Stepping Off-Topic: Adventuring with Offspring

A couple days ago, a new #scimom from twitter messaged me and asked if I’d write a post about adventuring with a little one. Seemed like a good way to get back to blogging, so here we go!

We do get out for a lot of adventures – of the hiking and cross-country skiing variety, primarily – with our toddler. She’s 17 months old now, but we started when she was only two months. In fact, the very first hike I took her on was on Mother’s Day the year she was born. I’d hoped that would be a tradition but, well, on my second Mother’s Day we got a foot of snow and the roads were all closed. You win some, you lose some.

In some ways getting out with a toddler is easier than with an infant. Our daughter is down to just one nap a day, so getting something in between naps isn’t an issue any longer. These days when we have a hike planned we tend to get up at our usual time (anywhere between 6 and 7), have breakfast, and play for a little while. If we’re going close by I’ll usually try to leave by 9. For longer trips or any further away (an hour or so) we’ll leave earlier. We’ll also hit the road earlier when afternoon thunderstorms look likely to make sure we’re down from any exposed areas, and preferably back to the car, before that might be an issue. Luckily the timing of storms is usually reasonably predictable around here.

Our biggest challenge hiking with a toddler (we haven’t tried skiing  yet!) is…..toddlerhood. This little walker wants to walk when she wants to walk. If she has to ride when she wants to walk, she’s not a happy passenger. So, we let her walk the easier sections and she rides through the tougher parts. The only advice I have for ensuring a happy hike with a headstrong toddler is – adjust your expectations. Give up on the distance goals, the speed goals, all of it. Enjoy seeing nature through your toddler’s eyes – every wildflower, grass, tree, pebble, stick, is fascinating to those little eyes and hands. Those little legs can only go so far and so fast but a happy toddler will walk much further than you’d ever expect. I’ve taken to calling our toddler hikes “interval training.” We have some fast intervals when I carry her, some slow intervals when she walks on her own, and some passive recovery when she sits in the middle of the trail to check out…whatever. Some of my favorite memories of this summer are of my little girl stepping to the side of the trail to look at a flower, play with a tall blade of grass, or pick up a rock. She’s just so full of wonder.

Back in the infancy days the logistics of getting out were more complicated. Naps and feedings were too close together to really do anything at all without messing up “her schedule.” Unfortunately or fortunately, our daughter was a terrible napper as an infant. Wherever we were, she’d only nap for 30 minutes. Those 30 minute naps were just as reliable in the carrier (I use a Boba Air – white, so it’s not so hot in the sun) as in her bed. So, when she woke up from a nap at home we’d feed her and then jump in the car, just trying to get to the trailhead before she melted down (seriously). Once we got moving, whether skiing or hiking, she’d eventually fall asleep and she was usually really happy in the carrier, even when she was awake. As she got older I started pulling her in a borrowed KinderShuttle while skiing, instead of wearing her. I’d make a nice cozy bed of blankets in the sled, bundle her up in her snowsuit, and off we’d go. She absolutely loved riding in that thing – I really hope she enjoys it as much as a toddler! As long as I put her in there fed, she’d let me ski for two hours or more and be perfectly content.

Feeding her on the trail was more of a challenge. She was formula fed and formula is only good out of the refrigerator for 2 hours. That meant maybe I could carry one bottle already mixed up, but not two. Being caught without a bottle and needing one would be absolutely dreadful so I always packed kind of an obscene amount of formula (powder and water) – usually enough for 3 bottles, at least. That’s on top of the water we carried for ourselves and frequently the dog, so the weight of it all was not trivial. Still, worth it to be sure we had all we needed. I always watched the clock really closely to make sure that by the time I thought she’d be ready for a bottle, I had one ready and we were at a good place to take a break.

Some things are the same: I still use the Boba a lot (we have an Osprey Poco Premium for longer outings), I still pack an excessive amount of food and water (but it’s not formula now), and mid-hike poopy diapers are always fun.

[Pro-tip for the backpack carrier – sun shades make excellent low-hanging branch shields.]

