Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Maybe not the best advice

Yesterday was a rare sunny day, so the girls and I spent some time out on the front lawn, just enjoying the blue sky and playing in the dirt and grass. I swear it has been raining for a month straight, with one sunny day every 2 weeks or so. Plus, its so chilly--we have been in the low 60s on a good day, but this morning when I was going to the grocery store it was only 48! In June! I keep reminding myself that summer here is July-September and it will get nice, but June just is one big disappointment. Anyway, a neighbor was walking by with her friend and stopped to chat. My neighbor's friend has a daughter who is a senior in high school and is interested in science, biomedical research specifically, and my neighbor told her that I used to work in science, so she asked me for my opinion and any advice. First off, I think that mentoring is super important and if it weren't for the advice and support I received over the years, I never would have pursued my career to the extent that I did. So my first thought was 1) choose your words wisely 2) be honest and 3) don't sound too crabby. But, oh this is such a loaded question for me--how did you like being a scientist? Well, obviously, I am not one now, so you do the math. It did get me thinking about my path, as a scientist and now as a mother.

I always loved science. My crappy high school never had a science fair or anything like that, but I enjoyed science classes far more than any other subject. I majored in biology in college, thinking I would try to get into medical school, but I felt pretty intimidated and I have this whole fear of blood and vomit, plus I might need to like touch people, weird people in weird places--so medical school was out. I got a summer job at a cancer institute in my hometown in a research lab. I started off doing silly things like washing glassware and disposing of radioactive liquids, but I met and worked with a grad student (incidentally the author of Outnumbered Gal) and she taught me the basics of working in a lab. I loved it and she was a very patient teacher. I continued working in a lab back at college by getting an internship in the medical school and conducting my own project studying mechanisms of schizophrenia in rats. I had a great mentor, who really encouraged me to pursue a career in research. She was successful, yet happy and even seemed to have balance in her life. It looked like a good choice, plus I loved the work, even though I didn't really know what I was doing. I was so energized and excited (and naive) about it because the thought of doing world-class research with super smart people and making discoveries and contributions was just super cool, plus my whole career was in front of me. I really couldn't imagine doing anything else. So while all my biology classmates applied to medical school, I applied to graduate school and was accepted at nearly every program I applied to. I selected Northwestern and moved to Chicago.

I could write a book about my life in Chicago. It was one of those critical times in my life where good stuff happened and bad stuff happened, but overall it was the time where I gained true independence and grew into adulthood. As I began grad school and did rotations through different labs, I noticed that every single postdoctoral researcher I met was miserable. They may have liked science well enough, but they did not dig their job and they were quite cynical about the next step, i.e. moving on from being a scientist-in-training and becoming either a professor or a scientist in biotech/pharma. After they got their PhD, they worked as a postdoc for 2-5 years, for very little money and wow, they worked hard. Nights and weekends, long hours during the week. Many of these postdocs would even do 2 postdocs before moving on to the next step--yes, that is 10 years of post-graduate training. At the time, I was so confused b/c I was still so energized and excited about my career and I vowed to always be optimistic and to not become so jaded. After all, I chose this path.

I had a wonderfully supportive mentor and boss through graduate school. She was/is very successful who entered this field at a time when there were very very few women in science. The other thing about her is that she is a nice person and has other interests and hobbies, she is compassionate and funny. It was a pleasure to work for her. I learned so much from her. She is so important to me, both professionally and personally that she did a reading at our wedding. Anyway, my project was good. I made progress, published a bunch and graduated within 5 years. All in all, it was a good experience. It was also stressful. I always felt just a bit incompetant and inadequate, in over my head and the public speaking of giving seminars took years off my life--the anxiety I felt! I developed migraines, acid reflux, insomnia. Ugh, is any career worth that?

