Sunday, June 26, 2011

Work-life balance rant, and tribute to fathers

Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to get sucked into the perennial work-life balance meme. I really didn’t.

There’s certainly been temptation of late. From excellent posts by Cloud and others, a crazy-ass op-ed piece in the New York Times and the resulting blogosphere uproar. . . I wanted to say something because, hey, someone is wrong on the Internet (and thanks for that link, Cloud!) but really, last week all I wanted to do was get to bed before midnight.

But something—and I can’t even remember what—has just set me off again.

In all the discussions about women, motherhood, and work-life balance, one point is often brought up: that parental leave and family care and work-life balance are not “women’s issues”; these are issues that affect both mothers and fathers, men and women. I see women bringing up this valid point in various feminist comment threads—but often (not always, of course, but often enough) there is something angrily accusatory about it. The tone is often not Gee, we should also respect men’s rights to parent and have a decent work-life balance but Goddamnit, if men would just step up to the plate this wouldn’t be such a problem! If those lazy-ass dads would just pitch in and change a diaper it would be easier and things would change! Those @!*%! men! They are not helping out and it’s all on us women, all the time!

Look, I don’t doubt that there are douchebag husbands and fathers like that. Thankfully, I don’t really know any of them. This blog post is not about them. It’s about the many fathers I know who struggle every day to share equally in the demands and joys of child-rearing, family care, and domestic chores. The dads who need to be respected for that—just as their wives are. Who turn down certain opportunities at work because they put their families first—just as many women do. The truth is that in American society, it is really more acceptable for women to “opt out” of the workforce for a few years to be a stay-at-home parent than it is for a man to do so. It’s still more acceptable for a woman to duck out of a meeting early, or miss a work event because she is tending to a sick child or attending a parent-teacher conference than it is for a man to do so. When I think about including men in the perennial “work-life balance” discussion, I don’t mean to complain about selfish pigs who aren’t doing their fair share—I want to talk about the men who are trying their best to do their share, and talk about how to make it easier for them to do so. How to make it easier for everyone to do so.

This is not your father’s generation, as the old saw has it. Even the fathers I know who have stay-at-home wives are incredibly involved and committed to sharing in childcare duties. Two of the postdocs in my lab are fathers with young children and stay-at-home wives; they both get into work at an ungodly hour (6 am) so that they can leave early and have dinner with their families and see their kids before the littlest ones go to sleep. They coach soccer and spend as much time as they can with their children. When his kids were recently sick, one of the postdocs took time off from work to stay home with them—even though his wife wasn’t working and was home anyway. He knew that she needed a break and some help—three kids sick at once!—so he helped out. Somehow, I don’t see this as common among male scientists and workers of a generation ago.

My brother-in-law is seriously considering quitting his job to stay home and be primary caregiver for his soon-to-be born baby daughter. My parents are absolutely horrified by the idea.

And I haven’t even talked about my husband, and all he does for his daughters and for me. We absolutely share in home and childcare duties—sometimes it tips more his way for a while, sometimes it tips more my way. Overall, it works out to 50-50 (although it can be so exhausting that it often feels more like 120/120).

So to end this rant. . . There are committed fathers who want to share equally in childrearing and family life. It’s not just a matter of haranguing men to take more responsibility. It’s a matter of making it more possible for them to take more responsibility—of offering reasonable paternity leave as well as maternity leave, of making it more socially acceptable for a man to ease his work hours or take time off from a job to care for his family. Although yes, I am also aware that in the United States of America, a country with no paid maternity leave and no paid sick leave, the idea of a paid paternity leave and more humane working hours lies in the same realm as unicorns and leprechauns. *

*Because in the end, you know (and as GMP eloquently pointed out in a blog post) no one really cares.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Once upon a time I saw this blog as a digital baby book of sorts—a place to record memories and milestones of the bean children. But they grow too quickly, my bean girls. The milestones fly past. Before I knew it, my first toddler became an articulate six-year old, a beautiful girl who dresses herself in the morning, finds her own snack to pack for school; who lost two front teeth in one week, who can read to herself (for a long time I despaired over the reading issue), and who, impossibly, just graduated first grade. How did this happen?

And my other bean child, the Legume. I thought she was a baby. I want to see her as a baby. But it’s been a long time since she was a baby at all. Two weeks ago, she turned four. Yes, four. I carry her when I don’t need to. She wiggles in my arms, squirms away. There she is, running away. “Bye bye,” she flaps a hand at me as she runs off to her friends at daycare/preschool. Her eyes crease into half-moons when she smiles. She has peaches for cheeks; her arms and legs are still rounded and soft. But those legs and arms have lengthened and thinned; she dangles against me when I lift her, and I can’t deny that she’s growing.


“Legume doesn’t walk,” my husband observed. “She gallops.”

It’s true. She gallops. Or hops. Or skips. Or runs. Maybe a better word is galumph. She galumphs through the house. And clumsily knocks into walls, chairs, furniture. She seems clumsy, but then is very agile when it comes to scaling heights in search of candy and treats. She follows and worships her big sister when she is not squabbling with her. Her nickname (among many) is “Fire-pig.” My husband discovered this name when he looked up her Chinese horoscope and found that she is a pig with elements of fire. Somehow the name fits, and she delights in it. We told her daycare teachers, as she often refers to herself by this moniker; they were also delighted by the name, agreeing that it fits her spitfire personality. “The Fire-pig fights fires!” she proclaims. She and Bean-girl weave a complex mythology of the Superhero Fire-pig with laser eyes who fights bad guys. “Stay away from the stove!” I tell her, and she responds, “But mommy, the Fire-pig fights fires!” (yes, and stay away from this one).

