Overwhelmed Mom Trying to Write a Dissertation.
August 1, 2012 4:19 PM   Subscribe

How can I write my dissertation as a mom of a young child with so much on my plate? How can I prioritize over the next year to GET IT DONE?

I am a PhD candidate in the humanities. I love my topic, and I have a great supervisor. I am not teaching this year. I have nine months to write my dissertation before my defense date, which is set for May 2013. My daughter will be in school part-time in the fall, and I will have twenty hours a week in which to research and write my dissertation. My husband is incredibly supportive, but he works long hours, often getting home after 9:00. I find myself overwhelmed with childcare, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. How can I find the time I need to research and write and still do all the other things I have to do? When I explain my struggle to friends and family, they say just let everything else go completely, but the advice is not at all practical. I have to clean the house, cook the meals, do the laundry, run the errands, and take care of my daughter. I also need to find time to exercise and sleep. How can I free up time and energy to write? We can't afford childcare, and we don't have family close enough to help. Do I use prepared meals? Clean once a week? Not exercise? Stay up late at night to write until 12:00? Take Sunday off to spend time with family or write all weekend? I am looking for advice from those who have been there. What is it going to take?
posted by white_magnolia to Education (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I say this as a husband who goes to work early in the morning and often gets home from work after 9:00 p.m.: Have your husband clean the house and do the laundry. I'm not kidding.
posted by The World Famous at 4:22 PM on August 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

My mom was a single parent and I was three, four, five years old when she was in the most intense part of grad school (research, writing her dissertation). She farmed me out to family and babysitters a lot. The house was basically clean but not without piles of papers and so on. There were lots of meals of stews and soups that were made in batches and frozen.

The house needs cleaning and the meals need cooking, but you don't necessarily need to be the person who does that all the time, or even most of the time. Who would do that if your dissertation were a full-time job (which it is)? Being "supportive" is great, but not if it doesn't come down to brass tacks, like cleaning, cooking, or arranging for those things to be done by someone else.
posted by rtha at 4:24 PM on August 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

How long is your daughter in school every week? If it's >=20hours, the easiest thing would be to block out 20hrs of it as "dissertation time". If not, then take a few hours on a Saturday whilst your hubby watches your daughter. Then find a time for exercise. (Do it with your daughter, or during her tv watching downtime.) Then add in the rest, dropping anything that won't fit. Your hubby will probably have to help more.

One thing to look into might be the "cook once a month" theory. I've never done it, but it sounds like it could work for you.
posted by kjs4 at 4:49 PM on August 1, 2012

I did a much easier version of what you're describing (wrote my dissertation the year my partner and I had a child, but I was not the primary caregiver and had more lik 35 hours/week to dedicate to work). I would counsel the following:

1) Get out of the house to read and write. Do you live near your university library? Use that. If the commute time there eats too much of your day, find somewhere else. You need concentrated, uninterrupted time. Chores and cooking can, in some cases at least, be combined with childcare like sand and water; it's messy, but it works. Writing and childcare are like water and more water; the vessel is going to overflow.

2) Use weapons-grade anti-procrastination software on your computer. I'm not a big shareware donor person, but I gave money to the guy who wrote Leechblock because it probably took a month off my dissertation writing time. If you're reading this answer during work time, you're doing it wrong.

3) Shoot for 1000 words a day. I didn't often hit that, but when I did it felt great.

4) It would be an exaggeration to say "don't get it right, get it written," but there's an important kernal of truth in it. I say this assuming that your goal in getting a PhD is to get a job. No one reads dissertations except for your supervisor, and that's if you're lucky. What people do see are a) the chapter that serves as your writing sample, and b) the chapter that becomes your job talk. The rest just need to be good enough that if you get a job your committee and department, who obviously will be thrilled to have good placement news, will sign off on it. You will then have a tenure clock's worth of time to turn it into something that people will actually read, viz. a book. And by then hopefully you'll be able to afford childcare, or a cleaning service, or whatever it takes to make your particular two-career family work.

