Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Having it All: The Logistics

Thank you all for your nice emails and comments on my last post. I almost didn't post it, because I was worried it would come off wrong... I'm glad I went ahead and pushed the "publish" button. If nothing else, I now know where to recruit when I get around to starting a company: right here!

I got one really nice email from a young woman in grad school, who is worrying about how she will put all of her puzzle pieces together. She wants kids, and she wants a career in biotech... and she wonders how it will all fit. She'd read my last post, along with my recent rants about work-life balance and having it all, but wanted to know more. I remember looking ahead and being afraid of trying to live the life I am happily living right now, so I decided that I'd answer her on my blog, rather than just via email, on the principle that if one person asked, maybe other people are wondering the same thing.

My first piece of advice is to stop worrying about future problems, and just work hard and do great science now. In other words, don't lean back ahead of time. Once you have kids, you can decide whether or not you want or need to ease up on your career, but whatever you decide, it will be easier to keep your career viable if you have a strong reputation built in your earlier years. Whether you keep working or take a break, that reputation will serve you well. I think that one reason I haven't suffered from much "working moms are slackers" bias in my own career is that I have a sterling reputation for productivity- and have maintained it. But we are also actively recruiting someone right now who is coming back after about 5 years off with young kids. We actually sought her out and asked her if she was ready to come back, on the basis of having been impressed with her work before she took the break.

My second piece of advice is to figure out how to be productive within a reasonable work week now. It is much, much easier to do this before you have the stereotype-inducing baggage of motherhood to contend with. Even if you end up not having kids, you'll probably want to have a life outside of work. And you'll be happier and more productive now. So it is an all-around winning proposition! Figure out what your work limit is. Figure out where your time goes when you are in the lab- chances are it isn't all to work. That's OK if that is how you want to manage your time right now, but an awareness of this will help you later.

My third piece of advice is to choose your partner carefully. Look for someone who will actually be a partner, i.e., pull his or her fair share of the work around the house, be a fully equal parent, and collaborate on solving logistics problems. Update: I was reminded in the comments that some mothers don't have partners, either by choice or circumstance. I am sorry- it shouldn't have taken a comment to remind me of that! But I obviously can't write about the logistics of making that work. I wrote a little more in the comments, and hopefully some single parents will weigh in, too.

The woman who wrote the email also asked if I would write a post with the details of how my husband and I make it all work. I've decided to do that, but with a certain amount of trepidation. First of all, I find it hard to believe that it will actually be interesting to read. If you agree with me, stop reading right now! I won't be offended. Second, I think it is too easy to read a post like this and think "well, I can't do XYZ like she does, so clearly I can't have kids and a career, too." But that is a mistake. The details of my life aren't actually very informative, because the details of every family's arrangements will be different, depending on the temperaments and sleep needs of the kids and the adults, the specifics of the jobs involved, the transport options in the city in which the family lives, etc., etc.

But she asked so nicely. Just ask my kids- I'm a sucker for a polite request! So here goes. Please don't read too much into the details, and remember- you are smart, and you will presumably find a smart partner. Together, you can probably solve the particular logistical problems your life poses once you have kids. Trust yourself.

The Base Weekday Schedule

My husband gets up at about 6:20 a.m., when the alarm goes off. Most days, I get up earlier (as early as 6 a.m.), when one or both of the kids wakes up. If the kids are "sleeping in," I get up at about 6:40, when my husband gets out of the shower. If Petunia's had a particularly bad night, I make my husband get up when she wakes up for the day, and I try to sleep a bit more until the alarm goes off.

We all eat breakfast. I check my email and then shower, make my lunch, and do my hair. I also help get the kids dressed and ready as makes sense- but the morning routine is primarily my husband's to run.

I leave the house between 7:40 and 8:00 a.m. The kids usually walk me to the car, carrying my purse and my lunch for me, then give me big hugs and kisses and wave goodbye. This is my second most favorite part of the day, second only to the big smiles and hugs I get when I pick them up from day care.

I drive to work, and get there between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

My husband finishes getting the kids ready, leaves the house between 8 and 8:30 a.m., drives the kids to day care, then drives to work, arriving between 8:30 and 9 a.m. (It turns out that the time you lose dropping the kids off is mostly compensated for by the fact that when they are in the car, you get to use the car pool lane on our freeway on ramp.)

We both work all day. I don't take a long lunch break most days, although I do occasionally meet a friend for lunch. I go for a 20-30 minute walk at lunchtime if my meeting schedule allows. I actually find that the walk helps me think problems through, so it can be a very productive thing to do. I usually manage a walk at least twice a week. If I have a meeting too close to lunchtime and can't walk, I usually still take a short break, by goofing off online while I eat.

I leave work between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m. and drive to day care. One of the bonuses of my current job is that it is only a 5-10 minute drive from day care. Unless it is raining, in which case it can take more than 30 minutes to get there. This closeness to day care is what gives me the wiggle room to leave a bit later sometimes. At my last job, I left by 4:30 without fail.

I drove home with the kids. We are home by 5:30 p.m. most days.

The kids watch TV or a DVD and eat a snack while I cook dinner. My husband leaves work between 5:15 and 5:30 and is home by 6 most nights. Dinner is served between 6 and 6:15 p.m., and we're done between 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. It isn't slow food, but I try to make healthy things.

One adult plays with the kids while the other clears the table and puts away any leftovers, then comes and joins in the play.

The kids have bath together at 7 p.m. My husband and I take turns giving the bath. Some nights, this is a pain, but a lot of nights it is a lot of fun. The kids usually play well together in the bath, especially if there are bubbles.

The kids have a snack at 7:30 p.m. Both adults usually hang out for that, but if one of us has a lot of work to do or just needs a break, the other will cover snack alone.

At about 8 p.m., Petunia goes to bed. One parent goes and handles that, and the other stays up and plays with Pumpkin, or, if feeling particularly wiped out, watches a show with her.

At about 8:30 p.m., Pumpkin goes to bed.

Both kids get 20-30 minutes of books before the lights go out. These days, Pumpkin reads to us for some of that most nights. Petunia still gets snuggled to sleep, which takes 15 minutes to over an hour, depending on whether or not we've offended the gods of toddler sleep (seriously- I have no idea what causes the variation). Pumpkin got snuggled to sleep until she was three, but now goes to sleep on her own after one story (I made up a story about a zebra trying to get all the other animals in the zoo to go to sleep, and have had to tell it every other night for years. Let this be a warning for you. If you make up a story, make it a good one! I rather like mine, but even so, I'm getting a little tired of it.)

We take turns getting the kids down- one night I do Petunia and my husband does Pumpkin, the next night we switch. Whoever finishes with their kid first does the dishes and sweeps.

Most nights, we're both done by 9:30. Then we work, do chores like paying bills, blog, watch TV, or do whatever else we want/need to do.

I go to bed between 10 and 10:30. My husband comes in later.

Petunia may or may not sleep through the night. Probably not. Usually, I go and resettle her when she wakes up, but sometimes she'll accept my husband instead. It is not uncommon for the adult who is resettling her to fall asleep in her bed and spend the rest of the night there.


On Tuesdays, my husband picks up the kids from day care. I leave work at my usual time, but come straight home and get a ~45 minute workout in before dinner, which is leftovers.

Every other Wednesday, we have a big "clean up" session to get the house tidied up so that the cleaner who comes the next day can actually clean it. The adults do most of the tidying, but we do get the kids to help pick up the toys.

On Thursdays, my husband has an early teleconference, which he takes from home. I take the kids in. We make a concerted effort to get me out the door by 7:50 a.m., and I get to work by about 8:30 a.m.
We both pick the kids up. Pumpkin goes to swim lessons with my husband. I bring Petunia home and attempt to do my workout DVD. She usually does not co-operate. I need a Yo Gabba Gabba workout DVD. (Seriously. They should make one. I suspect there is a reasonably large market for such a thing.) I usually get my workout in after dinner, while my husband gives the kids their bath.

