Friday, April 29, 2011

Weekend Reading: Race, Education, and Privilege

I've read a lot of posts and articles that touch on race and class privilege this week. I can't quite believe that I am tackling such weighty topics this week, when I'm not sleeping well (thanks, Petunia) and super busy at work... but that's what has been on my mind and computer screen this week, so here I go.

It all started with a post from my friend Stevil about his reaction to a recent poll showing that 46% of respondants in Mississippi think that inter-racial marriage should be illegal. I share his dumbfounded response... sort of. I guess the fact that the silly Birther nonsense is still going on had already reminded me that I live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to opinions about race, equality, and related things. Because let's face it- the Birther nonsense is racism, pure and simple.

One of the bubbles Stevil and I both inhabit is science. In his post, he mentions how science is a very multi-cultural place. He's right. For the most part, I haven't heard much racism from my fellow scientists. The chemists might laugh at the biologists, and the academics might look down their noses at those of us in industry (and vice versa), but racist comments are rare. There can be some ugly xenophobia that comes up when jobs are being lost to outsourcing to China or India, but those sort of comments are usually argued down by other scientists.

He also mentions the racial mix in California as a whole, and how that diversity is generally embraced and not rejected. Again, I mostly agree... but here, my experience has diverged a bit from his. Now, I know Stevil well enough to know that he's not saying California is some sort of post-racial utopia- in fact he makes a point of saying that in his post. He is well aware of the lingering racism here. But I've recently had experiences that bring that lingering racism into the forefront.  We'll be picking a school for Pumpkin relatively soon, so I've been talking to people about education and public schools a lot, and in those conversations, people seem less accepting of diversity, particularly if you understand the standard code: "That school is a bit rough" translates to "That school has a lot of kids who aren't white." "You might find that Pumpkin doesn't really fit in at that school" translates to "She won't be in the majority race there." When I mention some of the schools we're considering, some other parents have a hard time hiding their disbelief that Hubby and I, seemingly loving parents, would consider sending our precious little girls there. Haven't we seen the school ranking data????

And there's the rub. The school ranking data provides a nice, safe veneer behind which to hide any ugly racism. Of course, it is reasonable to want to compare schools and pick the best for your child. That is exactly what I'm doing, in fact. But test scores are the most common thing to use when we want to compare schools, and there is a pretty solid consensus that the test scores- or at least how they are getting used to report on our schools- really report on family income and parental education, and not school quality. Bad Mom, Good Mom has a recent post with an excellent explanation of how misleading test scores can be.

It is a difficult topic, but I think the code that gets used when discussing schools does a great deal of harm. There are schools that are rough and have gang problems, but my local school isn't one of them, and neither are any of the magnet schools I've mentioned that I'm considering. I don't fault parents at all for looking at a school with genuine issues and deciding that they need to find another place to send their kids. Actually, I don't fault parents for choosing private schools for their kids for any reason. We all want to do what is best for our kids, and no one should be judged for trying to do that.  But when we talk about the schools with real issues in the same way as we talk about schools that just happen to have a lot of non-white kids, then we obscure our real problems.

I have no idea how we'll actually pick Pumpkin's school. We can't even register a choice until November, and don't have to do so until February of 2012, so we have some time to figure that out. We'll probably look at the numbers, take the tours, and then go with our gut feeling. Luckily, neither my husband nor I are scared by true diversity. We both went to schools that would be called "rough" in the modern code. Mine, in suburban Phoenix, AZ, had a lot of hispanic kids because we didn't live in the wealthier, predominately white part of town. Hubby's, in Auckland, NZ, had a lot of Pacific Islanders and Maori kids, because he chose to go to the one school that had Macs in the computer lab and that school also happened to be one that was in a poorer part of town and had a marae on campus.  (That this is how he chose his high school is so typically him that it cracks me up, particularly because he now prefers Linux, works under Windows 90% of the time, and ridicules the Mac I use at home.)

We both came out of our experiences thinking that the diversity in and of itself was valuable, and that our education, while not perfect, was certainly sufficient to set us up to succeed in life. Our schools weren't flashy, but they had the funds to do their job, some really good teachers (and of course, some not so good teachers, too), and kids from a range of backgrounds so that they felt representative of the world for which they were supposedly preparing us.

And that is the real tragedy of how our education system seems to be evolving now, with so many parents not even considering public schools: it is no longer safe to assume that most schools will meet those criteria, given the funding cuts and general nasty climate around public education these days. I worry for our future, because if all of the people like us buy our way out of the system, then what incentive do we have to advocate for changes that would make that system better? Because really, my kids will do just fine no matter where I end up sending them to school. They have all of the advantages and subtle privileges of our society lined up in their favor. (Except gender, of course. If they decide to go into a STEM field, they will probably be told by some asshat that they are biologically inferior to their male colleagues. In fact, they'll probably get told this by at least one asshat per year. But I digress.)

It is the kids that don't come from such privilege that suffer when the people like me start turning our backs on public schools. I'm sure most people don't intentionally decide that since their kids are in private schools, the public schools don't matter. But without the personal connection, it is easier to vote against that tax increase, to shrug your shoulders when the latest round of draconian cuts happen. Then our public schools will slowly decay, and will create a system in which kids from poorer families get an education that is not even on par with the education the wealthier kids are getting. When this happens, we will ossify our society, making it ever harder for people to rise to the levels of their natural talents and efforts.

