Monday, June 6th 2011

Around the web: belated mother’s day edition

Apologies for the re-post, it was the only way to save the post and comments with the correct tags after the Blogger meltdown the other day!

I’ve been accumulating a lot of mother-y links lately, thought I would share. First two Mother’s Day columns that remind us that we shouldn’t just put Mom on a pedestal and give her some chocolate one day a year, but think in a more systematic way about the oppression of women and children worldwide. Read this one by Esther Cepeda, and this one by Nicholas Kristof.


Women see Georgia O’Keefe art as erotic around ovulation. I’m not sure this really qualifies as evolutionary psychology, or needs that framework to understand that libido is higher near ovulation, which would increase the chances one would find erotic art extra erotic at that time.


Chimps give birth like humans. Very cool. I guess we didn’t notice until now because they are so solitary when they birth?

Cesarean sections are a major factor in maternal death. I don’t like how this article seems to blame the mother, given the way interventions seem to shunt many women towards C-sections whether they want one or not. But there are certainly many factors to consider in this issue, including the mother’s past health and the kinds of protocols used at the location where she is giving birth.

Cutting the cord too soon. This is an interesting piece in Time about the timing of cord clamping and its impact on respiratory issues in infants. Many birth centers and hospitals are advocating for a later time to clamp the cord for this and other reasons.

Mothering of all kinds

Hope for teenage mothers. This was a great story about a great program to help teen mothers have more success in school and beyond.

The amount of time a woman breastfeeds is related to her race and income. Not surprising, given that lactation support services are probably harder to come by, and that women who must earn an income can’t necessarily afford to go without pay for twelve weeks (that is the minimum maternity leave we get in the US, based on the Family Medical Leave Act, and most places give only that minimum). Even those women who do manage to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding lose it when they return to work, not just because of those short twelve weeks, but because few employers have workplaces set up for pumping.

Amy Poehler’s acceptance speech at the Time 100. She discusses the many other women (dare I say allomothers?) who support her as she raises her children and has a career. I may have teared up a little. Okay, I shut my office door and cried.

What measles vaccine refusal really costs. This is something parents should care about.

A hilarious account from a father about all the things you need to worry about — and expect to be judged upon — when having a child.

Finally, while this went around the interwebs when Dr. Isis wrote it the first time, re-read her AGORA post about why it’s all right to not be your mother.

Miscellaneous ladybusiness

The enduring gender gap in pay. Sigh.

Michele Bachelet should be everyone’s hero, if what I read in this story is any indication.

We can no longer escape the reality that BPAs (and other associated bisphenols, which unfortunately are what are being replaced in plastics that claim to be BPA-free) are endocrine disruptors that have negative consequences for health. Well, unless you’re Coca Cola. Then you are going to put your fingers in your ears and go “lalala!”

A lovely post on feminist reactions to street harassment. Another, very powerful read: kill me or leave me alone.

An important read about the use of language in journalistic storytelling, and the sexist way the New York Times originally covered the brutal gang rape of a little girl.

Historic STD posters. Were some sexist? Of course. But it only makes me want one for my office more, if for its ironic value.

Tuesday, April 26th 2011

#scimom and me

DSC03265I’ve been thinking on this #scimom meme for some time. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I could write that would be a useful or thoughtful contribution, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty comfortable mixing personal stories in with the science I write about on this blog. Heck, I’ve even shared my birth experience for all to read!

But writing directly on the intersection of science and mothering? That is somehow a much more frightening prospect, even though I am in a friendly discipline. It is hard to face the reality that my colleagues respect my reproductive decisions, in the historical context where that has not always been the case in academia, and in the personal context where my decisions are judged and challenged by others all the time, even if they aren’t colleagues: first because I am a woman, then because I was pregnant, and now because I am a mother.

So, I want to tell you two things: how I make my life work, and why I do it at all.

Putting in the time
I get asked a lot how I balance my life, how I get any sleep, how I have a tenure track job and a blog and am an amateur athlete and mother all at the same time. The answer is that balance is not attainable, but that I’m really happy exactly as things are.

The supermagical key to being a mother and an academic scientist is: you need to devote a lot of time to both. As romantic and wonderful as it sounds to try to do both at the same time, it almost never works. When young women ask me how I do it all, I answer that the two keys for success are social support and full time childcare. For me, that means a supportive partner and forty-five hours a week of childcare outside of my home.

