Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shopping at last!

This week we have been on a family vacation, something that I haven't had a chance to do in almost two years. It has been really fabulous. The hotel that we are staying at has a kid's club, so we have been able to have a few adults only days. And yesterday, my husband finally took me shopping. It was really fabulous. We were gone almost the whole day, but I got plenty of great outfits for being a professor. So I guess the solution to going shopping is to get a sitter.

On another note, every evening I tuck my daughter into bed with some one-on-one time. We usually discuss what each of us did that day and then end by saying the best and worst things about each day. This whole week that I have been on vacation I haven't really been able to think of a worst thing. Which is really amazing. Of course there are some days at home that I feel the same way, but it is unusual to have a string of so many happy days.

Also, I like vacations because it gives me a chance to put my life into perspective. We are staying at a resort, so we interact with the other guests a fair amount. It almost always comes up that people ask what you do. When I explain my job I am really proud. I finally feel like I have accomplished a lot, and that I am in a good place to make significant contributions in the future. I am beginning to be comfortable in my own skin.

And finally, vacation has given me a chance to catch-up on my reading, including one book by Ken Bain, called What the best college teachers do. It is really good, and has given me lots of ideas for next year. Of course I don't expect to be a superstar right out of the box, but a little enthusiasm never hurt. See Jane Compute is also running a nice series on teaching hints, so check that out as well.

So next week I will have to return back to the grind and try to hammer my paper out and get it out the door, but for at least this week, I can relax a little more and just enjoy being.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

What it's like to be a mother

I feel like many of my past posts have focused on the negativity of having a family. So I wanted to take this opportunity to emote on how wonderful it is to be a mother. To be sure, there are significant drawbacks and your whole life really does change, but it is the best thing that I have done in my life and I would not trade it for all the world.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I used to envision generations of pregnant women going back to the time immemorial. I was expecting a daughter, and she too would have the capacity to give birth as did all the generations before me. I felt connected to something greater in a way that cannot be described. I was 6 months pregnant when Sept. 11 happened. I remember watching with complete disbelief, and then horror, the news as I woke up. In class, my professor had the radio tuned to the news. She was from Israel and told us about her experiences growing up with terrorism. But the whole time I could not be sad, I just sat there rubbing my stomach as my daughter gracefully kicked in response. I thought, "The world that you are being born into is very sad, and yet, you have the power to change that."

After my daughter was born, I used to sit with her, after work, in the backyard, in a hammock. She would sleep on my chest as we gently rocked back and forth. I would watch the branches of the trees above rustle, listening to the birds sing, occasionally seeing a moth or butterfly flutter by. I thought to myself, when I die this is the moment that I want to hold onto, to flash before my eyes. For this tiny being is the greatest achievement that I have made.

As my daughter got older, I was struck by her view of the world. My academic idol is Feynman, and it is often said that he was like a child in his curiosity. Seeing the world through my daughters eyes has made me a better scientist. She asks me why is a car not alive, why does a leaf float, only to sink the bottom later, how does my nose work, why do I have two eyes, why can't I push your cells on the swing? She comes to work with me sometimes and I can see that in this small way I can make a great impact on at least one girl's view of women in science and engineering. My daughter proudly tells her classmates that her mom is a scientist, she talks about my work with them, and describes my lab, and all the while as if this is the most natural thing in the world for a mother to do. When I hear her, I am so proud.

But you know what, all of this is nothing to the day my son was born. Whereas I spent most of my pregnancy with my daughter pampering myself, rubbing and singing to my stomach, my son got few of those benefits. He was born the day after my defense. My first trimester I was busy interviewing for faculty positions and post-docs. My second and third trimesters were spent frantically finishing experiments and writing my defense. To be honest, there were many moments when I forgot altogether that I was pregnant. So when he came out and looked at me with such love and admiration, it was surprising and powerful.

I had been so nervous about having a son. I have no brothers, and my exposure to male children was minimal. I felt like I wouldn't know what to do with him. And yet, he loved, no adored, me from the beginning, and it was not long before I felt something equally powerful. The most interesting thing about my son is how closely he resembles my father. I feel as if I have the chance to raise my dad, in a way. And I love that I will always have something to remind myself of my father long after he is gone (may that not come to pass for a long, long time).

My son has my husband's sensitivity. He is gracious and kind and sweet, and he makes me understand the fragility of the world. I tend to be very focused on work and can be very critical of my labmates and colleagues. But my son, has softened me. Actually, having children in general has helped me to see the strengths and weaknesses of each person and appreciate each for what they are.