I wouldn’t trade this time in the outdoors with my girl for anything in the world. It’s frustrating sometimes, sure, and I do frequently wish I could pack less or hike faster. But as soon as she stoops down to smell that flower, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

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Please weigh-in! How do you handle the logistics of getting out of the house with kids in tow? Outdoor adventures not required – we know how hard it can be even to get to the grocery store (and leave!) with a happy kid.

 

Thoughts on Hopes and Gender Roles

The last few weeks have presented serious challenges in terms of balancing child care and work. Teaching a night class threw a monkey wrench into our fairly fine-tuned evening routine – a change made even worse by the fact that my husband’s work schedule conflicts with mine on that day, and daycare closes before he’d be able to get there. We hired a sitter – daughter of another faculty member in my department – to watch the baby from 4:30 until my husband gets home from work. It was great…until it wasn’t. The sitter is in class til 4:00, so when I have to be on campus before 3:00 (as has happened the last 3 weeks!), we don’t have child care. Each of the three weeks this has happened we’ve dealt with it in a different way. Yesterday my guilt over not seeing my baby won out and I decided that rather than scrambling for someone else to watch her, she would come to campus with me for a few hours. When the sitter got out of class, she came to my office and took the baby to the park then hung out with her in the building until I was free again.

Earlier in the day, I was venting my frustrations to friends and telling them that I’d decided to bring the baby to work. Their responses were very interesting:

My daddy’s office had that green and white stripe printer paper and highlighters. I loved those Saturdays.

My dad’s office had dry erase boards.  Then, when I got older, I did my science fair in his lab, using helium and graduated cylinders and his scale that weighs to some ridiculously exact number!

My dad’s office had powdered creamer for coffee and those sugar cubes that came in a box.  As a kid that was the height of decadence.

My dad’s office had chalk boards!

My dad’s office had classrooms, powdered soap in the bathroom, and smelled like books. My brothers and I would draw on the boards, pretend to be teachers….and use ridiculously large amounts of that soap.

But what stood out to me most about all those responses? “My dad’s office…” Now, based on the ages of these women, these anecdotes would have happened over a pretty extensive time-period – probably early-70s to mid-90s. Most of us probably did have stay at home moms (I know at least 3 of the 4 quotes provided did) but plenty of women were in the work force at that time. One response had to do with “mom’s office” – her own:

Nothing my little one loves more than coming to mommy’s office where the analysts fuss over her, she has a coffee machine that makes hot-chocolate, a super-fast computer to play her games on, and an unlimited supply of post-it notes and highlighters.

I thought about the women I was speaking with – we are professors, attorneys, insurance executives, and financial analysts. Where did we learn that these options were open to us? My parents always supported me in anything I tried and always made it clear how many opportunities I had. But the first time I remember wanting to be anything other than a stay at home mom was college. I only went to college because it was the next logical step, not because I particularly wanted to be a professional woman.

All of this made me wonder – how will my daughter look back on this? Will visiting mommy’s office help her to know she can be whatever she wants to be? My husband stays home with her 2 days per week and we divide the household work pretty evenly, most of the time. We hope this will teach her that there aren’t “mommy jobs” and “daddy jobs” – there are parent jobs.

I hope she knows she can be whomever she wants to be. Do I hope she’ll be a scientist? A little. If she wants to be a stay at home mom, and can make it work, I will be immensely proud of her. How will I teach her these things?

Is Breast Best? Does it Matter?

Before I get into this post, let me say I am pro-breastfeeding. The literature regarding health outcomes, for both mom and baby, has seemed fairly convincing, and I generally lean toward believing that our bodies know what to do to best provide for our children (assuming adequate nutrition and maternal health, that is).

