Monday, July 27, 2009

Her Own Social Network

My cousin, her husband, and her toddler (a boy who is almost exactly one year younger than Pumpkin) were here visiting over the weekend. We had a great time, which I won't describe in any detail because I'm lazy.

We went out to dinner to our local pizza joint on Friday night. The restaurant has a play area for the kids, so it is a great place to go with children. The new toys keep them distracted until the food arrives. While we were getting ready to eat, Pumpkin looked up and said "Oh! There's A. with his Mommy and Daddy!" Now, A's name sounds a lot like my cousin's son's name, so we said, "Yes. B. is here with his Mommy and Daddy, D. and N." Pumpkin shook her head and said "No. There's A. Over they-er." (All words ending with the -air sound are two syllable right now.) We looked over to a neighboring table, and recognized the little boy who was sitting there. Hubby recognized the Daddy, too. The little boy goes to Pumpkin's day care. He is in the 18 month-2 year room (Pumpkin is now in the 2-2.5 year room). I asked Pumpkin if she wanted to go say hello, and she did, so we went over to the other table and chatted for a minute. Then we went back to our table, shaking our heads at the fact that she knows all the kids (and their Mommies and Daddies) by sight, and can name the kids and associate them with the correct Mommies and Daddies. We, on the other hand, struggle to remember which grown ups go with which kids and to put names to cute little faces.


On Saturday, we went to the beach. We had arranged a play date with two of our friends from Pumpkin's day care before the visit by my cousin was set up, and my cousin said it was fine to go ahead with it, since they wanted to go to the beach, too. Then one of the other day care Mommies decided that we should invite Pumpkin's entire day care class, which we did. Three other kids showed up. We had a blast. It was fun to watch the kids interact with each other. It was particularly fun to watch the reaction as each new child arrived. Pumpkin would call out "Oh! Its E!" and then run over to greet the newcomer. She is clearly a very social little girl.

While the kids splashed in the shallow water and played in the sand, the parents started to get to know each other. By the end, we all agreed that we should arrange these "class play dates" more often. It is nice to talk to other parents who have similar careers (Pumpkin's day care is near an area of San Diego known for its concentration of a high tech and biotech companies). Yes, we were networking through our children.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Combining Motherhood and a Career in Science (with a Free Pep Talk at the End)

Female Science Professor has a post today about paying for parental leave for grad students and postdocs. Unfortunately, the comments section is a reminder of the sort of discussion that scared me so badly when I was a grad student contemplating combining a career in science with parenthood. (Interestingly, some of the most disturbing comments are from Europeans. I'm not sure what that means- are they more disgruntled because maternity leave is longer or are they just less open to women in science?)

Obviously, I left academia, which makes me rather unqualified to comment about some aspects of the debate, such as whether the principal investigator or the institution should pay for the leave. (I will say, though, that it seems to me that leave should be funded by the institution and/or the same government mandated insurance schemes that are used in industry- my company is actually not going to pay me any salary while I am on leave. The money I get will come from disability insurance and California's family leave fund, both of which my company was required to pay into.) However, I think the concern about how to keep work going while on leave is equally valid in industry, particularly in a small company. I am literally the only person in my company who does what I do. My one direct report and my contractors can fill in to some extent. My boss could take over some of the managerial aspects, but he doesn't really have time to do so. This means that I have planned for my upcoming maternity leave very, very carefully and that some projects will just be on hold while I am out.

The post also drew several comments from young scientists, trying to determine when the "best" time to have children is. I don't think there is a universal answer to this question. I waited until fairly late (I was 34 when Pumpkin was born, and will be 37 when baby #2 arrives), but that was primarily because I didn't meet my husband until I was almost 30, and we didn't get married until I was almost 33. Then we decided to take our big trip before we had kids.

One of the postdocs in my graduate student lab had her children when she was in graduate school, and swore that this was the best way to do it. She cited the flexibility in schedule and the fact that people don't expect a smooth publication record in graduate school.

I have several friends who had children as postdocs, and they also seem happy with their choice, once again citing the flexible schedule as a key reason. They say postdoc is better than graduate school because you are more likely to be treated as an employee, and therefore have some legal protections and help from human resources in setting up parental leave.