Starting in a few weeks, on Fridays I will pick up the kids and go to a park near day care for soccer lessons for Pumpkin. Petunia will play at the playground during the lesson. My husband joins us about halfway through the lesson, and then we all go out to dinner at a nearby small food court (our choices are Daphne's Greek or a local BBQ chain) and are home by bath time. Last summer and fall, we did this on Tuesday nights.

When a kid gets sick, one of us picks her up and takes her home and the other one finishes the day before picking up the other kid. We choose who has to leave work based on our work schedules- basically, who has a meeting that can't be missed or who has the deadline coming up first. We also roughly take turns. I call my Mom (who is retired), and if she can, she flies over from Phoenix to stay with the sick kid the next day or two. If she can't, my husband and I take turns, or split the days (one works morning, the other works afternoon), and we try to work from home as much as the sick kid and the rest of our schedule will allow.


On Friday nights, after the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, my husband and I crack open some beers and sit down and plan our weekend. One of us writes a list of things to do, which includes chores, any work we need to do, and at least one fun thing for the kids. Once our weekend to do list is written, we chat or watch a show- usually a British mystery, because that is one type of show we both like.

I try to sleep in (until the decadent hour of 7:30) on the weekends, to help compensate for the fact that I am the one who gets up in the middle of the night most nights. When Petunia starts sleeping through the night, we'll probably each get to sleep in (or stay in bed reading for an hour or so) one day.

On Saturdays, we do laundry. We complicate this by hanging the majority of it up on a clothesline and just finishing it briefly in the dryer. Using the fancy retractable clothesline he made his parents lug over from New Zealand at one point makes my husband happy, and the kids love to help (hand us clothes pins), so even though this saves us at most $1/month, I figure it is time well spent. Also, it seems criminal to waste all that San Diego sunshine. Anyway, my husband usually does more of the work around laundry than I do.

Every other Saturday, Pumpkin has a 45 minute Chinese lesson after lunch. One of the adults takes this with her. I can count to ten, and know a bunch of colors and fruit in Chinese now.

On Sundays, my husband goes for a run in the morning. I write the menu plan and grocery list, and then in the afternoon, one of us (usually me) goes to the grocery store. We tried getting groceries delivered, but didn't find it to be a big help, so we dropped that.

My husband cooks dinner on the weekends. He usually makes enough for leftovers at least one of the two nights. We often have my sister over for dinner one of the two nights. We also have the usual mix of play dates, birthday parties, family outings, trips to the park, visits with friends, and other fun things mixed in with the chores.

Petunia still takes a two hour nap after lunch. Pumpkin has "quiet time" (usually TV time, but sometimes coloring or reading time) during this time. I work, blog, or read. Sometimes, I take Petunia for a walk for the first hour or so of her nap- she's sort of outgrowing this, though. Maybe eventually, I'll go out for a run instead. My husband works or does chores (usually yard work) during naptime. Sometimes, one of the adults is really tired from the night before, and naps with Petunia.


So there you have it- our logistical plan in all its boring detail. We got lucky on a few details- we both work in the same part of town, for instance. My mother is retired and willing to come over and babysit sick kids. We also made one very good decision, which we didn't really recognize at the time we were making it: we chose to buy a smaller, more expensive house closer to work, rather than a larger, cheaper house further away. This means our commute is only 15 minutes without traffic, 30-40 minutes in heavy traffic. This really makes our lives easier. We also choose to do a lot of our shopping online, which may or may not increase the cost, but spares us from needing to take frequent trips to a big box store. We go to Costco for diapers, beer, and cereal once every couple of months. We go to Trader Joes for their various yummy foods and cheap wine about once a month. We take the occasional Target trip. Otherwise, we buy almost everything we need online or at our grocery store.

Like I said- I wouldn't read too much into the details of how we've worked things out. Think of this as a worked example problem. The problem on the test will be different, but applying the same general principles will probably lead to a solution.

Feel free to leave your own tips and tricks in the comments, or ask questions if the detail above wasn't enough for you.

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Ambition and Motherhood

I am an ambitious person. I always have been. Having kids has not changed that- although perhaps it has changed the shape of my ambition.

Before I had kids, the path I was taking to fulfill my ambition seemed obvious. I was working in my chosen field, and I was aiming to continue to advance in that field, hoping perhaps to achieve some level of visibility in the field at large. I didn't want to be world famous, but locally famous in my chosen field sounded nice.

Now, I find that my ambition has changed. I do not know whether or not this is a direct consequence of having kids. I find that I often need to remind myself that my life would have changed with time even if I hadn't had kids. It is not my kids' fault that I am getting old, so perhaps they are also not to blame for my more cynical outlook on my current field and my general weariness with the counter-productive rules by which most of the corporate world operates.

Whatever the cause, my ambition in my current field has shrunk. I no longer feel any urgency to advance to the next level- perhaps because that would just be the next rung up in middle management, and I have seen enough of middle management to know that it is a largely thankless role. Essential, but thankless. My current specialization does not lend itself to becoming a CEO of a biotech company, and while I am not sure I'd want to run a biotech, I am increasingly convinced that I'd like to run something.

Yes, I want to run a company- something that never crossed my mind ten years ago. So my ambition has also grown. I am no longer particularly interested in telling other people in my little field anything about that field, but I find that there are things I want to tell a much wider audience, and things I want to prove to the world at large. And there are still problems I see that I would like to help solve, they are just in different areas. I am, however, still ambivalent about the idea of general fame, perhaps because the world seems so ready to tear down women who succeed at anything other than being beautiful. In particular, the world seems to want to dissect successful women's mothering, and the thought of that just makes my heart hurt, for myself and for my children.

So motherhood is, in that sense, holding back my ambition. But in another sense, it is informing it, because if I examine my motivation for much of what I want to do, I find that one of my strongest motivating factors is that I want to make the world a better place for my children, and if I can't solve the problems in time for them, then maybe I can at least make some progress in time for their children. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the only way to shut up the petty jerks who snipe at mothers who try to achieve things outside the home is to just get out there and prove them wrong, and it sure would be nice if my daughters didn't have to think about this at all when they are contemplating what to do with their lives.

Besides, the fact that the world includes some petty jerks doesn't seem like a very good reason to stifle my ambition, so I continue to feel my way towards acting on it. I've had similar thoughts for awhile- I think this is part of what motivated the "life reorg" I undertook a while ago, although I fell victim to a real reorg before I could complete it. But I haven't really figured out what to do with my ambition, and how to make it fit with my desire to keep making enough money to enable our comfortable lifestyle. I guess in that sense, my attachment to our house and the occasional nice vacation is holding back my ambition, too.

I have the beginnings of a five year plan forming in my head, but it is not yet concrete enough to write down, and I'm certainly not ready to commit to it. However, I suspect it might do me some good to write down those of my various ambitions that motivate me most strongly, without trying to reconcile them with each other or the rest of my goals for my life. So here they are:
  • Convince more people (a lot more people) that long hours at work do not equal productivity. Basically, I want to spread the message about how people have a work limit, and lure more people away from the false promise of spending stupidly long hours working. As I continue managing projects in yet another company, I am more convinced than ever that pushing people past their work limits just extends project timelines, as productivity plummets. I think that the idea that you will get more done by simply work longer hours is a myth, and one that causes a lot of misery.
  • Prove that you can build a successful company that makes useful and/or cool products without sacrificing your life to it, or forcing your employees to sacrifice theirs. This is closely intertwined with my desire to be the boss of a company. It may, in fact, be the root cause of that desire. I haven't fully analyzed that. I do realize that this is not a particularly sound foundation for a company. I have some ideas about things my company could do, but since I am adamant about the idea that no one should have to sacrifice the other aspects of their life in the pursuit of those ideas, I would not pursue venture funding for them even if I were well-connected enough to be able to easily go about that. Venture capitalists have drunk the "if you work longer hours, you will produce more things" kool-aid, and I want none of that. I very explicitly want to prove that there is another way. (Incidentally, I am not the only one who thinks this- look at this post from the guys at 37signals, who are also apparently building their company around this idea.)
  • Work to ensure that every child gets the chance to fulfill his or her full potential. This is an absolutely huge goal, with many, many facets, and I am in no way egotistical enough to think I can achieve all of it. Or even a tiny part of it, really. But I would like to make a noticeable contribution in this area. Which is completely unrelated to anything else I've ever done. I'm still thinking about how I might achieve this. So far, all I do is donate money to people I think are doing good work in the area. I would like to do more, at some point.
As I said, I still need to really think about these ambitions, and work out how they fit together, as well as how they fit in with the other things I want in my life. But I have acknowledged them, and started the work of figuring out what to do with them, and that is important. In the meantime, I continue working hard at my current job- because that is the right thing to do, because I like my job (most days), and because in the inchoate five year plan swirling around in my head, the things I'm learning now are part of what makes the whole thing possible.