Unfortunately, when I was 28 I felt I had to choose between breastfeeding and my own longevity, and I chose longevity. So while I long to nurse my daughter, I can’t. And many other women can’t either, for a variety of reasons. According to a 2013 CDC report, about 44% of infants born in 2008 were breastfed for at least 6 months and about 23% were breastfed for 12 months; that’s up from ~34% and 16%, respectively, in 2000. Conversely, that means that 56% of infants born in 2008 were not breastfed for 6 months. Aside from bilateral mastectomy, which probably does not account for all that many formula-fed babies, reasons cited for formula-feeding include difficulty with feeding (pain, latching, supply), support from medical professionals and family/peers, and a variety of other practical and medical reasons. Women of color are less likely than white women to initiate breastfeeding and less likely to continue if they do try at first (CDC report).

In general, the literature suggests that breastfeeding confers many health benefits for both mom and baby. Women who do not breastfeed tend to retain more weight post-partum and are at increased risk for chronic diseases including breast and ovarian cancer, obesity, and diabetes. For babies, formula-feeding has been shown to be one of many dietary factors associated with increased risk of obesity and has also been linked to reduced risk of infection, asthma, and improved cognitive performance, though a recent systematic review by the Cochrane collaboration supports only the link to reduced infections (not, notably, to obesity at 6.5 years).

Before I had a child I looked at this as purely an academic issue. Now it’s also an emotional issue and I’d be lying if I said I could be objective. If a paper comes out that suggests I’m giving my daughter as good of a chance, even almost as good of a chance, as breastfeeding would I have to admit it lifts me up a little.

Last week, a new study by Cynthia Colen and David Ramey came out stating that, essentially, the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated. In a novel approach, the researchers compared not only children from different families who have been breast- and formula-fed, but also non-multiple siblings who were discordant for breastfeeding. This should theoretically control for many of the differing family factors that may also influence long-term health and cognitive outcomes. After adjusting for a number of covariates including respondent age, race, and a number of socioeconomic indicators, siblings who were discordant for breastfeeding did not differ on any of the outcome variables assessed, and the only variable that differed between families was hyperactivity. There are, of course, a number of weaknesses in this paper. Notably, though duration of breastfeeding was apparently included as a covariate in at least some of the analyses, mean duration of breastfeeding was not reported in the paper (see BabyAttachMode for a great discussion of this and other weaknesses). At the very least, dichotomous classification of feeding practices is likely to introduce appreciable error to the analyses and should be discussed in the paper. I’m disappointed that the reviewers apparently didn’t request it.

All of this brings me to the point of this post (which is not to pick apart research) and the reason for my potentially inflammatory title. Of course it matters that we provide the best start we can. But what if – what if – neither is better? What if formula-feeding is just as good as breastfeeding in terms of child health outcomes? As previously stated, approximately 56% of babies in the US aren’t breastfed for 6 months (and approximately 1/4 are never breastfed). Scientists involved with manufacturing infant formulas are trying to come up with the best formulation they can, trying to get as close as they can to breast milk. No, they’ll never be able to capture the variations in hormones and antibodies passed through breast milk – science can only do so much – but if the nutrition is good enough to give babies a really good start that is essentially the same as breastfeeding then HALLELUJAH.

We’ll never ensure that every baby born in this country, or in the world, is breastfed. But maybe we can give them just as good of a start with formula and that’s a good thing. Let’s try focusing on that for a while.

On Ideas and Fear of Academic Writing

Recently there’s been a lot of talk on blogs and twitter related to academic writing and ideas. I’ve been struggling a bit (maybe more than a bit) in these areas lately.

DNLee’s piece on fear of academic writing struck a real chord with me. We’ll not discuss how many papers I’m essentially sitting on right now. Several literally only need to be formatted and submitted (side note: can scientific journals please just agree on at least reference format already?). Others were recently rejected and I need to spend some time with the reviewer comments before sending them back out again.

And yet they sit, sometimes untouched for months. This is Not Good. Why do I do this?

Where’s a girl to start? (source)

In response to DNLee’s post, the always brilliant Dr. Isis shared her thoughts on the writing process. My process is similar to hers in some ways, different in others. While I wish it had occurred to me to put a giant whiteboard in my startup budget, it didn’t. Even so, when I sit down to analyze some new data I start by writing my research question(s) on a blank piece of paper. Usually with a Sharpie because this seems like an important occasion to be bold. Then, I write out what each table will be and then each figure. If I’m not sure whether something is better in a table or figure, I note that too.

