Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Short and long term happiness

There’s an interesting post Cloud put on her blog today where she comments on this comment.
She writes:
Last week, I came across a comment that seemed to imply that women who balance motherhood and careers, and have "utterly crazy lives, scheduled to the hilt" are (1) not really happy, and if they write a post saying that they are happy, they are just trying to convince themselves that they are happy, and (2) that they aren't enjoying their kids, because they would need to take time off from work to do that.
It made me think about my decision to continue to work now that I have BlueEyes. Before he was born (or even conceived) I was sure that I was going to continue to work if and when I had kids. And I was already pretty busy and “scheduled to the hilt” (new expression I learned today), which I just really like to be. If I don’t have a lot to do then I’ll only procrastinate on the little things that I should do that day, whereas if I’m busy I’ll just do them.

But then when BlueEyes was born and I was enjoying my 3 months of paid maternity leave (thanks to my PI!) I could not imagine that I would ever leave him with someone else. I couldn’t image ever going back to work and not be there for him to feed and cuddle him whenever he wanted. At that point quitting work seems like something that would make me happy. But would it make me happy in the long run too?

A while longer into my maternity leave it started to be kind of hard to be home with BlueEyes the whole day. He didn’t nap as much as before and at the end of the day I was exhausted and happy that Dr. BrownEyes was getting home with hands to hold BlueEyes and some interesting talk about work. And the Saturday that I spent writing a grant was really the turning point: it made me so happy to be thinking about experiments and to be working on something I am passionate about again. And then again, it feels weird to even write this because I am passionate about raising BlueEyes, but I’ve realized that being a stay at home mom is maybe even harder for me that to be a working mom.

The first day that BlueEyes went to daycare I felt horrible, and it made me gravely doubt my decision to go back to work. And the other day I seriously considered becoming a stay at home mom but then also be a lactation consultant or a babywearing expert on the side to have something to do (I actually looked into how to become these things). However, I think that working will bring me long-term happiness, and I believe that when I’m happy that will make me a better mother to BlueEyes. 

I think it’s good to doubt your decisions every now and then, and look at your choices from a distance to determine whether you’ve made the right one. I often imagine what my life would look like if I made other choices, but I think it’s a very good thing that you never know what the outcome of a different decision would have been (would I have been a millionaire already if I had not gone to grad school?).

Monday, March 26, 2012

What I wish I had known before about baby sleep

A lot of useful things have been written on the internet about baby sleep, for example here at ScienceOfMom. Like I said before I never realized that a baby would come with so much sleep deprivation (I know, I hadn’t really thought it through). Here are a couple of things I wish I had known before:

Compared to other primates, human babies are born more premature because otherwise their big brains wouldn’t fit our pelvises that have adapted to walk upright. Because of that, they will need to feed often, since their little stomachs cannot hold that much milk at once. Also, human milk is rich in carbohydrates relative to protein and fat compared to milk of other species, because babies’ developing brains need those carbohydrates. However, this makes the milk quicker to digest, creating the need to nurse more often. So, it is very common for breastfed babies to not be sleeping through the night for quite some time. And sleeping through the night is in itself a pretty deceptive term, since it technically means sleeping for a five hour stretch. In my vocabulary that is by far not the entire night.

One of the wisest things I read in the past few months is that sleeping through the night can be seen as a milestone just like walking or crawling. Reading this made me realizing that all we had to do was wait for it to happen, since we did not feel like having BlueEyes cry it out (whatever ‘it’ may be). We’re still waiting by the way.

Another thing that made my life a lot easier the past couple months is co-sleeping. In the hospital they scare the shit out of you and tell you that a baby should always sleep in his own crib (we had to watch a video with people talking about their babies that died from SIDS…), so I spent a lot of time trying to put a sleeping baby in his crib, only for him to wake up the second he touched his mattress. It took me a while to find out that it’s way easier to have BlueEyes sleep in bed with us (which by the way is not that dangerous at all). He now usually starts the night in his own crib, and whenever he wakes up I’ll put him in bed next to me, and nurse him back to sleep. And I have usually already fallen asleep before he is done nursing.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tetanus shot

When I was in the hospital after I had BlueEyes I got a tetanus shot. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me why I got it, but I was a bit too overwhelmed with everything to really think about it and/or decline it.  Talking about baby sleep on twitter this morning made me realize that they probably give you a tetanus shot, because they already know something that you don’t, which is that for the next couple of months (or years?) you will be so sleep deprived that you will very likely do clumsy, self-destructive things that would otherwise require you to get a tetanus shot.