I am happy with my timing, too. Having my children after my career was already established put me in a strong position when asking for the maternity leave arrangements I wanted. It has also given me the financial means to pay for excellent child care without difficulty and to purchase extra time in the form of a cleaning service and other such conveniences. In fact, I have written recently about how I'm a happy working mother.

I think the "best" time to have children is when you feel ready to take on the responsibility and adjust your lifestyle to one that is necessarily a lot less focused on your own needs and wants. I actually don't think that career timing is the biggest consideration. I think you can arrange your work around a reasonable maternity leave at any time in your career. It is never going to be easy, but it is also rarely going to be truly impossible. (It is also worth mentioning that not everyone gets to plan their timing- birth control fails. The fertility gods are not always generous. Fertility is not as predictable as some would make out.)

As today's Female Science Professor post demonstrates, there are plenty of people out there with opinions about when (and whether!) women in science should reproduce. I doubt that the comments on a post about professors taking maternity leave would have been significantly more encouraging. It is a shame that we still have these sorts of conversations, and I strongly suspect the discouraging tone of such conversations contributes to the much-lamented "leaky pipeline". So what to do if you are a female scientist who wants to have kids? I say, ignore these discussions and do what you want to do. You'll never satisfy the lingering sexists amongst us, so don't even try. Perhaps the trick to handling this is to be confident enough in your own skills and career to ignore those comments and just work with the people who matter (i.e., your boss, your partner, your colleagues) to develop a leave plan that will work for your situation. Work hard, do what's right by your employer, and deal with any sexist career impacts when they happen, rather than worrying about it ahead of time. (Disclaimer: I completely failed to take this advice in graduate school. I worried A LOT about future career roadblocks. I don't think this was particularly helpful.)

You can also start to develop the work/life balancing skills that you'll need to as a working mother. One of the things that has helped me handle the naysayers who imply (or outright state) that motherhood is not compatible with my chosen career is my confidence in the fact that I am productive and effective at work without working long hours. I know this because I started setting boundaries between work and leisure hours in graduate school. I realized then that I lose effectiveness if I routinely work long hours, so I stopped doing it. I continued to develop those boundaries in my early jobs, before I had children. I now put in my ~40 hour work week with no guilt. If I weren't leaving to go pick up my daughter at day care, I'd be leaving to go home and do something else, because I believe in having a life outside work and I've built a track record of job success while working the same ~40 hour week.

Another, related useful skill I began developing in graduate school was how to be efficient at work. In graduate school, I noticed that I was as productive in the lab working 40-50 hours a week as some of my colleagues who worked 70+ hours a week were. I noticed that those colleagues weren't really working all of the time that they were at work. I also noticed that those colleagues who worked really long hours often lost a lot of them to inefficient work practices. They would lose 3 hours in the morning running a routine procedure that they could have modified to run over night, for instance. They would spend the inevitable "waiting for my reaction/program to run" time that occurs in research goofing off rather than planning the next experiment or working on some code they'd need later. As I moved into the corporate world, I noticed some colleagues never seemed to know what they needed to accomplish in a given day, and spent a lot of time "putting out fires" that could easily have been prevented with a little planning. I learned from all of these observations, and from my own screw ups, and now have a fairly good system of "to do" lists and "standard operating procedures" that keeps me fairly efficient at work. This system served me incredibly well during the initial sleep-deprived days back to work.

It is very disappointing to run across reminders that there are men out there who truly seem to think that motherhood and science (or sometimes, any work) can't be mixed. My last message to any young scientist who finds this post is: don't let them get you down. There are also a lot of more enlightened men and women out there. I cannot think of any instance in which my status as a mother has hindered my career. I have gotten raises and bonuses since having a child. I was hired for the job I am doing now despite the fact that I disregarded the standard advice and told the hiring manager that I had a 9 month old baby at home (he asked what I did for fun- I couldn't really answer that one truthfully without admitting to the existence of my daughter).

I also don't think my daughter has suffered for having a working mother. She is a happy, thriving little girl. Women have always combined work with motherhood- if you don't think this is true, think a bit about how laundry was done before washing machines and how butter was made before supermarkets. Recent research argues that we have also always relied on the larger community to help care for our children.

