Why submitting your PhD thesis is like sending your child to rehab…

Last year I read an article which said that doing a PhD is like pregnancy for the brain. Well, I finally ‘birthed’ my baby on December 8th, somewhere around 11.40 AM. Everyone said congratulations and asked the usual questions like ‘what name did you choose?’ (A comparison of nonsuicidal self-injury in individuals with and without Borderline Personality Disorder) and, of course, they asked about the particular dimensions of the baby (a bouncing 722 pages in my case).

People told me what a life changing event this would be. It was, but then, something uncanny happened. Slowly, but surely, somewhere around the two month mark, people weren’t that interested anymore. The anticipatory excitement of a new baby wore off.

Many pregnancy books stop somewhere around week 40-42, since the authors assume that the mother survived, and that she took her baby home. Rarely do these books provide support for people who don’t get to take their babies home immediately. So now, the analogy must take a different shape. As a parent to a thesis you don’t take your baby home immediately. You have to send it away…to rehab.  

In the early days, I knew there was a lot of research to do about my ‘child’. Let’s just call her Thesis, since her full name is quite long, and what the hell, let’s even assign a sex to Thesis. Calling my baby ‘It’ when I put so much love into her seems far too impersonal at this stage.

On good days, I’ve felt like I am the world’s leading expert on my child. I’ve looked at as much research about her problems as I can stomach. For three years now, I’ve stayed up late to attend to my child’s needs.  I’ve cancelled social engagements, and endured strange looks from friends and family who didn’t really understand how much support Thesis needed. I avoided certain people who didn’t understand my child and her special needs. You know, the kinds of people who just say ‘why would you put yourself through all of this. Is it really necessary?’

Parenting Thesis was, and still is, an emotionally difficult time. My partner and I argued about Thesis when we thought she’d been put to bed for the night. On a few occasions, I cried in front of Thesis and told her that I hated her. I told her that she was ruining my life, and that I couldn’t have imagined I’d experience this kind of torment. I told her that this wasn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I decided to bring her into the world.

I knew that the day would come when I’d have to send Thesis away. I looked forward to it, actually. I was ecstatic to think that I would finally have time to myself again. Tucking her into the back seat of the car to take her away, I felt relieved. I knew that there was nothing more I could do for her. I’d have to leave her in someone else’s capable hands, and hope for the best. I took my friend Kate with me- partially for moral support, and partially because Thesis had grown to be quite a big girl and she was getting heavy to carry. I’m still terrified that her assessors will tell me she has to lose some weight.

Experiencing my first Christmas without the burden of taking care of Thesis was great, but I still had this odd guilty feeling. People told me to try not to think about her too much, but it’s impossible. Of course, I can’t help but wonder if Thesis is alright. I got confirmation that she made it overseas, and the date of her review is on my calendar, but it’s changed a few times. These things are so unpredictable.

I sometimes worry about her and think what if there’s a language or cultural barrier and Thesis is misunderstood? I worry that maybe I haven’t got the best doctors available for her. I still doubt my skills as the person who created Thesis. What if she lacks confidence? Or, perhaps I was too cocky when I told her how fantastic she was? There are days when I secretly hope that she doesn’t need help at all, and the doctors will tell me she’s perfect.

I’m not allowed to contact my child’s minders. I just have to sit back and wait anxiously for news on her progress. Every other week, people ask me how long Thesis will be away, but there’s no definitive answer. It’s been three months now, but I’ve been told to expect it will take longer. 

While Thesis has been away, I’ve also struggled with role identity confusion. Six months ago, I left my part-time job, said goodbye to my support system of family and friends and moved interstate. At that time, I decided to stay home with Thesis to give her my full attention. Now that Thesis is gone, I’m an empty nester. Well, sort of. You see, technically, Thesis is not my only child. My first born, Honours, is all grown up now and doesn’t really need me anymore. I still look at that time and cringe at how little I knew about parenting back then. Having said that, Honours really was a breeze compared to what I went through with the youngest baby. Not that you should compare children.

In between Honours, and my darling PhD there was Masters. I’d always wanted a second child, but it was a tumultuous ‘pregnancy’ and I was constantly filled with doubt about how things were going to turn out. With the assistance and support of my doctor (supervisor), I decided not to bring Masters to term. Instead, I tried again for a healthier, stronger baby. When I received the news about PhD, I was a lot more confident and happier with the decision. I’d dreamed about her since I was 18, and I couldn’t wait to be her mother. There was also the fabulous bonus of receiving a parenting payment (scholarship) for this baby, something that wasn’t available to me when I had Masters.

Now that Thesis is away, I feel a bit lost. I’m not sure if I’m a ‘mother’, if I’m ‘on a break’, or if I’m just plain old unemployed. There’s no active parenting to do for Thesis at the moment, so instead I spend my time actively worrying.

What if Thesis comes home from rehab and there are massive changes to be made? There’s always the chance that Thesis was a lot more screwed up than I thought she was. There could be months or even another year’s worth of work to do if she’s not OK. I’ve even heard of someone who sent their child away only to find out that there wasn’t anything that could be done for him. The doctors said the child was just too broken. I don’t want to fail. Maybe this parenting a thesis business is actually not all worth it?

People keep uttering that phrase- ‘it will all be worth it in the end’. How do these people know it will be worth it? Thanks to Thesis I’ve never had a full time job, and I’m a lot closer to 30 than 20. Then there are the increased risks of physical and mental illness, sleep deprivation, and possible relationship breakdowns. People are all too happy to talk about what you gain by being a parent to a thesis, but no one ever talks about the potential loss in other areas of your life.  

Never mind all of that though. I’m trying to stay positive for Thesis. When the doctors say she’s ready to come home, there will be a big party for her. She’ll never thank me for all I’ve done for her, but that’s OK. No one actually has a child with the expectation that one day s/he will thank you for bringing him/her into the world. One day, hopefully soon, I will look down into her 12 point Times New Roman face, smile, and say to her ‘Thesis, you turned out so well! I can’t believe I made you!’ 

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