Philippa Williams
Age: 35
Born: Basingstoke, 1981
Job: Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London
Lives: Forest Hill, with husband Jimmy, a paediatric cardiologist
Children: Alexander is nearly four, and Caspar who is nearly 1.
Hours: full-time, working five days in four, which involves regular work at home in the evenings.
Childcare: Nanny for two days, both children in nursery for two days, and on the fifth Philippa is at home with them.

"I feel that as long as I enjoy my work, I don’t see any conflict between looking after children and working at the same time. So as long as I’m enjoying it - that’s the tricky thing, isn’t it?"

‘Who did the housework? This could be political - well, it is political! I think by and large my mum would do pretty much everything. That’s not to say that my dad wasn’t hands-on, but in the evenings he would very much be working in his office, and most of the time my mum would be preparing dinner. But certainly all the household stuff – the washing, the stuff that makes the house go round – would be my mum. And I’m sure my Dad would do other bits and bobs, but my mum was so practical that even the so-called jobs which might fall into the hands of the Dad more often my mum would also do – like putting up shelves and painting. So my mum pretty much does everything…’

‘I’d thought perhaps medicine, but something academic as a career. I didn’t have a firm idea for sure about what I wanted to do… My parents never directed us in any way. I don’t really remember them saying even ‘you must do your homework.’ They managed to create a culture in which we wanted to learn… There was a careers adviser at my school, and we had an IT session once where we all sat at what must now seem really antiquated computers and we had to answer different questions about what you did and didn’t like and then out would pop up your future career… I think mine was something outdoorsy, like a gardener. But we all just laughed at it. It wasn’t something that we took particularly seriously.’

‘I do remember at the end of my first term at Cambridge back home in a coffee shop with my mum, and I said something which at the time felt really precocious, I said, ‘yeah, I want to do a PhD’. Which seems so out of place with how I felt as an undergraduate, because how I felt was a fraud, an imposter, you know, the idea that I really wasn’t supposed to be there and I was just trying to manage and get through. But at the same time I was loving it and doing ok… But I didn’t really think I would stay in academia, I didn’t seriously think I would stay… I put in an application for law school, and I also had a place at Teach First. So that was what was on the table. But then my Director of Studies came up to me and said, ‘what are you doing next year? Why don’t you apply to do this MPhil here?’ And that was a moment when I thought ‘Yes! This is what I really want to do’ and he had basically shown me how I could do it, how I could fund this sort of thing… So it was all rather serendipitous in a way; it wasn’t something that I had carved out and wanted from the very beginning.’

‘I’d always thought that I’d want to have a family, but I certainly wasn’t very maternal – if someone passed me their child I wouldn’t know what to do with it!... But I didn’t pick academia because I thought I could mould it round a family. It was only really when I was doing a PhD that I realised the reason I liked studying was because you were in charge of your own hours, and in a way academia is the same. Work-life doesn’t really stop, because you are always working and thinking, but at the same time you can work in the evening and take time out of the day, or make it suit a kind-of richer life.’

‘I could see, with the postdoctoral post coming to an end, that I needed – in my head – either to start trying for a family, or start applying for full-time posts. I was sure that I wanted to stay in academia. Whether that was going to happen or not I didn’t know. But I started applying for lectureships in my second-year of that postdoc, and had interviews in Leicester and Liverpool and wherever, but on the train back from the interviews in my head I’d be thinking “Gosh this would be great but it would mean that if I got the post it would be much harder to have a family as soon as I’d like”, because I’d be working away, or if I was to take a post in September we couldn’t really think about a family until later. So it was on my mind – how would a family fit with applying for jobs, because you don’t know what the outcome of either would be.’

