Envisioning parenthood

Recently, someone whose blog I like to read asked me a question by email, and it inspired me to think really hard about this and talk about it in a way that felt like some good therapy. So I wanted to share my reply with you all:

"How far into the future did you envision your kidlet before jumping in?

Here's what I mean: I have been married for [N] years now, and we do not have kids.  This has never been one decision; it is a decision that we make several times a year - we're not having kids this year.  Not this year.  Should we?  No, not this year.  And so forth and so forth.  This year, we are thinking... meh?  Maybe...?  One of the things that is currently terrifying me about the decision is teenagers - I cannot fathom having a teenager.  A baby, a toddler, sure - I could imagine that, and it's not so terrifying.  But the idea of spawning someone old enough to drive a car??  Really?? Hence, my question - did you envision your daughter being a teenager and think, "Wow, that sounds great!"?  I'm wondering if my fear of teenagers is an indication that kids ain't for me, or if nobody really wants a teenager but everyone does it anyway.

Thanks for your input.

(ID redacted)"

You know, if you asked me this question before I had my daughter I would have thought that my 'envisionment' was more thorough than it actually turned out to have been. I had pictured a kind of fantasy land, where I fell in love with her at first sight and she hardly ever cried and happily breastfed or drank a bottle from her daddy and... then was suddenly a toddler going trick-or-treating in an awesomely cute costume and... then was suddenly in school bringing home drawings and I was brushing her hair and she was making friends... and so on and so on like a montage of little lovely snippets of TV childhood/teenagerhood/young adulthood/etc.

That FELT very thorough at the time, it felt like I was thinking it all the way through. My feelings of wanting her in my life FELT very specific, but now in hindsight I can see they were really amorphous. I easily brushed aside those scarier thoughts (teenager: driving, having a phone, being alone with dudes, doing drugs, trying alcohol, SH!!!T!!!) and I still do. The difference between my pre-baby thoughts and post-baby thoughts about it is that now I just take it one day at a time, one milestone at a time, read what I can to try to be prepared for the immediate next step and don't think too far in the future.

Part of that is a weird superstition I have about assuming anything. I am wary of getting my hopes and dreams entangled in the uncertainty of the more distant future. I am not sure where this comes from, and it has only really emerged since having her (although traces of it have been in my brain since my own childhood). Like I described above, I used to freely build fantasy lands about whatever thing I was considering, as part of my deliberative process. But now, especially about her, I am uneasy about that--afraid to set myself up for unthinkable kinds of disappointment. So, I just try to keep up with the most likely next few steps and wait to deal with the rest when I get there.

The other part is just the result of having that birth process/early infancy/etc. fantasy world SO TOTALLY blown out of the water by the reality of labor and taking care of a newborn. JEEBUS was it different than I expected, and my post-partum anxiety hormones sure didn't help. It took six weeks, six whole weeks, before I felt like she liked being in the world, and she wasn't even THAT colicky (only a little). I did not feel that overwhelming satisfaction at caring for my tiny sweetie that I imagined feeling. I just felt tired, hungry, confused, and kind of dead inside every time I had to do another routine baby task that nobody else was around to help with, or for which I was too irrationally-obligated-feeling to ask for help with. That immense disconnect between what I had imagined and what it actually felt like completely changed my perspective on envisioning the future with this kiddo.

Now, we have grown into our love for each other: I definitely do feel those pangs of love and happiness and sweetness cuddling her to sleep, or when she smiles at everybody as we're walking into daycare, or waves and shouts at her gramma on skype. But milestones don't have accompanying trumpets (oh... umm, I guess she's been standing for a few days now, huh?), and she's her own little person so she reacts to each new step in her life in her own way, which doesn't usually match up with what I had planned for it (like solid foods: I was so stoked to get to start feeding her all these wonderful things and she's like "WHAT is this??"). So I've changed from envisioning the (fake) future to just trying to enjoy and do my best at the real present. And it's good this way.

Repost: Culture gap: synthetic chemists and learning biology

Apologies for more reposting... I'm still trying to get out from the vacation backlog of life. New thoughts to come soon!

I started responding to this comment:

Now that you have invested so long to transform in to a ‘chemicalbiologist’, would you mind suggesting some quick tips from your journey for the people ho want to take the same path? Are there any books or some crash courses etc?

And got so in depth that I decided to make it a post of its own. So here are my thoughts about where to start to develop better flexibility as a synthetic chemist who wants to work on bilogical problems.

