Don’t neglect the champagne


Parent win!

It is so easy in this parenting business to only focus on our failures (or perceived failures). I know I can spend a lot of time agonizing over the times I’ve lost my patience with Little V or let him watch another Thomas the Train episode because I wanted to enjoy a cup of coffee in peace. But for as much time as we spend criticizing our parenting, I don’t think we don’t spend nearly enough time popping the champs to celebrate the wins.

This weekend J and I had a big parenting win: Little V has officially transitioned from crib to bed. It all started on Friday when I picked Little V up from him grandmother’s house and she casually mentioned that he’d crawled out of his crib during nap time (no injuries were sustained). On the drive home, I rationalized to myself that it might be time to make the move, even though he’s only a year and a half, since he’s also outgrowing his mini crib.

I did feel a sense of dread. I’ve heard horror stories of parents getting up 50 times to put their wayward toddlers back into bed for nights on end. Little V’s “room” is also a very small space. Technically, it’s the hallway between our bedroom and bathroom with a safety gate to block the stairs. So I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to find a toddler bed that would fit in place of his 38″ mini crib. I did a little searching for inspiration and stumbled upon this adorable, cozy IKEA-inspired floor bed. So Little V and I braved IKEA together on a Saturday afternoon (which WAS as insane as it sounds). And we not only finished Christmas shopping (here’s what our lucky little guy will come downstairs to on Christmas morning!) but also arrived home with all the ingredients for a cozy floor bed of his very own:

VYSSA SLOA Expandable mattress

MYSA STRA comforter, size Twin

LEN fitted sheet, blue

LJUDLIG Duvet cover and pillowcase(s), size Twin

While he napped downstairs in the Pack N Play, I moved his crib into our room and lovingly set up his new bed. I gave him a little time in the afternoon to crawl around on it, then promptly at 7:30: PJs, milk, bed, and lights out. Blissfully, miraculously, he was out in 10 minutes.

Honestly, I don’t even know if this WAS a parenting win- with a different kid, or on a different day, it just as easily could have been a disaster. All we REALLY did was purchase and set up a cute comforter and mattress. But that’s not the point. We should celebrate because we are doing the best we can and we just saw our little man through another milestone. And something that parents don’t say nearly often enough: we are doing a good job. (HEY PARENTS! YOU ARE DOING A GOOD JOB.) So we clinked our glasses… with shit-eating grins on our faces.

Moms in academia: it’s time for a change

“Having a lactation room… while I was nursing would have gone a long way towards helping me feel accepted. I felt extreme guilt and very alone… I think that my research progress suffered much more than it would have if impacted just by my new time constraints.”

“Pumping in the bathroom was awful – I just threw out the milk for sanitation purposes.”

Today I ran into a lab technician friend in our department who has just returned to work after 3 months of maternity leave. We chatted for a while before she made an offhand comment about how it’s a “total pain to pump in the bathroom”. She also mentioned that pumping at work is such a hassle, she’s given herself permission to quit when her baby is 6 months old.

I couldn’t help but sigh deeply. Not because I have any issue with someone ceasing to breastfeed at 6 months (they should be proud of that 6 months- it’s an accomplishment), but because it is yet another example of how support for women has fallen through the cracks in academia.

I was set to return to work when little V was 4 months old (a luxuriously long maternity leave by many standards, but that’s another story). About a week before I was set to return I realized I had no idea where I should pump. Most graduate students, techs, and post-docs have shared offices because space is at a premium at our university. There are a few lactation facilities on campus, but the closest to our building is a 5 minute walk one way. I spoke with my advisor about my situation and he shuffled the office spaces around so that I ended up sharing a space with two other female coworkers. Because we were friends and they are awesome women, I felt comfortable baring it all in their presence and simply requested that all others “knock and listen” before entering. Thanks to this “lactoffice”, pumping was a non-issue for me and I ended up breastfeeding for 11 months. I felt supported by my advisor and coworkers and I didn’t miss any work time while I pumped (I had two free hands for a keyboard thanks to a pumping bra).

