Monday, June 27, 2011

Work Limit

I have a big deadline at work this week. We are doing a major system upgrade, and as part of that, we are migrating a large amount of data from an old database that none of us fully understands to a new one that I designed. I'm project manager for the whole project and responsible for producing (and testing) the scripts that will migrate the data. The upgrade starts Thursday at 7 p.m. My scripts are written and (mostly) tested. But the process is not smooth and requires far too much manual intervention. The rest of the project still needs some babysitting. I have a lot of work left to do.

So why am I blogging instead of working? Because I have reached my work limit.

I figured out back in graduate school that the number of hours I actually spend working is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend in my office (or at my work computer at home). Furthermore, the amount of actual useful work I produce is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend working. The relationships look something like this:

Not only does trying to spend more hours working lead me to start wasting time reading blogs and stupid news stories rather than actually working, but at some point, putting in more hours actually leads me to produce less actual work.

And I have reached that point. I spent far too long today trying to figure out how to write one particular test script. It was complicated, but not that complicated. Finally, someone else came and looked at the problem, and saw an elegant solution that I should have seen- and that I would have seen if my brain wasn't trying to work past capacity. I'm at my work limit. I know from past experience that if I keep pushing to get more work done, I'll start making stupid mistakes and my actual productivity will begin to plummet. So I walked out of the office without my laptop tonight, and decided to give myself the night off from work. I played catch with Petunia (she's surprisingly good!) and did yoga with Pumpkin (yoga done with a preschooler is funnier than yoga done alone, but not as relaxing). After I snuggled with Pumpkin for the requisite time (now up to two minutes post story- it is a good thing she hasn't figured out how to watch the clock!) and prepped things for tomorrow night's dinner, I came in to the office- but to write a blog post, not a data migration script.

I have been aware of my work limit since graduate school. In fact, I was starting to get an inkling that such a limit might exist in college- I never pulled an all-nighter in college, because it was always obvious to me that doing so would be less effective than going to bed and getting up fresh to tackle my work the next day. (I have, in fact, pulled two all-nighters in my life: one to print my PhD thesis and one to give birth to Pumpkin. Petunia's birth was faster, and I was asleep by 2 a.m. that night.) It was in graduate school, though, that I noticed that the more and more I tried to work, the fewer and fewer solid results I was gathering. Being a good scientist, I tried an experiment, and scaled back my work hours. To my surprise, my results increased. As a bonus, I was happier and healthier. I've never worked insane hours since.

I know that other people's work limits will be different than mine, and also that the relationship between hours in the office and hours worked will be different for different people. But I suspect that everyone has a work limit, and that no one can force themselves to be completely efficient and focused on work for extra long work weeks, particularly not week after week.

This leads me to question the dramatic statements I sometimes hear (and read!) from other people, about how many hours they are working. Are they really working those long hours? Or are they just putting in the time in the office? According to research quoted by Laura Vanderkam in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, people of all professions tend to over-estimate the hours they work when asked to estimate the length of their work week. If they actually track their time, the result comes out to a lower number. That makes sense to me- I know that I became much more aware of how I was spending my time when I was a consultant who had to charge hours. I didn't have a charge code for "randomly reading articles on the internet" or "gossiping with my colleagues", so I had to keep those things down to below the chargeable time limit, or just not charge for blocks of time in my day. If you've never done a time-tracking exercise, I encourage you to try it. It can be very eye opening! (I posted about my most recent time-tracking exercise, if you're curious about how its done.)

And even if people are really working all of those hours, are they actually producing more work than they would produce in fewer hours? The knowledge that I start to lose efficiency helps me keep my actual hours in the office to 40-45 per week. This is on the low end for my industry- but no one has ever complained about my productivity. Quite the opposite, actually. Maybe learning about my work limit was one of the most useful things I did in graduate school.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Things I Love Right Now: Bubbles

Petunia is at the perfect bubble-crazy age. She loves to chase bubbles around the yard, saying "BUH-ble, BUH-ble".  Pumpkin still likes to chase bubbles, too, so time in the backyard chasing bubbles is a favorite weekend and after dinner activity here these days.

The only problem is that neither of my kids has mastered blowing her own bubbles yet, and of course, they both want to try. Also, I cannot blow bubbles fast enough to keep up with their demand.

Which is why I love, love, love the new long bubble wand things that are all over the place these days.

You can get them on Amazon. But I got ours at our local grocery store.

When I use the wand, I can make a fairly steady stream of bubbles just by waving my arm around. So I get the volume of bubbles like I'd get from a bubble machine but I never have to change batteries or unclog the mechanism.

When the kids use the wand, they can actually make their own bubbles- even Petunia can. Of course, she usually spills the bubble juice all over herself, but that's OK. Bubble juice is cheap.

In short, this is an awesome invention.

We also have the Klutz Big Bubbles kit, and the kids love that, too.

OK, so do the grown ups.

This post is NOT sponsored or anything like that, but the Amazon links are referral links- i.e., if you click on them and buy something from Amazon, I get a (very small) cut of the purchase.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Random Walk Edition

After her one night of refusing to go to sleep, Petunia has been going down easily and quickly in her crib, sleeping through until approximately 3 a.m., joining us in our bed and sleeping peacefully until I get up at about 6:40.

So I officially do not understand baby sleep. (But I'm really happy with the new routine, so take note, O Sleep Gods- I am not complaining!)

Also, I left a cute Pumpkin story off the last post- the class above her at day care will be "graduating" at the end of the summer (i.e., going off to kindergarten). They have a little graduation ceremony planned, and, according to Pumpkin, are busy practicing their "gradulations".

Yes, I love kid-isms. I know that I am going to be sad when my kids learn how to say everything properly. We've already had to let go of some of our favorites- like "bobbin" instead of "bottom".

And speaking of cute kids growing up faster than their parents think possible, The Bean Mom had a beautiful post about milestones, the passage of time and all that.

