Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Why I left academia, part 5, or: Send in the Navy!

Just as I was feeling like something in my life was going to give - my sanity, my kids’ sanity, my marriage, or someone’s health, I was offered a position at the Navy in San Diego. My husband had been collaborating with some folks there, and they had come to learn of our less-than-ideal living situation. They had a looming retirement, and saw a fleeting chance to fill that slot and an opportunity to help our family become whole again. 
There's a lot to miss about Boston
The position they offered me was to be the “relief” for a retiring scientist who ran the scientific diving program and coral reef research at SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems) Systems Center Pacific (or SSC PAC for short). The catch was that the window was short – I had to start before the next president came into office, as it was rumored that a Federal hiring freeze was going to occur, just a few short months away. I spent as much time as I had searching my soul, talking to friends from Scripps who work at the Navy, thinking about my students, and trying to decide if I should jump ship. 
In the end, as you have guessed by now, I decided to leave at the end of the fall semester. The hardest part was telling my graduate students. One of them took it very hard. I don’t know that he’ll ever forgive me, but despite my pretty suddenly ditching him, that student completed the initial work he had started with me and wrote it up to receive a master’s degree a few weeks ago. I’m incredibly proud of his persistence. My other student is luckily less completely abandoned, since his other advisor is still in Boston; he managed to fight cancer while I was moving coasts and continues to persevere toward his degree despite logistical and other challenges thrown his way. Rock stars, both.
In the end, I left academia because I felt like I couldn’t hack it. I chalked it up to my living away from my husband, but now that we are back living together I think that even if he had moved to Boston and we had stuck it out, I would have failed. I don’t like working more than 40 hours a week. I feel like I barely get to spend quality time with my kids and husband as it is; if I were to spend weekends and evenings working, as expected and required to thrive in academia, I would shrivel up into a miserable prune. 
My new job is not without stress; but to me, at least so far, the stress is compartmentalized and manageable. The job is doable and the requirements are concrete. The people are kind and understanding. My colleagues at UMass Boston were kind, but not entirely understanding. This is nothing specifically against them - I am pretty sure that all academics live in a world in which expectations and norms are different, and that most of them are Ok with this. At my new job, no one expects after-hours or weekend work (unless for travel or fieldwork, of course). Of course some people do work longer hours, particularly just before proposals are due or other deadlines, but it is not standard and expected, which is the difference. 
Fieldwork in Pearl Harbor - a bit
different from drilling coral cores!
I do feel sometimes like I failed, and that I’m not as good a scientist as my friends who are succeeding in academia. Maybe I’ll always feel that way, and wonder if I could have hacked it, had things been different. But I know that I am not failing as a mom anymore, and this is more important to me. Ryder has a hard time believing it (Kindergarten is now school #10 or 11 for him - I've lost track; he’s lived in 7 different apartments/houses over his not-quite 6 years), but when I assure him we aren’t moving houses or schools anytime soon, his comforted smile warms my heart.

San Diego has problems - the traffic sucks, we have no water, our neighborhood is mostly white and affluent, and we have to drive to everything. But I have to admit that if they’ll let me stay, I don’t want to move anymore. I’m a government scientist and so incredibly proud of it. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Why I left academia, part 4, or: Realizing you don’t actually know how to swim, very far from land

