In the first post of Mums in Academia series, I am delighted to share Ai’s story in how she managed both motherhood and her Phd which she has recently completed– Congratulations!
Ai, who blogs at DiapersnDissertations: The Art of Balancing Parenthood and Phd Life, is someone I regard as a soul sista in Academia + Motherhood! We found each other through Instagram and she has encouraged me so much through my trials and tribulations towards the completion of my Master’s dissertation last year. I also enjoy reading so much about her parenting philosophy in bilingual education. Needless to say, I’m learning so much from her and if I may borrow a term from the Japanese language, she is a great senpai mama to me, in many ways!
Please read on for Ai’s story.
Hello everyone! My name is Ai, and I recently finished my PhD in language education. I did it while having two babies, and it has been a very challenging journey. I have been wanting to share my story with fellow PhD student moms so that they won’t feel alone in this rocky journey. So when E invited me to be a guest speaker, I was thrilled for the opportunity! I hope my story can serve as a point of reference for moms in academia…please learn from my mistakes I outlined in the tips at the end.
Who I am: I was born in Japan, grew up in Japan and Australia. I am currently living in Vancouver, Canada as I married somebody Canadian. I love playing the violin, a love for life since I was three years old. I can’t wait to go back to it and re-join the local orchestra now that I have finished my dissertation.
My research focused on the relationship between language and power…language and inequality, language and racism. It is situated in critical applied linguistics, but a lot to do with sociology of language too. I started my PhD at the University of British Columbia five years after I finished my MA at the University of Toronto. Those five years when I was away from school, I’ve been working in different fields and was wondering if I really wanted to do a PhD. I am glad I took that time to see the world outside of academia.
I became a mother in my second year of PhD program. I found out I was pregnant during my comps preparation, and I was 9 months pregnant when I was defending my research proposal before moving up to candidacy. I had another baby when I was writing my first draft. My girls are three years apart. In both pregnancies, I had a serious morning sickness that went 24 hours. I think the English term “morning sickness” is so misleading! The sickness I had was terrible. I felt like I need to quit my PhD. What I did instead of quitting was to lie down in bed and do nothing…you know quitting requires energy, and I didn’t even have that energy. So I must say what made me finish my PhD is due to my lack of energy to quit when it wasn’t too late to quit. If you are pregnant and also suffering from serious nausea, it is okay to lie down and do nothing! Take medical leaves if you can to save tuition. Also, take a full year of parental leave if you are allowed to. With the first baby, I only took a term of leave which I really regret. With the second one, I knew I needed a full year break so I did without hesitation. You will really thank yourself for taking a year off when the clock starts ticking. (At UBC, you have to finish your PhD in 6 years)
Challenges I face being a mom in academia is to accept the reality that I am not going to be that successful woman in academia. We only have limited time and resources and it all comes down to how much you want to use for one or the other. It is about choosing your priority and letting go what is less important to you. To me, being the mom I want to be won over being the academic I want to be. The mom I want to be requires a lot of time for my kids…many things can be outsourced by there are things I really wanted to do with the kids like cooking delicious food together, teaching Japanese and practicing musical instruments. For example, having a child learn how to play the violin requires spending time with the child with patience and lots of energy on top of taking them to weekly lessons. It’s not something you can outsource. And I couldn’t find a role model in academia in that sense (if you know, please let me know!). Even with letting go my academic ego, I couldn’t spend enough time with my girls which resulted in sacrificing their mother tongue acquisition. It was so ironic because I am a researcher who promotes mother tongue education, yet not being able to provide that for my children because I am too busy doing my research. It was definitely the biggest dilemma I had to go through.
Don’t feel guilty for not being with your kids 24/7. Make sure you have a plenty of support, not just one but many, if you are thinking of having a baby. I was so lucky I found a wonderful babysitter who teaches Japanese through playing and cooking with the girls. But even that wouldn’t have been enough. After 2 years of being on the wait-list, my older daughter was able to attend a high quality daycare, and the second baby after 1 year of waiting. Honestly, my girls were better off spending time at daycare rather than with a tired mom at home. Retrospectively, looking how well socialized my girls are, I am grateful I put them to daycare. I had that mom’s guilt at the beginning sending them to daycare, but no, really, don’t feel guilty!
My second tip is to find a working buddy. When I was feeling so down after receiving feedbacks from my supervisor on my first draft, it was my friend who took me out to a coffee shop and worked together. We worked together several days a week ever since then until we finished (she finished first! And I had a few months of lonely studying). If you are starting your program, don’t be too competitive and be open minded. Make friends. Good friends. They will support you when you are low and depressed. I couldn’t have done it without my friends.
My third tip is to communicate well with your supervisor. This is the area I wish I did better. At the end of the day, it is your supervisor that holds the power to lead you to where you want to go academically. Communicate well so that she/he understands your needs and give you the support you need. If you feel like you are not getting the support you want, go talk to the support system your program offers…graduate advisor of some sort. We are grown-ups and we are responsible for getting what we are paying for (even if you are paid by a scholarship). I often forgot that.
My final tip is to provide children with structured lifestyle so that you can plan ahead…This was another area I wish I did better. I am a person who goes with the flow…and having two young children, I knew nothing would go as I planned. I was scared of getting stressed out for not having things done as I planned. However, now I know I have just been lazy. In fact, children like structures. But having a structured life requires discipline! And I didn’t have that discipline. So don’t be afraid of making plans. Identify your academic goals and structure your lifestyle as mom around it. Make room for some adjustment so that you won’t panic (and yell at your child) if things didn’t go as you planned. I wish I was brave enough to make plans and had a little more discipline.
Above all, love your children and love who you are as a mom! When I told my mentor from undergraduate that I finished my PhD while having two kids, he congratulated me for the accomplishment of having two kids. Then added, “PhD isn’t bad, either.” I think his statement captures the truth. Being a mom is in itself a huge accomplishment. Let’s not forget that.
Ai is a PhD in language education. If you are interested in her lifestyle as an academic mom, follow her journey @diapersndissertations on Instagram. She also started a new blog at http://www.diapersndissertations.com
She is hoping to build a community of support for moms in academia, together with E.