This matters, because as much as we like to tell ourselves that America is a true meritocracy, it is not. This week, I also came across several posts about the subtle (and not so subtle) privileges that come from being white. The first is a short story from a white man, about the conversation he had in a college class that made him understand "privilege", which I found via a comment on OneTiredEma's thoughtful post about her discomfort reading the Little House books. Then the excellent Blue Milk blog led me to two more interesting posts on the topic: a thought-provoking post from Fugitvus about the accommodations white parents must be willing to make when contemplating interracial adoption, and then, in the comments on the post linking to that post, a meditation from Peggy McIntosh about "unpacking the invisible backpack" that is white privilege.

It has been interesting reading so many posts on race and privilege. I find myself thinking about the topic more deeply than I have since college. I've been thinking about why people in privileged groups will often fight recognizing their privilege. I think part of it stems from defensiveness, which I have certainly felt. When you post or talk about some problem you're having and get a dismissive "that's a white woman's problem" reply, it stings. You think "well, yes, because I am a white woman." And even a problem that is somehow a "nicer" problem to have than those faced by other people is still a problem that you might want to solve. I often think back to a documentary I watched many years ago, in a hotel room while on a business trip, about the children of the very wealthy and how they often struggle to build meaningful lives. Most of us would look at these kids born into the epitome of privilege and dismiss their problems as trivial. But the documentary did a really good job of taking us into their world, and making us see the very real problem of how hard it is to define a meaningful life when you actually don't need to do anything at all.

Along those lines, I think that it is easy to forget that being born into a certain level of privilege does not guarantee success. We all know the smart kid from a good home who could just never get his act together and ended up having a miserable life. Even with a head start, you still have to work- it is the classic tortoise and hare scenario. So being told that you are a beneficiary of privilege does not negate the fact that you probably worked very hard to achieve success. It just highlights the fact that some other person who happened to have been born into a less privileged group could have worked just as hard and not succeeded.

Then, while I was thinking all of these rather abstract things about race and privilege, I heard a story on NPR about the death rate from pregnancy complications in California, and how it is four times higher for black women than white women.  That just blew me away, because really, I hadn't put "I can expect to live through the birth of my children" in the bucket of privileges that attach to me via my race- my nationality, maybe, but not my race. And yet, clearly it is.

Updated to add: I finally read some of last week's Economist, which has a special feature on how screwed up California is. There is an article about what has gone wrong in the financing of public education here, which might help people who don't live in California understand why (1) complaints about our public education system are not necessarily racist or alarmist, and (2) why I think we need to keep a critical mass of people invested in finding a solution for the mess we've created.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Which the Gods of Family Outings Smile Upon Us

It has pretty hectic here lately. Petunia's still pretty congested, possibly due to the last cold she had, and her sleep is therefore all screwed up. Hubby and I both have deadlines coming up soon at work, so we're both a little stressed and a lot busy, and needing to log in at night and do some work. My usual 40-45 hour work week is creeping up towards 50 hours, and I'm still feeling behind... blah, blah, blah.

Borrrrring.

I don't want to write about that. I want to write about our fun outing on Sunday- we went to Legoland! Legoland is in Carlsbad, which is about 40 minutes north of where I live. We went once before, when Pumpkin was about 2.5 years old. It was fun, but nowhere near as much fun as this visit was. I think Pumpkin is at the age when Legoland really starts to be fun, and Petunia had fun playing in "Duplotown", which is a playground with several different play houses. She seemed to like the jail best. I wonder if that should tell us something?


She was pretty fascinated by the toenails on this Lego dude, too.


However, Petunia's real favorite thing at Legoland was the bag her lunch came in. It provided an excellent prop for a game of peek-a-boo.



Pumpkin's favorite thing was the horse ride. It is very tame, but it involved being out of sight from us for a while, which, to our great relief, did not involve any tears. In fact, she had a huge smile on her face anytime we saw her. Really. She just turned her head right before Hubby took the picture. (Isn't it great that this blog provides us a use for our failed pictures?)


Pumpkin also liked Miniland, although not quite as much as her Daddy does. I'll spare you the gazillion photos he took, which look eerily similar to the gazillion photos he took last time, except this set also includes photos of the new Star Wars miniland.

Pumpkin liked steering the toy boats... but again, not quite as much as Daddy did.


The highlight of miniland for her, though, was catching sight of the castle she stayed in when we went to Las Vegas.


By this point, Petunia was napping. She followed our plan exactly, and fell asleep in her stroller after lunch. Amazing.

All in all, it was a really good outing. I had to write it up so that I can come back and read about it the next time one of our family outings goes all pear-shaped and ends with tears and tantrums!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Newbie in the Garden

One of the things I've done with some of the time I've bought is start a small vegetable and herb garden. I have never thought of myself as a particularly capable gardener. My herbs usually die. And the spot we have available right now for a vegetable garden is not optimal- it is on our south fence, and doesn't get much sun.

Between my conviction of my own gardening ineptitude and the overly shady plot available, I've always been able to talk myself out of starting a garden. But for some reason, a couple of months ago I just decided to plant some things. So I bought some herbs and some vegetable seeds. I always try to grow cilantro and basil, because those are the two herbs I'm always buying at the store, using a small portion of, and then letting go slimy in my fridge. I added some parsley and chives. For vegetables, I selected green onions (because the ones I buy at the store suffer the same fate as my cilantro), arugula (because I actually like it and it is stupidly expensive), and carrots (because... I don't know why. Probably because I saw some multi-colored carrot seeds and thought they looked fun).

Pumpkin and I planted everything one afternoon, and then we watered and weeded (OK, I weeded while the kids played in the backyard) and waited. An lo and behold, things grew. And grew. And grew.