By the fall of 2015, Ryder was on his 7th daycare/preschool, and there were more changes to come. Each time we went back and forth between coasts, I had to find a new spot for him in care, and each time we returned to Boston I had to find a new living situation. Adding his sister to the equation just made this even more difficult. When I returned post-maternity leave for another winter in Boston, this time with two kids, I opted to sublet an apartment in Somerville walking distance from friends. The apartment came with a car and an underground parking garage – I felt totally ready for the snow this time. 
I was able to get Ryder back into the UMass Boston Early Learning Center, and after much grief and stress, I found a spot for Adelaide at the closest infant center in Dorchester. It was in a city government building, surrounded by fish-packing plants and a few blocks from a methadone clinic. In other words, I didn’t totally love the neighborhood, but the daycare itself was lovely.  
Elevatoring down to the garage
Getting the kids into the car in the covered basement was logistically much easier than walking to the T, but with two kids to drop off in different places and the tunnel under the city always jammed with traffic, we still spent about 3 hours commuting on a good day. Since it was my second year at work, expectations had increased as had my service requirements, so I would work from 8 pm – 10 pm or so every night after the kids went to sleep. I usually also got up at 5 am or so to make lunches and coffee and get myself dressed so I could enjoy the kids for a bit in the morning before we ran out the door. I did actually love the commute time in some ways; the car was so much quieter than the Redline, it allowed us to sing and tell stories and have snacks when no one was crying. 
During that semester, many colleagues decided it was time to provide their guidance on what I needed to do to reach tenure. Their advice was invariably conflicting when it came to work – how much to focus on teaching vs. scholarship vs. service was a big source of disagreement. Another was how to comport myself as a woman faculty member and a mom. The advice regarding how to logistically survive as a mother on the tenure track was just depressing.
One woman told me about her childcare situation when she had a baby: an older woman down the street watched her daughter. If she was going to be home late, she would feed her daughter dinner. If she was going to be home even later, she would bathe her daughter and get her in PJs. If she wouldn’t be home at all, the woman would put the baby to sleep at her house so my colleague could pick her up the following evening. 
A good book to make you feel inadequate
One women had a stay-at-home husband and worked late every night. Another’s husband was under-employed and did most of the childcare and household chores. Another had no children. Another seemed to not actually enjoy her child, and remarked that the child spent close to the maximum number of allowed hours in care every day. The only female colleague with a family situation close to mine seemed to be doing poorly on the work-front; she admitted to me that she was almost certain she would never be promoted. 
I haven’t yet mentioned my graduate students, which is cruel. They were the best part of my stint on the tenure track. One student started while I was on maternity leave. He settled himself in and kept busy with classes. The next semester we went on fieldwork together to the US Virgin Islands, with assistance from the kids, my mom, and husband. My student was amazing and spent time getting to know my kids and family; in addition to being a good scientist, it was clear he was a good person and this was wonderful to experience. My favorite times at UMass Boston included hours spent working with him in the lab to develop procedures, discuss problems, and talk about ideas. 
My other student was jointly advised by myself and a colleague at another Boston institution. His master’s project stemmed out of a research cruise I helped prepare for while I was extremely pregnant in San Diego; I spent weeks acid-cleaning what felt like a million bottles and other equipment that would be used to collect ocean water for trace-iron analyses, and to conduct an on-board aquarium experiment. I purposefully carried around carboys of MilliQ that were much too heavy and spent hours on my feet while experiencing relentless but ineffective contractions – still, my dumb body refused to just go into labor without medical help. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to separate that project from those slow and painful weeks. 
Touristing in Boston
During the summer after my second year at UMass Boston, it became clear that the only way Adam could move to Boston would be for him to give up his established career and start fresh. I thought I might have a chance of convincing him it was worth it when he came to spend time in Boston that next fall – while we’d certainly enjoyed a lot of snow together so far, we had yet to experience the purported best season in Boston. We went leaf-peeping in New Hampshire, we visited the Cape, Glouster, and Lowell; we fell in love with several adorable coastal towns and discussed the potential to live in Hull or another town with surfing options. 
Meanwhile, though, I was feeling less than confident at work. I was co-teaching with a seasoned professor who demonstrated abundantly that I was not actually as awesome at teaching as I had convinced myself. I also realized I not only wasn’t particularly talented at teaching, but I had very little grasp of the literature on teaching methods. I was mostly just teaching by feel, and was demoralized to realize that if I really wanted to become as effective a teacher as I had hoped, I was going to have to invest a lot more time into that pie-slice of my job. Barring that, I was going to have to live with myself being a sub-par instructor for people who deserved better. 

During my maternity leave, I had taken a break from proposal-writing. This turned out to be a potentially deadly blow to my academic career. I saw that the end of my start-up funding was looming, as was the end of my first and only federal grant, and I didn’t have any proposals in the pipeline. I couldn’t bring on new students without funding, but I couldn’t get new funding without some preliminary results and new ideas, and I didn’t have the time or energy to produce these things. I had nothing lined up to pay my summer salary the following year; without that money, the cost of childcare and rent in Boston would exceed my monthly income and I would have to pay to go to work. I started to freak out.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Why I left academia, Part 3, or: I do not know how single parents do it