Usually, the woman asking pauses. I can see the barely masked horror on her face as she realizes that I don’t have a happy existence where I do puzzles with my daughter with one hand while tapping at my laptop with the other. I look like a nice enough person, so she rejects what I’ve told her — that my child is out of my sight most of the work week — and tries again. “Okay, but really, how do you do it?” And I reply that I need social support and full time childcare. This is how I address the can’t-be-in-two-places-at-once problem. Some hours I do the puzzles, other hours I do the writing. I almost never mix the two.

At the beginning of each semester, my husband and I sit down with our schedules: our regular faculty meeting times, lab meetings, office hours, teaching hours, and how much time we want to exercise. We also look at our daughter’s schedule, since she has swimming twice a week. Then we slowly work out an equitable arrangement of pickups and drop-offs that we stick to, with the closest thing we can approximate to religious fervor, for the whole semester. I no longer go out for social coffees or lunches and stay at my desk the entire day (though at least I am standing). When our daughter goes to sleep, I often work for a few hours, though I certainly don’t do this every night unless I have a major deadline approaching. This is the reality of my job if I want to be a mom and academic.

Can you be a scientist and mom if you don’t have social support and full time childcare? Yes, though I would contend you need at least one of the two. And here’s why: I need a supportive partner because, when the mommy guilt kicks in, he is the one who encourages me to go to the extra team practice, or stay the extra hour at work I need to hit my deadline. He is the one who reminds me that he wants a close relationship with our daughter, too, so bugger off and let him cuddle her for once. You don’t need a partner to do these things for you, but you do probably need someone to hold the right perspective for you in those moments you feel crazy.

And I need the full time childcare because this whole idea that you can get all your work done during naps, or every night once your kid goes down, is a fantasy we need to stop entertaining. Just because our job is flexible doesn’t mean it can fit into fewer hours unless you, like Hermione Granger, got special permission to use a Time-Turner. And while this job doesn’t necessarily require a sixty hour workweek, it does require at least forty. So if you don’t have at least forty kid-free hours a week you will not make adequate progress.

Why I do this
I enjoy my job. I even love it. But I love it because I made it a job that I wanted. In its worst moments I am still filling out too much paperwork, dealing with too much bureaucracy, or student cheating, or people who do not appreciate the contributions one makes to the discipline by, say, blogging or teaching.

But this job’s best moments far outweigh the worst, and if I didn’t feel that way, I would find something else to do. So far, in this job I have gotten to pursue the research agenda I find the most interesting, which has had me pursuing new methodologies, new areas of study, and new ways of thinking about female physiology and health in a way I find exciting on a daily basis. I have been able to effectively mentor about a dozen undergrads and several grad students. I have created learning environments that make me proud to teach in a university setting. And I have been able to put on my ranty pants when it comes to evolutionary psychology.

I am going to tell you a secret. I do this job, I am this kind of person, because I want to be a role model for other young women, that they can have jobs and have kids and still have other things going on in their lives.

But really, most of all, I do this for my own daughter, far more than for any of you reading today.

I do this so that when my daughter plays house with her friends, she introduces the idea that the Daddy does the dishes, or puts the baby to sleep. Already my daughter likes to play gym or office as well as house. That’s not to delegitimize parenting and domestic work, but to simply place it alongside the other activities people do. None of these activities should be particularly privileged above each other as being more feminine, OR more important.

_MDF7458.jpgI do this so that she has a role model when her first teacher says girls just aren’t as good at math. I want her to remember that Mommy and Daddy do science every day, and that that science requires a lot of math.

Finally, I do this so that she has a role model to hold on to when her first classmate says that only boys are good at sports. I want her to remember that Mommy is the one with the big muscles in that moment, not only so that she can have big muscles one day but so that she knows I can kick that kid’s ass.

Being a #scimom
This #scimom meme is compelling for all sorts of reasons. I hope it will make scientist mothers less invisible, and de-scrutinize women’s decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve said before that there are ways in which women are conditioned to be risk-averse over the course of their lives, and a lot of this has to do with the scrutiny, the drama, the push and pull of differing expectations on our time, our lives, and our bodies.

There are external factors that need to be fixed like maternal leave, and people that need gentle reminders about their implicit biases. And there are changes that women need to make within, where they work to operate against their internalized sexism. These battles feel especially public, and make me at least feel especially vulnerable, as a working mother. That’s why this is all so hard to talk about.

Women are incredibly powerful, we just don’t act like it often enough. Perhaps the #scimom meme will contradict the risk aversion and provide us with the courage to gang up on the problems of the world. This story on Michelle Bachelet has been on my mind ever since I read it last week. Read about Bachelet, and think on her life and what she is trying to accomplish right now. She knows it takes women to create a revolution. Let’s move things along.