Mommy PhD: Practical tips to overcome a crises of writing confidence

Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Just write

Write for an audience: Print off a list of all the people who want to read what you are writing and write for them

Revisit inspired times: Flip through your notebooks to reconnect with energy and enthusiasm from earlier in the process

Intellectual nourishment: Reread an inspiring paper

Seek out the muse: Check out the latest writing of someone I admire

External affirmation: Print off the nice things people have said about me and my writing and put them on a board

The right context: Create a more beautiful physical space for my writing

Work to schedule: Make time in my diary for my writing

Play to a schedule: Make time in my diary to do fun, happy things

Just write.



Mommy PhD: The 21st kilometer

I tried to explain it to a friend: “It’s like the 21st kilometer of a half marathon,” I said. “You know the end is near but you are so tired it takes all of your energy to just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all you can do… keep shuffling forward.”

Never having run long distances herself, she gave me a blank stare. By this stage my own long-distance running was a hazy memory but the last kilometer of those three half marathons I managed to complete, were seared into my memory.

The last stage of the PhD was so arduous that it really felt like the best analogy. The good intentions, the clear purpose and the joy that got, and get me going, on this journey had all but vanished along the way. All that kept me moving forward was bloody-minded determination to cross the finishing line despite the pain.

Like running, like child-birth, like nothing else I have experienced before, I just kept going with the PhD because I couldn’t not finish. And I just didn’t have the energy to decide to do anything different.

Parents, pangs and walking to school

There’s something aching beautiful about the sight of young children walking, cycling or scooting to school. Hair flaying, rosy cheeks, eager faces…there are few parents whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight.
I may be a hopeless romantic, but the sight always brings pangs of wistful nostalgia for my own school days. For most of us with school going children we, too, walked those streets, making friends with the neighbours’ dogs, and the neighbours along the way, getting to know the corner shop, the post box, the dip in the footpath where the rain always lingered. For those children unable to experience that freedom to roam the streets, something very special has been lost.
In Cape Town’s poorer communities the picture of children daily en route to school is more out of necessity than choice. In the more affluent suburbs the gleeful children who do walk the streets are usually accompanied by ashen and rather anxious looking parents, and for once their anxiety isn’t about crime. Rather it’s about the other suburban parents driving their own kids to school. In a hurry. Not looking. The fear is of collision, crash, worse….no wonder so few of us who have choices take the risk and let our kids loose to get to school under their own steam. And yet by accepting this situation, so much is lost. Not only for our kids, but for ourselves and for our cities. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota calls children “a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”
By this rubric Cape Town is failing miserably.

Cape Town 2050?

A Commuting future, 1950s image

What, I was asked, did I think that Cape Town would be like in 2050? My mind immediately jumped to a 1962 edition of The Star newspaper giving future predictions for Johannesburg by ex-president of The Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir William Holford. Holford spoke of coin-operated taxis which could be picked up on any street corner (Uber?!) and completely segregated road systems so that pedestrians never had to cross a road. Oh and helicopters. Lots of helicopters. So with due humility here’s my prediction for 2050:

The Cape Town day starts early in 2050 with the mosques calling to prayer. The background hum of traffic that Gran spoke of, though, can’t be heard. Whatever cars are on the road became quiet electrics or hybrids a long time ago. The cars rushing through to town as the mosques call out are avoiding the “congestion charge” which starts at 6:30am and lasts all day. By the time it was implemented in the 2020s the “congestion charging” wasn’t the political problem that everyone expected. After all, by 2025 every car had an automatic payment system for the licenses and so charging a bit for using the road when it was busy was no big deal. Anyway the gridlock got so bad that something had to change and the only thing that they knew would work (because other cities had shown that it could) was the “congestion charge”.
When cars became part of the “Internet of Things”  then speeding cars were automatically controlled by the System. “Speeding” became technically impossible to do in town. The city councils lost a lot of money that they had been getting from speeding fines. By automatically charging cars for how much they contributed to the congestion and gridlock, then the city council got one of those rare win-wins. They reduced the congestion which everyone complained about, and they raised money. At first everyone complained that the roads had become a rich person’s playground. Anyway, the council had no choice but to invest massively in the public transport systems so in the end everyone won.
I can’t believe my grandparents devoted so much of their money to owning and driving a car! Imagine! What a burden to have to look after it, pay for space to park it, not to mention the fuel they had to put in. Fuel is so expensive these days thanks to the carbon charges. I would rather just walk or cycle when I can. Now that the cars are self-driving with collision control and I have my under-skin GPS then it’s really safe to cycle and my battery pack gets me up the hills. I also get money taken off my hospital insurance premiums every time I walk or cycle. For the longer trips about town I use one of the public transport systems or, if it’s to somewhere unusual, then I just use a vehicle optimiser on my smart phone  or Uber which means I get to share a car with people vetted automatically by Facebook to go where I need to go. Easy.
One of the great things about Cape Town in 2050 is that every Sunday over 100km of roads in Cape Town are closed to cars for five hours of “Open Streets”! After the congestion and carbon charges came in then people couldn’t afford to go to the beaches and parks so much and so they started looking around for more local things to do. “Open Streets” was the perfect answer. For five blissful hours we get a break from the busy-busy of the city. I learnt to run, skateboard, skate and cycle on an Open Street, and so did most of my friends. We call them “Slow Sundays”. I love Cape Town.