At least I did, this is the score so far:
  •  When I did surgeries on my rats the other week, I one stabbed myself with a syringe (filled with saline and an antibiotic) that had already been in a rat.
  •  During those same surgeries, I stabbed myself with the suture needle twice (again, that needle had been in a rat before I put it in my finger).
  • A couple weeks ago, someone held the door of our University open for me, so I ran, twisted my ankle on the uneven pavement, fell on the floor and scraped my knee (and embarrassed myself).  Good thing my laptop and breast pump that I was carrying were still in one piece.
  •  This morning, when I was trying to cut a rat brain in two pieces, I wondered why the razor blade didn’t go through the brain as smoothly as it normally would, only to find out I had the razor blade upside down and instead of cutting the brain I was cutting my finger.
The only thing I don’t understand is why the hospital doesn’t administer a tetanus shot to the fathers of newborn babies, since those will be (almost) equally sleep deprived. The other day Dr. BrownEyes was in the kitchen preparing dinner and dropped a large kitchen knife only inches from his foot….
So far, no animals or babies were harmed.

Edit: what my foggy postpartum brain forgot, but @tollkuhn kindly mentioned on twitter is that you're given the Tdap vaccine (so not just tetanus) mostly to protect your baby from whooping cough. So that's important not to decline! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is it okay to watch Netflix in the lab?

Because of the success of my last question; Is it okay to cry in the lab?, here’s another one:
Before I moved to the US I thought that most people that work in academia in the US work more than 5 days a week and more than 8 hours a day. I thought that a lot of post-docs worked on competing projects, where only the one who finished first would become an author on the paper, and I thought that people would come into the lab at crazy hours just to show their ever-present PI that they were in the lab too. And I know this happens in some labs, because I interviewed at a lab like that. But I was afraid that this would turn me into a deer in the headlights because of all the pressure, and I secretly was looking for a lab where I could have a baby and not be yelled at for not being productive enough during that time.

So I chose the lab that I am in now: my PI is a senior professor, who has lots of grant money at the moment, and who works in a niche that makes it possible to sit on data a little longer (or a lot longer), and still be able to publish them in a decent journal. He likes to take us to conferences, and was very supportive when I had my baby (I got three months of maternity leave!).

However, this relaxed atmosphere makes people in the lab procrastinate and hang around. It is normal to check facebook several times a day (but who doesn’t), but it also seems acceptable to watch entire movies on Netflix (and then I don’t mean watching a movie while doing something at the same time, but just watching a movie). Many people knit entire sweaters while in the lab, and it is not uncommon to sit around for an hour (or two) after lunch. It is also not that people work very long days; most people will be in the lab for 8 hours at most. The best (or worst) example is when I walked into my PI’s office to discuss my data and he asked me to come back 30 minutes later. I said that that was fine and sat at my computer and checked my facebook only to see that he had just been putting holiday pictures on facebook during those 30 minutes… (Whether one should even be facebook-friends with one’s PI is another question).

I wish that I wouldn’t care, but I think that this unproductive environment brings everybody down. One post-doc has already left the lab because she wanted to work in a more inspiring setting. I’ve noticed that I like to work hard when other people work hard too.I found that I’m pretty good at motivating myself though, and what also drives me is the fact that I want things finished in time to pick up BlueEyes from daycare.

So do you think it is acceptable to watch Netflix in thelab? And are you influenced by how hard people around you work?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I think I’m not that tired anymore

It’s hard to remember how it felt to be completely rested, but it seems like finally the fog of chronic sleep deprivation is lifting and I can think like a normal person again. That is a good thing, since I just accepted an invitation to write a review together with my thesis advisor about something that’s not even entirely my subject, but that does give us the opportunity to cite our own work again discuss the results of my thesis work in a slightly different light. 

