First paper submitted

What a day to remember. I committed myself to submitting the paper today, and I completed the task just a few minutes before midnight. My wife is on a business trip. I had to put my son to bed first before I could resume my submission, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his mommy and became too emotional. I had to put him in the carrier and walk him to the reservoir until he could sleep. Then I went back to filling all the required information on the submission page, fixing things here and there along the way. Finally, it’s done.

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2016 is over, and I’m a 30-year-old second-year PhD student with a 1-year-old baby

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one day early with some wonderful grilled lamb ribs, air flown from Australia by my brother-in-law, and cooked to perfection by my lovely wife. We also had our favourite tiramisu, also made by her. I spent the last 3 weeks at home, recovering from a tough term, looking after my son, and doing things around the house. We also enjoyed a staycation, the itinerary of which revolves around the baby, of course. Last 3 weeks was such a good break from study that I actually started to miss school last couple of days. Tomorrow, on my thirtieth birthday, I’m going back to school, ready for a new year.

Being a January baby has its advantage: I can do the year-end reflection and the new-age reflection at the same time. 2016 to me was a very special year: it’s the first year being a dad, it’s the first year of my PhD, and it’s my thirtieth year of life. Well, the last one is just a numerical significance, but the first two are really important milestones.

I reflected on my first PhD year in the previous post. I have two important updates today. The first one is that I bagged another two As last term, which means I’ve got five As in a row. I have never been this good in my entire life (always a good-but-not-so-brilliant student in my undergraduate and masters). It turned out that I did well enough in the Optimization & Control class that the final did not affect it too much (and the final was tough for everyone anyways). Grades aside, the most important aspect of last term was that I received a lot of positive feedback for my teaching assistantship. The students said I was helpful, responsible, knowledgeable, dedicated, enthusiastic, passionate, among other things. One student said I was the best TA he’d seen. Another student said he thought I would be a good lecturer (well, he just struck my sweet spot). And it seems that apart from the things a TA should do, my most important contribution to them is my industry experience, which I shared a lot in and out of class. Not bad at all for a first timer.

I’m certainly proud of my first year as a PhD student, but I’m even more proud of my first year being a dad. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. All the diaper changing, putting the baby to sleep, carrying him everywhere in the carrier, and playing with him were all quite an experience. But I think my unique dad thing was that I made a lot of toys and things for him. Let’s start with the handy-man stuff, and then I’ll showcase the toys.

Before he was born, I painted his entire room.

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I made a mirror and stand for him to stand up

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In his room, I installed a shelf to keep all the non-baby-friendly stuff off limit, and it even comes with a set of lights that warm up the entire room before bedtime:

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He started to crawl all over the house and opened cabinet doors, so I had to baby-proof them. But I still want to let him play his opening-closing game. I put 7 pieces of wood together (from old kitchen door and shelves) to make a cabinet for him. It also acts as a garage for his cars (aka walkers)

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Now let’s talk about the toys. Here’s a little lesson about gravity

There’s a hole on the wall left behind by a removed picture frame, so I made a pinwheel for him to play with.

The popular IKEA’s Poang armchair helped my wife to rest during her pregnancy, but it fell out of use after the baby was born. The chair was dismantled and kept in the storeroom, but I had an idea for the frame. I turned it on its side, covered it with cardboard, gave it a flap, and we have a tunnel. It used to sit inside little one’s playpen as a house (and the fence becomes the garden), but now we just keep it at a corner, and take it out when some action is needed

The most enjoyable toys is made from the simplest things. I just took a carton box, cut out two doors, and wallah, we have a tunnel, a house and a place to play peek-a-boo

Of course, these are only the cool and successful ones. There are a lot of misses, and there are some that are not so cool. Making toys is a trial and error process—you’ll never know if he’ll like it. But the process of making is quite enjoyable too. And I already have some ideas in the pipeline for him.