She can eat a watermelon like nobody’s business. I’m talking an entire small watermelon, all by herself.

She is a tomboy who likes to play with trucks, cars, trains, space ships, and has a special fondness for fire engines. She wants to be a fire fighter when she grows up. And a scientist as well (just like mommy).

We despaired of her ever being toilet trained. We thought it might never happen. “I’ve yet to send a child off to kindergarten in diapers,” her lead daycare teacher told us. “There’s always a first time,” my husband said grimly, and the teacher had to nod in agreement.

But our stubborn stubborn child is coming around. When you are four, you have to use the potty, we told her. And now she seems to have finally agreed. I shouldn’t jinx it be writing this here, but I think just maybe we won’t be packing diapers in her kindergarten bag, after all.


Time goes too fast. Last week I noticed the lilacs by our front door blooming, giving off their evocative scent. Today the blooms are already gone. Our youngest daughter turned four, and my husband and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. For the first time in years, we went away for an entire weekend, just by ourselves. Focusing just on ourselves. My parents came up for the weekend to take care of both kids—a first for all of us. Lilacs were blooming in the lakeside resort town my husband and I visited; lilacs lined the walkway to our B&B. It was a pretty tourist town with art galleries, ice cream shops, and little to do after dark. We walked on the beach, window-shopped, and ate out. On Saturday evening we took in some community theatre. The play, These Shining Lives, was well-written, although the amateur cast was mostly stiff. (The lead actress, however, was wonderful, completely natural and affecting. She was a college theatre major, and the training and talent showed).

On Sunday morning we sat in the B&B’s lobby and read the newspaper front to back. The silence felt like a heavenly indulgence.

The weekend made my husband and I remember that we need to take time out to focus on just each other. The last time we got away for a weekend sans kids, it was for a wedding. Fun, but not really a weekend of alone time amidst the usual wedding whirl and socializing. This time it really was a weekend just for us. A little bubble of peace and quiet. Our bedroom suite was beautiful. And my husband, who does not normally express his feelings in words, expressed them in a card that made me cry.

Ten years. Four and ten. My newly four-year old daughter was born on the date that my husband and I married ten years ago. I can’t believe how the years have flown by.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bad Science Week

It’s been a Bad Science Week.

Nothing catastrophic, just a hum-drum Bad Week. Microscope acting up. Western blot FAIL (second one). Cell lines not behaving appropriately. The big experiment that I completed—the one that was supposed to be Figure 2 of my hypothetical manuscript—the experiment that involved two staggered month-long cell culture assays—well, it didn’t work quite as expected. The trend is there. But the controls misbehaved, and the numbers don’t line up well enough with the first experiment in the series. Let’s just say that I will not be making my hypothetical Figure 2 tonight, after all.

But I was reminded again of what awesome colleagues I have. Even in the midst of the blues, I could vent and laugh today with my friends. Who else understands, but those of us who work in the lab? And more than one of us has had a Bad Science Week so far. One of the grad students was looking for Ibuprophen today (headache from staring at the computer screen too long) and heard a rumor that the guards at the security desk have a stash. “Ask them for some,” a colleague suggested. “Say that you could cure cancer today if you just didn’t have this headache.”

My benchmate patiently listened to my tale of woe and tried to cheer me up. “But it’s real,” he said of my experiments. “The trend is there, so you know it’s real. That’s important.”

It reminded me of my own pep talks that I’ve given to others over the years, and I smiled just a little, very ruefully, inside.

And a friend who had had a Very Bad Science Weekend (and aren’t they some of the worse?) gave an excellent lab meeting. She’s been disappointed that a certain hypothesis has not panned out, and she told me that she’d had a mini-meltdown over the weekend after multiple gels leaked and an expensive piece of equipment crashed. But she gave a great lab meeting that was enthusiastically received. She’d complained that her results did not support Hypothesis A, but after seeing her presentation I think that the failure of that hypothesis actually opens up a more interesting and exciting avenue of research. Other people evidently feel the same, as the room started buzzing with enthusiasm during her presentation.

There are two days left, and tomorrow’s experiments might yet (partially) turn this week around for me. Hope springs eternal and all that. I just hope Bad Science Week doesn’t become Bad Science Month or, heaven forbid, Bad Science Year. Because I’ve been in that latter place, and it’s a bad place to be indeed. Even with awesome colleagues who make me laugh.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I am an idiot

Yesterday I transferred two gels backwards overnight. (In my defense, it's been about four years since I regularly ran Westerns, and the transfer apparatus in this lab is set up with exactly the opposite orientation of my last lab).

So today I got to pour new gels and re-run them in between other experiments. Set my gels to run super-low voltage while I ran to pick up my Bean-girl from school and get dinner on the table. After dinner I went back in. Just came home and everyone is asleep--including Husband, who fell asleep next to our little Legume.

Oh, and it's Legume's birthday tommorrow! And we forgot to get her a present in time (although we did order a cake). And I even had a three-day weekend in which to go shopping. How many kinds of an idiot am I?