Mommy, PhD: Ice-cream and endings

The day I dispatched my PhD I was, frankly, exhausted. It followed a week of nervous jangling with layout and photo resolution issues, a month of seemingly endless checks on the thesis text, three months of wrangling with my supervisor and six months of tying up empirical loose ends. Exactly as some friends predicted, I was completely depleted. I ‘celebrated’ with a huge glass of red wine and a bowl of ice-cream. Inebriated, and with an ice-cream headache, I slumped on the sofa and fell asleep in front of the TV. There was an anticlimax and a feeling of complete disorientation. Some lightness, yes, but also the realisation that while so much was completed, I now had the viva voce process to face. I wrote nervously to my supervisor: “what now?” My supervisor wrote back with hearty congratulations and some kind words but also a reminder that the process was far from over and that the viva could well throw up more revisions, and some months of work.
When would it end? Well, of course it wouldn’t ever really end. The day came when I called myself Dr Kane for the first time. A type of closure. The learning, understanding, expanding, growing, that very process that I had yearned for, in fact the reason I started the PhD in the first place – that hasn’t ended. I’m still doing that and, probably will still be doing that for some time to come. That was and is me.
The pushing, the proving, the tightening, the endless, endless, pulling together of a PhD? Yes, that ended. Hurray.
What are you looking forward to after your PhD?

Five reasons I’m glad I did a PhD


Now that the PhD is finally done here are my tops five reasons why I’m glad I did it.
1. It scratched my “itch” in a way that nothing else could. It answered a yearning which I was worried could turn into a regret if I didn’t answer it. My PhD tries to answer a question that has bothered me ever since I arrived in South Africa in 1996 – why is road engineering here the way it is? The book which answered that question hadn’t been written and the PhD helped me write my answers to it. If my “itch” had been how to make the finest stroganoff or how much profit can be made in investment banking then a PhD wouldn’t have cut it. But for my itch, the PhD was the most sensible route, even though it looked to others like insanity.
2. It helped me prove something to myself. I’ve always been restless. I’ve been accused of being unable to fulfill long term goals. The PhD took seven years to compete. That dragon about me not being able to complete long term goals? Slayed.
3. I got to grow and learn and be stretched. Doing the PhD was a challenge. In practice it was far more of a challenge than I ever expected it to be, and I grew up. A lot.
4. It gave me a refuge. It was a place where, in the midst of mothering and all the giving that entailed I could be entirely selfish and self-directed. It was a space of freedom which liberated me from my circular, perfectionist fretting about whether I was a good enough mother. It allowed me to escape from teas with competitive uber-moms and to side-step all the mother-competition stuff. In the end I swapped the anxieties of mothering for other sorts of anxieties, but for the most part I don’t regret that time. And I do think I was a better mom, on the whole, for having made that choice.
5. Last but not least: eventually, it gave me a qualification. Which sometimes is useful, but less often than I imagined!
Why are studying? What are your reasons?

Mommy, PhD: Finding time – saying no


If you’re going to find time then you’re going to have to start saying “no”. This may be one of the toughest tasks for a mamma doing a PhD. No to birthday parties (your friends’ and your children’s). No to nights out with your bestie, with your partner. No to time with dear family. No to ‘unmissable’ movies, shows, openings. No to must-attend school events. In the end no to even the essential things – the walk, the exercise class, the weekly shopping, the Doctor check-ups. For me the only way to finish was to adopt, for a time, the life of the ascetic. Pared down, inward looking, intensely centered and removed from social context.
And although it had its costs (to friendships in particular) it had a simple, restorative beauty of its own. And through it I discovered a real gratitude for down time doing the simplest of things which I reconnected with post-PhD. Yay to coffee and cake with a good friend. The joy of it. After months without it.
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