But, I had so much fun living in Chicago. I was in my early 20s and I had great girlfriends. I was in a long-term relationship that was not moving toward marriage, so I felt pretty carefree. I literally never thought about getting married and having a family and how I would fit all of it in with my career. If I had to come back to lab at 9pm for an experiment, it was no big deal--I lived close by and I had no other responsibilities. Looking back, I really did not think I would ever have children. Until my relationship ended and I met Bill. We fell in love quickly and it was intense. I suddenly knew we would get married and have kids. It was a wonder I got anything done at work during this time b/c I was so distracted! But just as quickly as our relationship began, Bill had to move to San Diego 6 months later to start his residency and I was left behind to finish up my PhD. I had about 2 years left, give or take.

After I graduated, I moved onto my postdoc in San Diego, Bill and I got married and we enjoyed our life in southern California. My postdoc was weird. I was finally in the same position as all the miserable people I met in grad school. I can't say I was miserable, but I did not have the same energy and optimism that I used to have. I still felt a bit inadequate, but I enjoyed the people I worked with (mostly). I was getting tired though. Tired of doing experiments that didn't work. Tired of writing all these grants for my boss. Tired of pretending my project was SO important, when really it was kind of boring, even to me. Speaking of my boss, she was as weird and inappropriate as they come--a huge contrast to all the mentors I had the pleasure of working with earlier in my career. But, I stayed 4 years, published a bunch and on paper, everything looked like I was moderately successful.

But the thing is, moderately successful doesn't really get you very far in science. To become a professor, you need to be uber successful and super dedicated in ways I will never be. There are very few positions available and a lot of postdocs who want those positions. Even getting a job in biotech/pharma isn't as easy as it used to be. You have to be willing to move anywhere to get the job and many if not most of these positions are not 9-5 types of jobs. I wasn't willing to move far away at that point. Bill and I had already been separated and by the time I was winding up my postdoc, I was pregnant with Lana. We were moving to Alexandria, VA for Bill's one year fellowship, so I thought I would stay home that year and then we will see if I want to go back to my career, depending on where we end up. I never went back and I don't really want to.

The biggest reason I am a stay at home mom is that I really enjoy being centered. I am never stressed out like I used to be. I have never had one night of insomnia since I stopped working. I don't feel torn between the kids and my job. I can't say every day is super fun, especially when the kids are sour and/or fussy, but overall, I try to enjoy them, have some fun, smile and laugh and make a decent dinner. My house is a mess, every closet unorganized, dirty dishes in the sink, but I don't care, I really don't. I'd rather play with the girls b/c that is why I am not working. I love sitting on the beach (if the damn sun would ever come out) on a Wednesday afternoon with Lana and I making a sandcastle. This is exactly why I am not working. If I was still a scientist, I would be bringing work home, doing literature searches instead of keeping this blog, writing papers and putting together presentations--all in the evenings. I would be feeling judged by my coworkers and boss for cutting out of work at 6pm so I could pick up the kids. Sadly, this persists in many environments in science, b/c working long hours is a badge of honor. I definitely don't miss the disappointments of experiments not working, grants not being funded and the constant criticisms/expectations. I definitely do miss getting a paycheck and the socializing with my coworkers. I suppose I also miss the intellectual aspect of my job, but frankly, I can read about new discoveries and understand research articles if I feel like it. But staying home is a good choice for our family b/c its good for me emotionally and health-wise and Bill's hours can be very long, so I am happy to provide the consistent schedule. I can't imagine us both having long hours--the kids would never see us.

So what did I say to this woman, whose daughter is interested in a career in science? I told her to come and talk to me if she wants to. I told her it was great when I was young, but its not very family-friendly and its hard to achieve balance. I hate to discourage and I really don't want to--I love to hear that young women are into science and math, but I also felt like honesty is important. I really feel like if its your dream, you gotta do it. I don't want to sound like those jaded post-docs. I really appreciate all of the mentoring support I received along the way and it was my dream and I did it. I just don't want to continue doing it b/c I feel like it will negatively impact our family life. I wish there was part-time or job sharing, but I have yet to hear of anything like that happening in this field. Ah, I just feel like I dished out some crappy advice to a young woman with her whole career ahead of her. I do hope she comes and talks to me, b/c its not a question I can answer in 2 sentences (obviously, this is quite the long post).

