Life, me and the PhD: learning to ask for, and accept, help

I have bronchitis, and for the last 2 weeks climbing out of bed to have a shower and change my pyjamas has left me breathless, heart pounding, and just exhausted. I’m getting better, but as this morning’s trial showed, hanging out one load of laundry is very tiring and I’m not at all back at normal speed yet. I have to let people help me do all the things I usually do, like laundry and tidying and managing the kids’ homework. I even have to ask for help with work stuff, or at least for extensions and extra consideration. This is really hard for me. I do not like asking for help, and I quite like doing things a certain way. Letting go of this ‘stuff’ is not easy. So, I have been prompted to reflect a bit on why I find this so hard, and how I could make this easier on myself going forward. Even when I am all better and stronger again, it would probably be good for me to ask for, and accept, help at home and at work.

This is not unlike what my life was like when I was working on my doctorate, or, more recently, my book. It was just not possible to work all day, and then be home and do all the ‘stuff’ – tidying, cooking, kids’ homework and baths and bedtime routines, and then have enough space in my head and energy left over to work on my research and writing, and be effective at all of it and happy. Trying to do it all made me feel so cross and resentful and over it all. Why couldn’t these people just see that I was struggling and HELP ME (preferably without being told to, please and thank you)? Why did I have to tell them I needed help? Wasn’t it obvious?

At the time, I didn’t stop to think much about all of this. I just revelled a bit in my long-suffering crossness and soldiered on. But I got very sick for a long time when I finally submitted my PhD thesis – it was months before I really felt like myself again. And, given my current health situation, I can’t help but wonder at the link between not actually asking for, and accepting, help during the PhD – at work and at home – and the severity and duration of my illness in early 2014. Was there a causal link, and not just a correlation, between trying to be and do everything myself and my resultant health crisis? I think there was, in hindsight. And, I think now that I could have helped myself enormously by not being so bloody-minded about being Wonder Woman.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels

There’s a lot I could say here, with help from feminist scholars, about the gendered nature of academic and domestic labour. About how many women academics carry a significant portion of the care burden with students, and spend more time actively worrying about their students’ wellbeing and trying to do something about this; about how many women academics carry a double burden, with a heavy workload at work and at home, filled with expectations about what they ‘should’ be doing and caring about; about how many women academics burn out trying to prove that they are just as worthy of titles and accolades as their male counterparts, in some fields having to work twice as hard to win the same grants and publish in the same journals as men in their labs and departments. I could say so much more, really. The point is that as a woman academic I experienced this odd mix of wanting (needing) help but not wanting to accept it because accepting it meant I couldn’t do it all – especially at work – and doing it all was what I felt I was expected to do to be taken seriously, by myself as much as by my peers. So, I just pushed on, and I burned out.

So, sitting here in bed, trying just to take normal breaths without pain, I am asking myself: how do I not go there again? How do I figure this out a bit better, and actually give myself a freaking break? I think some of this is personal – how I was raised and who I am; but some of this is definitely systemic – a lot of what I expect of myself and what others seem to expect of me is gendered (at least). As a woman and a mother I ‘should’ be doing all the cleaning and cooking and caring. At work, I should be focused on teaching and publishing and committee work and engagement. And I should not be complaining about it because that is my job, all of it. And I chose to be a working mother-scholar-teacher-wife, right? I should be able to have it all and do it all, and if I can’t, what’s wrong with me?

I have bought into this in various ways over the years, especially around the mothering stuff. I don’t really cook – Lovely Husband has that covered thank g*d – but I have taken on a lot of the parenting and household stuff I could just as easily have shared, or given over. Silly things, like being the one who had to pack the school lunches and sort out the homework and wash all the laundry, etc. as well as bigger things to do with actually raising our boys. I didn’t share because I worried far too much that things wouldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted them to be done, or the way I would have done them. Now, unable to clean or do laundry without feeling faint, I am having to teach my boys how to sweep a floor or run the washing machine without getting up to correct them or do it ‘properly’. Very little, if any of it, is being done ‘properly’ (i.e. my way), but you know what? We have clothes that are clean, even if they are folded weirdly. And the floors are not super dusty, even if they were swept differently. And the boys are keeping up with their schooling, even though Lovely Husband’s idea of homeschooling is not mine. Things are getting done, even though I am not doing them.

As Lovely Husband said recently, when we were talking about this, the things will get done differently, and sometimes differently is probably worse rather than just different, but you have to think of the trade-off. Have ‘stuff’ done, however it is done, or run yourself ragged trying to do everything ‘properly’ including your research, only to be left feeling invisible, resentful, tired, unhappy? I have to think, now, that I would rather work on letting go of (some of) the ‘stuff’ rather than end up feeling like this both at work and at home. I would rather keep trying to just let people help me, and say thank you instead of correcting their help, than end up feeling alone and put-upon. This is hard work, I think, for many of us. It might mean that your kids leave the house in non-colour coordinated clothes, or with a skew ponytail or weirdly brushed hair; it might mean that the clothes are folded differently or the pillows on the bed are skew, or the chicken dinner tastes different. But, your kids will be fine. Your pillows and clothes will be fine, and your tummy will be full.

Photo by Sirirak Boonruangjak from Pexels

Learning to let go is not just about making more time in your head and your life for your PhD or whatever research you are working on. It’s about learning to make space and time for yourself, and to put your own mental and physical health higher on your list of priorities. Not asking for help and flogging yourself to the point of exhaustion is not actually a sign of strength. It just hurts you, and for many women, perpetuates a very gendered division of labour, both at home and at work, that I think we all need to be conscious and critical of. So, this is my current learning: how to just let Lovely Husband and our boys help in whatever way they are able to, appreciate that help, and let go of the ‘stuff’ that, at the end of the day, is not as important as I am, and as my health is. This frees me up to expend what energy I do have on things that I think are important right now, like student feedback, revising my book, writing a report that is due soon, and cuddling the boys when they’ll let me. I hope that when I am stronger I will not revert to being this Wonder Woman-person, trying to do and be and have it all. The search for that balance is ongoing though, so who knows? But, I’m optimistic :-).

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