I guess I should go on surf trips more often. I was in Costa Rica with my husband, 2 yr old son, and some old friends, renting a little cabina near a beach. Ryder was having a rough go of it: the howler monkeys terrified him (“can we find some quieter monkeys?”), he got attacked by fire ants, a wasp stung him on the boy parts while he was playing naked because it was so hot, and then a scorpion had the audacity to hide under a dustpan and sting his foot when he went to play with it (I give him all the best toys). 
One afternoon I was sitting in the hammock while the guys went surfing, and Ryder was bulldozing pebbles. I had received a weird email from UMass Boston that asked me to go to their job application website to check the status of my application. Being very used to rejection, I logged into the site to see what they had to say - at least they were kind enough to actually reject me. Many jobs I had applied to just never said anything. 
Weirdly, the message said that I was being invited for an on-campus interview for a faculty position in the School for the Environment, and would I please let them know my availability. I was suddenly glad they made me go to the bother of logging into their site, so I actually believed the message. 
Finally, I had been able to apply for another job in an interdisciplinary environmental science department, where I didn’t have to pretend to be an expert in a particular discipline, and my weird mishmash of a background had apparently gotten some traction. I felt like a million dollars, and started envisioning myself wearing professorly sweaters as I strolled confidently around campus in the crisp New England fall. 
UMass Boston: So pretty in the snow
A month later, I was at the interview. The weather was about as dreary as it comes - 40 degrees and raining - and the campus was not exactly going to win any architectural or landscaping awards. The upside was that the buildings were all connected by glass “hamster tubes” so one didn’t have to go out into the elements to get around. Plus, it was right on the Bay and it was in Boston - a pretty vibrant and exciting part of the country from what I could tell, and the people were great. I had so much fun at the interview.
My husband was shocked when I was offered the job. He has a permanent-as-they-come research position at UC San Diego, and the idea of once again somehow living apart – as we had in Australia – was not appealing. However, since he is grant-supported, and not part of the teaching faculty, his job is theoretically portable. He went to his supervisors with the news of my job offer to ask their advice, while I went to my mentors including my PhD advisor as well. All of the academics we spoke to agreed: I had to take the position if I wanted to succeed in academia; we could, they trusted, work out our personal lives, but too many years adjuncting was apparently the kiss of death for hopes of joining the tenure track.
So, I went. We decided at first that my son and I would live in Boston during the teaching semesters, and come back to San Diego during breaks; my husband would visit when he could, but because of some changes at his University regarding employees working from afar, his visits would be relatively short and sparse. We would also pursue options for him to transfer his grants or obtain new funding through UMass Boston, but we knew early on that this would not be as easy as I had thought during my job search. 
The new building on campus that would house my shiny new lab and office wasn’t yet open when I started my position in Fall of 2014, so I was given part of a cubicle in a room with no windows when I first arrived. This didn’t exactly make my heart swell with excitement for my new position; it also made it difficult for me to spend the semester setting up my lab, which had been the original plan, and the reason I had no classes to teach that semester. I spent October in Boston, and then retreated to San Diego, where I had more space to work and life logistics were easier. I wrote proposals and resurrected projects, and prepped all new material for my class in the spring. When I got back to Boston in January, I felt excited and ready to roll.
Just one of the many blizzards we enjoyed in 2015 (inches)