We had a lot of rain this spring, interspersed with a lot of sun. My theory is that, combined with the fact that the dirt I planted in was heavily enriched from our compost pile, led to my unexpected success as a gardener. Suddenly, I had more arugula than I knew what to do with- because I am a complete newbie, and I made the classic newbie mistake of planting all at once, instead of staggering.


My cilantro grew to be a huge bush, and then did what my cilantro always does: it bolted.



I know from past experience that it is still edible.  But I also know from past experience that this plant will continue to bolt, and never settle back to be a nice bushy plant again. Oh well- I'll try again when this one stops being useful.

Meanwhile, the arugula is getting too old and bitter to be eaten in a salad, so I harvested a bunch and made pesto. I used an internet recipe as a starting point (yet another example of how my life is easier thanks to internet searching), but changed the proportions as follows:
  • 1 3/4 cup arugula
  • 1/4 cup parsley (because that plan is doing really well, too, and I thought it might mellow out the arugula a but)
  •  2/3 cup walnuts
  • 2/3 cup asiago cheese (I substituted asiago for parmesan because (1) I had it on hand and (2) I thought that the stronger cheese might balance my overly strong arugula- I think it did)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 1 peeled and minced garlic clove
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

(Isn't the messy counter top a nice, authentic touch?)

I browned the 6 unpeeled garlic cloves as instructed (i.e., for about ten minutes in a skillet over medium high heat), and then removed the skins. I toasted the walnuts and grated the cheese, then I blended everything up in the food processor.


 We ate about three tablespoons mixed with ~1/4 cup of pasta water over ~8 oz of pasta that night, and then I partitioned the remainder into an ice cube tray and froze it. I'll defrost a cube or two at a time to server over pasta or gnocchi for a quick weeknight meal- so I'm tagging this post with my "Dinner during Dora" tag, even though the initial pesto prep might take more than 20 minutes (but it might not, if you're speedy).

And then something really funny happened. I suddenly understood that Barbara Kingsolver book on food that I read when I was pregnant with Petunia. I still don't agree with everything in it, but I finally understand it. Back then, it annoyed me because it seemed that unreasonable to think that a busy, two career family like ours could find the time to grow any of our own food. But it isn't really- if you are lucky enough to live in a climate like San Diego's, it is actually pretty easy. Even a newbie can do it. And end up with a freezer full of arugula pesto.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Food Edition

I came across two rather sobering articles about food this week. The first was a post from Marion Nestle at Food Politics about factory farming, and how it isn't likely to go away, so perhaps we should think about how it could be done better. It is a very reasonable post, I think. I wish someone would put her in charge of food policy in this country- I think we'd get some good policy. I don't always agree with her 100%, but I never think she is a raving lunatic- which is more than I can say for a lot of the people involved in the food debate (on all sides- something about food brings out the loonies).

The second was an article in the New York Times Magazine about sugar. I came across the article on slashdot, of all places, and I clicked over with a fair amount of  skepticism. I've had the Robert Lestig lecture that sparks the article suggested to me many times by people who think that high fructose corn syrup is much worse for us than sucrose (a.k.a table sugar or cane sugar). Each time, I try to explain that the person is misunderstanding the lecture- Dr. Lestig is concerned about BOTH sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. Basically, he's concerned about the amount of fructose (a component of both sucrose and HFCS) in our diets. It never works. I am either ignored or told that I don't understand biochemistry (which is sort of a funny charge for someone to level at me, since I have a PhD in biochemistry). I have concluded that some people see "fructose" in the name of HFCS and not in the name "sucrose" and just can't get past that. I was afraid that the same misunderstanding was going to propagated by the NY Times. But it wasn't.

The article is actually well-written and a fairly even-handed discussion of what the science suggests (but does not yet prove, as the article is careful to state)- namely, that the large amount of refined sugar in our diets may be worse for us than just empty calories. It also touches on the concern I have with the whole HFCS hoopla- that consumers will start demanding HFCS-free foods (they have), and food companies will respond, but by simply switching to sucrose rather than by reducing the amount of sugar in the foods (they have), which will leave us as fat and unhealthy as we were when we started (if anything, we're getting worse).

I have written before about my views on HFCS and refined sugar, so I won't belabor them here. I don't think of myself as an alarmist on this issue. I still eat cakes, cookies, and ice cream (three of my favorite foods!) but I do so in moderation, and I try to limit their intake by my kids, as well. This is dead simple for Petunia- she has yet to find a sweet she's much interested in eating. But Pumpkin loves candy, and she seems to always be getting some in birthday party treat bags or what not. So we ration it, and yes, some of it just disappears. So far, she hasn't caught on. I'm hoping that by the time she does, she'll be old enough to understand my reasons for limiting it. We'll see.

I also think there is a genetic component to this story, and I actually suspect that my girls are in pretty good shape in that regard, given what I know about the medical histories of my family and my husband's family. In another context (about which I cannot blog) I've been hearing (and thinking) a lot about the idea that some substances are only toxic in combination with a certain genetic background. This makes a lot of sense, given the fact that what makes substances toxic is often how they interact with specific proteins in our bodies, and there is genetic variation in most proteins (there are actually some proteins that are so essential that no variation is tolerated- basically, if you have a fetus with that variation, it does not survive... but I digress). I suspect sugar is a substance like this. Some people can eat a lot and have no problem. Other people will end up with metabolic syndrome, and eventually diabetes. The problem is that right now, we have no way to know which group any one person is in, so I think we should all try to limit our intake.

