Saturday, 13 December 2014

Mothers and PhD Students

I am working a little bit on The Thesis, soon to become The Book. Have reread the examiners’ reports (which say nice things and which also suggest many improvements); have opened the thesis and started to reread it, and have been struck by its beauty, clarity, and general amazingness, qualities which I never expected to find in there. (You remember those months on end when I worked and worked, getting more and more tired and frustrated, and no end seemed in sight?... This is what I was doing in those months, it transpires now: polishing, prettifying, making concise, making coherent. Rendering beautiful. It really is not bad, this thesis. To everyone who is struggling hopelessly with their thesis: it may not feel like it right now, but all this hard work IS making it better…)

In other news: this summer I read an article (which I have been trying, and failing, to hunt out again, so I could put it on here) about a group of mothers who were being interviewed because they had written and produced a play about motherhood. These women were speaking about the isolation and depression they had experienced as first-time, full-time mums; their play was their attempt to externalize some of the problems they’d faced, and to counter the the taboo nature of what they were feeling: depressed, lonely, isolated, struggling with a daunting, difficult task. It struck a chord; reading phrases such as ‘I felt alone’, ‘I felt isolated’, ‘It was too hard’, ‘I felt like I was failing’, I wondered if the new mother isn’t essentially facing some of the same issues as the struggling PhD student: a huge and daunting task, for which she feels ill-prepared; the feeling that there is not enough support from others; the feeling that the task in hand (looking after a baby/ writing a PhD project) is so monumentally important that the possibility of failing is not even to be contemplated; the guilt at not being ‘better’, the comparisons with more successful mothers/ colleagues, the feeling that you should be ‘good’ at this and should not be saying ‘this is too hard; I can’t do this.’

Having recently spent some time in the company of friends who have just become mums, and having admired how they cope with caring for their newborn offspring, I think my general observation would be: it IS kind of the same. It’s the same demons we’re all fighting.

It made me wonder: we feel very alone sometimes… and I wonder how many other people there are in this world, feeling just as alone, and falling prey to exactly the same demons, just dressed up in a different disguise. It made me feel a little bit more empathy towards the people I thought I know well, and the new people I meet.

For an earlier blog post on the link between babies and PhD theses, click here.


  1. I can definitely say that I often feel that way as a Ph.D. candidate and a mom of young children. Since both of my children were born during my time as a Ph.D. student, I have definitely felt isolated from other grad students. I am grateful that I've been able to teach over the past two years, but still, as you know, the experience of trying to finish all of the academic requirements is isolating. I miss being close to campus so that I can regularly commiserate with my fellow grad students in person; thankfully, we can do a little bit of that over social media. However, it's not the same. At any rate, I hope that all is going well with you; congrats again on finishing you Ph.D.! Happy holidays!

  2. Good to hear from you!... Thanks for your comment, and Happy New year! I hope you are feeling good about everything, and not feeling too isolated. It must be challenging to be both a mum AND a PhD student!...