something else I needed to read; another tweak I needed to make to my argument (not to mention the endless hours I spent moving commas around).

But the truth is, when your time is limited, you need to get that feedback from your supervisor so you can move forward.

I learned that it’s ok to say ‘I still need to analyse a few viewpoints with references, but could you let me know if this argument makes sense?’ Send the best you can with the time that’s available, and then use the feedback to strengthen your work.

Was my PhD perfect? No. Could I have improved things? Probably, but then I could have spent another 7 years writing it too.

Sand timer. Caption: Time is limited: send the best you can with the time that's available

Perfect is the enemy of done

Yes, this. It’s ok to be a C student. I’ll say it again: it's ok to be a C student.

Like most PhD students, I thought I was an imposter and that someone would find out and expel me. Everything I produced needed to be perfect or they’d know I wasn’t meant to be there.

It took me about a year to hand anything in to my supervisor. There was always something else I needed to read; another tweak I needed to make to my argument (not to mention the endless hours I spent moving commas around).

But the truth is, when your time is limited, you need to get that feedback from your supervisor so you can move forward.

I learned that it’s ok to say ‘I still need to analyse a few viewpoints with references, but could you let me know if this argument makes sense?’ Send the best you can with the time that’s available, and then use the feedback to strengthen your work.

Was my PhD perfect? No. Could I have improved things? Probably, but then I could have spent another 7 years writing it too.

Three cups of coffee

Writing is a social process – in more ways than one

This was a massive game changer for me. Shortly after my first son was born, I realised that if I was going to take this seriously, I needed accountability.

I set up a writing group with two writer friends I had met while pregnant and we met up a few times a week in local cafes to write. Babies in tow, no matter how little we had slept the night before, we’d be there at 10am to write and juggle our (hopefully napping) babies.

Coffee machine

Sometimes the writing got done, sometimes it didn’t, but as we wrote and cried together, I realised that for me there was something beautiful about writing friendships and accountability.

Yes, writing is a social process in that you are writing for your audience, but for me, writing together, or even just having accountability partners for motivation and encouragement can do wonders for your writing and mental fitness.

Motherhood helped me increase my productivity, lower my standards (in a good way), increase my support networks and actually finish that damn thesis so I could get back to the more important things in life.

So, coming back to that anonymous 3rd year PhD student – should she tell her PhD supervisor she is trying to get pregnant? Absolutely no way: it might not happen now; it might not happen ever; it’s absolutely none of the supervisor’s business. Could motherhood help with the PhD? Yes, for sure.

How has parenthood or life changed your perspective on your PhD?

References

Murray, R. (2014). 'Snack' and 'Binge' writing: editorial for Journal of Academic Development and Education. The Journal of Academic Development and Education, (2), 5-8.

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