Ryder and I moved into a furnished 2-story duplex in Cambridgeport. We were a few blocks from Trader Joes, Rite Aid and Whole Foods, as well as the Charles River, with a backyard and a kind landlord who lived two doors down and kept an eye out for us (and cleared our snow!). We were half a mile from the Central Square Redline T stop. I was excited to commute by train, pop into the city to see sights, and do my shopping on foot. I had never lived an urban lifestyle, and was amped. 
Then that winter broke all of Boston’s records for snowfall and cold. One day we bundled up to walk to Rite Aid for Lucky Charms (as you do). Ryder had to pee when we got there; unfortunately I was too slow getting him into the restroom and undressed from his layers, and he lost it and ended up peeing all over the back of his snowpants. I knew it was too cold for him to get home without the pants, but worried the wet clothes would freeze against his skin when we got out into the intense cold. A couple plastic bags from the checker later, and I had sandwiched the wet parts of the pants between layers of bags and then put his jacket on to hold it all together. I was clearly killing it at this Boston-living thing.
A relatively mild day at the T
To get to work, I had to bundle Ryder in snowpants, jacket, boots, hat, and gloves, and then dress myself quickly and get us and the jogging stroller out of the door (thanks to friend Rachel for alerting me that small-wheel strollers are ridiculous in snow). I was born in Boston when my mom was a grad student at Harvard. A favorite story I used to make her tell me over and over was about just this: bundling me up in a million layers, getting outside to stroller to daycare, but forgetting to strap me in - when the stroller stopped short on a chunk of ice, baby me flew out and rolled down the sidewalk. All the layers meant that when my mom ran up to me, horrified, I was just laughing.
When the temperatures dropped below 15F, I would put a plastic rain cover over the stroller to keep Ryder a little bit warmer on our way to daycare. After the second blizzard, people stopped bothering the clear their sidewalks properly, so we had to walk in the street to get to the T, praying no cars slid into us. When we got to the T, we would have to fight to get on. Often, multiple full trains would pass before we could shove our way in. I learned to be rude and pushy. When we got to our stop, we would bundle up again and walk another ½ mile to the UMass Boston Early Learning Center. I would drop Ryder off, removing his outer layers to place in his outside cubby, and then bring his special blanket and elephant into the inside cubby. After that, I walked another ½ mile to my office. It was great exercise, but the whole evolution took a long time. 
Checking out the shiny new building that housed my lab & office
Before I knew it, and before I felt like I’d accomplished what I needed, it would be time to leave to reverse the trek. In the evenings, after Ryder went to sleep, I knew that I should work again to make up lost time, but I was pregnant with my daughter and too exhausted. Usually, I would just go to bed when he did, snuggling together in my queen bed because neither of us wanted to sleep in separate rooms.
One day I got food poisoning. I started feeling weird on the way home, and by the time we got to the apartment, it took every ounce of energy to get Ryder dinner and to bed. I then spent the entire night puking. In the morning, I called a cab, hauled Ryder’s carseat into it, and had them take us to the hospital. A few bags of IV fluid, some anti-emetics, and something that knocked me out for a few hours did the trick. When I woke up after being knocked out, Ryder was sitting in his carseat in the hospital room, coloring and eating animal crackers. I just about died from love and gratefulness for him being so good and patient, and also immediately had a thousand visions of all the ways he could have been harmed while I was asleep and no one was caring for him. 
Spring came, and life got easier. Instead of snow on the sidewalks, there were pink drifts of cherry blossoms. One day we emerged from the T station at our stop on our way home, and it wasn’t dark. We celebrated by going out for an impromptu dinner, complete with fancy desert.