A quick side note: for those of you who have never used a breast pump, being in a relaxing, stress-free environment is essential to encourage “letdown”- the flow of the milk. Normally the baby triggers this sensation automatically but it’s quite a bit trickier to get things flowing with a breast pump. I used to have to watch videos or look at photos of little V to get things flowing. Also, pumping has to happen 2 to 4 times in an 8 hour workday, with about 15-30 minutes a session. It’s a serious commitment for a mom who is experiencing one of the most sleep-deprived, time crunched times in her life. And the difference between being huddled in a bathroom stall with nothing to do but listen to other people use the bathroom as it’s intended versus a comfortable, private space with a desk for a laptop: well, it’s huge. It can determine how long a woman breastfeeds and the level of support she feels from her employer about having a baby in the first place.

Through conversations with other moms in academia I’ve learned how privileged my situations was. Some pumped in the bathroom, others had to sheepishly (and often apologetically) request to borrow a private office when they needed to pump, and ultimately many quit breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because they did not have a private, stress-free space in which to express milk, a right that their employer is actually legally obligated to provide under FMLA.

For the past year I’ve been a part of a push to get a lactation facility set up in the building I’m in. At the beginning of this process, we sent out a departmental survey to better assess the need (which the quotes at the top are from). The need is clearly there: 11 women in our department reported a need for a lactation facility now or within the next 12 months.  Thanks to the very supportive department I’m a part of, work is already under way to convert a break room into a facility that can be used as a private pumping space during certain hours.

One lactation facility is a start. But my lab tech friend is in a different building across campus so our facility (once it’s up and running) won’t benefit her. All I could do was suggest she might request a facility be implemented in her own building which (a) doesn’t help her now and (b) feels like adding another heap of obligation to her already overflowing plate of new responsibilities.

One thing that really surprised me from our departmental survey was that so many of the women in our department hope to be or already are mothers (over 50%). I consider our department to be pretty family friendly (with all the kids running around at retreats and departmental BBQs) but I never hear issues like childcare costs or maternity/paternity leave even mentioned, let alone challenged. And family friendly policies don’t just affect mothers, but fathers too.

What is the way forward for academia? It has become notorious as one of the least family-friendly places to work and studies have shown that women with children are less likely than men to continue to climb the academic ladder to tenured faculty in STEM fields.

Based on work by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason

Based on work by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason

One exciting step towards encouraging family friendly policies is happening at UC Berkeley under their Family Friendly Edge program. They are currently implementing policies like tenure clock stoppage, a flexible part-time option, paid leave, and access to affordable childcare. But what bottom-up approaches can women in academia implement now? Even small efforts can have a big impact and I think encouraging dialogue about these issues is a great place to start.



“Pregnancy seemed to be a world of arbitrary rules”

This was my experience to a T. That’s why it was so refreshing to read this article posted by a friend on Facebook last week. Economist Emily Oster approached her pregnancy like, well, a scientist. She wanted to know the why behind the long list of seemingly arbitrary rules that a pregnant woman is given by her doctor and she had the tools of her trade at her disposal. She did a lot of research about the research- the actual peer-reviewed studies these rules are (supposedly) based on and, thankfully, wrote a book about what she found (which is now at the top of my reading list).

One of the most controversial issues surrounding pregnancy is alcohol consumption of any kind and Oster tackles this issue specifically here. Remember when the universe exploded because pregnant Gwenyth Paltrow drank a Guinness? And check out this comment on Oster’s Huffington Post article from NOFAS, the National Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:


As Oster points out in this article, most women don’t need to be convinced that they shouldn’t go on a 24 hour booze bender or do cocaine off a toilet seat while pregnant. Most women are wondering about the safety of an occasional glass of wine or beer- a part of their lives they enjoyed before pregnancy, like a weekend road trip (which Oster points out is also “risky” behavior but somehow not controversial). NOFAS comment suggests that even questioning the “zero drinks is the only safe amount” policy during pregnancy is selfish and reckless.

Such criticism frames this issue as black and white, like the only options are selfishly drinking and likely harming your child or selflessly never touching a drop. They also reinforce this impossible ideal our society has placed on motherhood: 100% unquestioning sacrifice for our children to the point that we stress over Goldfish vs organic Bunny crackers.  Oster is simply challenging us to seek more information- where do these hard and fast rules come from and what does the science really say? And if provided with more information, don’t we have the capacity to weigh the pros and cons for ourselves to decide what’s best?

