Will studying on maternity leave take you away from your most important job?

 Photo: Getty Images

I remember when I was trying to decide if I could combine motherhood and furthering my university education. I googled 'how to combine study with kids' and stumbled upon a minefield of suggestions – of timetabling, of organisation, of careful military style precision in order to stand on that dais at the end of it all, clutching a new qualification.

My goal? To be armed with new skill, to make sure my time away from the traditional workforce strengthened my intellect (all without having to leave the house).

And two weeks ago my doctoral thesis returned from being examined: years of study squeezed into 350 pages,from the time my son was 16 weeks old to his final year of preschool. I then looked around the house - a mess of discarded toys, piles of washing that had been waiting forever for me to fold - and realised that in making the decision to begin my Masters, which eventually became my PhD, I'd been looking for space to honour me in the midst of the chaos. Studying allowed my identity of "Muuuuum!" to be mixed with my desire to forge ahead while still getting to the school gates on time.

Dr Inger Mewburn, a mum and the Director of Research Training at the Australian National University, knows what I mean. The editor of the site The Thesis Whisperer, she spends much of her time connecting with people who are trying to wrestle a research topic into coherent words while living a full life at the same time.

Like me, Dr Mewburn acknowledges "the battle from within", a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg that refers to our right to pursue a career when we have children. "All our lives we have been fed messages that children are the ultimate fulfillment of our role as women," Dr Mewburn says. "I know I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a 'good mother', but I wanted to keep my hand in, to keep developing the career I started just before my son came along."

"I think advanced degree study has been a safe space for many women like me. It's not quite work, so it has the right amount of flexibility, but it"s not quite study either  - which means you're developing vital contacts and networks that will come in handy later on".

My decision to study full-time could not have happened without the benefit of an Australian postgraduate award scholarship, a tax-free stipend that allowed me to also work casually as an academic and a writer while researching grief. I had stepped away from a successful career as a public servant for NSW Government, going from managing people to managing a research timeline,

Lindy Alexander, a fellow writer who also recently completed her postgraduate research study, was two years into a PhD when her first son was born. "I took about five months off, but then was itching to start thinking about things beyond the walls of the house," she says. "I loved that while he was sleeping I could be reading an article that would make me think about life beyond the immediate. My study fed my creativity and helped me keep things in perspective."

"I never felt that my studies took me away from my kids; rather, it enriched my time with them."


Now that the journey is over, the maternity leave has come and gone, and the baby finally sleeps through the night, how has studying enriched Alexander's career opportunities? "Doing my PHD has been a blessing," she says. "I've been offered interesting casual research work which fits in perfectly with my family life at the moment. I feel so excited about what comes next."

But Dr Mewburn warns that it's making the shift from study to work isn't always easy, given the flexibility of learning around children. "Many academics, male and female, are held back by a lack of mobility. Having kids in school makes it difficult to change country or city - that extended network of grandparents and friends is often vital to a working woman. The challenges never end."

As for me, I'm trying to keep it simple, I wrote in the acknowledgement section of my thesis that this study began when my son was four months old, and he is now finishing preschool. The shift from a small baby who would sleep on my lap while I wrote, to a little boy driving trucks up and down my arm as I work, reminds me that time does truly fly. The growing of that baby into a walking, talking person parallels my own journey as a researcher.

While I don't yet know how I'll organise re-entry into a workplace I'll have to get dressed and leave the house for on a regular basis, I've emerged from the baby years with a new title, a brain that's engaged and ready to go, and children who understand that passion can be fueled both in the home and out. And that's win/win for me.

Sarah Wayland is a researcher, speaker and writer. She is also a mum of two and a step-mum of two more. You can follow her blog or connect with her on Twitter.

Studying and a parent? Chat with other people who know what you're going through in the Essential Baby forum