And I pace myself. My kids are still young enough to rightfully draw huge amounts of time and energy from me. I do not reliably sleep through the night yet, because Petunia does not. Both kids can still have an almost physical need for me and my attention that I do not think should be denied- rationed, maybe, but not denied. None of this detracts from my ambition, but it does impact the timing. I take a long view on my career. I am turning 40 this year. Even if I retire at the "usual" age, I have twenty-five more years to work. It has not yet been twenty-five years since I graduated from college, let alone graduate school. None of us really knows how much time we have to accomplish our goals, but I have no reason to think that I do not have plenty.

So I can afford to take it slow. Perhaps, if I did not have kids, I would accomplish in two or three years what I am currently hoping to accomplish in five. But so what? It seems unlikely that someone else is going to come along and accomplish the things on my list ahead of me- and if they did, I should rightfully cheer, because the world would be a better place for it, and I could find different problems to tackle.

Perhaps a purist would argue that I am sacrificing my ambition to my kids, but it does not seem that way to me. It would be easy to blame them for the fact that I am squeezing work on my nascent five year plan in around the edges of my life, but that would be unfair. If I wanted to do so, I could arrange my life such that I could pursue my ambitions with at least 40 hours per week right now. But that would require drastic changes to my life, which I do not want to take. Right now, the biggest impediment to my ambitions is money- I like having it. The only part of that I can lay at my children's feet is the fact that their day care is one of our major expenses. But in some countries, it wouldn't be. In some countries, preschool is a collective expense. So is the fact that so much of our income needs to go to day care an impediment to my ambition thrown up by motherhood, or by the society in which I happen to live?


Back in November, I wrote a post about being a feminist mother, which included some lines that really resonated with a lot of people:

"Somehow, the space in my life expanded to accommodate the demands of motherhood without crowding out the essence of me. I cannot explain it. During my first year of motherhood, I was sure it was not possible, that I was in fact being subsumed into this new mommy person. But I came out the other side wanting both to devote myself to my kids and to pursue my own goals with full vigor.

Perhaps that is the essence of what it is to be a feminist mother- the realization that your own goals can coexist with your love and absolute devotion to your children. Motherhood can grow your life rather than contracting it."

Those words are still very much true for me. In the comments, feMOMhist asked how I made the space in my life expand to accommodate motherhood without crowding out "me." I didn't know the answer then, and this post was my attempt to explore that a bit.

Unfortunately, I still don't really know the answer.

Perhaps the key is the fact that my ambition has always stemmed from a desire to leave the world a little better than I found it. Having kids has provided a few extra challenges, but also given me extra motivation in that regard.

Or perhaps the key is that my particular ambitions do not feel time limited, so I can absorb a slightly slower pace while my children are young.

And perhaps it is just something about me. Living any way other than the way I'm living right now would not feel like I was being true to myself. I do not need my career to go faster, and but I do not want it to go slower. I do not want less time with my kids, but I also don't feel the need to have more. My life can be chaotic and frustrating at times, but it is just right for me.

I suspect that it is a combination of those things, which makes my answer deeply unhelpful to other women, looking for the answer in their own lives. Or maybe it doesn't, because another way to look at my answer is this: listen to your wants and desires- all of them. Be realistic about what the alternative options really are. And then shuffle everything you want around like puzzle pieces until you find the arrangement that makes a pretty picture. It might not be the picture you thought you were creating ten years ago, but it is probably the only one that you can make with the pieces you have right now.

Don't worry about the fact that other people's puzzles look different from yours. They have different pieces. And stop worrying whether or not you have the right picture. If you've used all your pieces, chances are, you do.


What about you? Are you ambitious? Has your ambition changed with time and/or life circumstances? What do you want to tell (or show) the world?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Toys to Promote Skills: Gender Neutral Edition

Last week, I wrote a guest post for Mommy Shorts about pink, purple, and princess toys that still promote important skills for future math and science success. The great toys featured in that post aren't the only toys we have that promote those skills, though. Pumpkin loves pink, purple, and princesses, but she has always been interested in other, toys, too. I thought I'd follow up the "girl toys" post with a list of some of our favorite "gender neutral" toys that promote skills that set kids up for future success in math and science.

1. Blocks. Lots and lots of blocks.

As I wrote in that guest post, building toys are great for stretching spatial reasoning skills, and also for instilling a love and "feel" for building things. Everyone knows about LEGO and Duplo, and we have lots of that. But there is more to building toys than LEGO.

We started both kids on blocks early. Petunia, though, has benefited from some things we figured out a bit late with Pumpkin- namely, that a kid's motor skills have a big impact on how well building things goes. Therefore, Petunia has had a wider range of blocks than Pumpkin did, as we looked for blocks that she could use from an early age.

Petunia was able to build with the Fisher-Price Little People Builders Stack 'n Learn Alphabet Blocks much, much earlier than she could build with Duplo. The downside is that she outgrew the blocks by the time she was two. These are definitely for young toddlers.

The big Megabloks were another type of block Petunia mastered before she could handle Duplo. They've also had more staying power. Petunia and Pumpkin both still play with these, and will also build with these blocks together, which is pretty cool to watch. Until Petunia knocks over Pumpkin's tower, or they both want the same piece at the same time....

Nesting blocks are also really good for toddlers. One day, you'll look over and see that your "baby" has figured out how to stack them properly, and you'll realize she's starting to figure out some basic things about the size of objects. Lots of companies make blocks like this. We have a set of sturdy cardboard ABC Building Blocks, which we got second hand when Pumpkin was about two and have not destroyed yet.

Both of my kids really love playing blocks with the pieces from the Zimbbos game.

I'm sure the game is fun to play, too, but we've never tried it. The blocks are explicitly intended to use for building pyramids, including inverted pyramids, so they are great building toys.

2. Take Apart Toys

Taking something apart and putting it back together is a great way to practice spatial skills and logic. Our favorite toy in this category is the Battat Take Apart Airplane

It comes with a little "drill" to use on the big plastic screws that hold it together. Pumpkin and Petunia both like playing with it. Petunia definitely needs some help reassembling it, but she can mostly disassemble it on her own.

3. Puzzles

Pumpkin took to puzzles early and without much effort on our part. Petunia has been slower to show an interest, and we definitely had to work a bit more at it. We put in the effort, though, because puzzles are great toys for spatial reasoning and logic skills.  Petunia first warmed up to puzzles wiht the Melissa & Doug Pets Sound Puzzle.
She also really liked the mix-and-match puzzles from Melissa and Doug, Fish Colors Mix N Match Peg Puzzle. She will still stop and "fix" the puzzle if someone puts the fishes back together the "wrong" way- i.e., not matching. Incidentally, we had bought that puzzle for Pumpkin, back when she had outgrown the simple peg puzzles but wasn't quite ready for a jigsaw puzzle.