This sounds so reasonable, but it is hard- and not just because we're programmed to like sweets (throughout most of history calories were scarce, so our bodies are built to reward us when we eat something with lots of energy, like sugar). I can limit cookies and candy. But I also have to watch out for the sugar that is added to so many of our foods. There is more sugar in most breads than is necessary. My yogurt is waaaay sweeter than it needs to be, but I don't like plain yogurt. I am seriously considering making my own lightly sweetened, flavored yogurt, starting from the plain stuff. I have to check the label of everything I buy to make sure that there isn't more sugar than I think is necessary- which adds time I'd rather be spending in some other way to my shopping trips. Given this, I think there is a role for some policy changes in solving this problem. I'm not sure what those changes should be, though, and musing on that is more than I want to do right now.

So I'll move on to two non-food related posts that I think you should read. I've come across two more posts about being a working mother that made me nod in recognition and agreement. First, my blog friend Melba has a post up about why she works, prompted by a clueless/insensitive comment on some other post she read. She makes the excellent point, often lost in these sorts of posts, that we are all different, so different things will bring fulfillment and happiness to different women. I think that 90% of the "mommy wars" nonsense would go away if we could all really remember that. (I think the remaining 10% is generated by various interest groups to further their own interests, and will not go away until "family values" means something about supporting families, and not about opposing gay marriage. But I digress.)

Then, via Anne Peattie's #scimom post, I came across a post from Nicole and Maggie (whose blog I think will now be a regular stop for me) entitled "Why I'm not a guilt-stricken mother and why I have it all and why the patriarchy sucks". It is as awesome as the title, and makes the point that we are certainly not the first generation of mothers to work. As I like to point out, anyone who thinks that mothers whose work involves more than raising their children are a new thing brought about by feminism should go look up the instructions for how to make soap, being sure to find a recipe that starts at the very beginning, with "render animal fat...."

Now, I know that Dr. Isis didn't much like this post. From her response, I think she was a bit offended by the suggestion that she is somehow partially responsible for the guilt she feels on the housecleaning/home-cooking front, and I can understand that. I suspect that I have some readers who feel the same way.  I've written about my thoughts on guilt before, but I want to elaborate a little more here and explain my thoughts on this: I think the guilt issue is one of the few issues facing working mothers where we can essentially fix it ourselves. Think about it- it might be hard, particularly for women who come from cultural backgrounds that place a great deal of emphasis on a mother staying home with her kids, but we can decide to stop feeling guilty about things that don't really matter. We can't just decide to start getting equal pay for equal work, or stop hearing the nonsense about women being biologically inferior at math and science, but we can decide to stop feeling guilty. I'm not letting the rest of society of the hook, and I'm not pretending that the cultural messages we get don't make letting go of the guilt harder than it needs to be. But ultimately, this little bit of liberation is in our own hands.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Buying Time

As I mentioned in my last weekend reading post, Liz over at Mom-101 had an excellent post last week asking "What don't you do?"- i.e., when you "do it all" what actually doesn't get done? When I thought about my answer to that question, I realized that a lot of the things I don't do are things where I "buy time".

I've written before about how having enough money to buy some conveniences is one of the things that I think makes me a happy working mom. In fact, buying time is one of my favorite things to do with my money these days. When I did the time tracking exercise as part of my "life reorg", I was horrified by the amount of time I was spending on chores, so I set out to find more ways to buy time, using some of the ideas in the 168 hours book and also some ideas of my own. Some of the ideas didn't work for us- for instance, grocery delivery didn't end up saving any time. But, I think the basic premise is sound, and I am still looking for new ideas. So I thought I'd post a list of some of the ways I buy time, and see if any of you have new ideas for me.
  • The biggie is the housecleaning service. We've recently decided to increase the frequency and get the cleaners to come every other week instead of once a month. This was a result of our big argument about chores. I finally convinced Hubby that it just isn't worth the money we save to try to do the cleaning ourselves- either it doesn't get done, or one of us thinks the other is slacking and we waste time and energy arguing over it. We still do some touch up cleaning and a smattering of "deep cleaning" chores, but soon, I won't have to worry about who is going to dust or clean the bathrooms.
  • I buy a lot of things on Amazon. Really. I rarely go to Target, or even the drug store, anymore. I signed up for Amazon Mom, which gets me free Prime shipping as long as I keep buying things like baby lotion and toddler wipes. I was reluctant to sign up at first- I was sure there would be a catch. There isn't, as far as I can tell, and I am glad I signed up. Here is a list of some of the things I've bought on Amazon in the last few months:
    • A new watch (my last one fell off at some point and I didn't notice)
    • Art supply boxes to organize the abundance of crayons, markers, and stamps Pumpkin now owns. I think I'm going to buy another one and a matching box for papers.
    • Princess band-aids. God forbid we run out of these.
    • Markers and a book of mazes for a birthday gift for a day care buddy.
    • The Paper Bag Princess, which I paired with a princess coloring book for a birthday gift for another day care buddy.
    • A Farm Animal Train Set to add to Pumpkin's train empire (a birthday gift for her).
    • The Brome 1055 Squirrel Buster Mini, because Petunia likes to watch birds in our backyard, and the stupid big birds broke our last feeder.
    • Quick Fix Meals- to add some variety to our meal rotation.
    • Biokleen Bac-Out Stain & Odor Eliminator. We relied on this product heavily during Pumpkin's potty refusal stage, and have now discovered that its pretty good at getting out various food stains, too.
    • A fishie bath mat so that we could start giving Petunia baths in the big tub with her big sister, allowing us to consolidate down to one bath time.
    • I could go on, but you get the idea. Just about the only thing I won't buy on Amazon is clothes for me- it rarely turns out well.
  • I don't clip coupons or compare prices across different grocery stores. We go to the store nearest our house and the only coupons I use are the ones the store gives us. We do a Costco run once every couple months or so, mainly for beer, diapers, graham crackers (still beloved by both my girls), and various paper products. And we go to Trader Joe's about once a month, too, since they make the only American breakfast cereal Hubby likes and they stock New Zealand cheddar cheese (which is very tasty- try it sometime).
  • I make use of a variety of convenience foods- as I outlined in an earlier post.
  • I'll pay more for things like frying pans and dishwashers to simplify kitchen cleanup. I still love my scanpan and dishwasher.
I am very aware of how lucky I am to be able to buy time like this. I know a lot of people think that it is hard to combine motherhood with a career in science or other demanding field, but I think the working mothers who have it the hardest are the ones working in jobs that don't pay enough to allow them to buy a little time, particularly since those jobs often also don't have paid time off and flexible schedules. When we discuss policy changes that might make the life of the working mother a little less stressful, we need to be sure we don't forget about those women. Buying time won't buy our way out of the family-unfriendly policy mess we have now.