‘Three weeks before I was due to give birth to Xan, I got an interview at Queen Mary. So I went to the interview very pregnant. That didn’t really worry me that much, because I felt like the timing was actually quite good… And I remember saying to the panel at the end: “I’m pregnant!” Because I just felt that I had to announce it... And afterwards someone on the panel who is now a colleague came outside and saw me and said “Oh you don’t need to worry about being pregnant coming for a job interview – it’s fine. No problem, don’t worry about these things.” And I was like, “Wow! This place is amazing.” …Because you have all these expectations about concealing being pregnant, or the idea of wanting to be pregnant, or anything like that. You don’t want that to be part of the equation.’

‘In my department there are some very active, hands-on-fathers, and lots of mums and lots of women in different professorial positions. And there’s a really good gender balance – I think it’s fifty-fifty. So the environment enables you to be a parent without compromising your career… And because there were Dads who had kids at the university nursery, they had to go and collect their kids at 5, or go and pick them up from school in east London. So you don’t feel like it’s such a difficult subject in a way, because everyone is in the same boat.’

‘I do always feel like it’s been my decision to make about childcare. I run things past Jimmy, but I don’t feel like it’s been a collaborative decision… I feel as a couple we’re a team, and we’re very equal in many ways, if not all ways. But nonetheless I find it completely bewildering how it’s been my responsibility to think about childcare and the practicalities and logistics of it… When we were thinking about Xan, at St Thomas’s they have a hospital crèche, and Queen Mary also has a nursery, so those were the two we were considering, as well as one nearby our house. Jim seriously thought that it was possible to take Xan to nursery with him at Tommies. He was doing his PhD at this time, and maybe it would have been, but in reality it just wouldn’t have worked out when he was back in clinical work – 7 to 7 – it just would have been really difficult. And because of that Xan came to Westfield, to Queen Mary, and then it was always in my hands to sort out the beginning and the end of the day and all the logistics around it.’

‘With Xan I took 6 months off, not because that was what I decided to do but because of the job situation and the fact that I’d deferred the start date. I was so glad to have a job, so I deferred it from September to January and I thought that was the absolute that I could do… At the time it felt absolutely fine and I was very happy with it. Xan felt like a very robust 6 or 7 month-old baby. But with Caspar I took ten months and that was simply because I knew that I wanted to have more time.’

‘I don’t think it’s really possible to take a longer break out of academia. The most I would have taken would have been a year, but financially we’d have been really stretched, and we hadn’t really planned ahead. Plus, I like work and after my ten months I was very happy to be back at work and having the child-world but also the academic world too. But whether I’d have taken two or even three years, I don’t think it’s really possible… Not if I’d just left a job and tried to get back into a job, I think it would be really challenging not to have continued publishing during that time and building a career.’

‘When I started the role with Xan as a new baby, teaching and admin were the things that I had to do, and they were the most pressing things – I had to write new modules. But I found it very hard to gain any momentum around my research. And my research is in India – so it’s quite tricky! I had a project that was in Delhi, so when Xan was ten months old I went to Delhi for two and a half, three weeks. I left him with the grandparents and did my research in Delhi, which was fine and I really enjoyed that. It was freedom again and going back to my old ways! But I have found it really tricky to carve out extra space for research.’

‘I have a good balance at the moment, but there are times during the year when it definitely feels like it’s not a good balance. So when I was pregnant with Caspar last January, February, March time, it was horrendous – just teaching and admin, and working late with a little kid and being pregnant. That felt like not a good balance. And with the teaching term it can be quite frantic, but then it eases off when there are exams, and I feel like I’m doing more research right now, and it was a very conscious decision to come back and do more research, and I enjoy having that back in my life. But I’m really aware that the balance will be tipped come September, but also in future years, looking at colleagues ahead of me with much bigger admin loads… I feel that as long as I enjoy my work, I don’t see any conflict between looking after children and working at the same time. So as long as I’m enjoying it - that’s the tricky thing, isn’t it?’

