By Michael Munnik |
Scene: Fourth-year journalism class, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. December 2001. Our guest lecturer – a senior correspondent for the public broadcaster – tells us he nearly covered a political conference out of town when his wife was nine months pregnant. She asked him not to go, he says, and he didn’t, but he regretted it. A career in journalism demands trade-offs, he says. Huh, I say. I know which I’d choose. No matter how much I want this role, family comes first.
Scene: IAMCR conference, Dublin, Ireland. 29 June 2013. I am on deck to present not one but two papers from the doctoral fieldwork I’ve just wrapped up. But my mobile phone is practically strapped to my head: my wife is due to birth our third child in one week. “There are lots of flights to Edinburgh,” people tell me. “And it’s not far. You can be there in lots of time.” I gulp and nod.
How did I come to this? Somehow, eight years of professional journalism didn’t imperil my presence at either of my elder children’s births. Yet here, in self-guided schedule of the PhD, I was taking the chance that horrified me as an idealistic 23-year-old.
I got here because I had to. Doctoral studies were part of a rebooted life, and my success in them had implications for all of us. Two papers at a top-flight disciplinary gathering would be a big deal, and, knowing the due date, we decided it was a managed risk. (The wee tyke had a good laugh at us, not coming til 19 July, but his late arrival does not justify in hindsight the risk we took: when we decided I should go, we didn’t know what would happen.)
Children were always going to be a part of my doctorate. Our kids were five and three when I started, so we already had some practices in place. Nonetheless, a new baby is a powerful challenger to a demanding and unsociable pursuit. As a lecturer in the department, whose wife was due about the same time as mine, said when I shared the news, “That’s not usually the way people do it.”
Yet there were counter-voices. My MA supervisor encouraged me to take on the PhD, having only recently completed her own at Princeton – seven years, including fieldwork in Morocco. She said she gave everything to her PhD, and it wasn’t always healthy; because I had a family, my focus was divided, and I would have to walk away from the notes and the computer . . . at least some of the time. So, seen another way, a new baby mid-thesis was just one more healthy distraction.
The most important thing about parenting through a PhD is that the doctorate is normal human activity – far more so than trekking across Antarctica, for example. And those who exoticise the choice to parent through a PhD until it takes on that polar quality are speaking from their own fears, not yours. Or from mine, anyway. We were the first among our friends to have kids, and we got the same breathless incredulity then, with nary a referencing software in sight.
The axiom that, “if you wait for the ‘right time’ to have children, you never will” holds: we wanted our family to have a certain shape, and the fact that I was progressing through postgraduate studies was relevant but not dissuasive.
And really, there is room in the PhD for parenthood. People can talk up how demanding the degree is, but grad students still spend a lot of our time pottering on Facebook, playing mindless games, and drinking cups of tea. If you’re going to be locked in angst over the conclusion to Chapter 7, why not change some nappies, walk somebody small to the library, or accompany a class trip to Craigmillar Castle? There’s a lot to cram in over the doctorate, but it is more flexible than other jobs.
The one thing I hadn’t prepared myself for was the impact of our lack of sleep. Trying to think analytically with a head foggy from frequent nocturnal interruptions is hard, and our small one had a complicated relationship with sleep. He felt every tooth coming in as though it were a saw through the jaw (not a bad description, really) and he made us suffer along with him. But putting him down was one job my wife couldn’t really take from me: he didn’t like to separate from her, so it was down to my shushing and my arms to return him to bed. I admit, I took it personally when he woke with a cry.
I’m not going to spend time dishing out advice about how to make it work. There are several blogs offering good advice. I really liked the ThesisWhisperer’s desire to demonstrate to her son the positives of doctoral work (though her reflections on the negatives are spot on). I think what these lists all suggest is that it is possible – or as possible as it is to raise a child through any other professional distractions.
I keep coming back to this because it is absolutely true: though a PhD is unique, it is not an exceptional thing to do. You will notice throughout this post I have made heavy use of the pronoun ‘we’: completing my doctorate in the midst of parenthood would not have been possible without my wife (any more than the fact of the kids themselves, I suppose…) But this, too, is true regardless of what pursuit I follow. The parallel of the PhD with other normal activity is something I’ll explore next month, when I write about how treating a PhD like a job helped me to get through it, both practically and imaginatively.
Michael Munnik crosses the stage in July to get his PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He did his research with the Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, examining relationships between journalists and Muslim sources in Glasgow. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelmunnik, and he keeps an infrequent non-academic blog at anearthwithoutgrammar.wordpress.com.
(Photo 1, ⓒ Michael Munnik, artwork by Leo Munnik; Photo 2 ⓒ Katie Munnik)