I belong to a Facebook group for PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents- where, we share the challenges of parenting while trying to navigate academia and just recently one of the members posted a photo of some adorable but labour intensive looking Easter themed cupcakes proclaiming herself to be a procrastibaker- I can SO relate, and while I certainly would call myself a procrasibaker in the most obvious sense of the word- I bake to avoid the mounds of writing and researching I should be attending to… I realized today, it goes much deeper than that. It hit me this afternoon as I got up from my desk after a particularly dismal day of fiddle-farting around and successfully avoiding the abstract that needs writing, the three separate student assignments that need marking and the script (for a show that goes up in 2 months) that needs re-writing- that my motivation for baking (or procrasti-baking) comes from two places; love and guilt. Love because I know the kids truly love walking in the door and racing up the stairs calling out their best guesses as to what the wafting baking smell is (“Chocolate chip cookies?” “Banana muffins… I knew it!”) And guilt for all the time I have spent away missing birthdays, school concerts, or just being there when they come in the door after school. Somehow- a warm muffin or chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven make ME feel like I am being some kind of good Mom and while neither makes up for time away- I feel like I’m doing just a little something special- while weaselling my way out of reading those 27 student essays… care for a muffin?!
I am an early riser. I always have been, my Mother was too, she grew up on a farm and I like to think it is in the genes. Even as a undergrad student, working until 3 am in a bar, I still woke up at 9 am (early for a barmaid and a student!) because I just couldn’t fathom spending the day in bed. (I suppose I have what the young ’ins these days call FoMO- of “fear of missing out”).
Over the years my early rising has shifted from what some people seem to think of as a sort of reasonable early rising of 6 am to my current 4 am. I know, 4 am is really early. Telling people you get up (because you want to- not because you have to) at 4 am elicits the same same sort of response as telling people you have six children. “What?!” “Why?!” or “That’s amazing!”- which is always slightly embarrassing because, trust me, I am not doing it for the notoriety, or the wow factor, I do it because it really helps me get set for the day- centres me, makes me feel like I can “get ‘er done” (whatever “it” may be). My current weekday morning ritual looks something like this; I wake up somewhere between 4 and 4:20 (I don’t use an alarm clock- ever- I just wake up.) I get up, turn on the heat, and make a hot water with lemon. I roll out my yoga mat, and sit in meditation for 5-15 minutes ( the time depending on whether I got up at 4 or later) I then do a bit of yoga, usually, Sun Salutations for 5-10 minutes, then try to read a short passage of something inspiring (currently; Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison), then sit for a few minutes at my desk and write a to-do list or a few notes in my agenda/journal and then go put on the water for coffee. Some of the inspiration for my current ritual came from a Podcast I was listening to on Français Authentique– I actually listen to it to work on my french but in one particular episode he was talking about “The Miracle Morning” a book by American Hal Elrod, who writes about the ‘best practices’—”developed over centuries of human consciousness development” (according to his website) to create an effective morning ritual “to transform your life” and apparently achieve everything you have ever wanted. I definitely got some inspiration from it but have also tried really hard to listen hard to what I need each morning whether it be more mediation, a few minutes rolling around on a massage ball or more time to scribble some thoughts down- I try not to be a rigid as Elrod prescribes- because I really like that time to be something nourishing- and not something I feel like I have to do.
The ol’ man gets up at 5 (he has also always been an early riser) and we sit, for a minimum of 30 minutes every single morning (this we’ve been doing without fail for 24 years) and have coffee together. Sometimes we talk; about the kids, the weather, what’s going on that evening or that coming weekend, who needs to be taken where… and sometimes we just sit in silence. By 5:30- I’m making breakfast and packing lunches, finding socks and gym clothes and white shirts with no stains on them, somedays (2 days at the moment) I am out the door by 7 am to get to work and the other days I walk the youngest kids to school and get back to my desk by 9-ish to start writing.