My feeling for the past 8 months is best compared to the feeling that you get when you’re camping at a music festival (does that exist in the US? Probably. If not, see this or this for example). There’s so much fun, music, drinking, and happiness going on (and then I don’t just mean the chemical kind of happiness) that there’s not much time to sleep (or to brush your teeth), but you’re having a great time regardless. Living with a baby felt somewhat the same, but then without the music, the mud and the drinking. Still, despite that I have been more tired than ever in my life, I constantly had that feeling in the back of my mind that something happy and exciting was going on (except maybe for the first few weeks when I was mostly overwhelmed by the responsibility for a little person, and by all the hormones too probably). 

Before I had a baby I never realized that it would take such a long time to get a decent night of sleep again, because all those glossy baby magazines make you believe that your baby will sleep through the night by the time you have to go back to work. That probably happens for some, but definitely not for our baby.
One week old BlueEyes while he was asleep

So now you’re probably thinking: next week that awesome amount of sleep might be different (read: worse) again. Yes, probably, but I’m enjoying thinking with my rested brain while it lasts. And don’t I think I might be jinxing it by writing about how good we’re sleeping? Well, I hope not…..

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Is it okay to cry in the lab?

So I almost did it again this week; so much stuff was not working, or breaking, my rats were getting sick for no good reason and on top of that the lab got into some serious IACUC trouble (not my fault, but it does involve the protocol that I work on). All this together literally made me cry. So I took a couple breaths and realized that this is also part of doing science, and that it is just what I do and not what I am.

But this is not the first time this has happened. I cried when I was writing my first paper (because my PI wanted it finished before I was allowed to go to a conference and my co-PI had a lot of other things to do before he had time to look at my manuscript), I cried when I applied for a fellowship and didn’t get it, and I sometimes cry when I work very hard and things don’t go as I want to. In all these cases I usually cry for a bit but then walk outside, drink some coffee, eat some chocolate, and carry on (I have the feeling that crying for a short while to then be done with it works way better for me than to keep ruminating about it).

However, there is also this other type of crying, when I am so angry or frustrated about something and there is no other way to say it but crying (and I don’t mean the cute crying when one beautiful tear runs down your cheek, but the ugly kind of crying with red spots on your face). By far the worst occasion that this happened was at the end of my PhD. My thesis project was turning out quite well and we were thinking of submitting it to a High Impact Factor Journal. However, for this it needed some extra-sexy technique that our lab didn’t have. So we turned to our upstairs neighbors who gladly accepted the invitation. Some time and a lot of frustration about who was going to do the sucky part of the experiments (like injecting animals on the weekend (that turned out to be me)) later, the experiments showed what we hoped they would and I started writing the manuscript after I had asked my PI and co-PI whether indeed I would be the first author. They assured me that that would be the case. However, during a meeting with our upstairs neighbors, the upstairs PI said that his grad student should be shared first author with me. Still, I was pretty sure that my PI would say that that wouldn’t happen, but instead he agreed. He later told me he mostly agreed because he wanted to continue to work with the upstairs neighbors and didn’t want to upset them (I would imagine DrugMonkey would have something to say here). Anyway, I was pretty upset since I felt that I had done most of the work and since my PI has said that he would back me up when I asked him, and that all came out in that meeting accompanied by a flood of tears. (what I omitted from this story to make it less recognizable were the various personal relationships between people in the different departments).

My PI later told me that he felt that I should have walked away before I started crying and that I should have said I wanted to talk about it later. I’m not sure if I would have ever been able to say how I felt without crying. And even though I surely hoped that I didn’t have to cry about it, I felt that I did get my point across. I still believe that there was just no other way. 

The irony of the whole situation was that the paper did get accepted in Pretty High Impact Factor Journal, and that journal did not allow more than one shared authorship. And since my PI and upstairs PI were co-last author, that made me the first author.