And then it was time for summer back in San Diego. It was a bit of a break, and I felt like I caught up on work a little – my husband helped with the preschool commute, I wasn’t teaching, and I worked at home most days, so I had much more time. At the end of summer, I ballooned into a whale and a few weeks later my daughter was born. We remained in San Diego that fall on maternity leave. I kept up with some work, but I also did take a real break to enjoy her, knowing she’s my last baby.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Why I left academia, Part 2, or: Adjuncting might just kill your soul and/or career

Since the end of my graduate career, I had been applying for full-time tenure-track (Assistant professor) positions at schools in any town in which I thought my husband might agree to move. We both surf (or, at least we did before kids; I can barely claim this anymore), and aren’t particularly willing to give up the possibility of surfing, so this limits the options a lot. The other problem I found was that my undergraduate and graduate training were both interdisciplinary, so I didn’t fit well into traditional departmental boxes. For every application, I tried to re-cast myself as a Biologist by focusing on the biological aspects of my research (namely, coral bleaching and calcification mechanisms), or as a Geologist by not mentioning these things and focusing on my Geochemistry and Paleoclimate research, depending on the department to which I was applying. I apparently did a poor job of this, because beyond a few phone and Skype interviews, and hearing a few times that I’d made the “long short list” (i.e. a list of maybe 20-30 people narrowed down from the hundreds of applications), I failed to make it to the coveted on-campus interview (typically ~3 candidates at that stage). 
Hanging in our alley
So, upon returning to San Diego after my postdoc, with no tenure-track job offer in sight, I settled with adjuncting at USD (and later that year added another class at UCSD to augment my paltry income). We also moved into a particularly depressing living situation: we rented a studio built in a converted garage, which opened directly onto parking spaces in an alley way. It was relatively close to the beach, and I could walk with Ryder to the library and market – convenient, because we only had one car at the time which my husband typically took to work. But it was a particularly jarring step down from our 2-bedroom apartment in Australia that had a large balcony and overlooked the beach. I immediately realized I might have made a grave mistake returning to San Diego: land of horrendous traffic and now devoid of most of my friends, who had moved elsewhere after grad school.
My time adjuncting at USD was overall enjoyable; the students were excellent and kind, the colleagues I got to interact with were lovely, and the campus is incredibly beautiful. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have more time to devote to building more relationships with the faculty there. I often wonder if this would have made a difference – over the span of a few years, I officially applied for 3 advertised positions there, but I didn’t make it to the final interview. This irked me, because I thought that I was a great fit for the department - an interdisciplinary marine science group. 
But to make matters worse, when it came time to sort someone out to fill in for my colleague’s sabbatical at USD, I was not offered a full-time visiting fill-in position, as I had hoped/planned for. Instead, the administration offered that I could continue to adjunct. 
As an adjunct, I was paid the equivalent of minimum wage when the prep, grading, and office hours were taken into account. Though I had decently affordable childcare that I paid for hourly (a very rare situation!), I kept my son in care the absolute minimum amount of time I could get away with and still get my paid teaching work done, so that at the end of the month I would be able to contribute perhaps $100 to the family finances. My husband’s salary was small for the high cost of living in San Diego, and he was grant-funded, so that income could theoretically dry up at any moment. In September that year, we had decided to invest our savings and buy a (practically condemned) house to try to build eventual equity. With the house payments, and other expenses, our bills were not insignificant, and I was constantly stressed about money. 
Learning some practical skills
I had some colleagues who had made adjuncting work – but they either had a partner with a high-paying job and thus mainly adjuncted for the good of it, or they taught approximately 8 classes at 5 different schools and spent all of their time driving around the county to teach, while receiving no benefits at any of the jobs. These options didn’t do it for me, so I continued to look for other full-time jobs. The lack of reasonable pay as an adjunct was the major reason I wasn’t more involved at USD, and didn’t take the time to network there – potentially shattering my chances of landing an elusive tenure-track job there.
During that year, after returning to California, I started applying for any job I thought I might reasonably be able to perform and might theoretically enjoy. This included science writing jobs, science outreach jobs, science policy jobs, environmental consulting jobs, and probably other jobs I am forgetting. My time was limited, since I was mostly a stay-at-home mom, with short excursions to campus for my teaching and office hours and a bit of prep (plus a house to construct in the evenings). If my son didn’t nap well a particular day, my valuable work/job application time was shot. I started waking up at 5 am to quietly work in the dark before the boys got up, and try to eek more time out of the day. 
While I felt guilty about not having more time to devote to my colleagues at USD, and not having enough time to devote to putting together good job applications (I think I submitted an overly-honest one in which I fessed up to writing it at like 11 pm post-kid-bed-time-and-class-prep and knowing it sucked, but promising that I would be a great employee…*Newsflash* this did not sell well!), I was also exhausted and generally sucked at parenting as well. 
On my days home, I never wanted to take Ryder on big excursions that might mean I wouldn’t be home for my nap time work time, and I found that I wasn’t very creative or tolerant of the monotony of staying at home with my toddler. I didn’t have the energy or brain power to devote to ecstatic and thoughtful parenting, because I was constantly stressed about my career and jealous of my friends excelling in their careers that had not stalled, as well as super lonely. Sometimes I went to the park with Ryder and would see groups of mom-friends having a lovely time; then I would have to leave so I didn't break down sobbing weirdly.

Even when I did try and search books and the internet for clever ideas to create crafts or sensory activities for my son, they generally only entertained him for about 5 minutes and I’d be stuck wondering what to do with the other 8 hours until my husband came home. 
I admit that I was the mom at the playground pushing her son on a swing and responding to work emails on my phone with one hand, or simply reading the news or Facebook for some semblance of a connection to other adult humans. During this time of stressing about money, feeling like a failure at mothering and at teaching and job applications, I was also still trying to continue my academic research career in some form, because I thought that having gaps in my publishing timeline would make me less competitive for that elusive tenure-track job that I so desired. This meant continuing to pursue collaborations and funding, and to attempt to complete work and publish. 

But, of course it could be worse, right? I could have been adjuncting and turning tricks on the side to make ends meet?! Or I could have not had the privilege of having an education, and no outlook for a well-paying job. I shouldn't complain, really, but it's one of my favorite past-times.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Why I left academia, Part 1, or: Why your career needs you to get good childcare