Petunia hasn't transitioned directly to small jigsaw puzzles the way Pumpkin did, but she really enjoys doing floor puzzles with a grown up right now. Her favorite is this jungle numbers floor puzzle.
Pumpkin still really likes puzzles. She has also started to enjoy tangrams. My mom brought some over for her once, and since they were leftover from her years as a teacher, they were probably similar to these. We'll have to get some for her soon.

4. Logic Games

I've got nothing against Candyland (although I will confess to being fairly bored with it after playing it roughly 4237 times since Pumpkin got it), but I love games that stretch logic skills.  Our favorite in this department is the Gobblet Gobblers game we bought Pumpkin for Christmas.

It is like three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. It is easy enough for a four year old, but challenging enough that the adults sometimes actually lose. And it is fun!

Do you have any other games/toys to suggest? Add them in the comments!

Quotable: Myth Outcompetes Fact

"In the absence of of facts, myth rushes, in the kudzu of history."

- Stacy Schiff, in Cleopatra: A Life

Honestly, I think that sometimes, even when the facts are available, myth wins out.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Funny Things Edition

It has been a pretty busy week at work, culminating in a really full day today... so I think I'll post a bunch of funny things. I know that I could use a laugh, at least.

First up, a post from Antropologa, an American living in Sweden, with a memory of the hilarity that ensues when you try to speak a foreign language and ask for things that weren't in the textbook. I laugh out loud every time I read this post.

This Cracked post about the most baffling things about women's clothing is funny because it is true. I would add: you have to try on every pair of pants you buy, because two pair of pants in the same size and style but different colors might fit differently.  I have a pair of black pinstripe pants that I do not wear, because I bought them based solely on the fact that I had just tried on a pair of theoretically identical grey pants that fit great. MISTAKE. I have been too lazy to take them back, so I guess they will just hang in my closet as a silent reminder to always try everything on.

If you, like me, live with a font geek, this xkcd cartoon will make you laugh out loud.

Amazon sells a purple unicorn castle T-shirt. A lot of guys apparently really like it. Maybe I should get one for my "unicorn" husband.

Here are the rules for modern movie posters.

My husband found this video of Vanilla Ice going Indie Rock:

And of course, don't forget to drop by Mommy Shorts and read my guest post about pink, purple, and princess toys that still encourage development of spatial reasoning and math skills. It isn't funny, but a lot of the other things on her site are (I particularly like her Parenting Charts), so I'm going to stretch the rules and include it here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Toys to Promote Skills

I have a guest post up today over at Mommy Shorts, about toys that are likely to appeal to princess-obsessed little girls (and/or the grown ups who will only buy your daughter "girl toys") while still building skills that are important for future success in math and science, like spatial reasoning, pattern recognition and matching, and logic. Go check it out. As an added bonus, you'll get to see how wonderfully concise my posts would be if I had an editor. (Seriously, Ilana did a great job tightening up my post and making it fit better with her site.) While you're there, check out some of the regular posts. They are funny! I'm particularly partial to the charts, because I love graphs and charts and occasionally feel the need to post a graph, too. Compared to the ones on Mommy Shorts, though, mine are decidedly lacking in production values.

If you're coming over from Mommy Shorts, you know all that, and may be wondering who the heck I am, and why you should listen to me about toys. First of all, welcome! As you can see from my profile blurb, I am a scientist and a techie, and I have two daughters. And that is the extent of my qualifications to discuss toys. I feel strongly about this subject, though, because at least once a year I am told either in person or by some luminary like the President of Harvard or a New York Times science writer that the fact that there are fewer women in science than men can be explained by the fact that men are just innately better at math and science. The evidence does not support that statement, even though it is a widely held belief in our society. This is a classic self-fulfilling statement, and the differences in the toys we give our boys and girls are part of what helps fulfill it. For more on the myths about why there are fewer women in science than men, take a look at this article summarizing an evidence-based talk on the subject. In particular, notice this quote:

"A study published by the National Academy Press entitled “Beyond Bias and Barriers” reported findings on women’s ability, persistence in science, evaluation by peers, and reviewed strategies that effectively kept women in science. By almost all measures there was no difference in ability, the one exception being rotation of 3D objects in space, which seems to be more attributable to childhood play than inborn aptitude."

Which brings us back to toys. If you want to read more about my opinions on princesses, gender stereotyping, and the LEGO Friends controversy, here is a list of posts that cover those topics:
If you're wondering if I ever write about anything else, you can read my quick tour of my blog to get an idea of the topics I cover.  I also wrote a 2011 in review post that highlights some of my favorite and most popular posts from last year. If you poke around either of those posts, you'll probably realize that I write about a wide range of things. I know that this lack of focus annoys some potential readers,  since they don't know what to expect when they click through to read a post. But I can't help myself. I am a person, not a brand, and I blog that way.  Luckily, I don't really have any goals about readership levels, nor do I expect to make any money from my blog. Maybe reading the post I wrote about why I blog will give you some idea of what to expect... or maybe not. Either way, thanks for stopping by. If you like what you find, I hope you'll make yourself home and stay awhile, and maybe leave a comment or two. I love meeting new readers!

Update: I have a follow up post up with some of our favorite gender neutral math/logic promoting toys.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Buying Happiness

Whenever I hear the old saying "money can't buy you happiness," I think two things:
  1. A lack of money can sure deliver a lot of unhappiness
  2. If you're in the top 5% or so of households by income and you're not happy that money is not increasing your happiness, chances are you're doing something wrong.* 
OK, that second one is a bit harsh. I can come up with plausible scenarios in which your household income could be more than $165,000/year and you would not be able leverage that money to make yourself happy. You could, for instance, have a large mortgage on which you are upside-down and then suddenly find yourself the guardian of a cousin's two young children, thereby finding that you must spend large sums of money on day care. Or you could be paying off the loan your brother foolishly took out from Vinny the Loan Shark. Or... you get the idea. I allow that it is possible to have what appears to be boatloads of money and find that it is not quite enough. (Although I still agree with Scalzi that you would do well to not complain about how hard it is to meet your monthly wine budget or replace your three-year old Mercedes in this case.)

But most people could take that money and make themselves happy. And yet, clearly a lot of people can't figure out how to use their money to buy happiness, or else that old saying wouldn't be an old saying.

Now, I'm not saying that the only path to happiness is money. There are plenty things in my life that make me happy and cost no money whatsoever- going to the beach, playing with my kids, and reading a good book come to mind.

I also use money to buy happiness in the conventional sense: I buy things and experiences that make me happy. Travel, good chocolate (OK, just about any chocolate), and cute yet comfortable shoes come to mind.

But I think the secret to buying happiness isn't to buy things or experiences. It is to buy freedom. Things and experiences bring happiness that is often fleeting, and skates across the surface of our lives, making it easily disrupted by the daily stresses of life.  But the happiness that freedom brings goes deep, and it lasts.

I realized that I buy happiness by buying freedom as I thought about the work-life scenarios Laura Vanderkam invented for a recent post. This post was itself triggered by my earlier statement that I use money to buy myself out of a lot of work-life balance problems. That is definitely true. I solve the problem of not wanting to spend much of my free time cleaning by paying a housecleaning service. I solve the problem of not wanting to spend my evenings or weekends shopping by buying a lot of things online, even if that is more expensive. Frankly, I don't know if it is more expensive or not, because I don't comparison shop. I don't need to, and I don't enjoy it, so why bother? In short, I buy a lot of time, and that contributes to both my work-life balance and my happiness.

But as I thought about Laura's post, I realized that the biggest way I use money to make my work-life balance better and to make myself happy is to use it to buy freedom, namely freedom from my job. Don't get me wrong- I'm not independently wealthy. If I quit working altogether, we'd drop several rungs down the income ladder. But I do not feel like I have to keep this particular job, because my husband and I have a hefty buffer in our bank account.