Oster’s work, in my opinion, goes beyond the debate over whether or not you can have sushi or a glass of champagne while you’re pregnant.  It is a good reminder for me of how important it is for women to take charge of their health- pregnant or not, it’s still YOUR body. She says: “pregnancy and childbirth (and child rearing) are among the most important and meaningful experiences most of us will ever have; probably the most important. Yet we are often not given the opportunity to think critically about the decisions we make. Instead, we are expected to follow a largely arbitrary script without question. It’s time to take control.”

I believe most doctors are well-trained experts who have their patient’s best interest in mind and I usually feel comfortable following their recommendations. But empowering yourself with knowledge about your health (whether pregnant or not, really) and your child’s health and feeling comfortable speaking your mind are important for multiple reasons, one of which being that sometimes health professionals have different recommendations. After little V was born, we had a bit of a rough road with nursing and he barely nursed at all for the first 36 hours of life. Our nurse thought this was a huge issue and wanted little V taking formula out of a bottle right away, but the hospital’s lactation consultant was less concerned and suggested we wait it out until we were at home and more relaxed. A few hours before we were set to go home, the nurse came over and started shoving a formula bottle nipple into little V’s mouth after I’d already expressed my apprehension about this (I was worried this might interfere with breast feeding down the road). In that moment, the mama bear came out and I tearfully demanded that she stop. I shakily reminded her that we’d decided to wait based on the recommendation of the lactation consultant. Fortunately, Little V started nursing shortly after we got home.

I don’t think she was a bad nurse; if anything, she was probably just having a bad day. What I find most disturbing is that I almost didn’t say anything because I was feeling emotionally fragile and intimidated (of course, I’d just given birth!!). But we’d talked about this very situation in my childbirthing class and had learned these tools: it’s ALWAYS ok to ask “why”. And if you know why, but still don’t feel comfortable, it’s always ok to ask “can we wait X amount of time and talk about it again then?” I think having this prompt in my head empowered me to speak up.

As Oster argues, we are continually weighing the pros and cons in our lives when deciding what house to buy or job offer to take. If only provided with more information, we might be better able to do the same in other important areas, like how we’d like to navigate our pregnancies and the birth of our child. Oster’s book looks like a great place to start.


Of monsters and minimalism

As an evolutionary biologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about fitness costs. In this world of limited resources, we see a lot of examples of how organisms limit or eliminate “wasteful” traits. For example, many creatures who come to call a dark cave home end up losing their eyesight completely. If a trait like eyesight truly is costly and becomes unnecessary (like through environmental change of moving into a cave devoid of light), then organisms who lose the trait by chance will have a fitness advantage and increase in number faster than the individuals who still possess the costly trait (we call this natural selection). Eventually, the whole population will be blind cavefish. Natural selection tends to minimize wastefulness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the waste in my own life: the physical items I cling to even though they have become a burden. They might not cost me from a reproductive fitness perspective, but they are costly in other areas where most of us are resource limited: time and money.  I LOVE acquiring stuff. I’m not a fancy person, but set me loose in a Goodwill or Ross Dress for Less and I will come home with a bunch of shit that I picked up “for a good price” and figure we’ll need someday. We live in a 1000 sq ft condo. We don’t have room for a lot of stuff. But just the same, the stuff keeps rolling in. Stupid stuff too. Like, we have 7 complete decks of playing cards, 5 pairs of scissors and over 15 lighters shoved into drawers and closets. How did this happen?

All this stuff that we (mostly I, honestly) bought with the intention to make our lives easier ironically does the opposite. I spend valuable time sorting and organizing it, cleaning it, dusting it, and rifling through it to find the stuff I actually want or need. I really see how much my stuff burdens me when I see how little time my brother’s family spends cleaning, organizing, or looking for stuff in their own home. My brother has 4 kids and exponentially less stuff then my family of 3. They are the type that could probably move everything they own in a pickup truck. My sister-in-law has told me she regularly tears through their (small) house like a street sweeper, getting rid of anything that’s not physically attached to a person (which may explain why my nephew wears a satchel 24/7). Last year, my brothers’ family rented their home for 3 months and lived in an unfurnished apartment for the hell of it. Come on…. that’s so bad ass.