The ritual has shifted and changed over the years, and has most definitely had to adjust through babies, and breastfeeding etc. I remember with extreme fondness a time when I was just mama to 3 and we lived near the beach- I would get up around 5 to go for a run and watch the sun come up. Other phases of my early rising had me simply being up before everyone else and reading.
Of course, getting up so early, means that I am ready to fall into bed pretty early, usually around 9 pm and it is not unusual for me to conk out shortly after 8, as soon as I get the younger kids to bed. And on those mornings when I have had to be up “late” (10 pm+ *gasp*!) the night before I just let myself sleep until I wake up which is still usually 5:30 or so. But after many months of being on the 4 am ritual schedule- there is always just a bit of disappointment when I look at the clock to see I’ve missed my precious golden hour.
Rives, an American poet, and storyteller, talks about his own obsession with four in the morning on a Ted Talk that I highly recommend- in it he talks about how he came to curate the online; “the museum of four in the morning“. I enjoy visiting this virtual museum if for no other reason, when I am bumping around in the dark- getting up and trying not to wake anyone else in the house, it makes me feel like I am part of some secret society.
When I am feeling my most discouraged and whipped by this PhD I tend to start listing mentally, everything that has happened in my life over the past 2.5 years that have made it impossible for me to “properly” get this thing done. Pathetic, I know- but somehow I think it is kind of a common “poor, poor, pitiful me” thing to do. But, I recently got to thinking that, funnily enough, when I am feeling particularly buoyed and optimistic about getting this thing done, I turn to that very same list, and use it to pat myself on the back in an “against all odds” sort of way. The ol’ man and I, will, from time to time, start trying to list all the major happenings of the past few years only to give up mid-way through because it becomes a tad overwhelming. At some point, me doing a PhD, in another country, while raising six children seemed like a good idea- if someone is able to remind me of that specific good idea I would be most grateful because most days it completely escapes me.
I have to preface this all by saying I have, from day one, from the first inkling, or seedling of a thought that I should pursue a PhD, had this pestering voice in my head telling me (loud and clear) that I have no business doing a PhD in the first place. (Hello major imposter syndrome!) I really think I am fairly justified in listening, even just a little bit to this pestering voice for the following reasons; I am the only person in my immediate family to have gotten a degree of any kind, I have an uncle on my Mother’s side who has a Bachelors degree and no one on my Father’s side has ever attended university. I dropped out of university before completing my BFA because I was pregnant with my first son. I went back 5 years later (we only had 3 kids at that point) and finished. I then went on to have 3 more kids, keeping one foot in the opera/theatre world, doing a bit of performing and teaching privately from my home. Two years after my youngest son was born I lucked into an adjunct teaching job because of my professional experience in the field. I loved it and decided I wanted the opportunity to move up and get a more stable job in academia, so I went into an MFA program at Goddard College a non-traditional, low-residency, Interdisciplinary Arts program- not your typical route to an PhD.
So, I have a “sketchy” academic background, six children, I am researching voice for the theatre (not a lot of people breakin’ the banks to help me fund that) and let’s not forget I am a woman, in my 40’s – not your typical postgrad – no, not typical in any way. So already the odds are stacked against me. Oh! and did I mention that I am self-funding?! Save for a few government bursaries for middle aged women with lots of kids researching theatre, I am doing this on student loans.
One might say I was (and still am?!) behind the 8 ball…
But despite all that I still thought it was a good idea. Riding on the momentum of my MFA (which in and of itself was difficult but definitely transformative in many ways) we (the ol’ man and I) decided this would be an adventure worth taking. Doing it in the UK seemed to make the most sense because there was a supervisor there who met my research needs (someone experienced as both a classical musician and a theatre artist) and they offered the opportunity to do it as a split site location student as moving the whole family to the UK for my studies was not going to happen.
We decided that to make this whole thing more manageable we would move across the country to Montréal where all the ol’ man’s family is, giving him support when I was away and making popping back and forth over the pond a little less daunting.
It all sounds so easy, right?! I would go away for 2 weeks to a month every semester, teach part-time and he would work full time and hold the fort while I was away.
Piece. of. cake.
