Blog post

PhD in Parenting

December 16, 2021
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By Felicity T.C. Hamer and Louis Lazure

Two Zoom meeting windows of parents with their child On mute in the meeting. Credit: Zoom screen captures, 2021.

Deadlines don’t matter when there is Lego to be assembled, diapers to be changed and meals to be made – the list goes on.

Being a parent means all-nighters are no longer an option as you'll be woken bright and early. It means you must take weekends off excluding nap/cartoon times. It means over-nursing on your left so you can type with your right. Most of all, it means you must strike a work/life balance – or die trying!

Parenting through a PhD is both a blessing and a curse.

La perruque:

From the expression ‘de porter la perruque’ or ‘to wear the wig’ as elaborated in Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). Wearing ‘the wig,’ the “actor looks like they’re doing one thing while actually doing something completely different.” This “may be as simple a matter as a secretary writing a love letter on company time.”

I remember encountering the term ‘la perruque’ by de Certeau and thinking to myself: “Wow. I feel like I’m guilty of this both in my work and in my homelife.” Parents are forever trying to steal a second from one to tend to the other – compiling grocery lists in the ledger of a notebook during lectures, writing a blog while the kids watch cartoons down the hall – all while not letting anyone feel that you are any less than 100% present at all times.

As a graduate student and parent, you’re always trying to demonstrate your ability to do everything, to assure everyone that you’ll get it done. As a parent, I have extolled the graduate student lifestyle: “I can stay home with my child when they’re sick, I don’t need to ask permission.” But this isn’t entirely true. The work has to get done, and that often means losing sleep, giving up any remaining social time and bringing your work on vacation.

This is not to imply that parents are less likely to succeed. On the contrary – parents have to succeed. We can’t wait for inspiration to strike. Our work time is limited, precious and must be productive. We are propelled by coffee and guilt.

cartoon strip of sleepy student dad The bedtime routine. Credit: Jorge Cham @ 2015.

Mommy does nothing all day

I was pregnant with my first child when I received news of my acceptance to the MA in Art History and pregnant with my second as I began a PhD in Communication Studies. Whenever I forget how many years I am into my degree, I just turn to my youngest: “How old are you now baby?”

From the start, I learned to parent like I’m not working and work like I’m not parenting. Making sure my laptop was within reach if baby fell asleep on me while nursing and pumping breastmilk on class breaks to bring home on ice.

Having ambitiously registered for a course that concluded near my youngest’s due date, I raced to complete an assignment while calculating contractions – what I thought to be Braxton-Hicks. The next day, having seen a posted birth announcement, my supervisor wrote me – to express his good wishes but also baffled that I had given birth not two hours after sending him the assignment. (It was not very good, he allowed me to resubmit.)

All this pressure is, of course, self-imposed. If my child is in somebody else’s care – I would tell myself – I had better be working. I took this on, I better see it through.

And I want my kids to be proud of me. “Mommy’s writing her thesis,” “an article,” “a book!” my partner tells them. But of course, as I so often write about postmortem and spirit photography – I can’t share any of these with them.

So, my children think I do laundry all day. Which is not entirely untrue.

– Felicity  

Series of five black and white photos of mother and small children My Research Assistants: MA Convocation (2015); Conference at Northwestern U, Evanston, IL (2016); Concordia access key card (2016); Research trip to Boston (June 2014); Guest lecturer at MHS, Boston (2016).
Credit: vernacular photos by Chris Reid.

Daddy Plays with Animals

I have a blurry memory from over ten years ago – a comment made by a fellow student, then expecting their second child: “You are never totally ready to be a parent, so why wait so long?” I thought he had a point … but I ended up waiting a decade, getting a job, and returning to school before becoming a father!

Juggling work, grad school and parenting is hard. The day only has 24 hours, so pulling it off involves prioritizing, compromising, and trying to be efficient. Every task should be quickly evaluated, ranked and planned for. But how can I choose between grading lab reports and spending time with the baby after a day’s work? Sleep often seems like the place to cut, but that can have implications.

Making each part of my life relevant to the other is an important way to cope with the guilt of ‘la perruque’. I work in wildlife research and conservation, and study Biology – that part is easy. But how is my work/research pertinent to my role as a parent? I am lucky that my field is accessible and alluring to kids. I do not talk about my thesis to my daughter. I ‘show and tell’: trees, spider, rabbit, etc. She might know the difference between an American robin and a House sparrow before other kids, but that is not the point. I want her to see that dad is curious about, appreciates and respects nature and wildlife. Making my research (studying different life forms) relevant, even to a 2-year-old, brings me back to the essentials and  the foundation of my career as a biologist!

Do I regret having my kid relatively later in life, while doing my PhD? Despite the challenges, not at all. But, as she is the person I love most in the world, I guess I would have liked to meet her sooner!

– Louis

Three photos, toddler and her play space Clean Space, Clear Mind (so they say). Credit: L. Lazure, 2021.

Blurred Lines

The pandemic had many suddenly working from home and the ensuing blurring of lines – between homelife and work life – is well documented. But for parents in academia, this is always the case. The pandemic just amplified it.

That’s not to say that we were more prepared or had it any easier. Nor do we make any claims to exceptional parenting. This blog was never meant to be a ‘guide to parenting’ – we simply wish to normalize the chaos that surrounds student-parents.

We are frequently overwhelmed, at times delayed, and we always have the messiest homes. But we are giving and receiving a lot of love – and the forced breaks from our work that parenting brings – can be beneficial both for our mental health and our creativity!

With PhD completion on the horizon, the new titles not yet earned – we can take pride in the ones earned every day: Mommy and Papa.

Children’s artwork Confiture de Mots Doux, Crankenstein & Naïve Art. Credit: Artists: Clarence (9 years old), Clyde (5 years old) & Florence (22 months).

About the authors

Photo of Felicity T.C. Hamer

Felicity Tsering Chödron Hamer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies. She has a background in photography (Dawson Institute of Photography DEC) and holds both a BFA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Concordia University. She is a Montreal-born, recording and performing vocalist, songwriter and mother of two.

In her research, Felicity explores the relationship between photography-based media and remembrance. Her doctoral research has been supported by scholarships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Fonds de recherche du Québec - Société et culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University. In 2020 she was awarded both Concordia’s Stand-Out Graduate Research Award and FRQSC’s Relève étoile Paul-Gerin-Lajoie Award for her book "Parental Grief and Photographic Remembrance: A Historical Account of Undying Love." Bingley: UK, Emerald Publishing. (February 2020).

Photo of Louis Lazure

Louis Lazure is a doctoral candidate in Biology. He received a BSc in problem-based learning Biology (UQÀM, 2005), a master’s in International Ecology (Université de Sherbrooke, 2007) and a MSc in Biology (Western University, 2009).

With his expertise in ecology, zoology and animal behaviour, he worked and conducted wildlife research in many countries and in captive settings. Louis is also the Research Coordinator at Zoo de Granby since 2013. His current research precisely explores raccoon’s cognition within a context of human-wildlife interactions in protected areas


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