What do you think about crying in the lab (or at work in general)? And please, don't think that all I do is cry all day; I laugh, scream, and dance in the lab too!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Perfectionism, or the lack thereof (IWD)

Let me start with a disclaimer: BlueEyes is only 7.5 months old, so I am definitely a newbie in the combining work and being a mom game. As you can read in the ‘about me’ section of my blog, both my husband Dr. BrownEyes and I are post-docs. We were both not even 30 when BlueEyes was born. I do very much hope to be a professor someday. We both work five days a week and some days I feel that Buddhist monks that have to get up at 4AM to start an eight hour meditation practice probably have a more relaxed life than me (I’m not getting a ton of sleep and we literally ate a home-cooked dinner at 6.15PM every night for the past week), but most days are a happy combination of patching a bunch of cells and receiving drooly hugs and kisses from BlueEyes. This is what makes it work for me:

I guess I am the opposite of a perfectionist. To illustrate that I will admit that I only found out recently that when I was interviewing for a post-doc position, my CV said in two different places that I was working towards a PhD in nueroscience…  Apparently a lot of PIs don’t really read your CV, because I did get a bunch of interviews and a couple of offers for a job. However, in research it is sometimes nice if you are precise and a bit of a perfectionist (although I always say that if you don’t find a difference when you do a sloppy experiment, it’s probably not biologically significant anyway). 

My lack of perfectionism has come in handy before; when I finished my thesis in four and a half years and was fine with not looking at it for the 50th time before sending it to my committee (I did discover a couple flaws later on, but nothing major).  And now that I have a baby I think it is actually one of my strong suits. Combining working and taking care of BlueEyes is only possible when I don’t worry too much (or at all) about whether I do everything perfect, like the house being clean. And no, with two post-doc salaries it is not possible to pay for someone to come and clean your house. So on the weekend, I put BlueEyes in a wrap on my back and run through the house with the vacuum cleaner, while dr. BrownEyes cleans the bathroom and kitchen. In half an hour we’re done, and everyone is satisfied. 

And in the lab it helps me too. I work from 8 am to 4 pm, and I leave early to pick BlueEyes up from daycare, so that we can spend some awake time together. Half of the time I am in the middle of doing something but I rarely ever have any problems throwing that in the corner and leaving it there for tomorrow.

These are the logistics behind it: our alarm is set for 6:30 but most of the days BlueEyes will wake me up before that. He sleeps in the bed with us so I don’t wake up fully when he wants to nurse, which is a couple times a night (but I can nurse while half asleep so I usually don’t remember how many times it was). I will nurse him while Dr. BrownEyes takes a shower, and I pump whatever milk is left while Dr. BrownEyes makes breakfast. We eat breakfast in bed (yes, every morning), and then I shower while Dr. BrownEyes dresses BlueEyes. Around 7:20 the three of us drive to the University together (we have only one car (which by the way, is the most car both of us have ever owned since we didn’t use to have a car when we lived in Europe)). Dr. BrownEyes drops BlueEyes off at daycare and I am in the lab by 7:50. Then I work a super-efficient day full of tightly planned experiments and neatly scheduled pumping sessions at 10 and 1 (total milk production in one day: ~16 oz). At 4:00 I leave the lab and pick up BlueEyes from the daycare and meet Dr. BrownEyes at the parking lot at 4:20. We drive home together and are home around 4:50. That feels very luxurious, because then we can spend time with BlueEyes until we eat dinner at 6:15. Then we’ll give BlueEyes a bath and put him to bed around 7. On really good days (which rarely happens) he’ll go to sleep immediately, but most nights it takes until 7:30 or 8 for him to go to sleep. Then we sit on the couch and talk or watch tv, and I’ll go to bed at 9.
On the weekends I usually do yoga on Saturday morning, we’ll get groceries, do laundry, clean the house and sometimes do some (or a lot of) work and we try to do something fun too.

The conclusion so far: I think you can have it all, but it sure is a lot of work!

Monday, March 5, 2012

On role models

I’m pretty excited to participate in feMOMhist's Blog Carnival on International women’s day next Thursday. I think it’s very important to have role models, so we don’t feel so alone and to show us that things that seem impossible are actually doable (for example for me, one of the questions was whether to wait until I got tenure (if ever) or have a baby sooner). I think it is also important to find role models that you can actually identify with, and I love the internet for that, since in real life it is so much harder to find those people.

The first female professor I worked for when I was in college had waited to get tenure before she had a baby. I started working in her lab when her baby was about 9 months. She had gone back to work when the baby was only a couple weeks old, because she felt that otherwise the lab would fall apart (that was a good probability since she was normally pretty controlling). She still worked 80 hour weeks, and on the weekend she and her husband (also a PI) would hire a babysitter to go to the lab and get some extra work done. Night time nursing sessions were used to answer emails. I remember one Saturday night when some friends and I drove back home after going to a bar at two in the morning: we passed the lab on the way home and I saw that the light was on in her office and she was working on a grant.