And speaking of mothers, a couple of weeks ago, the  NY Times published an interview with four women scientists who are at the top of their fields. It is an interesting read. Here are a couple of quotes I liked. First, from Dr. Elena Aprile, a physics professor, on the importance of role models:

"It is by example that young women see that you can be both a successful scientist, the best, but also the best mother and the lover, and the wife. You can do everything, so I think you need to have more examples of those."

I agree whole-heartedly, and the desire to build a list of those examples is one of the things that led me to start my list of scientists who are mothers. Well, that and the fact that I was tired of being told that the life I was leading was "impossible" to have and that I was some sort of freak of nature. I may be a freak, but I have a lot of company! (And hey, I think I should add a link to this article to that post....)

I also liked this quote, from Dr. Tal Rabin, a cryptography researcher, talking about the development of self-confidence over time:

"But this is something that I feel has developed in me. I do not think that I was this warrior that I am today when I started out in the field. I am like that today, but I wasn’t like that when I was 20. "

I think this is an important point- I certainly wasn't as confident when I started college as I am today, and I like the idea that my confidence will grow as I age. I think that this is a powerful argument for providing more support for women early in their education and careers (actually, for everyone- but the lack of self-confidence issue does seem to be one that plagues women more than men, on average).

I also liked that they didn't all agree about everything, and that the interviewer (Gina Kolata, a well known science writer) let that show. It reminds us that they are just telling their own stories of how they made their lives work- there are other, equally valid ways to do it. I thought of that, in particular, while reading the comments on blue milk's post on this article- she highlighted a quote from Dr. Joy Hirsch, a neuroscience professor:

"The great discovery for me was the middle of the night. It’s all done, and everybody has gone to bed. You can go to your computer and sit down and work. The middle of the night has been what saved my life as a scientist."

Some of the commenters were dismayed at the idea of having to give up sleep to get ahead... but I don't think that is a universal truth. I think different people find different solutions to the problem of fitting all the things they want to do into the hours they have. Some people don't need as much sleep as others, so they work in the middle of the night. Other people might take their kids to lab with them on weekends. And still others might find ways to get more efficient and squeeze more productivity out of their regular work hours. We're all different, and have different constraints on our lives, and different things we're willing to compromise. Which, I guess, brings this back around to the first quote, and the need for more role models. If you are looking at one single role model, and that person's life doesn't look appealing to you, you might dismiss an entire profession, when in fact it could be that you could have found an entirely different solution to the problem, if you'd only tried.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Little Things

Petunia's bedtimes have gotten... unpredictable. She's usually pretty easy to get down. We read stories, turn lights out, rock for 10-15 minutes, and put her in her crib. But occasionally, it all goes haywire and she's a bear to get down. This no doubt coincides with some developmental leap- the glory of the second child is that these random sleep freak outs don't freak me out, so I haven't researched it obsessively and don't really know whether we're at a particular milestone or not. All I know is that suddenly, we're rocking her for 30 minutes, and then she's arching her back, whining and shaking her head no (all with her eyes closed, of course), when we stand up from the rocking chair and head towards her crib.  So we've started just taking her into our room and lying down with her.

Normally, we're partial night cosleepers. Petunia goes down in her crib and then joins us in our bed when she wakes up. The first time around the sleeping casino, I would have fought this change to being a full night cosleeper. This time, I've just shrugged and let it happen. And noted that sometimes, when she's in our bed from the start, she doesn't wake up in the night at all. Bonus!

So we're rolling with things on the sleep front. Until last night, when she changed things up again. She didn't want to go to sleep, full stop. If I took her into our bed, she thrashed and kicked and played and giggled. We tried watching some TV with her (that worked the last time she went through an "I don't want to go to sleep phase"). No dice. Finally, two hours after her usual bedtime, I put her in her crib, wide awake, and walked out of the room. She cried a very little, then started talking to herself, and then fell asleep. Hubby, who thinks we should try this more often, gave me a look of triumph.

But then tonight, she fell asleep in my arms after 10 minutes of rocking. So who knows? I think we just need to look at every night's bedtime as a new adventure.


Aside from the bedtime fun, Petunia is pretty darn cute right now. She's talking more and more, although she is not always easy to understand. The signs she knows help- otherwise there is no way I would have deciphered her pronunciation of "cereal". But there is still no guarantee that we will understand what she wants. Frankly, I think she knows more signs than we do. So when we do figure it out, and get her what she wants, she gets a big grin, bounces a little, and says "yeah, yeah!" That almost makes up for the screaming when we don't figure it out.

She's also started giving out kisses. She leans in, and smacks her lips together right next to your cheek. A sweet toddler kiss cures many woes, let me tell you.


Speaking of sweet kisses, Pumpkin has been handing them out, too. She'll throw a massive tantrum about something that is trivial to us but very important to her- like whether or not she has to share her baby doll stroll with Petunia (the answer is yes, if she is going to leave it in the living room)- and then a short time later come give me a hug and a kiss and tell me she loves me. I suspect this is fairly normal four year old behavior, but the hug and kiss never fail to make me forgive her for the tantrum.


Pumpkin is a snacker, much like me. She eats small meals, and needs her snacks (she gets a morning, afternoon, and before bed snack). Petunia is not so dependent on the snacks. She eats far better at meal time, and snack time is hit or miss with her.

We still always offer snack, though, and she'll often accept a few bites, especially if I'll hold her on my lap while she eats. Tonight, she ate a cracker and a few yogurt melts, and then arranged the rest into canapes that could only appeal to a toddler:


When Pumpkin was roughly Petunia's age, my sister gave her a Seek & Slide in the Desert book. The premise is simple- there is a small amount of text, and then pictures of animals found in various deserts, hidden behind a sliding piece of cardboard with the name of the animal on it.

Pumpkin loved that book, and now Petunia does, too. Like all books they love, it has grown a bit stale for the parents.

Luckily, our copy has a doozy of a typo on the Australian Outback page:

It feels like something from a Monty Python sketch. I chuckle to myself every time I see it. It is the little things that keep you sane as a parent.