Except. Nothing is ever simple for us- you would think I would know that by now- not much is simple with six kids because, well, there are simply so many people involved.
Early in my studies I was in a panic because I did not have a clue as to what I was doing- how does one “do” “write” “participate in” a PhD? So I read books and scoured the internet for helpful hints- everything from “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minute a Day” to numerous inspiring articles such as ;“10 Steps to PhD Failure”.
I can remember sitting reading one of these articles with much anxiety as I started ticking off all the tasks I had already completed in one called something like “Top Reasons PhD’s Get Derailed”. Yes, I am the poster girl for how-not-to-do-a-PhD-but make-it-work-anyway.
And I, or rather we- as this inevitably affects all of the family, are still limping along.
So. Here’s the list (which is surely not complete- because… well… life).
It may conversely make me weep, or pump my fist in victory or maybe both.
1. We sold our house, I left my adjunct job (a small university that I liked very much) and the ol’ man quit his solid construction job and we moved 5 of the kids across the country (our eldest, 20 at the time stayed.)
2. We arrived to new province, a new language, new schools new jobs and then…
3.…a month after we arrived I left for my first one month stint in the UK.
4. My Mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, refused all treatment and died a year after we arrived .
5. My father decided he could no longer care for my Mother who suffers from dementia, and moved her into a full time care facility. I flew back (5+ hours) multiple times to help with the transition.
6. Our eldest son, who had been dealing with addiction issues, reached out for help- we used the money we had made from the sale of our house to bring him to Montréal and put him through rehab for 3 months. (He has been sober for 2+ years now, is a straight A student, works to support himself, writes, plays music- we couldn’t be more proud of him).
7. My Father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer one year after my Mother-in-law died. He is now in remission and doing well.
8. Son #2 fell down a long set of stairs at the metro (subway) and broke his shoulder, he required surgery to insert a steel rod and months of rehabilitation.
9. We moved from the first house we rented in Montreal to a larger one.
10. I got really sick with a mystery illness about 1 year in. I developed eczema all over my face and I lost my voice- for one month- one whole month with little to no voice- kind of ironic as a Doctoral Researcher studying…VOICE! The doctors I saw diagnosed it all as stress related. (No sh*t Sherlock!)
11. I spent a month in New York performing a show at a theatre Festival, (the family came and joined me for a week.)
12. I have presented my research at 8 conferences and travelled to 5 different countries.
13. I have made no fewer than 12 transatlantic flights in the last 2 years, 5 months, 24 days… that does not include two separate research trips to New York, 4 flights back to Vancouver and a job interview in LA.
Don’t try this at home kids. PhD’s + big families + grand ideas= not for the faint of heart. (And if I told you I don’t often feel faint then that would make me a big liar!)
Well, I am not weeping- so it must be a fist pump kinda day.
Several years ago a colleague in academia commented to me that procrastinators are adrenaline junkies, and I think about that idea every single freakin’ time I am writing or working on something, especially if it has a deadline. It can be a paper, an article, rehearsing a show, marking student assignments, pizza lunch forms for the kids, whatever… I would say 98% of the time I come right down to the wire with it… almost every single freakin’ time I have anything to complete… right down to the wire. Am I really getting that much of a “rush” of adrenaline? Am I getting off on it, or is there something more going on?
According to Adam Grant’s January 2016 New York Times article “Why I Taught Myself To Procrastinate” while “procrastination is a vice for productivity”…it is also “a virtue for creativity”. Grant’s research contends that our first ideas are usually our most conventional and by procrastinating we can let our mind wander thereby opening ourselves up to newer and more unexpected ideas and patterns. I gather that what he is suggesting is not that we should simply leave tasks completely untouched until the last minute but rather, start something and then leave it- let it simmer, come back with fresh eyes, ears and ideas. Grant lists several prolific procrastinators for whom leaving things last minute worked out very well for them, Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Bill Clinton, and Frank Lloyd Wright…my name is not on the list.
