I was having a conversation over e-mail with an academic of my acquaintance who has just had a child, and was wondering if I could offer her any suggestions about how I’ve managed to keep getting things done since infans was born. In all honesty, a big part of it has been the fact that I’ve not been required to do anything terribly creative – the book revisions and manuscript preparation, while chunky, haven’t really required me to put together much new material or think up fresh ideas, and there’s only so much imagination and intellectual capital you need to change the formatting of a bibliography. I am the first person to complain grumpily on Twitter about the slog of editing a passage for the dozenth time, but actually, that’s probably the level of mental demand I’ve been operating at. I’ve only started to think properly about the conference papers I’m giving this summer in the last month or so, and the effort required to put together something new has actually been quite daunting.
However, I did have a couple of other thoughts and suggestions about getting stuff done, if you choose to, and thought I’d put them here in case anyone else find them useful. The first is to accept that for the first few months, you probably won’t get anything done, especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand as I was – and that’s totally alright and as it should be. Giving oneself permission for this is really, really hard (or at least I found it so after the first few weeks), but actually, stop.
If you do have things that absolutely must get done, then naps are the way forward. If you’re lucky enough to have a baby giving you enough sleep during the night to function during the day without naps yourself, and have a baby who will go to sleep somewhere that is not on you, and for more than five minutes at a time. Sometimes babies do not seem to realise mummy needs time to reply to that research collaborator. And that is OK too. But thinking about how to use any nap time you do get strategically is key – what do you most need to do to give yourself piece of mind? It may be having a cup of tea and checking the proofs you’ve been asked to return before the end of the week; it may be washing up and tidying the kitchen so the thought of the post-lunch mess doesn’t keep you consistently on edge; it may be having a nap yourself, or a shower, or watching an episode of some mindless television. All of these things are also OK.
The only way I did get anything done during those naps was lists. Lots and lots of lists. I prioritised things that had immediate deadlines or I had already committed to (like final revisions and copyedits for articles which were more or less done), and things related to the book manuscript. I did agree to take on a short piece for a web-based outreach project, which I thought would be a good way of getting me back into the groove of generating ‘new’ words, but in retrospect I wish I’d said no to that as I did to a book review invitation – it didn’t drain away time, but it was a bit of a distraction. What worked particularly well for me was accepting that tasks which came under the heading of ‘collegiality’ – things I should do not to hold up collected volumes/editors, meeting deadlines and so on – needed to be done; the book was the massive priority, even if it was advancing a paragraph of edits at a time; and everything else could wait. Really.
So the big ‘formal’ advice I have is to push back firmly on anything related to teaching or administration, and to only let research in if there are imminent deadlines or if it is the most important project you have in hand. I was also a big fan of checking my e-mail even if only to delete or file it, as I did with about 95% of the e-mail I got during the course of my leave – the thought of coming back to an untouched inbox after even a few weeks gives me the shivers.
Some of this is, of course, down to who you are as an individual and where you are in your career, and I really don’t want to suggest that I did the ‘right’ thing. I felt particularly under pressure about the book because of being, at the time, on a three year contract and being very aware that I needed to have the book in press for job hunting. I also inevitably start feeling a bit jumpy after a few weeks if I don’t have something academic to get on with – one of the reasons that a year’s maternity leave completely off from academia would have been a really, really bad idea for me. Please don’t look at this post and assume these have to be your choices – they don’t. I recommend Rachel Moss’s thoughts about some of the choices she made in the early months, and I’ll also mention that I went back to work after just under six months of maternity leave (again, entirely my choice but under the implicit pressure of a short-term contract). I am pretty sure that if I ever do this again, I will make a different set of choices.
Since going back to work in September, I’ve also found that I think about far fewer projects than I did pre-infans. In those heady days (ahem), I could have two or three projects in various stages on the go at once, and could balance hopping between them – for instance, I often found I needed the other projects to give me something to do when the book was getting too much or had reached a pause point, and there would often be some outreach or cross-over work in there too. Now, with teaching and everything else, I think realistically I can only manage one project at a time. I was recently given the advice that with children, one should prioritise quality over quantity – and I now see why that was an excellent suggestion, if only because I cannot imagine trying to do more than one thing at once in the more strictly delineated working time I now have. This will change as infans gets older, of course, but right now that’s the reality.
Now I find myself in the slightly strange vacuum between finishing a big project and starting a big project, and not knowing quite what to do with myself… but that’s another subject for another post.