How to study part time with a full time toddler : an easy guide

Two winters ago I stood in the main hall of the British Library and caught my reflection.  For a moment, I realised, in that strange intensity that public mirrors provide you with, what I looked like and what was about to happen.  I was about seven and a half months pregnant with our first child, looking like a ship in full sail, four months into a PhD.  How, I asked myself was I going to cope with it all?  Would I cope?  Would I give up the studying?  Apparently, babies give you no time for anything else.  They also eat your brain cells when you’re not looking, and turn them into poo into their nappies, leaving you with hormonal mental whiteouts and limited intellectual capabilities.  How on earth was I going to write 100,000 words on Victorian sensation thrillers with that going on?

Two winters later.  I am standing in the same place in the British Library.  I am in the same maternity dress although it has a new stain on it of unidentifiable origin.  I am at the same stage in the pregnancy of our second child.  Only this time, I have kept my PhD going, albeit at a very slow pace, as well as running two jobs whilst supporting the family.  How do you do it?  People ask me all the time – how are you doing it?  You’re so busy!  But I’m not really.  I spend a lot of time eating cookies and sitting down.  It’s simpler than you think, and mostly it’s just discipline and honing your organisation skills.  Here’s what I’ve learned throughout the last two years.

Difficulty and complexity are not the same thing

Of course, it’s difficult being sleep-deprived, and of course the first three months are a haze of greyness, nappies, milk that won’t come out, milk that won’t go down, milk that goes down but doesn’t stay down and comes up again, mopping, white muslin washing and very very strong tea.  But it isn’t complex.  Looking after babies is, in theory, quite simple because they only do the biological basics of sleep, eat, poo and wee.  Once you hit the one year mark they become an utterly challenging species, one whose desire to be happy can only be fulfilled by slowly wiping pea and ham hock soup over the walls.  Caring for a newborn depletes your physical resources and wears you out, but – and this is a very important distinction – it doesn’t deplete your mental ones.  It’s a groundhog day of sexless bras and tiny white babygrows drying on the rack.  But it’s not mentally complex.  Your body is not your own.  But your mind is.  Bear this in mind.  Push yourself a little mentally every day, even if its only an easy crossword.  Reading and thinking is more possible than ever because you’re off work, and it’s the way to pull together the muscle that holds your brain in, which leads me to point 2….

Physical tiredness and mental tiredness are not the same thing

About fourteen years ago I went to my GP, because I kept experiencing palpitations after having a virus.  I couldn’t understand it.  I’d be sitting there watching EastEnders (not, despite what they tell you, as thrilling as all that) when suddenly my heart was beginning to beat out of whack.  The GP asked about my lifestyle which, at that point, revolved around an office, late nights, early mornings, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in cheap Homebase wine glasses and Marlboro Lights.  I was always busy, always seemed to be on my way to somewhere.  But I couldn’t sleep.  The GP said something so laughingly obvious I can’t believe I didn’t consider it myself : I was mentally drained and emotionally exhausted, but physically I wasn’t.  I was demanding no physical exertion from my body.  He advocated regular exercise, enough to get the heart rate going three times a week, and this was the very beginning of my swimming obsession.  I swam three times a week and I loved it.  Within a fortnight the palpitations had gone and if I wasn’t sleeping like a baby then I was certainly sleeping like a ten-a-day smoking, slightly anxious city dweller in my late twenties.   Well, when you have a baby the opposite is true.  Your physical muscles are tired but your mental muscles haven’t had a workout.  The brain is a muscle, and unless you want to become one of those people who can’t string three sentences together after the second child, for God’s sake prioritise the nurturing of it.  Keep reading and turn the fucking television off.  I can’t say this enough : TURN IT OFF.  Television stimulates your optic nerve in entirely the wrong way, especially just before sleep.  It does nothing to a tired person but irritate.  “I’m just relaxing,” you say. Television is not relaxing.  “I’ve just had a hard day with the baby, I need to veg out.”  Do you? You are not a carrot.   If it’s relaxation you want, have a hot, candlelit bath.  For three nights a week : go to bed at 8.30pm with a hot chocolate and a book that really pushes the way you need to think critically, if you’re studying.  You’ll discover mental resources you thought you were too tired to possess.  For the other four nights a week I give you full permission to veg out in front of reality TV and turn into a carrot.

Paying to outsource domestic duties is far more practical than paying to outsource childcare

Childcare is expensive in Britain, and you can only do it on a half day (it’s never actually a half day rate, more like 60%) or full day basis.  When you’re a new mum and you’re struggling to remember how to spell “criticism”, you can’t think or read or write all day anyway.  What you need are 90 minute to 2 hour bursts.  That is all you really need, and all you can manage.  Every day, until your child is about two and a half, they will sleep for 90 minutes or 2 hours in the much-yearned-for- Lunchtime Nap. This may occur pre-luncheon, post-luncheon or during luncheon when they suddenly slump in their chair in front of Hey Duggie! with a spoonful of macaroni cheese half way to their faces.  But, by God, they sleep.  This is your time.  The problem is the Goddess of Housework has determined it isn’t to be your time.  She’s here to nag you that now you can clean the loo, iron the shirts, get the wash on, wipe the kitchen floor, dust and hoover.  You must get a cleaner.  A cleaner obliterates the nag of the Goddess of Housework, and four hours a week’s work for her will not only be cheaper than a childminder for one day but will be more practical for the way you work.