5) I realize that this has been generic advice about efficient dissertation writing rather than specific ideas about work-life balance of the kind that you're dealing with. My thoughts on that are: crock-pots rule, mopping is less important than you think, and if you can't afford to buy childcare you may be able to barter for it by trading days with other people in a similar position.
Good luck.
posted by sy at 4:51 PM on August 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

I haven't done dissertation work, but I am a grad student. The advice I would give (which I would like to follow better) is just write. Just write!! Just. Write. It's no different from fiction-- write a bunch of shit. A whole bunch of shit. Your completely unsubstantiated free thoughts on the topic, gripes about how annoying writing is, whatever. Write an entirely out-the-ass dissertation-length version of your dissertation with no concern for rigor or quality. I bet when you go back and look at it, it will be much better and more revealing than you expected, and can serve as a great scaffolding to edit in your actual research. Committing words to paper will also help your thought process like nothing else. The earlier you can get something-- anything-- actually written, the sooner you can move forward.
posted by threeants at 4:53 PM on August 1, 2012

Can you get a cleaning lady? It has revolutionized my life. Having someone else come every two weeks and do the cleaning-cleaning means that cooking, laundry, etc., are far less taxing. And it means every two weeks we at least frantically put away the clutter. Cooking and laundry are both chores that require only minimal ongoing time inputs (you can leave things on the stove to simmer and just stir them now and then; laundry the machine does all the work other than the sorting and folding, you just have to move the loads around).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:54 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

And if you have some sort of dissertationoid object in the bag, it takes that stress off you-- the worst-case scenario is you submit something shitty, not that you submit a big fat nothing.
posted by threeants at 4:55 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wrote a dissertation with a young child and full-time job. I'm currently an academic with only part-time childcare.

1. Write all weekend. I'd try to hang out with family until 8am 1 weekend morning a week. Otherwise, up at 5am, write til 11pm.
2. The second your husband comes home, you are gone - to the office or library. Maybe every now and then have dinner ready for him to feed child. Don't come home til 11pm.
3. All food is prepared. Trader Joe is your friend.
4. Husband now does all housework that you can't do while watching child.
5. More tv for kid. My mommy co-author and I had a great paper out last year written in 2 months with only fathers providing childcare. We seriously considered acknowledging Dora and Calliou.

OR you can take out loans to pay for childcare and be sane.
posted by k8t at 5:00 PM on August 1, 2012

Could you and child possibly move in with your parents or inlaws that could do more childcare and take the load off of chores? Or could a grandma move in with you for a year?
posted by k8t at 5:01 PM on August 1, 2012

This may sound darker than I intend. I hope all goes according to plan! But while you are planning the hows also make a plan B for a graceful exit/deferral/postponement if things do not work out. Friends of mine, the All-American Couple, have one middle-class job, 3 kids, and a dissertation that has stretched on for far too long. It is painful to watch people I love struggle in this way. Come up with an exit strategy and odds are you won't ever need it.
posted by skbw at 5:12 PM on August 1, 2012

Can you find another mom of a child about your child's age to swap childcare with?

Also, if I were you I would prepare lots of soups, stews and other meals that could be frozen and thawed. Maybe do this during a time your husband can help-thus making it couple time as well.

You say you cannot afford child care-could you afford a teenager to come in and entertain your child after school to enable you to get chores done quickly-or to help you with said chores?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:26 PM on August 1, 2012

Oh, and take Flylady's advice and declutter your home as drastically as possible. Trust me when I tell you that makes cleaning so much easier and quicker to get done!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:27 PM on August 1, 2012

We are in a situation something like this. (One spouse with a high-stakes writing job, one spouse in an intense professional school, one small child, only part-time care.)

It is super, super hard. It is fucking brutal. I frequently think "I can't do this!" but you do. It still sucks, but I have learned some stuff about making it slightly less terrible. I am not saying that this is the best way to go, but here's how we are semi-coping:

*Lower your standards. There is just not enough time to do all the stuff you need to you. You cannot schedule your way out of this problem. People will give you advice that sounds good but which would basically only work if you had a time machine. There just aren't enough hours to do everything, no matter how organized you are. (And your organizational skills will slip as the stress piles up.)