So let go of the fear and guilt, and just give it a go. I'm not saying that there won't be problems. I'm not even saying that I haven't had problems. But you'll probably surprise yourself with how well you solve the problems when they come up- I know I have.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Trip Story: Portland

I had better finish writing up our Oregon trip before the details fade completely from my memory.... The first two posts, on Mt Hood and the Columbia River Gorge and Salem and Newport were written much closer to the actual trip.

We started and finished our Oregon vacation in Portland. Overall, we were impressed with the city. Of course, we had ridiculously (and unseasonably) nice weather- so we got to enjoy the greenery and plentiful flowers without enduring any of the rain that made it all possible. We started our stay with some family friends who live in the area. We enjoyed lounging on their balcony (with a view of three mountains!) and catching up with them. They took us on a great driving tour of Portland, which gave us a feel for the different neighborhoods and a chance to visit some of Portland's wonderful gardens.

My favorite part about the return visit to Portland at the end of our trip was getting a chance to browse at Powell's bookstore. This was our first touristing stop upon arriving back in the city from Newport. I bought several books, all of which I could probably have found at Borders. But the browsing was a lot of fun. I had to limit my time, though, because I needed to catch back up with Pumpkin and Hubby (who had gone to find a park) so that we could go get dinner.

Dinner was at the Portland branch of the Deschutes Brewpub- recommended by a friendly Dad who Hubby met at the park. Hubby was definitely impressed. We went back the next day for an afternoon snack, after first visiting Cupcake Jones to pick up some cupcakes for Pumpkin's snack. I felt a bit cheated- Hubby had his beer, Pumpkin had her cupcakes, and I had... well, they have a nice lemonade there.

That morning, we had taken Pumpkin to the zoo. It is a nice enough zoo- definitely smaller than our San Diego Zoo, but also a lot cheaper. Pumpkin liked seeing the penguins and otters (we don't have any of those at our zoo). She enjoyed her first trip on a zoo train (another thing noticeably missing from the San Diego Zoo experience)- or at least she has enjoyed telling us about it later, particularly when the song about riding "the choo-choo-choo and the zoo-zoo-zoo" comes on her Noodlebug Animal Friends DVD. At the time, she seemed more concerned about the little boy sharing the train car with us, who didn't like the noises and "was sad". The only time she got excited on the ride was when we saw the elephants.

Perhaps the best part of the stay in Portland came after our cupcake and beer snack. We went to the Jamison Water Park, again on the recommendation of the friendly park Dad. The water park is like a big, flat fountain- water comes out from an artificial waterfall like structure, and floods the square. Kids splash about happily. The water drains away periodically, causing the kids to chase it and demand that it come back, which it does. Some of the bigger kids climbed on the big square "boulders" that form the "waterfall". Pumpkin never did that, but she did splash A LOT. She was clearly thrilled to be there, even after a bit of drama where a big girl kept splashing her beyond when she was enjoying it. (I just picked her up and moved her away- I am never sure what to do when an older kid isn't behaving in a way I don't really like. I certainly don't expect Pumpkin to be able to confront an 8 year old. But should I? I didn't.) She got over that quickly, and was in fact more upset when we made her leave.

We left Portland the next day, wishing we had just a little more time to explore. Which, really, is the best way to leave a place.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Zenbit: Elephants

Location: Portland, Oregon, USA
Date: May 22, 2009

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

This Should Make You Feel Better about Day Care

Last week's Science had two book reviews about parenting in it. Both were interesting. One was a review of a sociology book called Longing and Belonging, by Allison Pugh, about the use of consumer goods to help children fit in. The other was a review of a human evolution book called Mothers and Others, by Sara Hrdy. I've linked to the summaries rather than the full text because you'll need a subscription to read the full text.

The premise of Mothers and Others (at least according to the review- I haven't read the book yet) is that humans are actually a "cooperatively breeding species", meaning that "individuals other than the mother assist in the care and provisioning of young". This is supported by the shorter birth interval of human hunter-gatherer populations (3-4 years) as compared to great apes (6-7 years) and by the tolerance human mothers show to having other individuals hold and care for our young (apparently, this is a big no-no in great ape society). Fathers, by the way, don't count- mothers couldn't count on them sticking around. They do in some hunter-gatherer societies, but not in others. Flexible child care arrangements utilizing the larger societal group are more consistent.