(By the way, the animal that is actually hidden behind the "Goldfish" text is a kookaburra. That just makes it funnier to me.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zenbit: Shelter

This sign indicates that there is a shelter ahead to be used in case of a sudden downpour. I wish the rest of my life had signs like this.
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Date: February 5, 2006

Friday, June 17, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Judging on Superficial Characteristics Edition

I'm still not feeling all that great, so this week's weekend reading post will be a short one. But I have a few links for you, all about the joys and perils of judging things superficially.

First up, the perils: Marion Nestle had an interesting post up about the German E. coli outbreak. Apparently they are now saying it was the sprouts- organic sprouts at that. She explains how sprouts can get contaminated, and why that "organic" label that so many people rely on isn't really any protection from food borne illnesses.

Next, the joys: my husband sent me a link to an article that pretty much summarizes how we choose wines: by their labels.

Finally, something you really should judge by appearances: my friend is starting up a baking business, and has recently decided to out some effort into setting up an Etsy store selling her delightful cupcake toppers. She's also running a contest on her blog, giving away some cupcake toppers. Some of you may remember that she did the cupcakes for Pumpkin's birthday party this year. They were delicious as well as cute! If you're in San Diego, and need a cake or cupcakes- check her out. And if you're not in San Diego, she'll ship those cupcake toppers!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More on Working Mothers and the Quest for Work-Life Balance

I should be in bed. Petunia and I both have colds. I feel roughly like death warmed over, and she spiked a fever today and had to come home from day care. I'll be taking her to the ENT tomorrow afternoon, per his instructions that he needs to check her tonsils every time she has a fever. Good times.

But, someone is wrong on the internet. Or, more precisely, a doctor named Karen Siebert has written some things in the NY Times that I don't quite agree with. Or, even more precisely, the reactions to her post (see Historiann and Dr. Isis, for example), have me thinking about why my reaction to her piece was more negative than my reaction to the related commencement address that sparked last week's rant post.

Leaving aside my practical and selfish objection that I love our pediatrician, who keeps part time hours, so anything that might have driven her from the medical profession is necessarily a bad thing... I think I am just fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of a free society trying to dictate the details of how its members should arrange their family lives. I posted similar, but not fully formed, ideas as comments on Nicoleandmaggie's post about "choice feminism". As I said there, I find this tendency to judge, and try to dictate, how other people manage their work-life arrangements to be an extremely offputting feature of some left-leaning blogs, much like I find the tendency to judge, and try to dictate, other people's reproductive and marital freedoms an extremely offputting feature of a lot of right-leaning commentary. To the right wing, I say get out of my bedroom. To the left wing, I say get out of my kitchen.

That doesn't mean I'm fully comfortable with the large numbers of female doctors opting for part time hours, particularly if that becomes seen as the only way for a woman to have a medical career and a family. But there is a difference between encouraging young women to aim high and demanding that they fit someone else's idea of what a successful woman's life looks like.

Just like there is a difference between getting to a point in your life, looking at your unique circumstances and deciding that you need to make some changes and looking ahead and making
changes based on problems that "they" tell you are in your future.

I see nothing wrong with looking at the facts about the prevailing culture in a profession and deciding that it is just not for you, even if you find it interesting. Back in grad school, I changed my focus area because I was blown away by the unmitigated arrogance on display at the first conference I attended that covered my original focus area. But that is not the same as looking at an entire career path and saying that there is no place in it for mothers.

I also think that it is worth reminding people that a lot of what "they" say is just plain wrong. Surveys in which people actually track their time use show that people routinely inflate the number of work hours they report when just asked how many hours they work in a week. (I don't want to take the time to dig up a precise reference for that, but take a look at Laura Vanderkam's 168 hours blog and book.) At the very same time I was wading through a bunch of posts and real life comments about how it was "impossible" to combine motherhood with a career in science, three mothers won the Nobel prize in one year.

My longest employment stint at any company was at the contracting/consulting company I joined between my second and third biotech companies. I lasted 5 years there, which included the birth of my first child. It is also the most male-dominated company I've ever worked for. (Evidence: the wait list for a locker in the men's locker room was something like 10 years. I got a locker the same day that I asked for one.) When I first tried to look into my maternity leave options, I couldn't even find the word "maternity" in our employee handbook. And yet, it was the place at which I had my best work-life balance. Due to the particular way we charged our hours, there was flex time that everyone used. I cut my hours to 35 per week for awhile (with a corresponding cut in pay, of course), and suffered absolutely no loss of status. But "they" all tell me now that it is a cutthroat place, not at all good for women. I'm glad I didn't know what "they" said at the time I took the job.

I think the key reason that work-life balance was so good at that company was that it wasn't seen as woman's issue, or even a parent's issue. Everyone took the flex time. Lots of people had unique arrangements for their hours. Maybe there is something to learn from that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Pointless Ramble Brought to You by a Slow Program

I'm watching programs run again, desperately trying to stay ahead of my to do list as we count down to our big roll out at work. Which sort of sucks- I'd rather be in bed, frankly.

But on the bright side, it means I'm writing a blog post tonight, when I thought there was no way I'd have time to do that. Let's just all hope that Petunia's sleep pattern matches recent history, and she doesn't wake up until after midnight....

Anyway, I was struck this weekend by the realization that the old adage "all work and no play makes Jane a dull girl" has a closely related corollary, at least for me- "all play and no work makes Cloud a stressed out girl".

Actually, that is not strictly true. I didn't do any work at all during our big trip, and I wasn't stressed out by that. But in general, I need to cross things off my to do list to feel relaxed, particularly when I have a deadline looming. I am a very bad procrastinator.

This weekend, I failed to cross much off my to do list at all. On paper, it was a wonderful weekend- we had one Pumpkin's day care buddies and his parents over for dinner (pizza and beer- so very low stress) on Saturday night. My sister came over and made us a wonderful lunch Sunday, and then we went to a friend's house to swim and eat Sunday evening.