*Let the non-urgent cleaning go. If you mop your kitchen every week right now, stop. There isn't enough time. Work on bulk tidying-up, which means you need a lot of storage. We have approximately four million four-square IKEA bookshelves that hold a wide variety of bins. Our kid's toys live in bins. When it's time to clean, they just get dumped in the bin. No sorting. Same with clothes. Clean laundry goes in the bin unfolded, sorted into broad groups. People have to fish out their own sock pairs. "Cleaning" in our house is a frantic pass of throwing toys in bins, books on shelves, vacuuming, putting dishes in the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters. Our house is not ready for a magazine spread, but it isn't dirty, and it isn't even crazy messy. Because we have more storage than you can shake a stick at, so putting things away is fast. Otherwise I think we would die buried under stacks of books and shoes.

*Do bulk errands. No leaving the house for one thing unless you can stack a few errands. Dry cleaning AND groceries AND picking up your kid.

*Accept that you will eat out/get takeout/eat prepared foods a lot more than you actually think is okay. Try to figure out a couple of standbys that will not make you feel grossly unhealthy.

*See if you can figure out bulk cooking, where you cook a giant vat of something one day and eat that for a few days, or freeze it in portions to eat later. Meal planning, if you can make yourself do it, is helpful.

*If you can afford to hire a housecleaner, think really hard about it. We are literally too strung-out on stress to figure out hiring one, but I think it is absolutely worth the money and will be doing it as soon as I can get my shit together long enough to find one.

*I think you have to pick between Enough Sleep and enough of whatever your #2 item is. For a while, my husband and I were skimping on sleep to get everything done. But it just doesn't work over the long haul. You can't steal an hour or two a day from sleep and still be sane enough to function and be nice to the other people in your family (I think that is crucial). So we both went back to prioritizing enough sleep, which means that we're not nearly getting as much exercise as we'd like. It sucks. But being reasonably well-slept and underexercised feels slightly less like I'm going crazy than the other way around. YMMV.

*Honestly, nobody is going to like that I'm saying this, but... I think you have to look at your spouse and acknowledge that for the next however many months, you are a business partnership. Nobody's having date nights or staring into each other's eyes and reading Rumi and having erotic pillowfights. This is purely about getting stuff done as a unit. If you can admit that to yourselves, I think you're less prone to going into relationship despair. It won't be forever. You just have to get through this as well as you can.

*Ruthless division of labor. My husband does all the laundry, or if he can't, it's his job to specifically ask me to do it and remind me. I do all of the kid-management stuff unless I specifically ask him to do something and remind him.

*I plan out writing work I need to do while putting the kid to bed, when I'm sitting in the dark waiting for him to fall asleep. I do this because I find that if I can work out in advance what I need to write in the morning during my brief childfree block, I can actually jump in and do it.

*I do a thing where before I start writing that day, I write down for myself what I'm trying to achieve, like a little agenda. Really specifically. "In this scene, X needs to tell Y that he found the deadly virus sample in her car." or "Fix page 94 so it echoes page 62" or whatever. I go through and basically check things off.

*I don't write linearly anymore. I have outlines and then I go through and fill in gaps, and then fill in more gaps, and more, until a rough draft is done. When I'm rewriting, I go through and make notes in the document, and then jump from note to note until I've made all the fixes, repeat. Breaking up the writing like this allows me to jump back into the document if I get 20 unexpected minutes, it lets me start and stop in a way I can't otherwise.

*I set timers if I'm having a hard time getting started. I can write for two minutes. Then I write for five. Soon I've written for 90 minutes.

*Writing like this, I'm able to write really quickly. If I can bump the (also necessary to the process) staring into space and thinking about how to fix a problem into other time slots, it... well, it's not enough time. But I can do it because I have to.

