CAIRO—As someone who finished a Ph.D. while caring for a toddler, I have tremendous respect for those I call “academic moms.”
I can’t begin to compare between my life as an academic before and after motherhood. Motherhood changed my approach towards my career for both the good and the bad.
I believe academic moms have it harder than most other working moms because our work is constantly with us. Working on my Ph.D. or any other academic research is by no means a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. I write and research throughout the day and the work tends to find its way out of the office, back home and all through the night. So it’s only natural that studying for a Ph.D. or working at home gets harder when a child is around competing for attention. Even if we are not sitting in front of a computer or writing something down, our heads are spinning with ideas.
I remember the time I gave myself a deadline to send a draft of my thesis to my supervisor and my daughter fell extremely ill for a week. This meant a full week of no daycare, emotional and mental exhaustion and sleepless nights—not that we were getting much sleep anyway. Getting back into groove takes time and motivation, so a week away from a Ph.D. at the latter stages can really be disastrous.
Consider the moment when I feel inspired to sit down and write while my child is blissfully asleep, only to be interrupted by her screaming for no obvious reason. After comforting her back to bed, I return to my writing and find an incomplete sentence but the idea I was aiming for is, of course, lost and forgotten.
I vividly remember the night before my Ph.D. thesis defense when my child decided that, for some reason, she would be difficult and stay up until midnight. Her pediatrician claims this is not Murphy’s law, but rather the child’s sensitivity to my own tension. I am still waiting for the day that sensitivity turns to my favor.
But I want to move beyond this negative view and look at the bright side of it all.
A child, by becoming the center of your life, moves other elements out of the center. This can hurt your other priorities but also—surprisingly—can work in your favor. Who cares about extremely critical feedback from my supervisor when I come home and my toddler kisses me on the cheek for the first time?
Another one? The minute before entering my thesis defense my thoughts were off wondering how well my daughter was doing without me and whether she had eaten or napped. That distraction made me more relaxed about the thesis defense itself instead of leaving me stressing and obsessing about it.
I have also learned to write faster, manage my time better and accomplish quite a few tasks during my toddler’s short naps. (Including writing blogs.)
Having a child can also be an inspiration for teaching and research. Granted, this is probably more obvious for those of us in the fields of education and social sciences, but I can bet academic moms everywhere are inspired by their kids. I can already tell you that my daughter dispels whatever research exists out there suggesting that kids can’t learn language from interacting with computer, tablet, or mobile-phone screens. They can and they do.
Lastly, a child at home forces academic moms to relax and slow down a little—even though we might be running around after them all day. We will often have to do menial tasks that require little thinking, like preparing a meal or changing a diaper to help us tune out. Occasionally, if we are lucky, we will play with our children a little and relax after a stressful day.
Almost daily, we will have to help our children wind down for bed and we will, more often than not, fall asleep beside them, forgetting all the stress about methodology, conceptual framework and the impending doom that is a deadline.
Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, and is an adjunct faculty member at its Graduate School of Education. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. Follow Maha on Twitter: @bali_maha