‘I think it’s quite challenging to do five days in four. It’s fine in terms of the hours, but I think in terms of carving out a solid research day or two research days could be really difficult, because I’ll have to be in the office much more on the days that I am working… I’m already working Saturday mornings… We’re trying to figure out how this will work. Xan goes to Mandarin on Saturdays, and I think that might be what Jimmy does with the kids. Because he doesn’t have much time on his own with them. I think it might be a good thing for all of us if they have time to hang out and I could work, or even just catch up on things on a Saturday morning.’

‘On my Fridays with the children I can’t really do any work. It’s impossible with two kids! At the moment work doesn’t spill over. I do look at emails – if it’s something easy to reply to, I might reply. Because I’ve only just started doing it I haven’t publicly announced to my colleagues that I’m doing five days in four, and it’s not been announced, so it’s a grey area. But lots of colleagues will work at home on a Friday and choose to do their research rather than engage in more admin-related stuff.’

‘It works for me because I can enjoy my work and I don’t feel there is a conflict, and I don’t feel guilty. But the challenge for me is balancing the logistical stuff with my husband, especially when I do all of the childcare-related admin and logistics. But he has a very pressured job in terms of hours and commitment in hospital. So then I sometimes feel that I’m having to negotiate my time to work. I’m supposed to work in the evenings, but it can cause a bit of conflict trying to carve that time out. That’s an ongoing discussion.’

"The only way for me to work and have kids is to not have a social life"

‘The reason I can travel to India is because my parents will look after the children for a week or longer. And because I was going to India and they were looking after Xan, they now expect to have him for a week or so. And now we’ve had Casper and Xan go to both our parents. They went a couple of weeks ago for a week, which meant that I could actually write some stuff and work through the 4.30 to 8pm section, when normally I’d stop and have to do other things… We talked about having a more regular childcare arrangement with my parents, but that wouldn’t really have worked out, because of where they live and also it just constrains them in a way that they’d be tied in every week. But they’re amazing – they’ll have the children for long periods, and my in-laws too. And now we have a place with more space they can come and stay here.’

‘The only way for me to work and have kids is to not have a social life… We’ll meet up with people at the weekend but it’s largely focused on friends with kids. I rarely meet with my girlfriends for dinner or drinks – never in the week, ever! And at work too. Previously during my post-doctoral days we’d have coffees and much slower interactions with people to talk about work and other things. But now I go straight to my office, I rarely hang out on campus. I didn’t know Regent’s canal existed until a year into my time there. And I’m not someone who doesn’t like to know where I am in my environment. But I just didn’t have that space to wander round. Even just to meet people for lunch or coffee – that just doesn’t really factor in. And that’s what I find difficult. And post-work drinks, ad hoc arrangements that I just cannot be at really frustrate me, because I know how important that is, getting to know my colleagues. Three years in I do know my colleagues but I don’t really know my colleagues in a way that I think if I had that opportunity I would.’

"If things aren’t working then we try to change them rather than just getting cross with the situation. I think we’re quite good at just trying to figure out problems"

‘In terms of the future, for me, I’m less worried about status. I want to write more, have another book, another clear research project, and if that enables career progression, great… But I don’t have a five-year plan, or a ten-year plan. I think it’s about making decisions which mean we can keep on enjoying what we’re doing.’

‘What enables me to combine work and family? Having help. Having other people to look after my children, having someone else clean our house. Not having great expectations, so I don’t mind if things go wrong, things don’t have to be perfect at all. And not worrying about what I’m not doing – like not watching TV or not having much leisure time. And if things aren’t working then we try to change them rather than just getting cross with the situation. I think we’re quite good at just trying to figure out problems – Jim and I work quite well together in figuring out the bigger picture.’

‘This is my office but it’s more like a processing zone. And then I actually work in the loft. Anything from the house, like clothes, kids’ stuff, Jimmy’s stuff, my stuff, all gets dumped in there, and so I have to go through that first before I sit down to work. So if I just go upstairs then I can ignore it.’