We initially set it up as self-preservation, after I realized just what it meant to work in a volatile industry like biotechnology. But that self-preserving move has had an unexpected pay off. I don't feel trapped in my job (and my husband doesn't feel trapped in his). I know that if I get fed up and quit, we have enough money in the bank to keep us solvent while I figure out what to do next. That is an incredibly liberating thing. Little obnoxious policies at work don't bug me so much, because I know that I don't actually have to put up with them if I don't want to. I feel free to speak my mind without worrying too much about the consequences, because the worst that could happen- they fire me- doesn't scare me. I don't worry about setting my schedule to fit my needs or pushing back (politely, of course) on that annoying director who keeps trying to schedule meetings that run until after I usually leave to pick up the kids from day care. In short, keeping a fair amount of money tied up in this buffer buys me happiness because it buys me freedom from a lot of unnecessary stress.

Obviously, our buffer is not infinite. At some point, it would run out. But my husband and I thought about the level of risk we're comfortable taking, how much we would be willing to trim our lifestyle if necessary, and how quickly we think either one of us could find a new job or start something up independently and have it make a reasonable income. From that, we settled on the size of our buffer. We have sized our buffer and set our lifestyle such that we could continue to live a minimally changed lifestyle for a year with only one of us working. Different families will need different buffers, but I suspect that just about everyone would find having one liberating.

The great thing is, you don't need to be in the top X% of incomes to achieve this, although obviously, a higher income makes it easier to achieve, as long as you don't go nuts and insist on buying a new Mercedes every three years. I know other people who have achieved the same feeling of freedom via a buffer, but who make far less money than my husband and I do. For that matter, we first set up that buffer when we made almost $100,000 less per year than we do now. We've kept it through a destination wedding and a four month trip around Asia and the Pacific. We've kept it through maternity/paternity leaves and, most recently, a period during which I was not working. Obviously, our buffer shrank a bit due to each of those things. Once those events passed, we made building it back up a priority, ostensibly because it is the sensible thing to do.  But I think the real reason was that we've realized just how much happiness that buffer buys.

*(Note: I changed the wording here, because a commenter pointed out that the original wording was offensive. I don't normally edit posts after they go up, but it seemed the thing to do in this case. I left the original wording in, with a strike through.)

Update: Reading the initial comments made me realize that I ended this post poorly, and took a post that was supposed to be about one way relatively well off people can use their money to buy happiness- and often don't- and made it sound like I think EVERYONE could do this. That is not true. I completely understand that being able to have a buffer requires an income sufficient to live beneath your means- and not everyone has that. But I think a lot of people who could set up a buffer don't.

Also, I left out an important caveat on using money to buy happiness- there are some problems money can't solve. For instance, no amount of money would have made the stress we felt when we thought Petunia might be seriously ill go away. However, our money did make it easier to deal with that stress- we were able to take time off work without fear, for one thing.

Anyway, apologies to anyone I inadvertently offended. Rest assured that unless you are making heaps of money and complaining about how trapped you are in your job because you HAVE to replace your fancy car every three years... I didn't mean to offend you. And even if you are in that group, I really just meant to make you think about your choices.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Call of the Cookie

I had a moment of clarity while grocery shopping this week.

No, I didn't figure out how to bring educational equality to all or how to make Petunia sleep through the night every night. I didn't figure out anything as profound as that. No, I figured out why I can't seem to break my cookie habit.

I walked down the cookie aisle without even a twinge of temptation. But as I was unloading my groceries onto the checkout belt, I was sorely tempted to add a Twix bar. I resisted the temptation, but it was a struggle, even though I knew I had far better treats at home (Toffee Pops from New Zealand, courtesy of my in laws). But I was alone at the grocery store. I could eat my Twix bar in peace in the car before I drove home.

And in that minute, I realized what cookies and candy are to me right now: they are my little retreat, a way to make a little bubble around myself and give myself something just for me.

I usually can't have what I really want: a day (or even a morning!) in bed reading, a long walk on the beach, fifteen minutes of quiet in my own house... but I can have a cookie.

This is problematic, because obviously, if I keep eating cookies every time I feel like I need a retreat, I am not going to like the outcome.

Before I had kids, If I started to feel like I needed a retreat, I'd go to an extra yoga class or actually head out for a long walk on the beach. I can't do those things now, at least not without arranging some logistics- which is the last thing I want to do when I'm wanting a retreat. So my challenge is: find a way to give myself a retreat that is roughly as easy as eating a cookie, but doesn't carry so many calories.

So far all I've come up with is that I could make myself a nice cup of tea. Does anyone else have any ideas?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Zenbit: Coming Down

An earlier zenbit reminded me of the long climbs that go with parenting. Right now, some aspects of parenting are getting easier, but even coming down is work.

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

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Random Unrelated Things Edition

As I drove to work yesterday, I remembered one more way I deal with stress- the "what am I so worried about?" game. I was running late. Petunia had slept in, and woke up showing signs that she might be getting sick (and indeed she was- day care called after nap to tell us she had a fever). She seemed cranky, but didn't register a fever. She eventually asked for the "ice bunny"- a little plastic ice cube wrapped in a bunny that we use when the kids hurt themselves. She took the ice bunny and put it on top of her head. So we guessed she had a headache and gave her some tylenol. She perked up not long after, but the damage to my morning routine was done. I left the house 10 minutes late.

To make matters worse, I had told my team that I'd bring them donuts, since we had been pushing hard all week to get a demo ready for today. And the car needed gas.

As I headed down the hill toward the freeway, I was feeling the stress that comes from running late, but then I asked myself what I was so worried about? Did it really matter if I was 30 minutes late today? The answer was no. I had no meetings until 9:00- and I was on track to get to work by 8:30.  No one would care if I was late.

(Even on days when I do have an early meeting, it would not usually matter all that much if I was late, as long as I don't make a habit of it.)

I use this trick a lot. It works really well when combined with a certain amount of financial security- if what I am so worried about is that I might get fired, well, so what? I'd be OK if I was.

And this last thought reminds me of one of the things that puzzles me the most about the narrative about mothers in high powered careers- we forget the impact of money. I can buy my way out of a lot of work-life balance conundrums, from things as minor as not worrying about buying lunch if I don't have time to make it to things as major as deciding that we can just pay for an after school Spanish class if that is what we want for our daughter. Heck, if push came to shove, we could easily just pay for private school.

There are many, many mothers who do not have that luxury, and yet are working just as hard as I am. Why don't we as a society worry more about how hard it is to combine motherhood with working two or three minimum wage jobs to make ends meet? THAT seems like a big problem to me, worthy of the societal hand-wringing that we instead apply to wondering about whether women like Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton can truly be "good mothers". (Chelsea Clinton seems to have turned out pretty well....)

Which brings me (finally!) to my first link: Scalzi had a wonderful rant up yesterday about rich people whining rather cluelessly. As he points out in his rant, people like me and my husband (who aren't even in the 1%!) may have problems, but money really shouldn't be one of them. I would extend that to add that we should also be aware of how much our money makes things easier for us.

While we're on the subject of the privileges money buys, here's an interesting article from Slate about homeschooling/unschooling, which argues that taking this route usually requires a certain amount of money. Note that I said "interesting" and not "100% correct'- but I do agree that money probably makes choosing those options a lot easier. And I was struck by the fact that someone in the article is quoted as saying she doesn't want strangers raising her kids, a refrain that will be familiar to people who use day care. It is disheartening to see it applied to school age kids, too.

I also came across another excellent, albeit older, Scalzi post, about when he first realized that homophobia was wrong. I particularly liked this quote:

"there’s a difference between the fact that the universe is inherently unfair on a cosmic level, and the fact that life is unfair because people are actively making it so."

On a completely different subject: I really liked this post by Laura Vanderkam about getting out of a rut. I particularly like her story at the end about how she got a book deal for her book 168 Hours: I think she is right that a lot of what we perceive as "luck" in people who succeed in pursuits like writing is actually persistence,  and a willingness to try a lot of things.

On another completely different subject: I found this beautiful post about having an empty nest via @AskMoxie's twitter feed.  She has a follow up that will probably make most parents chuckle and wince in equal parts.