But I also hear women whom I know are as well-off as I am say that they can't afford some of the things I do. That may be true- just like you never really know what is going on inside someone else's marriage, you never know the true state of someone else's finances. However, there are choices I make that compensate a bit for my refusal to clip coupons or comparison shop. As I mentioned in my comment on Liz's post, I don't get manicures or pedicures. Heck, I don't even paint my nails. I don't see the point. I only manage to get my hair cut about three times a year, and I use Suave shampoo and conditioner and Pantene hair gel (each about $2-3 per bottle)- and I swear I can't tell the difference from when I used to use the expensive stuff from my salon. I'll admit that my hair could use slightly more frequent trims, but a braid works well for the last month or so before I finally get around to going in for a cut. I don't have a huge wardrobe, and I tend to buy with an eye for quality and styles that will last.

It is all about choices, really, and the right choices will be different for every individual. But I think we have to own our choices and be aware of the trade offs we're making. There is an old adage in project management and software development- you can have two of the following: fast, good, and cheap. In any project, you have to find the combination that makes the most sense for the situation: what is fast enough, good enough, and cheap enough to make the project a success? I think something similar applies to working motherhood. You have to balance between time with the kids, money, and time for all the other things in your life. The balance you come up with will depend on your situation, but it will always be a balance.

So what's the balance in your house? Do you buy time? If so, how?

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    Surprisingly Profound Kid's Art: Snowman

    I'm running low on Zenbits... which is a sad statement about how I need to get out more. I'll keep posting the ones I have (and new ones I take), but I'm going to intersperse them with a new set of photos that make me smile- photos of art my kids make that is surprisingly profound. You parents know what I mean: the art your kids create that you look at and see something a little more than what is actually there.

    Here is my first entry in the series: a snowman Petunia made back in December:


















    The teachers assembled the parts, but Petunia placed them. I love the helter skelter arrangement combined with the lines from the glue- it makes me think of a snowman blown apart in the wind.

    Snowman
    Artist: Petunia, age ~15 months

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Weekend Reading: The Tired Working Mom Edition

    You're getting your weekend reading post a day early this week because I have it ready, and because I have a strong suspicion that Petunia is getting sick again, so blogging will probably not be in the cards tomorrow night. 

    This week, Liz at Mom-101had two excellent posts on working moms. Her first was about how lonely and hard it can be to be both a mom and the main breadwinner in your family. I'm not in that exact situation- I make more than Hubby, but his salary could have supported us if we'd made some different choices (particularly about housing). But still, her post resonated with me, because now that we have made the choices we made, my salary is not optional, and this meant that I had to make some decisions in my most recent job search that were not necessarily what I would have chosen if I had a little more flexibility. (Wow, that was a long-winded way to say not much. But my current thoughts on my career are complicated, and warrant a post of their own. Which is on the to do list.)

    Anyway, the second post was on the things that she doesn't do- because no one really does it all. Read the comments, too, on that one, to see how much those of us who get asked all the time "how do you do it all?" really aren't doing. As I said in my comment there, and have said here before- parenthood is a big filter on your life that will show you what is really important to you, because those are the things you'll keep doing. Also, I loved the point one of the comments made, that there is a difference between having it all and doing it all.  I don't think you can do it all, but on good days, I feel like I do have it all- or at least all of "it" that I really want.

    Ginger over at Ramble, Ramble had an interesting post on this topic, too. It is nice to see an honest, respectful conversation about the truths of being a working mom going on- so far, none of these posts has been overrun with "mommy war" type comments.

    I also came across two sciencey sleep articles, which caught my attention because sleep has been in short supply around here lately.  First, badmomgoodmom sent me a link to a summary of a twin study on sleep. The general idea in a twin study is to look at a set of traits or behaviors and compare the differences seen in fraternal twins with the differences seen in identical twins. If the differences are bigger in fraternal twins, then the data support a hypothesis that the traits or behaviors have a genetic component. Through a bunch of statistics, the researchers can even estimate the portion of the trait or behavior that is under genetic control. According to the summary, this study found that genes play no role in whether or not the families are co-sleeping, and only a partial role in other sleep behaviors.  I have a problem with the conclusions as described in this short summary, because I think that a twin study is not actually going to be a good way to tease apart genetic and environmental influences on co-sleeping. I suspect that if one twin has some sort of genetic sleep issue that leads the parents to decide to co-sleep, they will probably co-sleep with both twins, and not just the twin with the issue. So the data would not show a genetic difference even if one existed. Unfortunately, I can't access the original article without paying for it, and I wasn't curious enough to pay to see if the authors attempted to address this issue- because I also don't think co-sleeping is a "problem" that needs solving.