Every single time I analyze my descriptive variables first. This is usually Table 1., though I’ve occasionally written a paper that didn’t require that standard descriptive information. Each subsequent step of the analysis is dictated by my research questions and the data I need to show to address the question. Sometime during grad school I also started writing exactly which statistics I ran (because I would sometimes forget which confounders were included) and any findings that come out of each step. Explicitly. With a Sharpie. Then it’s back to the computer and I actually make the tables and figures. Then, I print out all of my tables and figures and move away from the computer, somewhere that I can spread everything out and look at it. At this point I usually scribble down some thoughts about interpretation. Sometimes I talk to other people, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wait a day before I do anything else. Next, I write the results. While I’m writing the results I will also scroll down and add bullets to the discussion because that’s usually when I make most of the connections that need to be made in that section.

This is the first place I tend to get hung up. At first I would self-edit too much while trying to write the discussion. I’d get hung up on whether that sentence sounded weird or if that transition sucked. Eventually I realized that and started forcing myself to quit it already. Now, if I hate a sentence, I’ll actually type something like “that sentence sucks – fix it” in italics and just keep going. Unfortunately, I’ve sent a draft off to a coauthor with a statement like that in there more than once – they’ve come to expect it from me. When I really get stuck on those types of editorial things, I at least try to get bullets and fragments for each of the points I want to make. Paragraphs wind up filled with italicized sentences and fragments. Eventually, I leave it and go back to write the methods and introduction.

And then I’m stuck. I have one paper that’s been sitting in exactly that state for over a year. Introduction, methods, results done – discussion points down, no transitions. It’s not that I’m having trouble interpreting the findings and synthesizing them with what we already know…it’s the filler. I get caught up on it not sounding right. Frequently I wind up going back, cutting the italicized criticisms, and leaving it how it was in the first place. More often I do edit, but sometimes I think I just need to get fed up with it, accept that it will never be perfect, turn it into a complete sentence, and stop screwing around.

I need to do this, now. Today I set some deadlines for myself to finally get some of these 99% finished papers off my desk. Two grants due on 2/3 and self-imposed deadlines for 3 papers over the rest of February. Completely and totally doable. I just have to do it already.

Now, while I’m thinking about sucky transitions…Scicurious and InBabyAttachMode have both written recently about generating ideas. Timely, because as previously mentioned, it’s grant time.

When I started in my doctoral program, I was afraid I would never make it because I didn’t have any good ideas. At the time I was working for a PI who had been exceptionally well-funded for decades. He always knew what the next step would be – we could see it in the planning phase of a grant. He didn’t just know what this study would address, he knew what the next two, or maybe even three, would address. That was something I really was worried I wouldn’t have. This fear pops up again every few months or so, usually when I start thinking about conferences I’d like to attend over the next couple years and what I could present at each one.

How awesome would that be? (source)

In March of last year, right before Miss Baby was born, I received a call for an early investigator award from a society closely related to my discipline. It required a letter of intent within a month, and I knew just the study I wanted to propose. But, in the process of planning for that LOI and, hopefully, the full proposal, I realized my idea was way too big. I didn’t have one idea, I had done what my former PI did without realizing it. All he did was take one big idea and break it down into steps, and that was what I needed to do.

In that process I also realized I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do in the timeline dictated by that grant. It was a one-year award and I have one very involved and one lesser study ramping up this year, and three brand new masters students who can’t take a lead role in any of them. Couldn’t have done it. Instead, I decided I would spend the fall planning, break that big idea down into smaller ones, and identify a series of funding opportunities to knock off one piece at a time.

The first of those proposals went in this past Friday. The next will go in at this time next year. This plan – this one big idea that I didn’t realize was as big as it is – may realistically take 5 years (unless a bigger funding opportunity comes along to tackle more aims at once). If I had rushed it and proposed the big idea, and if it had gotten funded, I don’t think I would have done a very good job, realistically. The science will be a lot better this way and it’s much more manageable given the resources available in my department and at my university.

