Studying with Children
by Dr Sarah Brown
My mum always said that the best time to study was when you had young kids. I suspect this was because, once she had taken two semesters out of her undergraduate degree to have me, she was desperate to keep her brain occupied until I could read books and discuss them with her. Sitting her final exams a week before my brother was born, she joked that she had a baby instead of honours in biochemistry. My dad, on the other hand, wished he had slept when I slept and studied when I was awake, leaving him well-rested and me a mathematical prodigy. I think he was joking, but it’s hard to say. He completed his honours year and then a Diploma of Education. My mum stayed home for the next three years, but returned to study continually over the years, finally achieving a PhD at the same time I did.
Unlike my parents, I avoided serious relationships and babies throughout my honours, a technical fellowship, PhD and three years of postdoc. When I finally did fall pregnant, I was ready for a rest from the non-stop academic grind, so I made a formal decision to leave my current career. Three years, and two babies later, I needed to work again, a continent away from my last academic position, and hopelessly behind in relevant skills development. I decided to use this as an opportunity to shift gears, retrain and move into a different field; more study was on the table.
‘It’s the best time to study!’ said my mum, ‘but it’s hard work. I guess I’ve blocked most of it out’. That addendum hides all the details; I can’t study the way I did before, writing when I’m inspired, reading all night long and avoiding planning as much as possible. Now, I’m lucky to squeeze in an hour at naptime, a little when the girls are playing and another hour or two after bedtime. I have to stash everything carefully in case someone gets up before me and decides to draw butterflies on the notes I prepared so carefully the night before, and the best made study plans are abandoned when conjunctivitis makes the rounds of the kindergarten class.
Going back to study has been a learning curve in itself. I’ve had to adjust my expectations of myself, and of my lecturers, as I come to study having taught classes myself. Initially, I found it impossible to complete all the reading; I’ve gradually learnt to take more notes while I read and make my first pass through a paper yield more of the information I need from it. I make detailed essay plans and annotated bibliographies in daytime hours that allow me to write at night, when I’m more tired, then edit later. In the first semester of this year, with a full day of childcare finally in my budget, I took on two subjects successfully. I tried to repeat this feat in the second semester with two more heavily weighted subjects and found myself writing three essays in 10 days, working through every naptime and for hours after bedtime. While I earned a distinction, I never want to try that level of hell again.
Though I learnt a set of perfectly valid study skills throughout my academic career, most of them relied on access to unlimited free time and the freedom to plan my time as I wanted; having children changed that. I have always been a study procrastinator. I like to read social media a bit, maybe an article or two, and switch back and forth between my assigned task and something fun. When I began squeezing my study into child-free time, all of that went away. Using blocked-out study hours has involved refining my previous study skills; work for fixed periods, take short breaks to reward myself, plan the next day’s tasks to fit in with a larger schedule of assignments (and school commitments, play dates, shopping, cooking, and so on). My organisational skills have become phenomenal, though you wouldn’t know it from the mess in my house. I wouldn’t say that studying while parenting small children is the best time to study, but it is certainly possible, and possible to succeed, despite the obstacles.
I was asked once by a teacher’s aide if I worked; I said no, not outside the home, and my six-year-old daughter indignantly interrupted to tell her that her mum ‘does work, really hard, every day!’. I’m relieved that she recognises it.