    The other sleep article is from Gwen Dewar, of Parenting Science. She has an interesting post up about the "sleeping through the night" milestone, arguing that it is a cultural construct and not a biological imperative.  I've posted at length about the sleep issues in our house and how I eventually learned to think of them as my sleep issues, not my kids' sleep issues- neither of my children has ever shown any indication of being sleep deprived. Just me and Hubby do! So I found her perspective interesting.

    I have one other random article to recommend: the article about how Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, thinks that we're in a higher education bubble. I don't agree with all of his conclusions (he would say that is because I'm in the elite who is threatened by those conclusions), but it is an interesting read.

    And finally, this video was so funny that I laughed until I cried. (Fair warning, though- you probably don't want to watch it at work, and you certainly don't want to watch it with any kids around.)



    (As usual, credit to Hubby for finding the funny stuff online.)

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    I Know Why the Tired Mom Sings

    I've been doing a lot of singing lately, which may not be a great thing for the people who have to live in the same house as I do, because I am not noted for the lyric quality of my singing voice. But a couple of weeks ago, I discovered something. Or, more accurately, I remembered something: singing cheers me up.

    This (re)discovery was prompted by my decision to pull out Won't Give In, by the Finn Brothers (which is my favorite song about marriage) to pull myself out of the funk caused by my extended argument with Hubby about chores. As I was listening and singing along, I realized that I was suddenly in a very good mood.



    And then I started to apply this to the rest of my life. I've been feeling a bit run down lately. At first, this really worried me. I've just started a new job that on paper is a perfect fit for me. If I'm not happy now, then maybe I really do need a major life reorg.  And maybe I do, or at least some significant life tweaks. But last night, I got a pretty good night's sleep- a total of 7 hours, 5 of which were uninterrupted- and I felt really good this morning.

    I'd forgotten about the insidious effects of long term sleep deprivation, and how they pervade the rest of your life. Petunia's sleep is unsettled and unpredictable. At least one night per week, she wakes up in the middle of the night and just will not go back down for a couple of hours. Even on the nights she is not throwing a middle of the night party, there is a more than 50-50 chance that she'll be up enough to ensure that my sleep is fragmented, at best. Some of this is the long run of illnesses, some of this is her age, and some of it is bad luck. Heck, some of it may even be the payoff from earlier sleep decisions we've made. Who knows. All that matters is that I'm tired, the sort of tired that falls like a big fog bank over the rest of your life.

    I can usually shake the fog off at work, but by the end of the day, I feel like my synapses are firing, but not connecting. And that leaves me feeling a bit down, and prone to taking things a bit too seriously. I don't see Petunia starting to sleep through the night anytime soon, and since we don't play the lottery it is unlikely that I will suddenly find myself at leisure and able to take long naps during the day. So I've been cranking up the tunes, and singing along.

    Now, if only I hadn't decided to install my iPod in Petunia's room to play the ocean sounds that provide the white noise while she sleeps....

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    And Now We Are Four

    So, now Pumpkin is 4. On her actual birthday, we had a fairly low key "family" party, but yesterday we had the big "day care"party. There are two other kids in her day care class with birthdays very close to hers, so this year, the three families got together and planned a joint party. We held it at KidVentures, a local indoor play place, and all the kids had a blast.

    Last year, I made Pumpkin's birthday cake. But this year, we had more people at the party and two other families to help split the costs, so we splashed out and bought cupcakes. My friend Jenny has decided to start up a baked goods catering service, and we decided to get her to make our cupcakes. She had to be out of town this weekend, so she delivered the cupcakes a couple of days early and I put the fondant toppers on myself. Even with the decidedly inexpert finishing touches, the cupcakes turned out very cute:



    They were a huge hit at the party. The adults all raved about them, and even Pumpkin, who usually only eats the frosting, ate the entire cupcake. And wanted more. We let her have another half cupcake as dessert after dinner last night. I'd show a picture of her happy, chocolate smeared face, but that would violate my "no faces" policy, so you'll just have to take my word for it. She liked the cupcakes! So- San Diego folks, if you're looking for a yummy cake or cupcakes for a special occasion, check Jennywennycakes out. You won't be disappointed! (She has a Flickr page with more pictures of her awesome cakes if you want to see them.)

    In addition to cupcakes, Pumpkin got heaps of presents. She is over the moon happy with all of her new toys. I am surveying the disaster that is our living room and thinking that it is time to clear out some old toys and donate them to my favorite local children's charity. Since it has become known that we have given in and accepted the Princesses into our house, Pumpkin got quite a few princess things. Say what you will about Disney, but you can't accuse them of missing any marketing opportunities. Here she is with her new Snow White's kitchen play set, wearing one of the new dresses she got for her birthday, pronounced to be a special occasional dress, and insisted she should wear to her party:



    And because Petunia was a real trooper through all of the partying and gift opening (she was annoyed when she couldn't claim Pumpkin's new toys as her own right away, but handled it all fairly well), here's a picture of her from the trip to the Carlsbad flower fields that Hubby took with her and his parents, who are in town from New Zealand right now.



    I am hiding out blogging instead of playing with my kids because Petunia will only play with other people when I'm not around, and I want to give Hubby's parents a shot at some good play time today, since they leave tomorrow. But I think it is time to go out and join the fun! I hear the sounds of bubble chasing coming from the backyard....