But I didn't get anything done.

Looking back, it all went haywire Friday night. I was soloing, because Hubby had a work event, and I'd agreed that it would be OK if he went out with his colleagues afterwards. I got the girls to bed a little late (Petunia wasn't in the mood to go to sleep, which pushed Pumpkin's bedtime later, too), but still, I was in bed by 11.

Then Hubby came home at 11:30 and started talking to me. (Why does he do that? If the light is out and I'm lying in bed when he comes into the room, it is a safe bet that I'm not looking to start a conversation.)

Then Petunia woke up more than usual in the night.

Then Petunia woke up at 6:07 a.m., ready to start her day. Hubby, who usually is in charge of weekend early mornings, was not ready to start his day, and asked if I would get up instead. I did, thinking I'd nap with Petunia in the afternoon.

I was a bit of a zombie all morning (I really count on my weekend sleep ins, apparently), but I figured I'd be OK after a nap. Then Petunia wouldn't nap.

There were then some scenes that do not represent my best parenting. In the end, I took Petunia for a walk and she napped- figuring that if I couldn't sleep, at least I could get some exercise and enjoy the beautiful day. But first, I made enough noise to wake up Pumpkin, who was, unexpectedly, napping. (She NEVER naps on weekends anymore.)

In his defense, Hubby tried to get me to do something more sensible. Like let him get Petunia down. Or let him take Petunia for a walk. But I wasn't listening.

I did actually perk up and enjoy the dinner with our friends. Then we all slept like the dead Saturday night. Petunia didn't wake up until 4:30 and then she went back to sleep until 7:40. I was grateful, but a wee bit annoyed that she couldn't have done that the night before. And really, this was supposed to be my big revenge on Hubby, and he got to sleep until 7:10, which was when Pumpkin woke up. That is considered sleeping in here at Chez Cloud.

I did get a little bit of work done during "quiet time" on Sunday. (Of course, no nap from Pumpkin on Sunday! That would be too easy.) But it wasn't nearly enough, particularly since we had to take Petunia to her ENT follow up this morning, so I was late to work.

Hence, I am sitting here, waiting for a program to run so that at least I can start tomorrow with a fairly clean slate. And it is my own damn program, so I can't even blame anyone else for how slow it is.

But- here's the good news- Petunia had her sweat chloride test last week and she does not have cystic fibrosis. Also, she hates having things strapped to her arm. The ENT today looked at her tonsils and pronounced them beautiful, and said that given her young age, he'd recommend we just wait and see if she has anymore bouts of tonsillitis. We only have two confirmed bouts. However, one of those produced a throat culture that grew some strain of Haemophilus influenzae, which my limited googling tells me is prone to setting up persistent infections of the tonsils. So... Petunia may yet have a tonsillectomy in her future. But right now, she is mostly healthy (she has a slight cough, but no fever) and very happy and playful, so we're cautiously optimistic that we'll at least be able to get her to an age at which she can sort of understand the need to drink lots of fluids before we have to do any surgery.

And crap. My program just died. I know why, and it is a stupid reason that I should have seen coming. Grrr. Working at night is definitely not the most efficient way for me to get things done. Ah well, best go fix it....

Friday, June 10, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Changing Gender Roles Edition

So, apparently it is gender week here. I didn't plan it that way, but I am definitely enjoying reading your comments on yesterday's post.  Perhaps we will talk about something else next week, but it happens that all of my weekend reading links this week are also about gender, too.

First up, Bad Mom, Good Mom has an interesting post about gender specific math classes and how the girls-only algebra class became the de facto honors class- to the point that the parents of boys complained and there will now be a boys-only algebra class, too. I am a little bit uneasy with the gender-specific math class idea, but I can see how it can help combat some of the societal anti-math pressures on girls. Of course, I'd rather see those pressures go away, but that is unlikely to happen in time for my girls to take algebra, let alone in time for her daughter. So, in the spirit of embracing the imperfect solutions we have, I guess I'm OK with this. Although I do wonder why the school didn't just make a real honors math track, instead of having the gender-specific classes become the de facto one. And given the impact of selection bias pointed out in BMGM's post, would the outcome be different?

Next, here is a slick website aimed at starting discussions about changing gender roles. I found it via @Mom101's twitter feed, and I notice that her working mother post that I referenced in one of my early weekend reading posts is reposted there. It is a site that I'll keep my eye on, I think.

And finally, my husband sent me a link to Sissy's Magic Ponycorn Adventure game. It was created by a 5 year old girl, working with her father at a game jam. Read the back story- it is pretty cool, if you ask me. Who says little girls don't like computer games? This one does, but she's populated it with rainbows and "ponycorns" (which are pony-unicorns).

Which just goes to show you that we really don't know what gender roles will look like if we ever get to the place where we stop expecting those interests to cluster in predictable ways.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Don't Lean Back Ahead of Time and Other Rants I Posted Elsewhere

There has been some interesting discussion on Historiann's blog about whether or not it is reasonable to scale back your career plans as a young woman, looking ahead to anticipated difficulties balancing work and children. You know I have opinions on this, so of course, I left some comments. Nicoleandmaggie (who have two excellent recent posts on related issues) convinced me that I should turn those comments into a post, so I've decided to do that, while also pulling in some thoughts raised by Blue Milk's recent post on the upcoming "I Don't Know How She Does It" movie.

In a perfect world, I'd pull everything together into a neat little package, but, well, this isn't a perfect world. We're coming up on our second attempt to release a major new tool to the other scientists at my company, and I've got a lot of responsibility on that project, which means that I've been very busy and am spending quite a bit of time at home working.  But, I'm taking a cue from one of the quotes I love to use at work and refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and posting my comments from those other blogs pretty much as they were originally written. (The quote is from Voltaire, so is in French, but translates roughly to "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" and is a quote every project manager should learn, because it is an excellent argument to stop futzing and just release the damn software already.)