At first this was one long blog post full of nitty-gritty details about my life. But it was too long, even for me, so it’s broken up into a few parts now: this series of posts details my semi-recent journey navigating the path into the “pinnacle” of early-career academic achievement – a tenure track position – and then rather abruptly back out of it. My path was winding and bumpy, and I highly do not recommend anyone else follow it…but as with most of my blog posts, I hope that by over-sharing my failures, I can help other folks on a smoother path through life (or at least give you a chance to commiserate and/or make yourself feel better about your above-par choices).
This post is about my postdoc. I had almost given up on getting to do a postdoc, because while I had applied far and wide, no one seemed to want me. I was in Europe with my husband on a camping and “surf” trip (mostly failed on surfing because the airline lost our boards for weeks) to celebrate graduating with my PhD, and relax before starting to teach as an adjunct at MiraCosta college that fall, when I got an email from Australia that they wanted to offer me a postdoc. I had interviewed earlier in the summer by phone but hadn’t heard anything for some time. It was rather thrilling but also logistically challenging to set up a phone call from a payphone at a campground in Spain to a completely different continent and timezone. I recall little about the conversation itself other than it being difficult to hear, and the early-morning sun shining directly into my eyes, attenuated only slightly by the scratched plexiglass of the payphone booth.
Touristing on the ferry in Sydney harbor
I had an incredible time as a postdoc for more than three years in Australia at the Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. I learned a lot, worked with kind and interesting people, got to take two incredible field expeditions to the Gilbert and Line Islands, lived in an amazing location, met wonderful friends, and had a kid in the middle of it all. 
The kid thing really threw me off more than I was anticipating. Did you know that babies and children require essentially constant care? It is not physically possible to get any adulting done (i.e. take a shower, eat, much less actual productive work) while caring for a small child, unless you are a psychopath and don’t mind letting small people wail and paw at your pant leg while you do these things. 
My husband and I set ourselves up for misery because we (1) were unaware of this (I blame heavily people who told us they had worked w/babies in their offices, forgetting about the students and nannies they hired to actually care for said babies, ahem…), (2) lived an ocean away from any family members, (3) as frantic first-time parents, we were nervous about entrusting strangers with our precious offspring, and (4) we took at face value warnings about crappy local childcare options from others. Let me clarify #4: essentially everyone who had small kids told me that every childcare option that was within a reasonable distance of either my home or work and had space was horrible and should be avoided at all costs – apparently it was vital to put your unborn child on a waitlist for the non-horrible childcare places before you even considered getting pregnant, in order to secure a spot when that child turned one (the standard maternity leave in Australia is a year). 
I will only sleep as long as you are not doing anything useful, mom
Thus, we were nervous, thought we had no options, and also of course had waited too long because I wasn’t going to take a year off, I hadn’t known I was going to have a kid, and was therefore about 18 months too late for the waitlist option. This is all a pre-amble to explain that we had no consistent full-time childcare, and we both had full-time jobs. You may wonder why we didn’t hire a nanny: the answer is a combination of financial constraints and #3, above. I’ve always preferred my kids be cared for in a group setting; I’m sure most nannies are amazing, but I’ve had bad experiences and I worry too much. 
Let me be clear, though: working without good childcare is idiotic, impossible to survive, and will make you hate your life. We did eventually obtain a spot for our child on a day-by-day basis (after figuring out rather quickly that we could not get work done while caring for a child, and that there are not enough hours in a day to sleep, work for 8 hours, and then care for a kid for 8 hours while your partner works IF you also have a commute and/or any interest in life outside of these 3 activities, and/or don’t want to sleep in shifts). 
So, every morning at 8 am sharp I would start frantically dialing the drop-in care center near our home, in hopes I got through as one of the 1st 10 people to sign up for a casual space 2 weeks from that day.  You know how you used to listen to the radio, sitting by the phone, and then dialing and redialing a hundred times to try to win concert tickets? Imagine doing this daily. It sucked, for sure, but was at least a step up from plan A – no care at all. By the time I had been back to work full time for a few months, I realized that I was so exhausted and stressed, #3 in my list above almost no longer mattered and I was practically willing to hire a random homeless dude to play with my kid for a few hours so I could get something done (I did not, of course, do this). 
With this backdrop in mind, you may understand why I couldn’t fathom the idea of staying in Australia as the end of my postdoc loomed. I was stressed and lonely (having a baby can be incredibly isolating), and convinced that if we returned to California, these feelings would abate. Thus, I generally didn’t even bother applying for jobs in Australia, and instead focused my efforts on San Diego, where my husband had kept his academic position throughout my time in Australia (yes, this meant a lot of time apart pre-kid, and extreme stress on his end post-kid trying to keep actively engaged in his job from afar). 