    Friday, April 08, 2011

    Weekend Reading: The Short Edition

    Since I posted a bunch of science articles on Wednesday, I don't have that many things to post today. That's probably a good thing, since Hubby and I need to figure out the logistics for Pumpkin's "day care birthday party" tomorrow.

    Still, I have a couple of things to recommend:

    One of my many roles at work is to be a project manager. This is something I started doing quite early in my career, and my stint as a contractor/consultant included some formal training in project management, some of which I actually do use (although managing scientific informatics projects is a lot different from managing the big government contract projects that the training was aimed at). Anyway, I have finally made peace with the fact that I am a project manager, and have even started to read on the topic much like I read on the science and tech fields I'm interested in. So I was pleased when I stumbled across a blog written by a tech project manager, called Rands in Repose. His posts are usually though-provoking. I really liked his recent post about how hard it is to start a new project. I particularly like his points about how sometimes doing the creative work that it takes to start a project looks an awful lot like goofing off. I personally find that I often need to "clear my brain" by reading random blogs and things online so that the shy good idea hiding in the dusty back corner can sneak out and show itself. Luckily, I've mostly worked for bosses and with colleagues who understand this sort of thing.

    On a totally unrelated topic, I really liked a recent post by Gwen Dewar, who maintains the Parenting Science blog I referred to in yesterday's post: It is about a trend I had not heard of- the use of recess coaches at some schools. She makes an excellent point about how the "free range kids" movement is really a movement for fairly well off kids living in safe neighborhoods. I agree with a lot of the arguments from the free range kids folks- I do think we (as a society) exaggerate some relatively unlikely risks, to the detriment of our kids. But I also went to college in a neighborhood that, thanks to the campus police force, was a little island of safety in a much more crime-ridden area. I saw first hand how not exaggerated risks such as being shot were for kids in the surrounding areas. We have failed those kids, no question about it. I guess I agree with Dr. Dewar- if recess coaches treat some of the symptoms of that failure and make life better for some kids, that is great. But like her, I really think we should tackle the underlying causes, too, because the loss of childhood games is not even close to being the worse thing that is happening in some of our neighborhoods.

    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    Motherhood, Science, And All That

    I wasn't planning to write a post tonight. I was going to catch up on some of the excellent posts waiting for me in my blog reader, instead. But, today I came across the #scimom posts (thanks, Dr. O!) and I want to participate. The basic idea is to try to get the science-blogging and the mom-blogging communities to come together and learn from each other. I like that idea. I think science has something useful to contribute to parents- see my rant about the mercury in HFCS furor, or, more interestingly, take a look at the Parenting Science blog. But I also think science bloggers could learn something from mom bloggers- there is, for instance, a distressing tendency amongst some of the science bloggers to believe that their struggles with balance a career and a home life are somehow unique. They aren't. As an example, I read an excellent blog written by an ob/gyn that gives, among other things, a glimpse into the juggle for a doctor who is a mother.

    So I want to participate, but I wasn't sure what to write about. After all, I've already written about how I'm a happy working outside the home mother, and why I don't think quitting my job would actually make my life- or motherhood- any easier. I have a post about combing motherhood with a career in science, which includes a list of other scientists who are mothers (and a standing invitation for people to contact me to be added to that list). What's left to write about?

    I thought I'd talk a little bit about how science and motherhood interact in my life. It is not always how I would expect. For instance, I am predictably fascinated by watching my children grow and develop, both as a mother and as a scientist. But I cannot for the life of me remember the early stages of development- that's why I ended up creating a baby development cheat sheet. I wanted to follow along, but couldn't keep up.

    Still, I definitely find myself turning my knowledge and training onto myself. I spent the better part of both pregnancies trying to come up with a plausible evolutionary advantage to the nausea I felt. (I did not succeed in that, so if anyone wants to offer up a theory, I'd be glad to hear it!)

    As a mother it drives me nuts that I there is not more research on, for instance, how antigens pass into the breastmilk and whether that is a concern. But as a scientist, I know that those studies are both hard to design and hard to recruit for.

    For me, the struggles I had in the early days of breastfeeding were easier to handle because I understood the biology and that made me trust that my body and my baby would sort it out- but I know that for many scientist moms, that is not the case. And I also am well aware that there are biologists out there posting on science blogs about how they are icked out by breastfeeding. That just blows my mind, but I try to stay non-judgmental about that- as long as no one judges me for breastfeeding my kids until they are 2. If that happens my hackles go up and I start quoting the WHO guidelines. I am a bit surprised to find myself such a strong proponent of breastfeeding for more than a year- I went in thinking I'd make it to a year then stop. As I realize that my second- and last- baby will be two in six short months, I find that I am actually quite sad to think about the end of breastfeeding. Who knows? I may go longer. (Although she's already starting to drop feedings, so I suspect she won't let me even if I want to.)

    I guess we all bring our backgrounds with us to parenting, but then find that much of what we thought we knew is turned on its head by the new little person in our lives. So hurray for the project to get the moms and the scientists (and those of us who are both) talking to each other. I hope it works!

    Wednesday, April 06, 2011

    A Rare Scientific Diversion

    I don't write that many science-y posts here, mostly because I'm too lazy to do a good job of them. But I came across some interesting things recently, and rather than save them for the Weekend Reading post, I thought I'd go ahead and post them now.

    We've all heard a lot about personalized medicine. OK, maybe you haven't and it is just those of us  working in drug discovery who keep hearing how whole genome sequencing is going to transform medicine and our industry along with it. After a few years in the drug discovery industry, you've heard how technology X is going to change everything so many times that you get a bit cynical. But the decreasing cost of whole genome sequencing does seem to be making an impact- it is just not clear what that impact will ultimately be.