Furthermore, Hrdy argues that this cooperative breeding status might explain the origin of some human interaction behaviors (such as our ability to theorize about the intentions of others) that had previously been explained primarily by the existence of warfare. The reviewer, Gillian Brown, points out that other researchers have begun to theorize that cooperative breeding might even explain the selection of some quintessentially human behaviors, such as "social learning, teaching, and language."

So, the modern trend of flexible child care arrangements that often involve members of our larger societal group isn't so new afterall. I wonder what the traditionalists who argue that the nuclear family is the only way in which humans should raise children would say to that? (No cheap shots about them not believing in evolution- not all of the traditionalists are fundamentalist Christians.)

This theory of human cooperative breeding would argue that societies that provide better "extended group" support to mothers are more inline with our evolutionary biology, and perhaps even more likely to succeed. Current demographic data certainly supports the idea that greater societal support to families leads to more successful societies, at least if we define a successful society as one that is not shrinking. Many Western countries are seeing declines in birth rates to levels below replacement. It is common to "blame" this on working women. However, as a recent article in the Economist points out, the trend of lower birth rates in countries in which many women work outside the home has been reversed, and there is now a positive correlation between birth rates and female employment rates. The article theorizes that this is due to the fact that children are no longer an economic help (in that they could work on the farm) but an economic drain (in that we need to buy them lots of things), and so many families need two incomes to support multiple children.

The article goes on to explain that countries with high female employment rates tend to have "large government cash transfers to families, generous replacement pay during parental leave, the availability of plenty of part-time work and lots of formal child care." Most mothers reading this post probably could have told the researchers this, but it is actually based on comparative data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. France and the Scandinavian countries are the examples of this sort of society.

The obvious exceptions are America and Britain, neither of which provide large cash payments to families or state-provided child care. The article posits that our birth rates are still high because of a flexible labor market that allows women to drop out and then back in and because public opinion "approves of working mothers". I'd also add that, at least in the US, quality child care is available, even if it is not state sponsored and is rather expensive. I remember a thread on going back to work at Ask Moxie in which a woman from Austria commented that it was almost impossible to find child care for a child under the age of three. Long maternity leaves are the norm, there. I can only speak for myself, but I think that if I lived in a country like that, I would not be having a second child. I don't want to spend that much time out of the workforce, not because I'd worry about my ability to get back in, but because I'd miss the work. Not all women are cut out to be stay at home mothers. Perhaps the key to our relatively high birth rate is that, despite our occasional squabbles about what type of mother is "best", we do actually allow each woman (whose family has sufficient means....) to find her own way.

Now, if we could just learn a little bit more from our evolutionary past, and actually provide societal support to ALL mothers, not just those with the means to purchase it. I think that would make us an even more successful society.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


So Pumpkin finally tried some mashed potato today. We've been having mashed potatoes with our "fishies' (fish-shaped fishsticks) almost weekly for months. Really, months. And tonight, for the first time, Pumpkin ate some.

But first, she dunked it in her milk.

Is that success?

We're actually floundering a bit on how to respond to Pumpkin's new fascination with dunking everything in her milk. Her fishies also went for a swim tonight, as have many of the entrees we've served her lately. On the one hand, its kind of gross, especially when she strands stuff in there. On the other hand, she usually eats it after dunking it and I hate to make a big fuss about a basically harmless activity. I'm very much a "pick your battles" sort of parent. And Hubby, who is more likely to be willing to fight the battles over this sort of thing, doesn't seem to care about this one.

OK, I promise more interesting posts soon. I'm still recovering from the cold that knocked me flat over the weekend and don't really have the energy to work on the interesting posts I have knocking around in my head. Sorry!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Change of Plans

The cold Hubby had last weekend finally caught me this weekend. I have spent the better part of the long weekend laying on our sofa, alternatively coughing or blowing my nose. I'm feeling better now, but still very tired.

I was fairly annoyed when I realized how I was going to spend the long weekend. We had planned to take Pumpkin to the beach, and to see the fireworks, and to a farmer's market today. We did go see the fireworks last night- we live very close to a good viewing spot. But instead of the beach, we just let Pumpkin play in her paddling pool and instead of the farmer's market, we went to Target for some essentials, like more tissue for my nose. Pumpkin was happy as can be with both things- she's still talking about how she splashed in the pool with Mommy! And then Daddy! (there is only room for one adult at a time). And she likes trips to Target because I, perhaps foolishly, have her trained to associate them with big pretzels. This started because I was hungry during one trip, and has continued because, well, because I like big pretzels, too.

