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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Time to wander
October 1, 2008 - 6:27am

I do a lot of writing in the shower. Well, no, not actually writing things down on waterproof paper or writing on the tile walls with bathtub crayons (although that might not be such a bad idea). Instead my brain is abuzz composing paragraphs, writing lines for blogs, and thinking about proposals for projects. I’m supposed to be zipping in and out for a quick scrub, but needless to say, my showers are sometimes longer than they should be because I get lost in thought. Now that school has started up again and I’m supposed to stay focused enough to get the kids out the door in the mornings, my summertime extended shower meditations have been temporarily disrupted. However, I’ve found other, perhaps more productive and environmentally friendly activities during which my mind is unleashed for uninhibited wandering. Sometimes I spend just a bit too much time chopping vegetables for dinner or meticulously folding the laundry because I’ve started thinking about something else. And lately on long walks in the neighborhood, I come home later than I’d planned and with more blackberries than we can possibly use because I lose myself (figuratively) in the briar patch—picking berries is such a wonderfully meditative process.

It’s funny how much we learn about ourselves from watching our children. Both of my offspring are daydreamers, and I’ve learned that they need lots of “down” time to be left alone with their own thoughts. When my son plays with Lego he can become so absorbed with robot and spaceship engineering that nothing breaks his focus. To get his attention, I have to wave my hand in front of his face. I once asked him what he thinks about while he’s building his Lego creations, and his answer was an interesting one. For the first few minutes, while he’s planning his design, he thinks about nothing but the project at hand. But once he has it figured out and his hands are just carrying through with the plan, his mind is free to wander and devise the next projects. During this time he says he also dreams up things he’d love to build on a large scale, in “real life.” (I hope other Mama PhDs reading this will know the terms to describe this change from focus on the present to daydreaming while on autopilot—I have no background in cognitive psychology or brain function to describe this in scientific terms, but I’d be interested to know how this happens). I love watching my kids when they’re so clearly lost in thought because I know just how they feel; I need time for mind wandering to feel centered and to keep my creative juices flowing just like they do.

Finding time to get away for walks, fold laundry, or blackberry picking isn’t too difficult. The hard part, though, is the next step: actually translating the products of my mind wanderings onto paper or into the computer. Sometimes I wish I had a dictaphone from my brain to the computer. While my hands are occupied, I could record my continuous stream of musings and later turn them into something tangible. A lot of time can pass before I get to act on my ideas or put my thoughts to paper. My husband heads to his lab or office after his morning clean-up and can implement or write down his shower ideas within a couple of hours. However for me, with family schedules to maintain and distractions from immediate deadlines, sometimes there’s a long lag time from thought to product, and mental creations tend to stew or evaporate.

The challenge for us PhD-SAHMs is that we haven’t left behind our need to engage a little bit in some of the kinds of activities we used to get paid to do in an academic setting. We just have to figure out how to fit them into our daily lives. On my back burner, awaiting completion, are data analysis and papers to write up from my grad school days, background reading for new research projects, and a book I haven’t worked on in earnest since last year. I’ve solved the problem of finding meditative time but now I have to create blocks of productive time. Clearly an important part of making time for one’s own projects is to value them so that they can be a priority. It’s easy to prioritize when a deadline looms (this blog, for instance), but without external pressure I often lack the discipline to prevent the demands of children, spouse, errands, and household chores from eating into my work time. Or sometimes I just need to sleep—late-night writing can be productive, but easy to abandon when I’m too pooped. I’m finding ways to add some structure to my work time, though. My daughter’s two mornings a week at preschool give me two-hour blocks twice a week, and although I’ve eaten into those times with appointments and errands a couple of times, I’m trying to prioritize this for my own projects. Another Mama PhD friend proposed that we start a writer’s support group to share feedback and give one another deadlines for work on our book projects. I welcome any other ideas Mama PhDs may have of how they prioritize time to bring their mind wanderings to fruition. And meanwhile I’ll take inspiration from my son’s Lego creation time—he’s always able to make Lego a priority.


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