Happy Weekend, everyone! Petunia seems to be on the mend already, and Pumpkin seems to have dodged this cold (she looked like she was getting sick last night, but is fine this morning), so I'm optimistic about ours.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stress Busting and Metal Unloading

The response to my recent posts on work-life balance got me thinking about stress, and also mental load. I thought my first post was about my opinion that it is possible to fit a reasonably "big" career into a normal work week, and therefore still feel like an involved and present parent. The part that resonated with most people, though, was about mental load- how I didn't need more time to work, I needed more mental space for work.

For me, mental load and stress are closely related. If I'm over my mental load capacity, I am guaranteed to feel stress, and reducing my mental load almost always reduces my stress level.  But my mental load will never go down to the point where I feel no stress, and there are other sources of stress in my life, too. There is the stress I feel from trying to stick to the schedule I know my kids need after day care- the pressure to get dinner on the table by six has eased a bit now that Petunia is a little older, but we still don't have that much leeway if we're going to keep to the night time routine that works best for our kids. There is the stress I feel at work that comes from trying to get all the pieces of a project to come together successfully and on time- even when that is going completely to plan, there is some stress, and it almost never goes completely to plan. There is the stress I feel when Petunia gets sick and I have to leave work early, leaving behind my to do list and walking out with the knowledge that I'll be behind the next day.

I could go on, but that would be dull. Let's just say that my life has plenty of stress. I vehemently believe that it is possible to combine a career like mine with involved parenting- but I would be surprised to find someone who does it and claims not to feel stressed by it all sometimes. Frankly, I feel some stress most days.

Is this a contradiction with my earlier statement that I enjoy my life, and am happy with it? Not for me. To me, a happy life isn't one without any stress- that would be boring! Rather, it is a life in which stress is under control, adding some spice to my life but not consuming me in the process.

Since mental load is so strongly correlated with stress for me, one of my key strategies for keeping my stress under control is to have processes in place that allow me to unload some of my mental baggage. Here are my top three methods for keeping my mental load manageable:
  • Write things down. Several of the commenters on my initial post mentioned this, too. Once I write an item on the appropriate calendar or to do list, I can free up the space it was occupying in my brain- or at least most of the space. In fact, I am thinking that the first thing we'll try to get some more mental space for both my husband and me is to get a small white board for the kitchen, to use for a communal "random things we need to do" list. We have a long term to do list, and we write to do lists for the weekend every Friday night... but we don't have a medium term list to capture the little items like "buy Petunia new shoes" and I think we need one.
  • Get stuff done now. The day after the outburst that triggered the initial post, Pumpkin and I went to Target and bought shoes for Petunia and the supplies we needed for Valentine's Day. I could have left it for the weekend, but I didn't want it in my head, so Pumpkin got to skip her bath and go on an evening outing. She thought that was great fun, and I got some things done. This is also why we do a lot of online shopping- if we remember that Pumpkin needs new swim goggles at 10:00 at night, we can just go online and buy them and be done with it. And because we signed up for Amazon Prime, our items usually come before we would have had a chance to get to the appropriate store, anyway.
  • Trust my team. I do this both at home and at work. I am not a micromanager! Once a task has been picked up by a colleague at work or by my husband at home, I kick it out of my mental space. It is not my problem anymore. At work, I have a short weekly one-on-one with all of my direct reports and we have weekly meetings for the two or three most active projects. I use those to check in on tasks and make sure things don't slip through the cracks. At home, we're much less formal, obviously, but we do check in with each other on our respective to do lists during Friday Night Beers (more on that ritual later). I often hear women talk about how their husbands don't keep track of anything that needs to get done. I can confidently state that my husband keeps track of some things, because there are whole classes of things that get done around the house and that I never think about. Whether or not our lists are equal, I cannot say, because to evaluate that, I'd have to know what is on his list. And I do not want to know that, because that would add that stuff back onto my mental load. Its sort of a Schrodinger's task list situation, I guess.
 I also take several steps to reduce the stress I feel:
  • Exercise. This is a big one. I have known since college that exercise is the best way to clear away stress, allowing me to return to my to do list refreshed and ready to tackle the hard problems. Unfortunately, this is also an area I've struggled with since having kids. I make finding a way to get at least one workout in per week a priority, though. Currently, this is my Tuesday evening kickboxing routine, which is truly great stress relief. I get to exercise and I get to hit and kick something! I also try to work out Thursday evenings, but I have Petunia with me, and she is not impressed with my exercise DVD, or "Mommy show" as she calls it. I think that Yo Gabba Gabba should do an adult's exercise DVD. That might make us both happy. I'm willing to follow an exercise routine led by a giant orange rubber monster if that's what it takes to get her to stop interrupting me.
  • Meaningful short breaks. I use the mostly at work, although as I type this it occurs to me that I might benefit from incorporating this idea at home, too. I try to take at least one meaningful short break per day, usually around lunch time. By "meaningful" I mean that I am not just aimlessly web surfing or gossiping with colleagues. I pick something that I know will help clear my head- usually a walk or checking in on some favorite blogs. These breaks serve two purposes: they let me unwind a bit in the middle of the day, and they give my brain a chance to solve problems in the background. I let my mind wander while I'm on break, but more times than not, I come back from the break with a fresh idea to try on one of the problems on my to do list. This is particularly true of walks- so much so that I actually consider a walk a valid part of my work day and try to take one every day, if I can get my meeting schedule to allow it.
  • Unwinding rituals. I have specific things in my week that I can look forward to as a chance to relax and clear some mental space. I don't mean candles and chanting, although maybe that would work for other people. For me, the big unwinding ritual in my life right now is Friday Night Beers. Almost every Friday night, my husband and I sit down with beers and talk about our week, our plans for the weekend, and whatever else is on our minds. Now that Petunia is sleeping a bit better, we often watch some TV, too- usually a British mystery. If we don't have one recorded, we find one to stream on Amazon Prime. I consider Friday Night Beers practically sacrosanct- we'll skip if we have guests in town, but for almost no other reason.
  • Music. I keep forgetting about this one, which is a shame. The right music can really cheer me up and melt stress away. I've started listening to music in the car on my way to work instead of the news, mostly because I am simultaneously bored and infuriated by the Republican primaries. One day this week, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run came on the radio. I cranked it up and arrived at work in a great mood.
  • Reminding myself to change my perspective. I do this more at home than at work, usually when the source of stress is one of the kids. As corny as this sounds, I tell myself that I should let go of my agenda and just enjoy my kids. Believe it or not, this works sometimes, because the stress is usually caused by a mismatch between my agenda and what the kids want to do.
  • Choosing to let little slights slide. This is a work trick. I suspect I picked it up as a survival strategy in my male-dominated and frequently sexist field. When someone does something insulting or annoying, I try to stop and ask myself whether or not it really matters. If it does- I'll call them on it or address it some other way. If it doesn't, I let it go- completely. For example, yesterday my group had a meeting with a team from another department. Both my boss and the director of the other department were in the meeting. I was taking minutes. I usually take minutes at meetings like this, because I am able to type minutes while also participating in the discussion, so it does me no harm, and gives me the benefit of being sure that things I think are important are documented. At one point, we were able to come to a consensus on a previously contentious topic, so of course, I started typing that into my minutes. The director of the other department looked at one of the guys who reports to me (but used to report to the other director- its complicated), and told him to write this down so we'd be sure we got it right. I have no idea if he was trying to offend me or not, but in practice he both implied that he didn't trust my minutes and gave an order to one of my direct reports. I could have gotten angry. But why? I know that my boss and my team respect me, and so do at least two of the three team members from the other department. The third guy is just  a bit cryptic, and I have no idea what he thinks about almost anything. So the incident caused no harm and I just let it go. In fact, if I hadn't need an example for this post, I may never have thought about it again. It just doesn't matter in my life.
For the most part, these tricks help keep my stress levels reasonable and keep me happy. Obviously, though, they are not perfect- as last week's post demonstrated. What about you? Are mental load and stress closely linked for you, too? Do you think you can have stress in your life and still be happy? What do you do to keep stress under control?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tying Up Loose Ends

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! This year, Pumpkin was supposed to write her own valentines. She has eleven classmates, plus she wanted to give cards to two of her teachers. We started off strong, completing nine of the valentines over the weekend, most of them in one sitting on Saturday. The last four were quite a trial, though. Pumpkin wanted them to be perfect, and would erase anything that didn't meet her standards. There were many rest breaks with her head on the table. I exhausted my patience, and went off to get Petunia to bed. Hubby managed to convince her to finish up, but the experience clearly took quite a bit out of him. After Pumpkin was in bed, he decided to relive the highlight of last year and replay the New Zealand-Australia semi-final from the rugby world cup.