In addition, my children have given me perspective that I would not have otherwise. BC (before children) I worked longer hours and spent less time with my husband. I was very focused on my own potential success. AC I understand that work is just work. As they say, no one ever says gee I wish I could have worked more on their death bed. I love my job. It brings me pleasure to explore the world around me and at the same time make some contribution to society. But if given the hard choice between my job or my kids, I would give it up in an instant. Fortunately for now, I can have both.

So for those of you out there asking yourself if you are ready for kids, or if you should wait until you finish your PhD, or your post doc, or get tenure. I would say do it now. Children are the one thing in life that you will never regret, and the pleasure that they bring is unparalleled by any successful experiment or Science publication. They will indeed change your whole world...for the better.

Friday, January 20, 2006

I don't know how she does it

I'm reading this book right now (okay so I'm a bit of a bookworm) called I don't know how she does it, which is basically about a working mother in a high powered job. The plot is straightforward. Kate is an investment banker who travels constantly. Her colleagues are men or childless women. Her husband also works, but is only modest help at home. The kids miss her constantly, and the house is almost, but not quite, falling apart because of Kate's inability to keep it together. And, everyone thinks she is remarkable in her ability to do everything that she does.

I don't know whether this book made we want to laugh or cry. I hear so many echoes of my own situation, though hardly as dire as Kate's. But, I think at last I have a decent handle on things. I work pretty much 8:30-5:30, no weekends, no overtime, a couple of trips a year. I get home about the same time as my husband, and although he by no means does an equal share of the work, he is improving constantly. My kids seem satisfied. They really only object when I have to go on trips, and honestly, I don't blame them, I miss them too. And yet, there are some things that I just can't find time for, that just escape me.

It may sound trite, but I desperately want a day at the mall sans kids. I informed my husband of this last weekend. I had wanted to go shopping in the morning while my son slept and return around lunch. Unfortunately, last weekend was my husband's birthday and he was not entirely supportive of my venture. See the problem is that the only time I can really be away from the kids is when I am at work. On the weekends, if I go to the mall then my husband is alone with both children. Rarely would we wish such a thing on each other. It can be quite exhausting. So usually I try to plan trips around their nap schedule. Unfortunately, my wardrobe is in serious need of improvement, especially as I am starting my Asst. Prof in a few months, and many, many days of shopping may be required to bring it up to speed.

My husband suggested that I take a 'sick day' and blow it off to go to the mall. I was appalled by this idea, thinking it a bit unethical. As a grad student I might have done something like this, reasoning that I was only delaying my own graduation, but as a post-doc I am paid to work a certain amount a week and feel guilty if I don't achieve that. Also, as I already work less than most postdocs, the idea of blowing off a day to go to the mall is just a little gauche. So, here I am, trying to plan a trip and faced with a couple options.

1. Mad dashes during my lunch hour. There are stores close enough to make this possible, but it wouldn't be relaxing.
2. Go to mall with 1 or both kids in tow. I am cringing thinking about it. My son wants to run around and touch everything, whines incessantly about being left in the stroller. My daughter, a veritable fashionista, wants to try everything on and play dress-up.
3. Beg husband to take both kids so I can go shopping. I will owe many, many favors for this one, and hubby will be in sour mood upon my return.
4. Go shopping during nap. This gives me only two hours to get to mall, shop and return. Unlikely that I can get everything done in less than 4 trips.
5. Hire a babysitter. Seems a little weak to hire a sitter so that I can go shopping, but this is the leading option right now.
6. Begrudgingly use the sick day or vacation. Vacation would be the ideal solution, but we are getting ready to take a week long vacation next week, and I need all the rest to prepare for my faculty position as we are buying a house, getting my daughter and son in school etc.

So in response to all those awed people who keep saying, I don't know how you do it? The answer is I don't, at least not completely. I am just holding two strings of an unraveling sweater, while frantically knitting more at the bottom. And although I have found some measure of peace, and free time, I have to wonder if this is really the ideal solution. It seems far superior that everybody cuts back a little. More time with the family, more time to keep the house in order, just more time. I know there are those who have it far worse than me (check out single mother Mad Scientist), but I still can't help wishing for more.

Monday, January 16, 2006

My romantic self

Ok, so aside from my usual busyness, I admit that I have been absent because I was sucked into a really fabulous, but saucy, and I probably shouldn't have read it book. First, a little history. I have to admit that I am a shameless romantic. My favorite movies are When Harry Met Sally, Casablanca, Four Weddings and a Funeral, well you get the idea. Since I had my children, though, I really haven't felt like much of anything. I have been so concentrated on keeping my head above the water both at home and work, that I haven't had time to think about myself. When I started my postdoc, my son was just 5 weeks old and I had a daughter who was 2 1/2. We moved to a new city, started new jobs/school, and adjusted to having two kids all at the same time. On top of all of this I tend to experience depression after the birth of my children. With my daughter and son it took me about 6 months to dig out from that. Nothing serious, just a general ennui. And I am susceptible to seasonal affective disorder, so you can imagine that last winter was anything but pleasant for me. Now that my son is about 1 1/2 (and my daughter is 4), I am beginning to resurface.