In our case, I think there are two main culprits. First, stuff begets more stuff. We can never find anything so we buy another one. Second, I’m very nostalgic so I have a hard time getting rid of anything that seems meaningful. I have tons of photos, old letters, and trinkets passed down from deceased family members that I never really use and don’t even want but feel bad getting rid of. And now that little V is here, I’m tempted to hoard away every piece of paper he’s scribbled on or onesie that ever touched his sweet skin.

Inspired by, I’ve been working on my own mini version of a packing party to finally do something about the stuff that has started owning me (yes, that is a Fight Club reference). You probably already know about a packing party. Last time you moved, did you have a few boxes of stuff that you just never unpacked? And did someone tell you “if you don’t unpack it in the next year, give it away because you obviously don’t need it?” The packing party proposed on is just a more intense version of this. You pack up everything you own. Then you gradually take out the things you need, when you need them, for a few weeks. Whatever is left in boxes gets tossed.

So I emptied every single one of my summer-ish clothes into a gigantic box. Every morning, I rifled through the box to get dressed. Three weeks later I’m SHOCKED by how many freaking clothes I had and how little I actually wore. And no wonder- I am notorious at keeping or buying things that might look good but are super uncomfortable (like a cute black jacket that I could only find in a size small) or stuff I know is currently in style but looks AWFUL on me (damn you maxi dresses!). Almost everything I kept, save for a few things I plan to only wear around the house, fulfill all 3 of these categories: fit well and is comfortable on, in good condition (I had so many t-shirts with holes!) AND is currently somewhat in-style.


One thing this exercise has helped me see is that my “environment” has changed because that how life works- I’ve gotta roll with it, accept it. I’m getting older, I’m a little more modest, and I’ve thickened up a bit. It’s true but probably something I’ve avoided admitting to myself. The cave fish have no more use for eyes than I have for a size 6 strapless dress or short shorts.

Also, I love how getting dressed in the morning has become such a breeze and I’m totally ok with never setting foot in Forever 21 again.



No service

J, little V and I spent the weekend at a beach cabin with a dear friend of mine and her 1.5 year old son. We cooked up some self-harvested oysters and clams, swam in the cold salty water, and had a blast watching the boys play while we sipped chilled white wine. It was truly a refreshing, relaxing weekend. And I had zero cell reception the entire time.

For the first afternoon/evening it I did feel like something was missing. Just like when I know the electricity is out but I can’t help flipping a light switch, I found myself attempting to post a photo of the sunset on Facebook or trying to google a recipe for peach pie (which we ended up whipping together from memory with total success). Eventually I was able to relax and just enjoy, feeling in the moment in a way I haven’t in a long time.

I know I’m not the first to say it, but sometimes I really hate my damn smart phone. When I get home from work, I plug it in to charge and always plan to leave it alone until the next morning. But inevitably I wander over during a lull in the evening and find myself unable to resist it. It’s a compulsion, really. And I’m not alone- fear of being without a cell phone now has a name and there’s talk of adding this disorder to the DSM.

Academia is full of people who work virtually all the time. I’ve even heard it boasted about as a sort of badge of honor: “I am running on 3 hours of sleep and 7 cups of coffee!” “I haven’t had a vacation since tenure!” But after 2 whole days away from the chatter,  the emails, even thinking about science, I didn’t miss anything important and I don’t think anyone/anything really missed me. This is a good reminder for me- it’s quality of hours, not quantity of hours. And sometimes it is essential to  put down the damn phone and walk away.

18 months: lessons learned

I would love to see the stats on the number of blogs started while one is pregnant that are subsequently abandoned once the baby arrives- I’m guessing roughly 99%? It’s been a year and a half since my last post and I feel…. ready. Ready for an outlet that allows me to write, be creative, collect my thoughts, mess around some nerdy/silly images, and just marinate on a fun little world that IS babies and science.