    Two of the science blogs I follow, Omics! Omics! and In the Pipeline both had recent posts about the sequencing of the genomes of tumors. I find it interesting that they come to very different conclusions. Keith Robison at Omics! Omics! sees progress and the chance to start matching (already marketed) drugs that inhibit specific enzyme. Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline sees a mess of different mutations in a population of tumors that were originally thought to be quite similar and wonders if we'll need to go back to the toxic wrecking ball approach to make any progress. These are both drug discovery veterans who know a lot about what it takes to make a drug, so it is interesting to read their different viewpoints. Which one is right? Heck if I know. I think that only time will tell.

    But I also came across a story of a much more immediate impact from whole genome sequencing, albeit on a very small scale. The scale of one small boy who had a baffling and life-threatening disease. I read about it in an article focused on the science/IT aspects of the story, but that links to the newspaper series with the focus more on the little boy. It is an amazing story. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that whole genome sequencing probably saved that little boy's life.

    Reading about that family's ordeals certainly puts our worries with Petunia in perspective. But, it is still highly likely that she will wake up in an hour or so and not want to go back to sleep... so I guess I should head to bed.

    Monday, April 04, 2011

    Next, I Expect a Plague of Locusts

    Petunia is feeling better now, but had to stay home from day care today. Luckily, my parents (and Hubby's parents!) are in town for Pumpkin's birthday, so we had babysitters on hand. Hubby left work early, though, to take Petunia to the doctor.

    At about 4:15, my office phone rings, and it is my parents, telling me that not long before Hubby got home, out bathrooms (which share a wall) were invaded by a swarm of bees. Yes, really. Hubby called an exterminator, and they were just finishing up by the time I got home. Apparently, they had come in through an incompletely plugged hole for some plumbing. My parents said that the noise in the bathrooms was quite loud, and that the inside windows were covered with bees. I'm almost sorry that I missed it all. Almost.

    Meanwhile, the sleep strike continues here, although we seem to have now moved on to intermittent action, reminiscent of the rotating "chaos" strikes favored by airline employees. Some nights, both girls go down fairly easy, we get our chores done and maybe even have time for a beer before we go to bed. Tonight, it is 1.5 hours after Petunia's bedtime and 45 minutes after Pumpkin's bedtime, and no one is asleep yet.

    Still, all is not bad here. When I arrived at day care today, Pumpkin was spinning around near one of the teachers, listening to music and doing an airplane dance, per the instructions in the song. The teacher told me that she'd been dancing to the music ever since they came out on the playground that afternoon. She looked so happy and carefree, I had to smile, even though I knew we were headed home to an infestation of bees.

    Petunia came home from the doctor all smiles, too. (The doctor found nothing but the usual slightly red throat, which was no surprise. We now have a referral to an ear-nose-throat specialist.) Petunia insisted on going outside to play, and Pumpkin was happy to go, too. Petunia is quite the outdoors girl these days. This morning, she was signing hat and shoes (which is her way of saying she wants to go outside) as soon as she got down from her breakfast.

    After dinner, I tried to get Pumpkin to help me get the house straightened up- the cleaner comes on Wednesday. We have our family birthday party for Pumpkin tomorrow night, so we want to clean up as much as we can tonight. Pumpkin decided to fold up one of her blankets and store it in a cubby. As soon as Petunia saw that blanket unfurled, though, she came toddling over to play. They played together with the blanket for at least 10 minutes, laughing all the time. They were having so much fun that I couldn't bring myself to make them stop so that Pumpkin could finish helping me tidy up. I wonder if that was Pumpkin's plan all along?

    Sunday, April 03, 2011

    Zenbit: A Long Climb Ahead

























    Petunia's sick again. Lately, parenting has been feeling a lot like climbing the Great Wall. A long, hard slog, but definitely worth the effort.


    Location: Great Wall, somewhere outside Beijing, China
    Date: March18, 2006

    Friday, April 01, 2011

    Weekend Reading: The Science and Technology, Edition

    I've got some science and technology-related reading for you this weekend:

    First up, a post from well-known pharma industry blogger Derek Lowe (if you have an interest int he drug discovery and development business and wonder how it looks from the inside, his blog is an excellent place to start) on the difficulties of replicating some of the big academic discoveries in industrial settings. It references a post from a biotech venture capitalist, which is also an interesting read. The point about the potential bias in academic studies ties into the point I often argue when reacting to food scares and the like- it is fine (good, even) to be skeptical about the studies your hear about. But you really need to be an equal opportunity skeptic. All scientists need money to live, so we are all theoretically susceptible to bias when our research findings have the potential to conflict with the source of that money.  This is not a problem that is unique to industry.

    Next, Marion Nestle has a post up about food coloring and hyperactivity. It is short, but gives a sense of the history of this issue, of which I was only vaguely aware. I generally enjoy Dr. Nestle's posts and don't find her too preachy. Some of her commenters, on the other hand, live in an idealized world that bears no resemblance to the one I inhabit- so read the comments at your own risk! Also, Derek Lowe had an interesting post today about potentially favorable effects of some dye compounds- so the story is not a simple one. Perhaps this is a case where the data are not clear so people's opinions are influenced more by their own biases than we'd like.

    Finally, this post about the aptly named Creepy app, which was developed by a privacy research to show how much location information can be easily gleaned from people's tweets, etc., is worth a read. I am feeling better and better about my decision not to go "all in" on social media!
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