It’s the Little Things: Having a Baby During a Research Degree.
My (funded) PhD was likely to be the most financially and professionally stable I’d be for a while; my time was my own, meaning that I could fit research and writing around feeding, nappy changing and childcare; it felt like the right time in both our lives.
When my son arrived, I was two years into what was to be a five-year period of research. I took six months of paid maternity leave, followed by six months’ break unpaid before my funding resumed when the baby reached the age of one. But in practice, I resumed as low an intensity of work as early as I could. I continued reading for my studies while breastfeeding, and once he started to sleep a little more around six weeks of age, I gently started working again, just to make sure my brain continued to function.
I was lucky, as I had a baby who slept reliable full nights of twelve hours at an early age. He barely napped during the day, though, whereas friends’ babies slept for three or four-hour stretches in the middle of the day. I wouldn’t have swapped with them, as that unbroken period of peace in the middle of the night was golden to me. I would put my son to bed around eight o’clock, and go straight through to the computer and start to work. My ex would pop his head around the door to say goodnight a few hours later, and I’d work until one or two o’clock. Then I’d go to bed, get six or seven hours’ sleep, and be reasonably refreshed to start the next day.
This was only possible because of the way my baby slept. A friend of mine who is a freelance writer gets all her work done between four and seven in the morning, when her baby has its longest period of unbroken sleep. (I’m not sure how much sleep my friend gets, mind you.) For me, I was fated to the night-owl life, and it’s a habit I’ve never really lost.
Just to complicate matters, I was also living half in France, half in the UK, and commuting between the two. In fact, taking a small baby along with me on trips to see my supervisor in Leeds and to visit the library didn’t in fact change things a great deal. My parents in the UK got to see him while I had meetings and worked, and during the years he accompanied me on these trips, he saw a lot of interesting sights, visited interesting places, and experienced things which most toddlers don’t.
Whatever effect it had on him, it had a profound one on me. My research, which before the birth had been dealing with the visuality of female pleasure in art history, shifted focus. By the end of my PhD, the final chapter was about the pregnant body. And it all fitted together. My pregnancy, and my baby, had given me a profound insight into the bodily nature of womanhood which coincided exactly with the concepts I was attempting to articulate and engage with in my academic work. Far from being disruptive, having a baby made my work and life fall into place.
My son is officially mentioned in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning of my PhD. Even now I find it quite moving to read:
“I would like to dedicate my thesis to my son Daniel, born in 2005, without whom not only the thesis itself but every other aspect of life would be empty. I am grateful for his love, inspiration, comfort, and patience, and perhaps above all for his infectious joie de vivre.”
He’s almost seven now, and it’s still true.