Anyway, I first waded in on Historiann's post long after the thread had mostly gone cold, but a commenter called Emma had been so snotty about "mommies" that I couldn't stop myself from posting. And once I started, I apparently could stop myself from writing a really long comment:


I’m almost afraid to comment given the venom in some of the other posts, but hell, I’ve defended a PhD so I should be able to take it. Or I guess I could just not come back and read any flames.

Anyway, first of all- @Emma: the only people who get to call me “mommy” are my kids. Calling us mommies and daddies is unnecessarily demeaning. I get that you don’t like a lot of us, or the decisions we’ve made, but you might find that we could have a more civil, productive conversation if you didn’t start out belittling me.

FWIW, I don’t think anyone should have to work an 80 hour week. And frankly, the time use surveys say that mostly, no one does. When people log their time, they usually max out at about a 60 hour week. Which isn’t great, but is a lot less than 80. (I log roughly 45 hours/week on paid work, if you’re curious.)

But what I really want to say has nothing to do with the majority of the debate here. I want to go way back to the original post.

I liked the quotes from the commencement speech- I don’t have time right now to watch the whole thing. I think the quotes make perfect sense in the context of a commencement speech, and they are something that a group of presumably ambitious college grads need to hear and think about.

I remember being in grad school and agonizing over whether or not I could combine kids with my chosen career, which is at the intersection of science and IT. I plowed ahead, and I’m glad I did. Because now that I am here, it is nowhere near as bad as I feared. Also, from where I sit, the other option for motherhood- that of being a SAHM- doesn’t look “easier”. I am friends with some SAHMs, and they are just as tired and stretched as I am. I think that the tired, over-stretched feeling is a function of having small children, not necessarily of combining small kids and demanding careers. I actually feel very little angst about being a WOHM, and I don’t really see much evidence that my career is suffering. I’ve gotten raises and promotions post-kids, I’ve also applied for and been hired into new jobs, even though I don’t hide my status as a mother in the job interview.

I don’t really know why I am a happy WOHM when so many others are not. I’ve mused a lot about it on my own blog, so anyone who is interested can click over there, click on the “working motherhood” category and read away. But if pushed, I would put it down to a few things:

1. My partner is absolutely in this 50-50, without argument. We both eased off a tiny bit on our careers after our first was born, mainly in the “extras”- I don’t network as much as I should, he’s dropped his non-work coding projects. We both are starting to ramp things back up now that our youngest is almost two. Neither of us have seen negative consequences yet. In the grand scheme of things, 5 years or so of less intense career focus is not a big deal.

We both eased off a huge amount in the area of housework. We used to split that 50-50. Now we split it 15-15-70, where the 70 is a wonderful housecleaning service we pay. I look forward to the day my kids are old enough to factor into that split!

Of course, I’m not in academia. I can see how the slight easing up isn’t as much of an option there, given the timing of tenure decisions.

2. I don’t go in for guilt, either from the parenting side or the working side. I think guilt can become self-fulfilling. My kids see plenty of me. My work gets plenty of hours from me. Would each like more? Probably. Do they need it? No.

3. I happened to have my kids later. I had my first when I was 35. This was largely because I hadn’t met their father until I was 30. By the time I had kids, I was established in my career and in the position to request accommodations that made things easier for me. Also, it meant that I was making enough money so that there was never any question about whether it makes financial sense to work and so that I could do things like hire the housecleaning service I mention above.

4. I live in California. Seriously, say what you want about my screwed up, bankrupt state, but both my husband and I used our FMLA, and the right of women returning to work to have pumping space and time is protected by law, and has been for quite some time. No one batted an eye about me pumping at work.

(Not to fan the breastfeeding flames, but I breastfed my first for 23 months and am still breastfeeding my second, who is 20 months old. I pumped until 18 months and 17 months, respectively. I did not use formula for either. I believe the science that indicates breastfeeding is the best choice when it is possible, but frankly, the main reason I’ve committed so much to breastfeeding is that I like it. I honestly do not care if other mothers choose formula, but I do care if they’d like to breastfeed and are thwarted by work considerations. As @Nicole says, if the stars align, it is no big deal to work and nurse. Let’s stop bickering about whether or not breast is best and put in the institutional changes that would make it a genuine choice for anyone who wants to make it.)

I say all of this in full knowledge that I am privileged and that many, many women are not as lucky as I am. The answer to that is, in my opinion, not to dismiss my experience, but to take a hard look at our society and figure out how we can make my experience the norm, not an exception available only to the privileged few.

And part of that change is for young women not to do the sexists’ work for them. Charge ahead. Reach for it all. You might just get it. I did, and I’m so very grateful that I didn’t preempt that possibility 15 years ago, when the future looked so scary.


You'll see that I tried to fend off the inevitable charge that I am just an over-privileged woman who has only succeeded by squashing the less privileged women who work at my day care and clean my house... but it didn't work. (As an aside, why is no one ever worried about whether I have squashed the presumably less privileged men who work at my day care (yes, there are men working at our day care) and fix my car?)

Anyway, an anonymous commenter took exception, particularly because she is certain that my housecleaner does not have access to the benefits I had like paid maternity leave and time off to pump. I disagree. Both Nicole and Historiann had actually already done an admirable job refuting anonymous' concerns, but I was grumpy last night and replied as well (this is three replies stitched together:


Anonymous, you made a faulty assumption. I did not get paid maternity leave, either- just FMLA, which is paid in California and the usual 6-8 weeks disability, depending on mode of birth.

I’ll give you, though, that it is a lot easier to absorb the lost income (FMLA does not cover 100% of income) at my higher income bracket. But it has a cap, so I got a lower percentage of my income covered than a lower income person would have had.

And, not that you care, but I shopped around for a cleaning service that gives its employees paid time off and benefits.

Also, if the cleaning service has more than 50 employees, they are required to provide pumping space and time, just like all other employers with more than 50 employees.
In practice, they come and clean my house while I am not there. A lactating cleaner could take her pick of private rooms in which to plug in a pump and take the 15 minute break the law requires. Heck, she could take 30 minutes. I pay a flat rate, not by the hour.