I had also hoped to make some zucchini bread, using up the gigantic zucchini my colleague gave me (we'd already eaten the more normal size one just fried up). That was clearly not going to happen, so I took a tip from the book I'm reading (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver) and grated the monster zucchini and froze it in recipe size portions. One monster zucchini = 4 cups grated zucchini = 4 loaves of zucchini bread when I get around to making it.

I have been told that zucchini isn't a veggie worth trying to get Pumpkin to eat, because it doesn't have a lot of nutritional value. Since it is one of my favorite veggies (I'll eat it without sauce!) I decided to check that claim out. I found a site called NutritionData that gives you "nutrition labels" for foods. The entry for zucchini (with skin) indicates that it does indeed have some useful vitamins and minerals, with vitamin C, the B vitamins, manganese, and potassium topping the list. Granted, a lot of other veggies are more impressive in the nutrition department. But I wouldn't complain if I could get Pumpkin to eat zucchini.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Household Outsourcing

A work friend and I spent a little bit of time discussing our respective household outsourcing decisions. I (after much debate with a reluctant Hubby) outsource some of the cleaning, and want to outsource more. I came home to a gloriously clean house today- our cleaner comes every fourth Wednesday. I'd like to change that to every second Wednesday, since Hubby and I have most definitely not been keeping up with our cleaning plan. Hubby hasn't agreed yet, but I am hoping that the realities of life with a newborn will bring him around.

My friend outsources more of the cooking- she and her family eat out or order in more often than Hubby, Pumpkin and I do. She thought that we must spend a lot of time cooking. I had to laugh. In the interest of full disclosure, here is our menu plan for this week:
  • Sunday - leftovers (we usually cook on the weekends, but this weekend, we were recovering from colds)
  • Monday - Italian eggs with spinach over polenta (a Cooking Light recipe that Hubby makes and I really love. Sadly, Pumpkin has yet to consent to try any part of this. This week, she picked up a slice of toasted polenta, but decreed it to be "too hot"- her standard response to anything she doesn't want to try- and put it back down.)
  • Tuesday - Quesadillas and smoothies (the quesadilla maker we got as a surprise gift for our wedding has turned out to be a wonderful thing. I make the smoothies using whatever frozen fruit I have on hand, OJ, and a little water. I used to also put in a tub of frozen yogurt, but that's too much effort these days. This is a great way to use fruit that is heading past its prime- I cut it up and freeze it for the next smoothies day. Pumpkin will eat both parts of this meal.)
  • Wednesday - Frozen fishies (fish-shaped fish sticks), mashed potatoes, and broccoli with cheese sauce (Pumpkin will eat some of the fishies, dunked in ketchup. She has yet to try the potatoes, and after her one nibble on the "little trees with cheese", she has refused to try again.)
  • Thursday- Tortellini and red sauce (Pumpkin LOVES tortellini. I have yet to figure out how we did this and replicate it. The red sauce is home made, but from canned crushed tomatoes. But they're organic! I make a big batch periodically and freeze jars of it for later use.)
  • Friday- BBQ (usually sausages, corn, and zucchini- this is all Hubby)
  • Saturday - Chicken Fatoosh Salad (another of Hubby's Cooking Light recipes. We haven't tried this one on Pumpkin yet. She'll probably eat the pita bread bits, but not the chicken, tomato, or edamame. We figure its worth a try, though.)
We won't be winning any culinary awards around here. However, none of these meals, except perhaps the Chicken Fatoosh Salad, takes more than about 20 minutes to make. The tortellini and red sauce will be ridiculously easy, since it is packaged tortellini and pre-made red sauce. I will fry up some zucchini, too, because another colleague just repaid our earlier avocado generosity (we have a big tree in our backyard) with a couple zucchinis from her home garden. Pumpkin won't touch the zucchinis.

Since it takes Hubby at least 30 minutes to clean one of our (really small) bathrooms, I think it makes good sense for us to keep the cooking in house and outsource the cleaning. I can see how someone with a less, um, thorough housecleaner for a spouse might come to a different conclusion, though.