May God be with you! It is pretty terrible. I feel for you.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 6:02 PM on August 1, 2012 [18 favorites]

During times in my life when I've been overwhelmed with work/academics/kid care, I've taken to writing my daily to do list in these categories: MUST BE DONE; SHOULD BE DONE; WOULD LIKE TO DO. You'd be amazed how little MUST be done. The advice above about mopping etc. is right on. Figure out what about a messy/dirty house makes you craziest and focus your efforts on that. For instance, I don't mind a dirty floor but I do mind clutter, so if it's crunch time, I can go without sweeping for record-setting stretches of time, but will try to keep the dining room table clear.

A Flylady-style system is also good. She does things in 15-minute increments; I have had stretches of time where I did 5 minutes instead. 5 minutes of picking up, 5 of sweeping, 5 of wiping down the bathroom, and that's it for the day.

thehmsbeagle is right on. You need to simply accept that some things are going to fall by the wayside for the next nine months. You really can't do all the things you think you have to do; some of them will just have to be let go.

Remember, too, that it is perfectly OK to eat fried eggs for dinner, or a cold sandwich, or a bagel with cream cheese. Even cold cereal from time to time.

Finally: if you can afford it at all, I will second having someone clean from time to time. Every two weeks will keep the house from getting completely out of control; even once a month will help.

Good luck.
posted by not that girl at 6:32 PM on August 1, 2012

In terms of the cooking once a month thing, you might want to check out The Big Cook. Link The book has recipes and describes how to cook a month's worth of meals with friends.
posted by foxjacket at 7:02 PM on August 1, 2012

I have nothing to add except sympathy. I am in very much the same boat. I am in what I'd hoped would be the last or second-last year of my Ph.D. I have a 20-month old son, who is a joy but takes up every moment of time of whoever is watching him. I got back from the field in April, and trying to write seriously since then. We're in kind of a financially precarious position, so we don't have daycare. We have no relatives within 500 miles. My wife works mornings and gets home at 1 or 2, while I watch the kid. I leave soon after and try to get some work done. I'm TAing now and teaching a course in the fall. I tried to stick to a 1000-word a day quota, but that fell apart when the TAing began. Constant exhaustion, edge of poverty, relationship troubles, panic attacks, and a growing and powerful urge to end things. I've had a taste of it all.. And it's only been four months.

I already feel like I'm at the end of my rope, so I'll be watching this thread closely.
posted by mariokrat at 7:21 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just did this, but replace the small child with a full time job....so nothing really like what you are doing. Humanities PhD as well, but with only a cat and a dog, I think I may have had a lot less pressure than you.

I started my dissertation in July of 2011 and finished this April. I did have the unfortunate circumstance of not having the ability to do my research ahead of time, so I had to research as I wrote, which I'll never do again.

Some things that I learned:
*set a word minimum for the day. Even if you write crap, write it. I set my bar at 300 words a day. I would write on my lunch break at work and then edit it once I got home. I read my research every night before I went to bed and in the mornings while doing my hair and getting ready.
*Your husband has to do stuff even though he gets home late. It may not be practical for him to make dinner but he can fold a load of clothes and put them away. He can put a load in before he goes to work. He can grab groceries on the weekend. I was very, very clear with my husband about the help I needed and asked him to do very specific tasks.
*You have to articulate what you need. You can't say "Help me more." You have to clearly tell everyone around you what you need. I got really frustrated at the halfway mark because I felt like everyone was telling me to work harder and then turning around and wanting me to do things for them. I had to learn to tell my friends, and my husband that I could not go out, I could not help them do stuff, I could not do anything but write.
*Give yourself one day a week to do NOTHING that has to do with the dissertation.
*Talk to your advisor, talk to your committee. The defense and orals should just be a confirmation of what you knew all along. I sent my committee chair each chapter as it was finished. Keep up the communication and the feedback. If you get behind, call them, go into their office and talk it out.
*If there's anyone else in your department in the same phase, get their email and phone number. Meet them for coffee/writing sessions while your daughter is in school. Commiserate about how horrible everything is and then talk it out. I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was writing her dissertation on a very similar topic to mine. We could hammer out details with each other, but because our topics were so close, we decided early on to not read each others' work for fear of unintentional influence.