[An aside added after the fact: I'd fire my cleaning service without hesitation if I ever got wind of them not giving their employees time to pump. I am not super activist on many things, but that is one I feel strongly about.]

I guess my last comment is unclear. The cleaning service pays their employees by the hour. I pay them a flat rate. I happen to know, from the few times I’ve been home during cleaning, that they finish my house in less time than the service sets aside for a cleaning- it is a small house and we aren’t utter slobs. So in practice, for the one particular woman anonymous chose to attack on this issue, in fact there is no reason that my cleaner couldn’t pump if she needed to.

And I’ll also say, because I’m having a beer while I do some work, and my programs are taking longer than I expected to run, so I’m cranky AND a little less guarded than usual…

The sort of comment that anonymous left is one of the reasons I don’t hang out on feminist blogs.

I’m your natural ally- I’m a professional woman who has benefited from prior generations’ feminism and knows it. I work in a male dominated field so I get frequent- almost daily, really- reminders of how far we have left to go. I’ve thought about what makes it possible for me to enjoy my life as a working mother, and I’m well aware that a lot of that comes down to the money I have- and I think that is wrong. I’m left-leaning and I cast my vote and even occasionally write my congresspeople with an eye towards extending the benefits I’ve received to women in other income brackets.

But apparently, I’m not feminist enough for some of you guys. I am wallowing in privilege and entitlement and I should be… what? Cleaning my own damn toilets? Piously refusing to take my paid FMLA because it is not available to everyone, just to people who work in California for companies that employ at least 50 people? Storming the barricades and yelling loudly to get this fixed? So cowed by my knowledge of the great weight of privilege that I have that I never post any comments?

How does any of that help?

I keep posting because I remember being a grad student and everyone and their freakin’ dog was telling me that I “couldn’t” combine my chosen career with motherhood and that work-life balance was impossible in the sciences. It scared me and almost made me drop out. I had no role models to look at to counter what I was being told- my professors were mostly male. I was the first (and so far) only person in my extended family to get a PhD. Most of my female classmates were saying they weren’t going to have kids or quietly making plans to go into the science-related careers that are perceived as more family-friendly. So I believed what I heard, but for some reason, I stuck it out, anyway. And now, here I sit, happily combining my chosen career with being the mother of two adorable little kids… and I’m so very, very glad that something made me stick it out. So I post to be the counter-voice for other young women who might be where I was 10-15 years ago.

But that viewpoint doesn’t feel welcome on feminist blogs. It seems to me that there is a large subpopulation that is so busy waiting for perfect solutions that they won’t accept the partial progress we have made, and just want to make women like me feel guilty. Well, no thanks, I’m too busy for that.


I know! Crankypants. But really, I'd honestly like an answer to what the commenters who seem to reflexively call privilege on me and any other woman like me who posts want us to do differently. Because I thought that I was living the life that previous generations of feminists fought hard to make possible. How does it honor their fight if I refuse to accept that life until everyone can have it? I, too, would like to see that life become available to more women, but just pointing at me and saying I'm privileged doesn't really do much to make that happen. What would?

(And anyway, how is this privilege defined? I get that I have white privilege, and now have upper middle class privilege, but I didn't grow up upper middle class, more like solidly middle class, so do I get some sort of privilege discount for having gone to average public schools instead of tony private ones until I hit college, and having gone through that college on scholarship? Or is it all pegged on my current income? How is this nonsense helping anyone????)

As I said back in my first comment on Historiann's post, I actually think that we should look at my experience and the experiences of other happy working mothers and try to figure out what makes our lives and happiness possible- and then try to figure out how we can extend that to as many women as possible.

But I guess it is easier to just call "privilege!" and be done with me. So I stick to the few feminist blogs that I find that don't have that dynamic- or at least don't have it often- like Blue Milk. Who happened to have a recent post about the "I Don't Know How She Does It" movie (and by extension, book). Full disclaimer here- I've never read the book, and I haven't even watched the movie trailer. I heard an interview with the book's author on NPR, and that is my sole direct knowledge of the subject.

But that didn't stop me from commenting! I was responding to a comment that mentioned the disturbing "working mother = unhappy household" vibe in all of this:


Yeah, I’m getting that, too. I’ve heard the author of the book interviewed and don’t remember thinking I’d run out and read the book. She was talking about the pressure to bring homemade baked goods to kids’ parties and I knew right then that we weren’t in the same sphere- we have take out food and big buckets of cheese puffs from CostCo and our kids’ parties. Maybe I’m not high-powered enough? Or is it because we hang out with the kids from day care, who by definition have two working parents?

And the “women in workforce = everyone unhappy” thing just pisses me off. We’re all pretty happy here at my house. Tired, but happy. I saw a great quote from Anna Quindlen on that- something along the lines of “Just because we say we’re tired, that doesn’t mean we’re unhappy. It just means that we’re tired.”


And then Erin had an excellent comment about the particular subculture of motherhood that seems to be on display in this book/movie, as well as in just about everything the NY Times ever writes about the subject, and how that doesn't match her experience. It doesn't match mine, either, so I replied:


You just explained why I can’t stand reading anything about motherhood from the NY Times and why Rosin’s articles generally make me angry. Maybe I would like them better if I viewed them as anthropology? Because they sure doesn’t describe my life. We, for instance, show up places with a 6 pack of beer not a bunch of homemade brownies. (But its good beer!)

I wonder how much is driven by a class of really smart, ambitious women who have chosen to channel all of that into their husband’s careers and their kids’ success? I’m just speculating, though.

@anna, I do remember that the book was set in London. But I wonder if it is the same subculture? Some aspects of NYC are more similar to London than to my locale…. Again, just speculating.

I find the different subcultures of motherhood fascinating. Does anyone know if there is anyone studying this and writing good books on it?