I love being a mom - when I can devote my attention
I had established a nascent collaboration with a professor at the University of San Diego, based on our shared love of corals and geochemistry, and she very kindly arranged to have me teach some classes there as an adjunct after we returned to town. She had planned a sabbatical the following year, and hoped that I would be prepared to teach her classes in her stead after my introductory year. I hoped that this would lead to a full-time position there, which would solve our 2-body problem. So when Ryder was 18 months old, we packed up things we couldn’t part with, sold and gave away everything else, and moved back across the ocean to San Diego.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Realistic parenting

Both children are napping at the same time right now. It may only last for 5 minutes, but I relish these scraps of quiet and calm in a way that frightens me a bit. I did consciously choose to have children, and I was even around kids a lot growing up, as the oldest of 5 - but the reality of my ability to parent and my kids’ temperaments is mildly (wildly?) different from what I anticipated. 

Indulge me while I contrast a few scenarios as they played out in my mind’s eye prior to having kids, and then how they actually occur.

Grocery shopping
Jessica’s brain: The little one sits in the seat part of the cart and plays with a wooden, hard-carved rattle lovingly shined with non-toxic fair-trade almond oil. The older one skips happily down the aisles, helpfully selecting healthy and affordable choices with non-wasteful packaging that he places carefully into the cart.

Reality: The little one sits in the cart seat and gnaws on my keys, or a horrible brightly-colored plastic toy, ingesting heavy metals or endocrine disruptors and thus killing braincells or destroying her future reproductive abilities. But at least she isn’t screaming and pulling my hair, so I make a vague attempt to swap a healthier toy into her hand and then give up. How can babies be so strong?
The older one has wedged himself underneath the cart and is busy intermittently dragging his limbs along the ground, causing the cart to swerve unsuspectingly into displays or other carts. Now and then, the entire 4-year old tumbles himself out, halting progress of the cart so that he can grab something off the shelf that will either 
  1. explode upon impact once tossed in the cart, showering fellow shoppers with blueberries, 
  2. has zero nutritional value, 
  3. is very expensive (a $4 bag of walnuts that contains approximately 5 nuts, for instance) and/or 
  4. has approximately 6 layers of plastic encasing a tiny slice of edible material. 
Considering that the older one is somewhat underweight and very picky about food, many of these irritating choices make it home with us in hopes that he will put some meat on his bones.
Hey, kids! I have an awesome idea! Let's walk out into this meadow to enjoy the natural world. Nevermind the fact that 90% of the ground in said meadow is a bog that you will sink into, turning your shoes smelly and wet and brown.
A visit to the beach
Jessica’s brain: Ooh! The weather is lovely! We’ll just pop down to the beach to enjoy some healthy outdoor bonding time as a family. We’ll make a sandcastle and go for a swim and come home relaxed and sun-kissed.

Reality: I throw some relevant beach-articles into a bag with one hand, while the other tries to simultaneously hold a heavy, wiggling baby who cries if I put her down and prevent her from pulling out my hair strand by strand. Meanwhile, the 4-yr old is staging a protest against going outside by lying on the ground where I am trying to walk, and wailing loudly. 
I manage to get the kids, a towel, and possibly some swimwear and/or sunscreen into the car, drive a mile to the beach, and find parking while the kids continue to yell about how they just wanted to sit around and whine about watching TV instead of doing anything fun. I unload them and manage to get them down the 5 flights of stairs to the sand via an exhausting process of coercion mixed with carrying 45 lbs of kids in spurts. I spread out the towel, which I notice is much too small to do much. 
The sun is really blinding and I’ve forgotten an umbrella. I open the bag of junk and pull out two rashguards for the 4-yr old and a bikini bottom for myself. I seem to be missing a bikini top, bottoms for the older child, and anything useful for the baby. I convince the older child that underpants and a rashguard are a fine beach-going outfit, and that he should let his sister wear his spare rashie for sun protection. I slather the rest of their exposed surfaces with sunscreen, feeling quite proud that I managed to bring this key item. 
After we are all set to enjoy our lovely time at the beach, the 4-yr old proclaims that he is hungry. I pull out an array of random unhealthy snacks filled with sand that I left in the bag from last time we were at the beach. Though they were acceptable last time, today they are no good and he wants something else, kicking off a long discussion about the fact that I can’t produce new food from nothing. Sometimes we invent an imaginary snack-producing machine, which distracts him long enough to forget that he hates the available food. Then he invariably asks for sand toys, which I’ve forgotten. I manage to find a half-broken plastic spoon in the bag, and scrounge up some sticks from the beach, but these aren’t really up to par.
I look longingly at the put-together mom lounging on a comfortable chair down the beach, while her properly-dressed children play happily in the sand with their buckets and shovels under a proper shade structure. The next time we go to the beach, I bring an entire wagon filled to bursting with towels, chairs, shovels, umbrella, snacks, water, actual swimwear, and the like. The instant we’ve set up our little home on the beach, the 4-yr old needs to poo. Sigh.
Dressed reasonably for the beach, and eating actual semi-healthy food? Whoever is behind the camera must be a quivering pile of sweat after all of that effort. 
Bonding with my children during sweet, yet flexible evening routines
Jessica’s brain: Well, I don’t want to be tied down to a rigid bedtime routine, because then we won’t be able to just continue living our lives exactly as normal (with the minor addition of two additional opinionated people for whom are responsible). Furthermore, if I do develop any sort of flexible bedtime regime that I may or may not deploy depending on whether it’s convenient for me and my social life, I definitely will make sure it is bursting with love and affection. We will cuddle and laugh, have pleasant baths, don PJs and brush teeth while giggling, snuggle into bed to quietly read books or sing songs, and then obediently lay down with closed eyes to happily drift into sleep.