For really the first time in my career I feel like maybe I can come up with enough ideas, now that I’ve suddenly realized they don’t all have to be the idea.

Now if I could just submit those papers. Because unproductive scientists don’t get grants.

On Creating New Classes

When I was hired into this position, my department had few core classes to fill. Instead, there was a need for new elective courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. My position includes a 2/2 teaching load. Of the 4 classes I teach in any given year, only one is an established core class. The other three were open for new topics – one at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level.

The new undergraduate course was offered my first semester here and was also open to graduate students. As it turned out, approximately two-thirds of the students enrolled were masters students while the remaining third were undergrads. Never having taught a class with students at different levels, I overshot by a lot. It was a graduate class, no questions asked. The undergrads actually did quite well but they probably worked disproportionately hard. After finishing that semester and reading my course evaluations, I asked my department chair if the class could be split into specific undergraduate and graduate sections for this fall. There was a concern amongst the faculty that they would need to be two distinctly different classes so that a student could take one as an undergrad and the next as a grad student. As a result, I spent a lot of time ensuring that would be the case.

As much as I’ve struggled in all areas this semester, one thing I am happy with is the progression of the graduate class. We’ve really been able to have some great discussions each week and my students have produced quality work thus far. I’m looking forward to seeing what they turn in for the upcoming assignments.

The undergrad section is not going nearly as well. Almost every session I feel like I’m just stumbling through. This is not what I expected for the second semester teaching this class. I reviewed my notes from last time, have altered the class schedule and readings, spent a lot of time “improving” lectures I didn’t think went well last year…and I just don’t feel much improvement.

Late last week I decided this class just works better at the graduate level.

Unfortunately, fast forward a few months and it looks like the two sections are going back together again. Some staffing changes in the department mean I’ll be teaching that core class twice a year for the next 3 years or so. That means my three “new” classes cuts down to two and we still have needs at both levels. Now, the class I’ve been working on will be cross-listed again and I’ll be creating a new graduate class – in my research area, thank heavens – for the spring. It also means I’m taking the two distinct syllabi I created and working them back together again. Hopefully somewhere in this process I can figure out how to successfully mesh the two and come up with a class that’s appropriate for students at each level.

Midsemester

Howdy.

Wow, this semester is just flying by. Training and travel since my last post have kept me very busy and meant too much time out of the office, so I’m even more behind. As I sit at the kitchen table watching the snow fall, it seems like a good time for reflection and a look ahead.

The second year on the tenure track has certainly been an interesting one thus far. Most times it feels like a roller coaster – the kind people stand in line for hours to ride – lots of twists and turns, steep drop offs, and maybe some inversions just for kicks. The scenery flashes by as the coaster careens around bends but occasionally there are mechanical problems and the roller coaster comes to a complete, and jolting, halt. This seems to especially apply to my research this year. Currently I have 10 papers at some degree of completion. Eight of them could be submitted in a matter of hours if I could just gather the hours (when I have enough mental power remaining) to polish them up and send them out. On top of that I’m percolating several ideas for new studies and really need to get grants out for at least a couple of them…but which? An opportunity opened up completely unexpectedly last week and necessitated pushing one of those ideas to the forefront when I’d really been planning to wait a year or more on that one. That leaves me with the options of pushing another idea back for a year or submitting something extra and taking the chance of winding up with more funded projects than I’d planned on. Of course, nothing’s ever guaranteed til the money actually comes through, so…

We’re settling into a routine at home though I have to admit I never really feel caught up there, either. Now and then – like earlier this week – my old fears of doing a mediocre job of everything come roaring back in again. I mean really, how hard is it to fold and put away laundry? Nevertheless, two-thirds of my wardrobe seems to be piled in the corner of our bedroom. At least most of it is folded. The baby is doing well at her new daycare facility and learns something new every day. She is sitting like a champ and no other position will do. Unless, of course, she can put her feet in her mouth and then she’s happy on her back for ages. She isn’t trying to crawl yet but as active as she is in her relatively immobile state I think we’re in for it when she can figure out how to crawl.