To me, these two threads are closely related, which is why I put all my replies into one post. That, and I'm lazy.  I think that the building up of unrealistic (and unnecessary) expectations and requirements around motherhood contributes to the cultural atmosphere that makes young women freak out a bit and start easing off on their career before they have even found a partner, let alone had kids. It feels like another giant self-inflicted wound, closely related to the guilt issue I've written about before.

So, wow. This post got long. But I'd be interested to hear what you all think about the "leaning back" phenomenon mentioned in Historiann's post, or the (frankly ill-defined) issue of privilege and how to extend the benefits I have to women who don't have as much privilege as I do, or the subculture of motherhood that seems to demand that you bring plates of homemade brownies to play dates. Or anything at all, really. Have at it in the comments.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Gender Bender

While I was in Arizona, I found myself drawn into a discussion about the baby whose parents aren't revealing his/her gender. It was one of those weird situations where I find myself arguing with more strength than I really feel- similar to getting into a discussion about gun control with a non-American. (As an aside, if you are not American and want to determine whether or not an American you've just met has spent much time outside the US, try to draw him or her into a discussion about gun control. Anyone who's traveled much will probably find a way to dodge it. We've learned that it is more angst than it is worth. I actually can't believe I'm mentioning it on this blog. To my international readers: I can't explain America's weirdness about guns and if you make me try I'll probably end up waving my hands around and talking about how important the Bill of Rights is to us, despite obvious evidence to the contrary where other amendments are concerned. Really, its better if we just don't go there.)

Anyway... back to the baby with the secret gender. Or more accurately, my weird reaction to it- because, as is often the case when I find myself in arguments that seem counter to my beliefs, my reaction says more about me than the subject being discussed.

I really don't care what that family in Canada does with regards to the baby's gender, or even whether or not their older son wants to wear dresses and braid his hair. Their decisions are not ones I would make, but that is probably because I took an endocrinology class in college, and as part of that read some of the literature about what happens when the gender a child is raised in doesn't match the gender that the child's biology dictates (and notice that I did not say sex, here- I'm specifically NOT talking about transgendered people. I'm talking about people whose biology would lead them to identify with one gender but are raised as the other gender, either because the external sexual characteristics are ambiguous or because there has been a surgical accident during circumcision). Let's just say that there is a lot of misery hidden in those dry scientific papers, and I came away with a healthy respect for the role of biology in gender identity. Society might define what it means to be "female" or "male", but the need to identify as one or the other seems (to me, anyway) to have a strong biological component.

But that's not at really all that relevant to what the Canadian family is doing. So why did I react strongly enough to that story to end up discussing it while on vacation? I think it is because I'm a bit ambiguous about their goals, and the things that some of their defenders were arguing were "right". Don't get me wrong- I am a firm believer in gender equality. But the extreme gender neutrality that some people were advocating on behalf of this family makes me uncomfortable.

My discomfort comes from the assumption that seems implicit on both sides of the "gender neutrality" debate- that these traits society has decided belong to one gender or the other all come as a parcel. I still remember how I struggled to find my identity as a female scientist in college. Science, particularly physical science (I was essentially a chemistry major) was seen as a male thing to do, and while I had a lot of male friends, I didn't get asked on many dates. Most of the men I knew didn't really see me as a woman anymore, and that bothered me more than I cared to admit. Conversely, when I'd be out away from people who knew me, any man who was hitting on me would either stop abruptly when he learned my major or give me some lame line about how I couldn't possibly be majoring in that, since I was too pretty.

I remember thinking that I was too pretty to be smart and too smart to be pretty. I didn't find my way out of that conundrum until I went to graduate school. The men there were less screwed up, I guess.

I am still more overtly "female" than many of the women in my field. I wear my hair long and I favor skirts if my office isn't kept too cold for them. I love Jane Austen, who may be the thinking woman's answer to the Disney princesses.

On the flip side, my preferred way to stay in shape is martial arts, in particular Muay Thai. I haven't been able to fit classes into my schedule since having kids, but I hope to fix that as the kids get older. I love watching rugby. And I drink beer, not white zinfandel.

I don't think there is a conflict in those two sets of characteristics, but a lot of people do- even, apparently some of the people arguing for gender neutrality- since they roll their eyes when I confess to letting Pumpkin dress in overtly girl clothes and letting her watch Cinderella. One commenter even implied that I was raising my girls in a "pink ghetto" and they wouldn't learn to take risks and tackle challenging problems.

Frankly, I think that is crap. You can be feminine and ambitious. Pink is just a color, and say what you want about Disney, but they know how to tell a story. Why are purple dresses and overtly feminine hairstyles OK for Jazz but not my daughter?

I fought the princess crap until I realized that I was trying to control what my daughter was interested in, and that is really no better than the people who say that a girl can't be interested in math. So I gave in, and bought her Cinderella. But I also made a point of reading her The Paper Bag Princess a little more frequently.
But you know, as hard as it is to navigate this crap as the mother of two girls, I think I have it easy compared to mothers of boys. If Jazz were a girl who wanted to cut her hair short and wear nothing but jeans and Cars t-shirts, the international media would probably not have been interested. We still struggle as a society to allow our boys to find their own combinations of interests. There were some boys in my high school who wore eye liner, and it made a stir. Apparently, we haven't progressed that much in the last 20+ years.

But you definitely can be masculine and wear eye liner- reference Ma'a Nonu, who, since he is of Samoan descent may even occasionally wear something that looks a lot like a skirt. But he is pretty strongly masculine, if you ask me:

(Ma'a Nonu is a New Zealand rugby player known for his hard hits and occasionally brilliant line breaks. He also wears eye liner. I have heard some people comment on that, but I doubt anyone would question his masculinity to his face. Apologies for the poor resolution of some of that video- it was the best I could find.)

