‘When you’re a doctor can you still be our mummy?’ by Alison Horgan

Alison Horgan explains some of the challenges and rewards of the different roles and identities she negotiates as a PhD researcher and a mother.

Alison Horgan
School of English
University of Sheffield

Today I took the dog and five children – two of my own and three friends –  on an energetic walk up a Scottish hill and watched them swim in some murky ponds at the top; I dropped my son to a stone carving workshop (secretly rather jealous), did the food shop, snuggled on the sofa with son, cooked tea, put kids to bed then finished the day by painting some undercoat on woodwork. It is the holidays, so that’s not a completely typical day but as I think back over the last 14 hours, there is an alarming lack of academic work. No writing, no reading, no editing. Not even much thinking. Today I also checked my university email for the first time in a few days and discovered that a proposal for an article which I had submitted months ago has been accepted for quite a decent journal. This is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The thought of working any of my research into a coherent piece of writing seems very far away from these misty Scottish summer holiday hills.
Before I started my PhD Iwas a school teacher, so the fragility of work-family balance is not alien to me. There are many many wonderful things about doing a PhD: the luxury of pursuing something which fascinates me; connecting with other people whose ideas and work help me to become a better thinker and writer; the possibility of going to Special Assembly to celebrate one of my kids being Star of the Week. Yes, all those things are equally important pieces in my life as a researcher and as a mum. I can choose how I organise my time, and make space for things that I wouldn’t be able to do in a more conventional job. But the shift from one realm to the other is awkward. Trying to fathom the impact of footnotes on an eighteenth century reader’s experience of poetry is a very long way away from remembering to send in the kids’ dinner money!
The most challenging thing about negotiating academic work and family life has been the process of accepting that I can and do have several very different roles and identities. My children find this a tricky concept, not least that one day soon, all being well, I will be a Dr and yet totally unable to treat poorly people. They ask me when I am going to get a ‘proper job’ (which I think means working in Sainsbury’s) and why I am still at university when I finished university twenty years ago. Out of the mouths of babes, and all that. But these perceptive questions make me realise that I am very lucky to be able to make exciting and daunting choices about my future, to take risks and to follow the strengths of my convictions. And I suppose it’s quite empowering to be able to show my children that learning never ends, that it’s OK to do things differently and to take your time. That fulfilment comes in many forms. That I am happy to see them flourish but I am also enriched to find myself continually learning and understanding things in new ways.