 I did not at all picture myself in her position. And now that I have a baby myself, I find it even harder to imagine how she was able to work so much while taking care of her baby (or was she perhaps exaggerating how much she actually worked? I don’t know). I was afraid that this would mean that I would never become a professor, since it requires so much work. But then I started meeting more people at meetings and online that show that it is possible to combine a career and motherhood (or just having a life besides work for that matter) in a way that would work for me. Cloud's post about the logistics behind this was very insightful. And even though we’ve only been doing this for a couple months now, I’d be happy to share how we do it in my next post.

All the usefulness of role models aside, I think what helped me most in my panicky days of early pregnancy, when I had just found out how expensive day care was, was watching MTV’s 16 and pregnant, to realize that if they could do it, so could I!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

To a conference in baby-attach mode

Last year’s society for Neuroscience meeting was right when I went back to work after my maternity leave. And since I had patched a whole bunch of cells while very pregnant, I even had something to present there. The meeting was right around the corner from where I live, which is why I decided that even though BlueEyes was only 4 months old, the whole family was going to the meeting (and in this case, with meeting I mean the actual science-part, and not so much the social and drinking part). So on Saturday and Sunday I put BlueEyes in a baby wrap (Girasol Chococabana for those of you interested), and walked around the conference.
Something like this, plus a couple thousand posters in the background

SfN turned out to be very baby-friendly, since they even had a specific room for infant care, where you could nurse and change your baby. The only disadvantage was that this was kind of far away from the poster hall, so after I had checked out a poster or two I had to walk back there to nurse a hungry baby or change a diaper. Oh well, most people walk around the poster hall to meet people they know instead of actually look at the posters anyway, right? A major unexpected disadvantage was that when you show up at someone’s poster with a baby attached to you, they automatically assume that you’ve come to show your cute baby instead of ask a serious science question. So not much science talk for me that weekend…
On Monday BlueEyes went to his usual daycare, and I traded the baby-in-wrap for my breast pump. This was potentially even bulkier and certainly more annoying to drag around all day. The same sort of thing as before happened where I would check out a bunch of posters (at least now I got to ask science-questions and have people answer them), and then have to walk back to the infant care room to pump milk. And after I presented my own poster I realized that whoever thought of four hour poster sessions had probably never lactated him- or herself….

A last thing to note is that the night after we took BlueEyes to SfN, he had his longest night sleep so far (a 6 hour stretch of sleep!). And mind you, this was in November... So I guess nothing puts our baby to sleep like a couple 1000 neuroscience posters!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Feeling better

When I was pregnant, I would sometimes call my mom and wine a little about how sick I felt, how tired I was and how much I was panicking about how things would be with a baby. My mom would usually respond by asking how often I had thrown up, or how long I had slept, and when I would say that I hadn’t really thrown up yet, but I felt really sick all day, she would tell me that there were tons of other people that felt a lot worse than me (usually with anecdotes of people she knew that had experienced something a lot worse). This did not usually make me feel better.

However, I noticed that I do the same thing myself. Recently I read “Our babies, ourselves” from Meredith Small. It’s a really good book that talks about how your cultural background shapes the way you parent, and that a lot of things that we find perfectly normal (like have a baby cry a little, or have a baby sleep by herself), is found absurd in other cultures. In this book I read about the Ache, a group of hunter-gatherers in Paraguay. The Ache mothers will for the first year of their babies’ lives have them sleep in their laps, hunched over to protect their babies from danger. Not only during the day, but also during the entire night. So that means that that year, they only sleep sitting up with a baby in their laps . Often when I’m awake at night because 7 month old BlueEyes is awake or wants to nurse I think about those women, who completely sacrifice themselves for their baby. To me, that has been one of the hardest parts of being a mother: the fact that often you have to ignore your own needs, or at least have your babies’ needs come first. But whenever I feel sorry for myself that instead of hanging on the couch I am nursing a baby to sleep, I think about those women and imagine them sitting on a hard floor with baby in their lap the whole night and I feel better.