Keep five days a week Nap Time solely for your study and do not get drawn into anything else.  Disable Facebook and social media during this time.  For the remaining two Nap Times a week, cram in those jobs you just can’t delegate or avoid – the car tax, dental appointments, work calls, arranging your weekly crate of bespoke gin for delivery etc.  (NB If you do have a childminder (I got by using mine 8 hours a week and sharing childcare with my husband the remainder of the time) and are lucky enough to have a bit of flexibility with her/him, use them strategically.  Cram in as much as you can for those few hours.  You are, after all, paying for it. Working from home with a nanny and toddler awake and noisy in the home at the same time won’t really work).

The astute multi-tasking skills you develop as a mother are the enemy of intellectual focus

You have to become that person who stirs a bolognese whilst singing Wind The Bobbin Up, combing your little one’s hair, mentally making notes to get your shoes re-heeled and writing up a supermarket list.  Look, you just have to.  You aren’t going to get through without splitting yourself into multiple people in your own sleep-deprived mind.  But here’s the thing:  if you’re not careful you’ll forget how to concentrate on one sole thing.  If you can potty train a two year old not to shit on the floor, you can train your brain to rein itself in to single-minded vision again.  Boring as it may sound, quiet evenings without music, social media or television will be your greatest friend.  As will early nights with books about Emily Bronte’s lack of sex life (or whatever you’re studying).   But be vigilant : the multi-tasking muscle is just around the corner waiting to trip you up again, and get you thinking about whether he should have Marmite or Philadelphia on his toast in the morning.

The busy paradox : “I’ve no time!”

Busy people always have time to tell you how busy they are.  But stating “I’m busy” is like stating “I’m tired” – it’s a claim but not an undisputed fact, and if you’re not careful it will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I was much busier when I worked full time before I had a child.  When you’re at home with a child more (I worked three and a half days a week to support the family in the first 18 months) you aren’t busy.  You’re doing a hell of a lot of cleaning up and cooking and tidying, but busy isn’t the right sort of word.  You’re consumed, you’re preoccupied, you’re fixed on your child’s needs.  But that’s not really busy.  First there’s that two hours a day to yourself (no one in an office has that) and then – if you are fortunate – there is the evening time after your child has gone to sleep, which is yours again because you go out a hell of a lot less than you used to.  This is easily another 90 minutes.  So there’s three and half hours a day that you can use.  It’s just that you have to learn the art of using them properly. Again, I’m sorry, but television is your absolute enemy here.

The exhaustion paradox : “I’m so tired!” 

Don’t thump me.  I’m not calling into doubt your mind-numbing, teeth chattering, howling, espresso filtering tiredness.  I know you’re physically knackered but just think about what I said above about mental tiredness not being the same thing.  Think about how the social obsession with fatigue and exhaustion only came about after the advent of modernity.  Imagine someone in 1512 saying “Gawd I’m farking knackered!” and sitting down on a sofa for three hours every evening.  You see?  You can’t.  Exhaustion is a post-industrial invention and post-industrial society is obsessed with it and wants you to be too.  Be vigilant against the divisive way that thinking you’re tired mucks up your brain.


Wherever possible, walk don’t drive

Walking time with a pram is a marvellous opportunity to think.  When you drive you cannot think as you’re busy trying not to crash into things.  With cash being tight as a new mum, you won’t be able to afford gym fees.  Walking as much as you can in local parks, woods, or around the shops whilst your baby /toddler sleeps is a great time to note-take in your head, think about a project and get some much-needed fresh air.  Always carry a notebook.  When your child goes to sleep, find a nearby bench and work solidly for 20 minutes, setting the timer on your phone and putting your phone into flight mode to avoid email alerts and unwanted distractions  This is easily organised so long as you don’t fall into the trap of over-timetabling your toddler’s life into unnecessary classes and commitments which see you constantly having to battle to get a 19 month old into the car so they can pick their nose through a sing-a-long session at a playgroup which neither of you really needs to go to for the sixth week running.

Some days it won’t work – and that’s fine

It won’t.  You won’t find reading mentally stimulating and enjoyable.  You’ll want to curl up in an old tracksuit and cry because the baby threw up three times on three separate suits in one day and you can’t remember what your middle name is. You’ll be spent, feel fat and unhappy and eat 17 chocolate digestives whilst watching episodes of The Affair from the Sky planner.  That’s totally fine.  On evenings like this, make a plan for the next day which involves carving out half an hour – just half an hour – for yourself to think again.  You’ll go to bed feeling better about looming deadlines if you have a system in place that provides you with a little space the next day.