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SPaRK PhD researcher reflects on parenting and completing a PhD in a pandemic

Based in the School of Arts, English and Languages, SPaRK researcher Apolline Malevez reflects on parenting and studying in a pandemic

'Tous les bonheurs by Alfred Stevens (ca. 1880)
'Tous les bonheurs' by Alfred Stevens (ca. 1880)

A bit more than one year into various forms of lockdowns, I thought it would be useful to reflect on what it has meant to do a PhD while parenting in a pandemic. Being in a pandemic and working in academia is hard on everyone – there is no denying that. In this post, however, I want to highlight my specific experience as a student and as a parent.

From the start of my PhD, I knew that the likelihood that I would take longer than three years to finish it (due to childcare responsibilities) was very high.  During my Bachelor and Master, degrees, I was waking up early to work before my child woke up, worked during all his naps and most evenings.

Early in lockdown, I knew that I wanted to avoid repeating that experience, as it had left me isolated and mentally broken. As long as schools were closed, my partner and I alternated taking care of our child in shifts of three to four hours. But it did not mean that I was actually working these hours. Entertaining, homeschooling and reassuring a child in an unfamiliar context is mentally draining, and it always takes me some time to adjust and transition into ‘working time.’

Over the course of a few months, it meant that I worked significantly less than I would have otherwise. My supervisors have been supportive and understanding but in the absence of clear guidance, I always felt as if the emphasis was on me adapting to the institution rather than the institution adapting to my needs. I received well-intentioned emails from the university encouraging its employees to work flexibly, but I always felt like a fraud reading them, as they were geared towards staff rather than PhD students. The idea has always been to push through and to keep producing, even when I felt incapable of producing anything meaningful.

I have been lucky to be granted a funding extension of 6 months. The news came with a huge relief, and I hope that such extensions can be granted to everyone that needs it. It is unclear whether I will be able to finish within these 6 months extension; as the regular closures of my child’s school or class continue. These uncertainties add a lot of stress to the daily life as a parent and PhD student which typically revolves around carefully planned days/weeks/months.

Over the course of my studies, I have often struggled with institutions that operate on the assumption that students do not have children. What this situation has made clear is the necessity of a specific support system for student parents, whose situation is different from those of staff with children and students with other caring responsibilities. The Université libre de Bruxelles (Brussels, Belgium), where I studied for my bachelor and master, has recently introduced new measures to grant a specific status to future and current student parents, which gives them right to a flexible schedule and subsidised childcare. Some of these measures existed before but regrouping them under a specific status and enabling student parents to have an obvious point of contact if they need support is a life-changing decision, which I hope will inspire other universities to do the same. 

There are few UK resources on this topic, but if this is your situation too you might find these links useful:

https://higheredminds.wordpress.com/2020/04/20/student-ing-parenting-and-locking-down-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

 

https://higheredminds.wordpress.com/2020/08/27/return-to-school-season-student-parenting-and-the-pandemic-a-brief-follow-up/

 

https://twitter.com/PandemicPGRs/status/1263061592691933184

 

Queen’s University Students’ Union has developed a carer network:

 

https://www.qubsu.org/studentvoice/StudentGroups/ParentsCarersNetwork/

 

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