As a parenting team, we’ve done a lot this year. But there are also things we had to keep aside. Our cooking adventure was reduced to special-occasions-only, and of course my food photography was completely halted (all my photography activity last year was to take pictures of the little one). My wife’s guzheng was left almost untouched (and ended up in the storeroom for most of the year). My drum set was my son’s toy, and my guitar was used mainly to play children’s songs for him. The number of movies we went to in the entire year can be counted with one hand (in fact, I just spent like an hour of my last moments being 29 to watch a bunch of trailers of movies that I have missed and will miss). We didn’t run or do much sports, except that we completed The Performance Series, having walked for more than half of the distances. To us, slipping away from the baby for a few hours so early in the morning, fighting off the thought to just skip the events, was already an achievement. So we are proud to show off our medal collection: 5 races, 50 km, 5 medals that merge to the map of Singapore.

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I was once asked by a friend how I managed to do all this. Well, the simple answer is that I have an amazing supporting system. I have a wonderful wife who supports me enormously in everything I do. She is the main breadwinner for the family while I’m on student’s stipend. She has two new roles this year, both of which are tough, and she does them all while being a breastfeeding mom. We are an excellent parenting team because one of us would often have an idea and the other would carry it out. I also have two mothers who help to take care of the baby: one put aside her job to stay here with us, and one who’s always ready to fly here on short notice and on special occasions. I have a helper who loves the baby and whom I can trust. I have two brothers, and I have my whole huge family behind me. At school, I have a very supportive, kind, enlightening advisor, and I have a wonderful teacher-mentor-friend too. I’m surrounded by smart people and good friends who give me idea, cheer me up, and share meals and family stories with me.

Looking back, I’m quite happy to give myself a pat on the back. I worked really hard on my study, putting my best in every tasks. I tried hard to spend as much time with my son as I could, trying to understand him. My flexible time often makes me the only dad among moms and nannies at playgrounds. I can sense his poo-poo smell better than anyone else. I missed some of his milestones, but I was there when he first walked (and it was today, of any days!) I’m a happy husband, father, and student. I’m a happy 30-year-old. Happy birthday to me!

This roller-coaster thing is hard to cope with.

Today, as I went home, my son refused to let me hold him and clung on to the helper instead. I felt bad. I didn’t know what to do. For the past few days he has not been as attached to me as before.

PhD + Dad = Adjusted life + Roller Coaster

I read an article on Science about an effective daily routine: getting up early and get the most important work done before any distractions kick in. I’ve been following that for a couple of weeks now. I think it works well. Being a dad, I always have mental struggle between spending time with my little one and spending time on research. Then I realize that the block of time between 4:30–6:30 in the morning is just perfect. The weather is cooling, the road is quieter, and the baby is asleep, and I have a stretch of uninterrupted time—just what I need.

Doing a PhD while having a baby also means that once in a while, I need to spend a big part of my working hours for my little one, either to bring him to see the doctor, or to bring him out and play, and I have to make up for that time during the nights (or early morning, since recently). The usual advice of working hard during the day and total break during off time doesn’t apply to me.

Besides the mixed up schedule, my mental state follows a hectic path too. Just a week ago, I was super happy in the afternoon but became worried and stressed just hours later. I can be fulfilled one day and feeling inadequate and guilty the next day. It’s such a roller coaster.

But I realize that just as the hectic schedule forces me to become more concentrated and efficient, the roller coaster mental state makes me cherish all the experiences I had. As the positive and negative moments become more extreme, they leave much deeper imprints in my memory. It’s already been a week, but sometimes I still recite parts of that presentation in my head, and I still relive its high moments. I still smile when the video of me saying “No trees were harmed in the making of these data” is played in my head. I made everyone laugh in a PhD talk. My efforts certainly paid off. That was a milestone I can look back when I get lost later.

Still a long way to go, but I think me right now and me 8 months ago are quite different already. Let the roller coaster ride continue and enjoy the thrill.