Family Bonding: Dissertating with Daughter

Trying to work on a dissertation with a two month old is a lot like trying to be Einstein, except you’re responsible for keeping this human Giga pet alive, you have the attention span of a drunk gnat, and you’re stumbling out of a sense-deprivation chamber after 24 hours.

Sure, you’re still smart-ish during the hours you’re not covered in poop.  You have brilliant ideas, but they’re more “Home Shopping Network” than academic journal.  Instead of transcribing medieval Italian, it’s all about how the first world desperately needs baby grooming centers.  Hear me out, it’s like grooming for dogs and cats except for babies, so someone else who is better trained and not sleep-deprived can clip these ridiculously tiny fingernails.


How the hell do they grow so fast?

Or another gem, the Mom-petition app: scoreboards for local mamas in the same GPS-based radius for good-natured competition and solidarity.  How many times you got spit up on today.  How many times you tried microwaving before you gave up and ate lunch cold.  The app also features chat/message boards that are open from 2:00 am to 6:00 am, so moms awake (again) in the middle of the god-forsaken night can have friends to talk to while feeding spawn.

Because seriously, my single, partying friends are not nearly entertaining enough on my facebook newsfeed.

Misdirected brilliance means it’s another blank page in this Word document, waiting for me to type something in human words that don’t rhyme or mention Piggies Going to Market that will make my advisor second-guess my acceptance into the PhD program.

In my defense, it’s hard to be productive when there’s this constant ringing in the white noise of my house that sounds like the Final Fantasy VII-esque baby-bouncer music playing in a constant loop in perpetuo.

Routine is hard.

It must be my fault–some kind of post-partum lack of commitment–because Rin has been pretty consistent for the last month.  She wakes up around 6:00, downs a bottle, then naps again until 9:00 or so.  Then she’s awake all day with a serious case of grandma-enabled armitis, demanding skin-to-skin like she’s trying to group-huddle just to survive an Arctic freeze.

She dozes for a couple minutes in the afternoon, but not for long, and the slightest disturbance wakes her up, like the Princess and the Pea.  I’ll breathe and it’ll trigger her Moro reflex, arms stretched out in pure panic.  I’ve never seen such a light sleeper.  Remember the game Don’t Wake Daddy?  That was stupid.  There needs to be an adult version called Don’t Wake Baby that somehow involves shot glasses as the game pieces.

Add that to the list of good ideas I’ve had lately.

You’d think, given her love of a schedule, I’d have figured out some kind of time block each day to dissertate.  But it’s like those few minutes of alone time need to be utilized elsewhere, tasks more vital: take out the trash, vacuum the house, empty the Diaper Genie, wash clothes before these questionable stains set, maybe eat something from one of the healthier food groups.

Really, I have no idea where the time goes.  It’s like the clock is literally eating time or Stephen King’s Langoliers are getting a little too proactive.  A successful day, once upon a time, used to be 5 pages on a chapter.  Now, success is getting to take a shower, eat a real breakfast, or go to the bathroom.  Or, not and.  You can’t do all three.  You have to choose.  See, I took a shower yesterday morning, so today I get to poop.  It’s all about time management.

In the end, though, all those excuses don’t matter.  Every evening when I finally settle Rin in her crib and weeble-wooble myself to bed, it’s just another day my defense is delayed.

This dissertation needs to get done.

I’ve said before, it’s straight-up pride making me finish this PhD.  It’s not job security; it’s not the pipe dream of a tenure-track in this market; it’s not a raise.  It’s pride.  Luckily for my dissertation committee, I’m full of pride, so it’s been enough to keep me trucking alone–until now.

Now?  Now, it’s harder.  The other side of the scale is dipping lower.  Why struggle so much on a dissertation when there’s such little gain and when I’d much rather spend my time staring at her, watching her sleep, her chest rising each time I start to worry she’s stopped breathing, a little coo in her dreams (what is she even dreaming about, bottles that never end?).  I’d rather read Giraffes Can’t Dance again, even though I can’t stand it, because she likes the bright colors.  I want to make silly noises to coax out another adorable toothless grin.  Time spent reading medieval annals is time spent away from her.

She has consumed all my time, and I’m delighted.

Being a mother has taken over my day, all my thoughts, my best ideas.

Motherhood has taken over my purpose too.

Not the way you may think.  This isn’t “I’m a mom now, so my personal projects don’t matter anymore.”  They may rank differently than before–somewhere above shampooing my hair but below getting 4 hours of sleep–but my personal ambitions still matter.  I haven’t unequivocally sacrificed who I am to accept the mother-role.  Instead, Rin has strengthened why I do the things I do.

My daughter is now the reason I want to finish this PhD.  Sure, my pride is still a big factor, naturally, but even though she’s the reason I can’t find time to research in the 24 allotted hours, she’s paradoxically the reason I want to finish.

It’s been like this ever since I found out I was pregnant.  I want to be the person I want my daughter to be.  I play flute a little louder, even when I’m sight-reading, because I want her to be bold, to not be afraid of making mistakes.  I put myself out there more, sharing my fiction with readers, because I want her to pursue her passions.  I am more assertive (good luck, world) because I want her to fight for herself.

My daughter will learn from my example.  Not just her ABCs that I keep singing to her.  Not just Latin declensions we practice at bedtime.  Not just how to count or wash clothes or drive a car.  She will learn who she is from watching me.  I need to finish this dissertation because of that.  I want her to learn that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

Do it for her.  Like Homer Simpson working at the nuclear power plant for Maggie.

Most gut-wrenching moment in the whole friggin show.

I’d want her to finish her PhD, no matter the obstacles.  Even if it means putting off a shower, breakfast, and going to the bathroom one more day to instead use that time to write, to finish, to succeed at what she started.

I want to finish this PhD for my daughter.  I want her to push.

So I keep going, trucking along.  Telling myself in my twice-a-week shower that I am still a smart cookie, that I can do this, that the paragraph I scribbled on a napkin while expressing breastmilk really does make sense, maybe.  It comes down to lots of one-handed typing and footnote citations that accidentally have ampersands and pound signs pressed into them mid-word.

But I keep writing.

work ethic

How 85% of my work gets done. #phdparenting

I keep working whenever I can.  It’s a sentence jotted down while breastfeeding.  A couple pages read from this newly published article after she’s swaddled and asleep, even though it’s past 1:00 in the morning.  Waiting for a chance to be truly productive.

And then, one miraculous afternoon, she takes a nap.  One that–praise be to all the angels and saints–lasts longer than 30 minutes.  I power through four pages of material, typing mad like someone who knows what she’s doing, that open Word document shamefully blank no more.  It’s glorious.

So you finally think that you’ve done it.  You’ve unlocked the thesis of this chapter like the sheer genius that you are.   You can be someone your daughter can be proud of.  You really still ARE smart.

And then it happens.

Your bubble bursts while you’re still beaming from your gold-star accomplishment.

Your two month old learns how to roll over–tummy to back–all on her own, right before your eyes, like a REAL genius, and you realize you’re a moron compared to the little thing that just pooped all up the back of her onesie.


Every day, in between dissertation work and changing diapers, I watch her learn something new, and every new trick, I get more and more convinced she’s going to blow past all my hopes and dreams for her, rocket her way to two PhDs–no, three–with a great career and hefty paycheck, and cure cancer while walking on the moon and solving global hunger.

If sacrificing a little extra sleep to finish this dissertation or learning to research while holding her against my chest means I can inspire her to accomplish all the the great things she’s capable of, then I am making the smartest choice of my life.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that I’m her mother.



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