The contrast between this year and last is amazing. I actually enjoy the snow. I want to sit by the fire (on the weekends of course) and read the Big Red Barn to my son for the 4th, wait no 5th time in a row. I always enjoyed my children, even in depression, but now they are truly a pleasure beyond words, more beautiful in body and spirit than anything I can imagine. But perhaps, the greatest difference between this year and last is that I have free time. It has been so long since I have had free time that I hardly know what to do with it. First, I focused on cleaning the house. Then, updating my wardrobe for my fast approaching faculty position. [I start July 1!!!!]. Finally, I returned to my intense romanticism.

This began with a re-read of every Jane Austin book on the planet. Then, I read fictional accounts based on Jane Austin novels (e.g., Jane Austin book club, Jane Austin in Boca). That progressed to watching every Jane Austin movie that I could find (e.g., Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma). Then, I noticed that several authors have written sequels to Pride and Prejudice, which is my favorite Austin book. One in particular struck my fancy, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. I am ashamed to say that the book probably belongs on the shelf next to the Harlequin romances, but I cannot tell you how much it engulfed me. I started reading it last Thursday and didn't stop (okay, okay I did go to work), until I finished it.

It has been a long, long time since I have lost myself in a book so completely. The last time being when I re-read Lord of the Rings with the impending movie's release. I think that Viggo Mortensen had no small part in that obsession. Anyway, I pride myself on being all business at work, totally objective and focused. I rarely let my mind wander, stop to gossip with co-workers, or engage in personal business, so the fact that I simply cannot concentrate long enough to get my experiments going is driving me crazy! I think I need a good dose of technical magazine reading to bring me back to reality. I know it is rather pitiful.

Anyway, I thought I might talk about this a bit, because it shows how hard it has been for me the last several years. It has been such a long time since I had time to become obsessed with a novel, it is powerful when it happens. I miss my free time and am grateful for its return.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Project Ideas

One thing I haven't heard discussed much, but which seems to be the most important thing of all, is project ideas. This is all coming to a head for me as a prepare my first grant proposal with me as lead PI. It is for an award that asks about your general research directions rather than a specific project.

In my Ph.D., developing project ideas seemed impossible. I spent my whole first year generating them only to find that others had published them before or they were hopelessly impractical. Finally, with the help of my two advisors, we hit on something that everyone liked and I went to work. Because my idea was fairly big picture there really weren't too many opportunities for corollary projects, and I pretty much concentrated on achieving that one goal. There were a few things I wanted to do, but time, the feelings of my advisors, and money did make this practical.

In my postdoc, the general themes were mutually agreed upon by my advisor and myself at the beginning of the project, but since arrival I have almost complete freedom. I have got some great work going on a rather solid premise, and am now coming up with creative twists for high impact side projects. My postdoc is actually coming along very well and I am really excited about what I will publish before leaving here.

You would think that I am fairly comfortable with my research ideas. So why is it that the prospect of being judged solely on the tenor of my own ideas is so frightening. If the grant doesn't get funded, does that mean that my academic career is doomed? Obviously not, but it can certainly feel that way.

I actually have several interesting directions for future research, but I have trouble distilling everything into an overarching theme. I feel pulled in a couple really great directions and am pretty sure that once I settle down everything will come together, but settling down is so difficult. And the trouble is that you are really judged on the quality of your research, which is directly linked to the problems that you tackle and your method of approaching them, and you only have 6-7 years to prove yourself. So project ideas are SO important.

Ah, sigh.

A couple of days ago Young Female Scientist posted a link to a really interesting essay. She was primarily chagrined by the authors comments that you can do great science or change the system, but not both. Nonetheless, I think this is a great essay. The author recommends spending an afternoon a week thinking about the big picture in your field. I have been doing something like this for some time, but in the last few months it got away from me. So I went out to lunch last Friday just to contemplate my field, and the juices started flowing, and I got more really great ideas. [that are probably impossible for me to actually do.] The thing is out of all the ideas generated over the last year (about 30-40) only 3-4 are any good. I guess you only need one good idea, but it is a lot of work! Of course all of this just feeds into my fear of being unsuccessful. I'm taking some deep breaths and getting back to my work. Wish me luck on the grant!

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