I can certainly buy the creativity angle, giving ideas time to percolate, allowing one’s self to feel a sense of spaciousness, but I am not quite there yet. My procrastinating ways tend to lead me into more dread and panic rather than whimsical creative wanderings, but, I am definitely curious to test out these theories. Perhaps I will start with the pizza lunch forms…fill in my sons name, then my daughters, allow myself time to contemplate on whether to order two slices and the juice box option or three slices with desert, lose myself in thought over whether to pay by cash…or cheque, fully feel the impulse to include my signature before racing to the school to beg the secretary to accept my late forms so I don’t have to make lunch on Tuesday.
I’ve realized I spend an awful lot of my time trying to form habits… the good ones, the productive and creative ones. Whether it is with my running, my health, finances, or my academics, I would say I am a bit obsessed with habits, and rituals. In my first year of my PhD I read countless books on the subject as I struggled to figure out what the hell I was doing and just how the hell I was going to get it done. Some of my favourite books on the subject included Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which gave insights into the daily lives and habits of very famous writers and artists from Freud to Stravinsky to Woody Allen and The Creative Habit, Learn It and Use It For Life, by Twyla Tharp, in which this remarkable woman and artist walks you through thirty-two exercises she has developed to be your most creative and productive self.
I have muddled about with setting my own rituals and habits in order to get more done, and have been, I think somewhat successful in finding a way to create a series of rituals that have made me feel more grounded, less frazzled and more ready to take on the work I have to do. In the last six months or so, I have been absolutely stringent in my rituals, even on weekends and holidays, and it looks something like this; I wake up at 4 am (I don’t use an alarm clock but just tell myself I want to wake up at a certain hour and it somehow works), I go into my office and do 20 minutes of yoga, 10 minutes of sitting meditation, sit down and write an intension for the day in my agenda and make a list of what I have to do that day. This is basically where the ritual ends…However, another ritual begins at around 5 am where in I go put the coffee on for and me and my old man sit and we sit have 2 coffees together before all hell breaks loose with kids and breakfast and making lunches and getting people out the door. We have been sitting and coffee together every weekday our entire married life (23+ years!) and it is definitely a ritual I cherish. But! back to MY newly developed ritual… I have been feeling quite good about it, it has helped me feel, as I said less frazzled and more settled, because after everyone has gotten out the door and it is time for me to sit down to work, I feel like I have already prepped myself and I can just get on with it. But I have to admit, although it felt really great to be so devoted to these ritual, it truly had become a habit in that, I found it really hard NOT do these things each morning. I would get anxious if I knew I had to be up late the night because I didn’t want to sleep in a miss my ritual time (I found it hard to be flexible with this time given that there are so many people in our house and so much of the ritual was wrapped up the delicious silence of the early morning) I would feel annoyed if someone got up early and I could hear them mooring around the house, and I became anxious about making sure that I carried on my ritual even when travelling, like I am now.
So I have tried a little experiment the last 3 days. I stepped away from my rituals. I wasn’t getting up at 4 am here in the UK, but my first almost week here I still woke and immediately unrolled my yoga mat, did my yoga, meditated, wrote out my intension and then put on the coffee. But something was nagging me to just step back, and it mostly had to do with me convincing myself that I have time. I have SO much time here and I am so not used to NOT having to scrounge out time for myself. Waking up at 4 am when I am at home is pretty much my only hope for finding that precious bit of space for myself, and I realized that that rhythm is so ingrained in me that even when I am travelling by myself I still feel that pull of having to hurry through my day, the clock is ticking and if I don’t take time for myself now, it will be gone.
So this is a bit of an experiment in making space for myself and working against the grain of the hurried life I normally live. The last few days here I have gotten up when I want because meetings etc. don’t start until midmorning. I sit quietly and have my coffee, or turn on a British real estate show, and than get up and start working when I feel ready. This scared me a bit at first because I was convinced that I would never “feel ready” and just “faff” my day away. “Faff” coincidently is a British word I just learned yesterday that means “to muck about, wasting time doing something not necessary”.
So here I am, 9:25 am, still in my pyjamas and faffing away on my blog.
A new faffing ritual perhaps?