You can do this. It will be hard and by the time you get done, your brain will feel like mush but it'll totally be worth it.

Feel free to memail for support or proofing.
posted by teleri025 at 8:10 PM on August 1, 2012

I should add that my husband does help; otherwise, I might get myself in trouble :)
I'm just exhausted, so I am looking for advice on how to get through the next year. These suggestions are extremely helpful. Please keep them coming!
posted by white_magnolia at 10:28 PM on August 1, 2012

I think the only real problem here is that you're writing a dissertation, not working a job. If you were, there wouldn't be this sense of "how am I supposed to get all this done," because you must show up for work, and anything that can't fit in around that schedule simply isn't going to happen.

Treat your dissertation like that. Quite simply, that's your job right now. Block out extended periods of time, five days a week, during which that's all you do. You may feel as if you have to do other things during that time, but you'd be wrong. Your husband is presumably under the same time constraints, but he's also presumably working a day job that gives him weekends off. You may find it advantageous to "work" Tuesday to Saturday or Sunday to Thursday, which would give you a day off together and a day off "separately," during which you can work while he does other things, and you've got the flexibility to do that.

But really, what others are saying is true. This stuff...

I have to clean the house, cook the meals, do the laundry, run the errands, and take care of my daughter.

...is only true to a certain extent. Lower your standards. The house does not need to be ready for company at any moment. Your daughter, in all likelihood, does not need your constant attention and can probably be left to her own devices for significant periods of time. Probably be good for her anyway. Your meals do not need to be gourmet seven days a week. It's possible to throw together a serviceable, healthy meal in less than thirty minutes, but you can't be making pies from scratch. Errands can be combined with others for efficiency or simply put off. Laundry does not need to be meticulously folded and sorted.

Hopefully, you'll have time to pick all of this back up at some point, but for now, you just gotta get 'er done.
posted by valkyryn at 5:52 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Any suggestions on a quiet place to work? Writing at home doesn't work with a child. I have been going to the campus library, but it is an hour commute by train (no parking). I have tried working at coffee shops, but they are too loud.
posted by white_magnolia at 6:11 AM on August 2, 2012

Local library. I've written entire academic papers in public libraries.
posted by valkyryn at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2012

Seconding public library. Also, invest in some good headphones and hit the coffee shops.
posted by teleri025 at 7:22 AM on August 2, 2012

Any suggestions on a quiet place to work?

Do you have a nearby friend who would let you sit in a quiet room in their house? How about a community center? A church with classrooms? Or even a local bar in the afternoon might be quiet enough. Anywhere public or congenial to the public.

I gave birth to our first child last October, and wrote my dissertation between then and March. I made myself write 1,000 words most days. I did a lot of reading and typing while holding a baby in one arm, and even while nursing. I encouraged visits from grandparents -- more than I would normally be comfortable with -- in order to get a few extra hours of someone else holding the little guy so I could write. Apart from the actual paper, I kept a journal of thoughts on my readings and topic, where I often wrote big chunks of unpolished gobbledegook that I usually later fixed up and added to the paper. On days where I failed to write an adequate amount of the actual paper, I wrote in the journal.

I'm a composer, so I had to provide not only a musicoanalytic paper, but also a large original composition (for orchestra in my case). In place of the three-movement piece I had planned, I used a two-movement piece (one movement written a year earlier, and one an adaptation of a chamber piece). This I approved with my committee chair. Whatever concessions your chair is willing to make for you, take them.

I did all this in a state of hell-bent fiery determination to get it done NOW, because I dreaded the thought of trying to write a dissertation with an active toddler, as opposed to a sleepy newborn. I sympathize with you very much, and also mariokrat.

Nthing all the suggestions above about letting the housework and cooking go. If you are exhausted right now, then is there any way you can arrange for a couple days off for yourself right now? I think even getting a sitter for one day to sleep, eat, and plan your working strategies (but not actually trying to write yet) might be very beneficial.
posted by daisystomper at 9:02 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Please help me find a cruise to fit all my...   |   Another Change of Address Form?! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.