Finally, it hardly seems possible to blog this week without mentioning the large issues surrounding sexual harassment that have surfaced on twitter this week. To be honest, I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all amidst everything else that’s going on, and I find myself having a hard time coming to grips with it all and forming coherent thoughts to share. It has been an eye-opening week as a young scientist and someone who is relatively new to twitter. Prior to this week I would have told you I’ve never experienced any sexual harassment. Some of the stories I’ve read – particularly the blog post by Hannah Waters – have made me rethink that and question why I interpreted things as harmless in the past when maybe, really, they weren’t. Perhaps one day soon I’ll have contemplated this enough to have clearer feelings but for now I just feel…lost.

The snow is really coming down hard now, it’s becoming quite the winter wonderland out there. Baby is sleeping and I think I’ll make myself a cup of tea before the roller coaster starts up again.

 

A Weak Foundation

Here we are in the fifth week and I find myself losing sight of the accomplishments and successes I discussed in my last post.

I like to say things started crumbling when I took Labor Day off. The university was closed and my husband worked – he usually does not work Mondays, so we didn’t have care for the Wee One. I greatly enjoyed having an extra day with her and returned to work feeling refreshed. But that Tuesday – and especially by Thursday or so – I felt so far behind that it was more like I’d taken a week off.

The next week I had to be out of the office one day to go to the nearest major city, a few hours from here. Another day lost to work that left me feeling even further behind.

This semester I’ve been making an effort to work from home as little as possible. Working full time and sending Wee One to daycare, I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with her as I’d like to and she’s growing so fast – sitting unsupported already! My evenings with her are so special to me and I want need to maximize that time. By the time she’s down for the night I’m exhausted and also would like to actually spend some time with my husband – the person whose company I greatly enjoy and whom I feel like I never see anymore. Unfortunately, I’m about done and ready to pass out within an hour of the baby going down (an hour that, tonight, I am spending blogging). And so, even when I bring work home the only way it gets done in the evening is if it absolutely must be done right this minute.

The end of last week found us with a daycare crisis and scrambling to find a new provider. I’ve had considerable stressful experiences in my life but nothing even remotely compared to having a bad experience with daycare and the worry that came with finding somewhere new and trusting someone new – again – with our little girl. Last Friday was completely lost to me.

This feeling of being so behind has been wearing on me this week. On Tuesday I made a to-do list divided into tasks I would do in the morning and tasks I would do in the afternoon. Approximately half of the items on the list still remain. Some of the items are still there because things come up. Others are there because they all took more time than I thought they would. The to-do list I meant to accomplish in one day has become my to-do list for the week.

Unexpected items this week have included emergency counseling with my brand-new masters student who had a conflict (totally not the student’s fault) with a senior faculty member earlier in the week and wound up in tears in a 2nd year student’s office – my first graduate student crisis from the faculty advisor side, and my first time dealing with a conflict between one of my students and another faculty member. The student is now fine and the problem has been remedied. Not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction, but remedied.

Literally within minutes of dealing with that I learned that because of schedule changes I needed to get myself and a graduate assistant enrolled in a short course, absolutely essential for my research, that will have me out of the office two consecutive days next week. This means I’m in the office the remainder of this week and then, because of that class and a conference, gone for 7 of the next 10 business days. And so here I sit, at 8:42 PM, on the verge of panic and blogging in the hopes of getting this all out of my head so that maybe, just maybe, I can sleep tonight.

I’ve heard the second year on the tenure track can be a little easier than the first. We’re settling into a routine, teaching classes we’ve taught before and moving forward with research. Things we did all the foundational work for last year and over the summer. Except I didn’t. I spent the spring semester of my first year either on bed rest or maternity leave and the summer enjoying my time with the baby. Do I regret spending my summer with her and doing very little work? Not for even a split second. But I do think I’d probably be better off now at work if I’d laid a stronger foundation in the first part of 2013. Not regret, exactly…just, noticing.