So I guess what I really want is for people to start standing up for the right of people to be a little bit "male" and a little bit "female"- mixing things however their interests take them. Let the boys wear pink and purple if they want, and don't assume that a girl who loves princesses is not going to kick the world's butt some day. That may or may not be what that family in Canada is trying to do, but it wasn't what I was reading in the comments on those threads. And that, apparently, bothers me enough to not only make me comment prolifically from my vacation, but also to write an entire post of my own when I really should be in bed!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Quotable: Grown-Ups are Silly

"Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is."

--From The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson.

I love this quote, because it reminds me that introspection, like anything, can be a bad thing if carried to extremes.

I'm continuing to play around with ideas for my Sunday posts. I'd like to post something short (both to post and to read) every week, but have clearly struggled to do this. My current thinking is to have a mix of Zenbits, surprisingly profound kids' art, and quotes.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Self-Help Edition

Recently, The Mama Bee, one of my favorite bloggers writing about the issue of working mothers, returned after an extended hiatus. So far she has mostly been tweeting, not posting, but that's OK, because she tweets links to interesting articles. This week, she linked to a post from Gretchin Rubin of Happiness Project fame about talking yourself out of a funk and an infuriating post on The Vault about some insensitive stupid comments that some guy in British finance made.

I'm intrigued by Rubin's Happiness Project, and keep meaning to read her book, but failing to make the time to do so. Have any of you read it? Should I get it on my reading list? I don't usually go in for self-help type books, but I rather enjoyed 168 Hours and found it useful, so maybe I should get over my prejudice against the genre. (BTW, 168 Hours is coming out in paperback about now, so if you were tempted to read it back when I was doing my life reorg, now it is cheaper.)

The Vault post, or more accurately, the quote that prompted it, brings up a common complaint I hear about hiring women- that we're just going to get married, have kids, and drop out of the workforce. Or, if we stay in the workforce, we're not going to be as dedicated as the men. I call bullshit on this idea. There are all sorts of reasons why workers might drop out of the workforce- parenthood just happens to be the most common. My husband and I both took 4 month leaves of absence to go on our "big trip" around Asia and the Pacific. This is one month longer than I took for my maternity leaves (I took 3 months off each time, returning part time for one month). My husband worked for awhile with a guy who was just working to make enough money for his next trip- he had already dropped in and out of the workforce several times and was only in his early thirties. Even without leaving the workforce, people burn out and abruptly leave jobs all the time, to go off to do something that they hope will be more rewarding. At least with a maternity leave, employers have time to prepare for it.

And while I will be the first to admit that I have had some less than stellar days due to sleep deprivation, is that really worse than some young, single party animal who rolls into work with a hangover now and then? Overall, I'd say that my productivity dipped for a few months after each maternity leave, but bounced back to something close to pre-baby levels. I still get praised for my productivity and efficiency, even though I have shifted my schedule to accommodate day care pick ups and family dinners. Also- my husband's productivity has gone through similar cycles associated with the births of our children, but I don't hear anyone saying that it is a bad investment to hire family men.

If you are a working mother feeling bad after reading that Vault post, you can try Gretchin Rubin's "argue yourself out of it" technique and see if it works... and maybe this awesome post from Zen Master Moo about why she works will give you some arguments to use on yourself.

In other news... the Economist has an interesting article about how we're in the anthropocene age now. I haven't had time to fully digest it yet, but I find the concept interesting.

And finally, some silliness from my husband: Muppet Star Wars action figures. They have already worked their marketing magic, because now he says he wants to go to Disneyland.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

In Which I Turn 39 and a Bubble is Cruelly Burst

We're just back from an extra-long weekend in Arizona, visiting my family- which is why I've been so quiet. It would have been silly to subject us all to a six hour drive and then spend all my time hanging out on the computer blogging. You only got the last weekend reading post because I needed to do something on the computer for work and then couldn't, so I had to email my boss and wait for an answer.

Anyway, it was a good trip. The kids enjoyed the extra attention that comes from being with their grandparents, and the parents enjoyed the corresponding extra little bit of time not chasing kids.

The kids got some time with my grandparents, too. I remember all four of my great-grandparents on my Dad's side, and have always been grateful for that. I may not have realized it at the time, but knowing them added some perspective to my life that I would otherwise have missed. I'm hoping that my kids will get some of that, too. Pumpkin is getting to be old enough that she might remember some of this when she's grown, and my grandparents are still going strong, so there is a chance that my late start on child-rearing won't deprive my kids of the chance to brag about knowing their great-grandparents.

We were in Arizona over my birthday. As the years tick over, I'm less inclined to make a big fuss about my birthday. But with a four year old in the family, ignoring it is not an option. So we packed up the kids and met my cousin and her kids at a local park. Pumpkin enjoyed singing Happy Birthday to me and eating cupcakes. But she really liked the chance to play with her cousin at the cool park with a carousel, some rides, and a train:

(This is at Freestone Park, for anyone visiting the eastern end of the Phoenix area and looking for ways to entertain a four year old.)

After lunch, Hubby and I grabbed our overnight bag and escaped for a night to Scottsdale while my parents watched the kids. We took care of some errands at the local mall and then had a leisurely beer at a bar that looked surprisingly like a transplanted midwestern dive bar:

(This is at a bar called The Lodge, for anyone visiting Scottsdale and looking for ways to entertain two decidedly unhip adults. Yes, those are antler chandeliers.)

The highlight was dinner, though. I picked a place called The Herb Box, based largely on the fact that the menu had a butternut squash enchilada with tomatillo sauce, and those are three of my favorite things. I knew I'd chosen well when we were presented with a choose your own adventure cheese menu upon sitting down:

The inclusion of a cranberry margarita on the drink menu was a bonus- again two of my favorite things in happy harmony:

There was a live jazz trio playing, and they weren't bad. I am not a big jazz fan, so I was surprised to discover that I recognized one of their songs. I was feeling like a slightly more hip adult until my husband pointed out that the reason I knew the song was that it had been done on Sesame Street, and is included in the videos we show to Petunia when she requests "mel-mo":

Oh well. At least the margarita took the sting off of the bursting of my bubble.