The holiday was rescued, though, by how excited Pumpkin was to give us all our valentines this morning. She had made one for Daddy (with my help), written one for Petunia, and dictated one for me (clearly, she'd run out of steam). Petunia was really excited, too, when she saw the little Cinderella card inside her envelope. She kept it next to her all through breakfast.

This evening, Pumpkin was most excited by the candy, pencils, and stickers that had come with her valentines at day care. Petunia, though, just wanted to go through her cards, repeating who each one was from. Very cute. I'm not sure if this was worth all the hassle with getting Pumpkin's valentines done, but at least it ended the holiday on a high note.


The song from which I lifted the title of my last post was an obscure 80s song- Having It All, by Eighth Wonder.

It was on the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, which my sister had- on cassette. For some reason, it has stuck in my head all of these years.


I did finally draw another winner for the Jeanne Baret giveaway. I've notified the winner and she's sent her contact details, so I guess that's that.


Remember back in November/December when I was trying to wean Petunia and she wasn't cooperating? Well, I gave up, and now she's weaned. OK, technically, she's almost completely weaned. She still sometimes asks to nurse, but when she does she rarely nurses for more than a second or two. I think the last "real" nursing was last Tuesday (Feb. 7), and the last time before that was probably around January 24th. I've decided that she's weaned enough for me, and I'll let her decide when to stop asking to nurse. Unless she's still asking when she's in kindergarten or something- which seems unlikely.

I knew that I just needed to chill out on that one and wait, but my god, that was hard to do.


Petunia's sleep is also improving. She's sleeping through until 4 or 5 in the morning most nights now. I like it best when she wakes up at about 4, comes padding down the hall, climbs into bed with us, and then snuggles in and sleeps well until we get up at about 6:30. This doesn't happen that often, but I'll also take her sitting up at 5 a.m., screaming for me, and then snuggling and kicking me in her bed until 6:30. It is a vast improvement over the status quo at the end of the year (which saw me spending half of my night getting aggressively snuggled/kicked).

Of course, last night she woke up at about 2 a.m. and I ended up spending the rest of the night in her room because every time I woke up and thought I might move back to my own bed, she was restless. We're not to sleep nirvana yet, but we're getting closer. (Sleep nirvana = both kids sleeping through the night most nights.)


My boss is still a bit freaked out over my outburst in that meeting- which is funny, because, really all I did was raise my voice a little bit and then leave the room, and as one of my team members pointed out, he yells more than that in roughly half of the meetings he comes to.  He's stopped trying to deflect work from me, so I think things are going back to normal. We'll see how all of this plays out at review time. I suspect that if I can bring my projects in roughly on time, all will be forgotten. If I don't bring in my projects on time, I guess we'll see how much he really blames himself for the situation. But I have every intention of bringing my projects in on time.


Pumpkin has discovered that the hair on the LEGO Friends figurine comes off, and has swapped hair/hats among Olivia, the dude that came with the house, and the castle guard.

So, I continue to feel absolutely no angst about the fact that we bought one of the LEGO Friends sets.


We won't hear about our school choice until April or May, but it is still nice to have the choice part done. We were at a birthday party on Sunday, and everyone was talking about schools. It was interesting to hear what other people chose. A lot of Pumpkin's day care classmates will be heading to private school in the fall- but there are a few others who chose public school, including the two sets of parents with whom we get along the best. It will be interesting to see if we manage to stay in touch once the kids go on to kindergarten- we all chose different schools, mostly because we live and work in different areas.


Anything else I've left dangling? Ask in the comments.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

No One's Gonna Stop Me From Having It All

One of the commenters on my recent post about "big careers" and work-life balance took a bit of offense at what I had written. From her comments, I think she felt that I was looking down on people who have decided to stay at home with their kids, or who find it harder to balance career and motherhood than I do.

That wasn't my intent, and certainly wasn't the topic of that post. The post was a long-winded explanation of how I came to realize that I tend to undersell my career, which made me wonder if that is why I sometimes get brushed off when I try to claim that having a demanding career and being a good mother are not mutually exclusive. I think I am combining those two things- but since I don't often talk about just how demanding my job is, maybe other people think I'm just full of hot air.

None of this had anything whatsoever to do with other people's choices in life. I don't want my style of motherhood to be recognized as the "right" way- I just want it to be recognized as possible. As I replied in a comment, I have written before that I do not think staying home with kids is easy. In fact, I think that it is harder than my job- or at least that it would be harder for me. Nor do I think that people who choose to stay home or to ease up significantly on their career while their kids are little are less worthy of respect than people like me, who have chosen to ease up only slightly on their career while their partner does the same. My honest opinion is this: different arrangements will be right for different families, because the adults will have different interests, strengths, and weaknesses and the kids will have different needs. There is no one right way to be a parent.

The entire exchange was a perfect example of a frustration I have: it is next to impossible to write about how I make my life combining career and motherhood work, or how I actually enjoy this life and am happy with it, without offending someone who has made a different choice. I am reduced to writing caveats on all my "working motherhood" posts, reassuring my readers that I am not judging their choices. Those caveats are 100% true. But why should writing honestly about my life be seen as a judgement on anyone else's life?

I suspect that women writing about how they like staying home with their kids and how they are helping their kids learn and develop face the same problem, in reverse. The whole subject is fraught with opportunities to offend people without intent.

The problem is insecurity, of course- if you're feeling insecure about your choices, it is easy to feel judged, even when no judgement is intended. I do it myself- there have been many times when an angry comment was itching to come tapping out of my fingers before I stopped, took a step back and realized that the post that had me so offended wasn't about me at all.

But why do mothers feel so insecure? I do not think an entire generation of women is suffering from some sort of character flaw that leads us to feel insecure in our choices about motherhood. I think we are insecure because our culture tells us two things that seem contradictory, and aren't necessarily true: first, our culture tells us that to be a good mother, we are supposed to put our kids needs first, and be willing to sacrifice our own needs and wants to them at all times. Second, our culture tells us that the best (perhaps only?) way to live an admirable life is to have big accomplishments, to "make our mark on the world".

The contradiction is obvious: how are we supposed to make our mark on the world if we have to sacrifice all of our goals to our kids? But there are deeper problems. I don't think a good mother has to always put her kids first. I like how Nicoleandmaggie put it in a comment on my "big careers" post- I put my family first. The needs, wants, and goals of all members of the family get consideration. Sure, the needs of the kids often get priority, particularly now, when they are little. But they are not the only consideration. (And before anyone scolds me in the comments about how I should put my kids' needs first- go read some of what I've written about how we have handled sleep in this household, and think before you type. We do, in fact, put our kids needs first a lot of the time. Just not all of the time, and their needs are not the exclusive consideration in our decisions.)

I also don't think that the only way to live an admirable life is to have big accomplishments. I strive for happiness most of all. It makes me happy to accomplish things, but it also makes me happy to spend time with my kids, and to travel, and do any number of other things. My husband has a list of things that make him happy, too, and so do my kids- although right now, Petunia's list is weighted heavily towards snuggling with mommy, blowing raspberries on daddy's tummy, and playing chasing games with her big sister. The trick is to find the right balance in life to allow everyone in the family to be happy. I won't pretend that I have that all figured out, but we do OK most weeks.