Little V is 18 months old now. I’m in the 4th year of my PhD and on the tail end of what has been a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer. In the interest of self-reflection, here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the last year and a half:

1. Priorities have changed- and that’s ok. After 4 months of maternity leave, I returned to the lab a milk pumping, sleep deprived, post-partum depression mess. It was an adjustment. The first thing I had to recognize was that the days of come-whenever, leave-whenever were gone. Every scheduled minute in the lab had to count because I now had banker’s hours. At first, I experienced nearly constant guilt: I wasn’t working enough and I wasn’t momming enough. It took me awhile to realize that I absolutely had to adjust my expectations. Many grad students feel the pressure, wherever it comes from, to work virtually all the time and I am no exception. And now I felt like, even at work, I should be 100% mom too- planning a Pinterest 1st birthday during lunch or just obsessing about how I feel like a shitty mom for abandoning my kid with a nanny at such a tender little age . It was a positive feedback loop: the more I obsessed over the quantity of time spent being mom or scientist, the more guilt I felt over it never being enough in either category.

So I decide to try something different. I decided to start treating my PhD work, for the first time ever, like a regular job so that I could really be 100% there with Little V at home. I decided to work set hours. I would leave work at work so I could be fully present at home: no emails, paper writing, and minimal work stressing from 5pm until little V’s bedtime. I would prioritize everything, including attending talks, meetings, and conferences and only engage in a select important few of these things (a strategy inspired by this wonderful read). Most importantly, I would say no sometimes. 

I’m one year into this grand experiment, and I can’t say I’ve seen many negative outcomes. Sure, I have bad days. But my advisor has commented several times that he thinks I’m more productive than ever. I have set hours, so I have to make my time count. I am more organized, more scheduled, and more efficient then ever. In fact, I wish I would’ve started treating my PhD work like a regular job a long time ago.

2. You really can’t have it all- I get FOUR.

pick 3There have been so many articles on how working moms can or can’t have it all, or how we can only have cake… but I think we can all agree that in the world in which we live, with finite resources and time, quite literally: NO ONE can have it all.

In my life, I have determined that I can be pretty good at FOUR (see image above) things at once. FOUR!! Sometimes that makes me feel like I’m the fucking queen of the world: I GOT THIS. But other times it feels so, so insufficient. I can exercise regularly, eat healthy, be amazing at work AND be an great mom: incredible! But throw in a weekend getaway and a cold virus and…. something(s) have gotta give.

Although I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to make peace with that reality, one little mathematical nugget has really helped me let go. My dad read this book and told me about the economics-inspired 80-20 principle: 20% of the effort gives 80% of the result. Intuitively, it kind of makes sense in life. Mathematically, it’s based on the Pareto distribution, a sort of power law. The idea would be that small increases in one variable (say, spending 2 minutes running a Clorox wipe around your bathroom) relate to exponential effects on the dependent variable (for example, your mother-in-law’s perceived cleanliness of your home goes from “God help us” to “I would actually stay for dinner”):

20-80So when I focus on being good at the big FOUR, if I just put 20% or so effort into everything else, I’m really pretty much there. Of course, you’d have to actually see my house to judge for yourself.

3. It’s okay to say no. See #1 and #2.


A new kind of nesting.

A new kind of nesting.

At 37 weeks pregnant, I can see the finish line! Last night I dreamed that I gave birth on the tiled floor in our entryway. I just pulled that baby right out myself and laid him on my chest while J rushed around getting ready to go to the hospital. I say, the positive thinking that hypnobirthing has given me! I usually have worst-case scenario dreams about everything, but I’ve yet to have one about labor or birthing. 

And the nesting. It is happening. I’ve heard stories of full-term ladies getting on hands and knees to clean their kitchen floor with a toothbrush or organizing baby socks by color. I’m doing the equivalent of this for sure- but only at work. I’ve cleaned/organized my desk, am currently cleaning and organizing the lab’s -20 freezer, and happily creating the most elaborate spreadsheets for my bacterial strains, plasmids, and what-have-you. I’ve had (almost) limitless energy the last couple days at work. It’s just so funny that our house, where the baby and I will actually spend the next 3 months, is pretty much a disaster and I have no motivation to change that. Does this mean labor is near? I’ve read the nesting urge increases towards the end. Either way, I am being super productive at work, so bring it on!