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.