Thinking about all of this has led me to solidify my thinking about two fundamental fallacies of work-life balance that had previously been sort of nebulous to me.

The first fallacy is that the only consideration people have when they decide to stay at home with kids is the kids. In fact, the kids seem to do fine as long as they are loved and well cared for. (There is research to support that, but I am too lazy to go look it up right now. Maybe I'll come back later and add a link.) I think a lot of stay at home parents know that. Certainly my friends who stay at home do. They are smart people, as capable of reading the research news as I am.

But the idea that being at home with a parent is "best" for the kids persists. So much so, in fact, that we often get the idea that the only "allowable" reason  for a mother to work is financial, i.e., that it is OK for the mom to work only if the family needs her income.

In fact, there are a lot of reasons parents might choose to stay home with the kids- they want to spend more time with their kids, they don't think they would make enough money to make day care "worth it", their particular kids don't do well in day care, and so on and so on. Similarly, there are a lot of reasons parents might choose to work while their kids are little- the family needs the money, they like the feeling of fulfillment they get from their job, their career is not conducive to a break, they like the feeling of financial security from having their own income, and so on and so on.

I think that most parents balance all of these competing factors and make the decision that is best for their family. The tragedy is that our society tries to heap guilt on them- particularly the mothers- no matter what choice they make. And so posts like my earlier one can touch a nerve without meaning to, because the nerves are exposed and raw.

The second fallacy is that the only way to achieve big things is to dedicate your entire life to work- i.e., that unless you are working and doing nothing else, you will not succeed in accomplishing anything "big". We lionize people who accomplish big things, and then create a mythology around them that may or may not be true. In that mythology, they are always single-minded in their pursuit of their work-related goals, tossing family and other distractions to the side.

I'm not sure if it really is true that the people we have lionized have neglected their families- or if we just tell ourselves that to make ourselves feel better about what we haven't accomplished. Regardless, I don't think that such a single-minded pursuit of your goals is the only way to accomplish big things. I'm starting to see this idea challenged in the writings of fathers in software careers lately. A lot of this seems to have been triggered by a passage in Steve Jobs' biography that said that Jobs authorized the biography so that his kids could know him. I haven't read the biography, so I don't know if this passage really meant that Jobs spent very little time with his kids- or if he just thought that it is hard for kids to really know their parents, particularly if the parents die relatively young, and maybe reading a biography by a third party would help fill in the gaps. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if our cultural narrative about success starts to change as the idea that work and the rest of your life can be balanced rather than put in opposition is espoused by more fathers, who are unfettered by the undercurrents of sexism that pull down mothers who have argued the same things.

I hope so, because kids are too wonderful to deny to the ambitious, career success is too satisfying to deny to the parents, and I strongly suspect that the world misses out on a lot of great things because we've built our culture and our workplaces around the idea that you have to choose between the two. I'm refusing to choose- which is possibly a bit crazy, and definitely adds some stress to my life. But for me, there really is no other way I could live and feel true to myself. If motherhood and career really are "it all", then yeah- I am going to try to have it all. And I plan to have fun while I try.

Wow. That got long. Bonus points if you made it all the way through.

Serious bonus points if you know the song that provided the title of this post... without Googling!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Achieving Equality Edition

I have a follow up to my last post in mind, discussing how hard it is to discuss being happy with my life (and particularly with being a work-outside-the-home mother) without offending women who have made different choices, why I think that is, and a couple of misconceptions about work-life balance for working parents that drive me absolutely batty... but I don't have the energy to write that post tonight. It has been a tough week, and I'm tired. So look for that post early next week.

Besides- it is Friday, so it is time for a weekend reading post! I will keep roughly in theme, though, because this week's post has a bunch of links that each in their own way remind us women that we still have a way to go before society really sees us as equal to men.

First, Ginger over at Ramble, Ramble wrote an eloquent plea for people to stop saying that someone else is raising our kids when we work. No one says that fathers aren't really parents if they work, but if mothers work- well, to some people, we're not really mothers. We're letting our nannies or the teachers at our day care raise our kids. Obviously, I think that is nonsense. Her rant was about how annoying it is when other working mothers say this- presumably as a self-deprecating joke. I agree, that joke is always going to fall flat. I would extend the rant to cover the other people who say this sort of thing, too.

Next, I believe that I found this awesome post about a lecture in which a woman scientist systematically dismisses the standard explanations for the gender gap using data in science via fiainros' twitter stream. If you are at all interested in the gender gap in science (and what we can do about it), go read that post. And follow @fiainros- she tweets good links!

I have no idea where I found this article from Forbes about how the response to Madonna's halftime show is ageist. Full disclosure- I didn't see the halftime show. We are rugby fans here, and don't watch much football. I went grocery shopping during the big game. But, I'm going to hazard a guess, based on the fact that people reacted so differently to Madonna than they did to the older male musicians who have performed in the past, and say that the reaction is probably a bit sexist, too. Aging still means something different to women than it means to men. For women whose careers are in performing arts, it must be so frustrating to see actors like Harrison Ford still getting cast as leading men while they are relegated to playing bit parts. It has been gratifying to watch actresses like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep start to break through that barrier, but we still have a long way to go. Hey, Hollywood- I don't see many movies. Maybe that would change if you made the roles played by women I can identify with a little more interesting.

Of course, men and women get different reactions from the press and the public even before they are old. I really liked this article in the Atlantic discussing how annoying it is that Sheryl Sandberg is being characterized as "lucky" instead of just damn good at what she does. I haven't read that much about Sandberg, so I don't know how pervasive this characterization of her success is. But I liked her Barnard commencement address- a post about it was the trigger for the "don't lean back ahead of time" rant post that brought some of you to my blog. There was a link in that Atlantic article to an earlier Atlantic article summarizing her advice to ambitious young women, and I think it is good advice, particularly the bit about making sure your partner is a true partner.  I've said very similar things, and have ranted about how having a true partner is indeed possible. I'd add one more thing to her advice- don't fall into the guilt trap.

One of Sandberg's key pieces of advice is not to "lean back ahead of time"- i.e., don't scale back your career ambitions in anticipation of the time when you will have kids. I have noticed that when I go to career events for college students, graduate students, and post-docs, it is only the women who ask me about how I achieve work-life balance, and many of the women asking this have no partner, let alone kids. So it was interesting to read a post from The Mama Bee about an expectant father who was also considering "leaning back"- or more accurately, opting out. I can sympathize with that man, and of course he should do whatever is right for his family. But I can also sympathize with the Mama Bee's wish that he'd stay and help fight to make work places more hospitable to people who have children- or any other interest outside of work. I have ranted on this before, too, but I'm too lazy to find the link- work-life balance isn't just for mothers. We won't make progress on this issue without getting support and involvement from everyone in the work place- mothers, fathers, and people without any dependents at all. We all deserve a life that encompasses more than work.

That's enough ranting for tonight. It is almost time for Friday Night Beers!

In other news, I glanced at my stats this evening and thought "wow! Where did all those people come from?" It turns out that Gretchen over at the Happiness Project linked to my blog, which is pretty cool. Thanks to Gretchen for linking, and Laura Vanderkam for referring her. And hello, all you Happiness Project readers! Welcome to my blog.  There is a guided tour up there that might give you and idea of the various things I write about. At the end of last year I wrote a year in review post that highlighted some of my favorite and most popular posts of 2011, which would also be a good starting place if you want to explore my blog.

Also, in all the stress of this week, I forgot to draw a new winner for the Discovery of Jeanne Baret give away, since my first winner, Jen never sent me contact info. This is why I don't do many giveaways. I suck at them. But I'll rectify the situation soon, and contact the new winner. Jen- if you happen to read this, I guess you have one last chance to claim your book!

Happy weekend, everyone.