Monday, June 7, 2010

A first caught on tape!

Last night Bill was giving Lacey a bath and happened to have the video camera rolling when she did something special. No, she did not toot in the tub or anything like that. Bill was so surprised, he almost dropped the camera. Try to ignore his goofy raspberries at the start--she is really good at razzing, so we are always mimicking her.

What are the chances of catching a "first" or any milestone on tape? Oh man, this makes me laugh every time and I have probably watched it 30 times. Lacey looks so surprised! The funny thing is, she is not really a mover--she doesn't crawl, not big on rolling around--she is pretty content to sit and observe, which is why Bill almost dropped the camera.

What a week!

Whoa, last week was a doozie, but I am happy to report things are on the upswing now. It all started on the long weekend when Lana got a fever. It lasted 3 days and then she seemed fine, no other symptoms, so we chalked it up to a fever virus. Except then I got a sore throat on Sunday, and then Lana started coughing on Monday. And then my voice changed to that of a man and I was coughing up a lung. And then Lacey got the fever on Wednesday, followed by mucho boogers and coughing and well, the three of us were siiiiiick. Ah yes, seems like your typical cold, passed around the family, no big deal. This one knocked me out though for some reason.

On Tuesday when I took Lana to school, after we dropped her off, I witnessed a car accident, right in front of me. In fact, I was lucky that I didn't get hit. Luckily the person wasn't injured, just scared. It really rattled me though and I have been much more alert at the wheel.

On Wednesday-Friday, we had major construction going on in the house, as we had drywall hung and sanded, the temporary wall taken down, opening up our kitchen (yay!), and the floors taken out. They also took out our cooktop and oven, so cooking was sort of not possible. This was all very exciting, very very messy and VERY LOUD! We packed things up and went to my mom's apartment on Thursday when the drywall was being sanded, you know, so we could breathe and all. The timing kind of sucked though since we were all sick with coughing chest colds and I have asthma. Lana had a few meltdowns due to the noise and being stuck upstairs in my bedroom for hours at a time with only me and Lacey and some toys. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't a showcase for my best parenting moments. Between the sickness and this incessant rain, I am losing it! I need summer and I need it now.

We just got our new stove delivered and hooked up, so we are back in action, although the layer of dirt everywhere is kind of fun in a rinse-before-you-use kind of way. Our new space is going to be great. We will have an eat-in kitchen, storage for coats and shoes, a huge new pantry space that will also store craft supplies and the best: a big deck that gets afternoon sun, for eating outside all summer long, once the damn rain stops. I keep reminding myself its going to be great! Bill says to me: you know, we were dreading the kitchen being ripped out and all the mess and craziness and really its not so bad! My response: HUH? You go to work! You are not here all day, listening to the noise. Lana is like--mooommmm, I want a snack! No, not those snacks, the ones in the kitchen--whine whine. Yeah, the kitchen we have no access to?! Oh brother!

Anyway, the week ended on a good note--we got one day of sunshine which allowed us to garden a bit and be outside, breathing fresh air and soaking up some Vitamin D. Also, we had Lana's birthday party on Sunday at the Children's Museum. I kept it super simple--we ordered pizza and did a Costco cake and I brought a fruit salad. I even socialized with all of our guests and my brain didn't explode--almost though. I have a really hard time with kids' b-day parties b/c all of the noise--the kids talking, the parents talking, keeping an eye on my kid while trying to have a normal conversation--I get overstimulated easily. I totally know how to have a dinner party, but for some reason, kids' b-day parties are overwhelming. I think its the sheer number of people. Dinner parties tend to be smaller and I do better in smaller crowds. Anyway, I ramble. The kids looked like they were having fun, so that's all that counts. It was also cute to see Lana hang with her friends without wanting me to be two feet away from her at all times. That kid is growing up, I tell ya!

It was a good ending to a challenging week. I am super excited about this week. Tonight: preschool graduation. Thursday: last day of school! I am also hopeful that the sun might come out as well!!! Yay, summer!