Reality: Throwing routines to the wind results in horrendously cranky children who completely refuse to sleep and/or do anything other than wilt onto the floor and cry over seemingly nothing. It becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy going out for dinner or to the beach or to a friend’s house to barbecue unless done at an atrociously early time. Our kids turn out to be practically incapable of sleeping in and making up for a late night; instead they turn into wild beasts the following day, draining all of our will to live. 
Even if we opt to stay home and try to keep things early and easy, bedtime is never a walk in the park as I had imagined. Though we do it every. freaking. night, brushing teeth is a battle every time. I can’t even imagine bathing the kids daily; even getting them to allow me to wash their hair twice a week requires patience, fortitude, and a bit of conniving. Often, I can’t even convince the older one to change into PJs, and instead he sleeps in his school clothes, adding to the collection of playground sand in his bed as it spills from his pockets and socks. 
Reading books to the two of them is a challenge. Of course the small one likes very simple picture books; the older one doesn’t mind them particularly except when she requests to read the book about babies eating again. And again. And again. Likewise, the younger one can’t follow along with Harry Potter, so she yells and pulls on our clothing and thrusts picture books into our faces to distract me from continuing it. Even if we wait until the toddler is asleep first to read a chapter book, the older one has trouble sitting still to listen when there are no pictures, so he keeps getting up and building towers out of other books or rummaging around his collection for interesting rocks. I find this incredibly distracting and assume he isn’t listening, so complain to him and ask that he come back and snuggle up to read, so I can have a fleeting few seconds of my vision come to life.

Carving out time to do grown-up stuff
Jessica’s brain: It’s so important not to let life get completely consumed by children. I’m my own person! My health and feelings and relationships matter! The husband and I will most definitely set aside time for regular date nights, and I will regularly exercise and see friends and maintain hobbies like writing my blog.

Reality: I can count on one hand the number of date nights I’ve been on since having kids, and maybe on two hands the number of girls-outings I’ve attended without them in tow. Exercise mainly consists of chasing and carrying small people, which is exhausting but hasn’t exactly resulted in flat abs and bulging biceps. Hobbies are practically a distant memory. Case in point: I started this blog post approximately 11 months ago during a nap, and am just now getting back to it. I also have two partially-finished knitting projects that I started while each of my little ones were incubating in my belly, and neither are even close to being finished. Perhaps they will end up as gifts for my grandchildren. 
Instead, I generally find myself either working, commuting, hanging out with the kids, or cleaning the house and preparing lunches and clothing for the next day before I pass out and do it all over again. 
But I can’t complain - I love that I get to do all of these things, and I assume that one day the kids won’t want to hang out with me after school and I will feel weird an unsure what to do with my free time. Hopefully I can still dust off my old friendships and hobbies and resume these important parts of life. Hopefully they don’t atrophy and die from neglect before that time comes. (Hint, hint: I still love all y’all). In the meantime, I'll just continue to stumble through and thank my lucky stars I have the luxury of worrying about these silly things, rather than how we will pay the rent or buy food or go to the doctor. If the rest of my life consists of the same substance as now, I will die happy.

The little one usually wins when they both want the same thing. If the older one has a shark/crocodile complex as an adult, you'll know why.