The best crash course I got was weekly lab meetings in a lively, rigorous yeast genetics/molecular biology/kinase signaling lab (one of my postdoc labs). I started out so clueless that I felt like I was on Mars for the first year and a half or so. But because the people in that lab were so open and helpful, and the PI is an engaged, active teacher, they helped me learn the “language” of biology-type ways of thinking and data/information representation.

It’s that language that you really need as a chemist moving into biology. And by “language,” I mean more than just terminology (although that is a big part of it). It’s also a change in visualization of information and getting better at logic puzzles. Imagine a multi-step synthesis with a blank at step 2, where 4-5 possibilities (which you have assumed based on either mechanism or other times people have done similar things) could fit in there to result in the product (or mixture thereof). In biology, you have to come up with ways to test *which* of those possibilities comes from the retrosynthetic direction (for which you are only postulating a route) and will result in the product(s).

In all of this you also have to accept that: a) your only measurement techniques are indirect, i.e. you usually can’t just analyze the structures with some direct spectroscopic technique and figure out what they are; and b) your assumptions might be wrong. So you have to do lots of control experiments where you also assume some certain set of reagents should DEFINITELY give the products, and some other set should DEFINITELY NOT. That gives you yet another indirect way to make you feel more comfortable with your assumptions. The hardest part for many chemists is having to be okay with indirect information. The second hardest part is having to remember that if your “result” gives you something analogous to “75% yield of the product,” you still have to think a lot about WHAT molecules/interactions are represented in that other 25%. You can’t just purify it away and pretend it didn’t exist.

Getting used to reading gel electrophoresis/Western blot (antibody detection) data, as well as biological “cartoon” format (where you mostly worry about conceptual connections, and not so much molecular mechanism and byproducts etc.), are some great ways to start. But you’ll probably need a coach to guide you through it and translate how the experiments work and what the results mean. Finding friendly, sharp biologists (whether faculty, postdoc or grad student–it doesn’t pay to be snobby about this, sometimes the trainees are gonna be WAY better at teaching you! Just make sure to credit them or repay them somehow!) can be the difference between this working vs. not working.

My Big Picture (tongue only partly in cheek)

So, I don't currently have a working drawing program on my computer so I have to make a Google Image collage to illustrate my most mostest pulled-back biggest picture, my philosophy of my world on days when I am not OCDing about something stupid that bothers me, my Zen of path through science-human-space.

We each have our little place in it, our little walk through all the possible avenues, and just like vision (and macro lenses) we can only focus on the part right in front of us. Probably it's only practical to expect to clearly see about the next year or two of plan in any great detail. I point myself in the direction I want to go, starting at the "chemistry" paradigm point and going towards the "biology" paradigm cluster. A zoom in on the detail of how I get there would probably look like this:

Except that most of the other nodes around me, and most of the path I had taken and will take would be a lot fuzzier to the eye. A good strategist will learn how to zoom their lens back just enough to see the next set of decisions to make, while keeping active on the current processes until they reach some degree of maturity. Not saying I am a good strategist yet, but I hope to learn how to be one by paying attention to what's going on around me.

So what is everyone's personal goal? Usually to make both their paths and destinations "important." But of course, importance itself has a lot of stochastic elements and the ultimate measure would be to be 'right' about it, right about how this crazy universe/space/world/us REALLY work. But what is "right?" To go really philosophical about it: how do we know it DOES work any particular way and that we're not affecting it just by trying to look? Just because I find some spit on the cat's hair I managed to tweeze out of the box with my incredible intellectual power, I still don't know if the cat is alive or dead or even if it's a cat or maybe a RASCAL that ate a cat...

SO to get back to things that don't wake me up in the night impressing the weight of the vastness of existence on my soul, what I really want to be able to do is maximize my experience at and travel between focus nodes, and not get bogged down with either the nodes themselves, nor the paths the lab ends up taking to them.

For the purposes of communicating as a human with humans, I'm calling this "STUDYING SIGNALING BIOLOGY USING CHEMICAL TOOLS" and we will work towards doing a very good job of making whatever we need to get information about cell signaling that allows us to make more emergent observations about how that stuff is REALLY interacting in there. If I can mature in my strategic abilities, we'll be able to be both thorough and flexible, and not get stuck in the mud of either our tools or our questions while still being able to make both of those things valuable to the overall enterprise of understanding how stuff works, to gradually add elements of information to the drawing until we get a picture of what the whole thing looks like.

To put it an even sillier way, I plan on rolling my chemical biology katamari through the paradigm world and picking up stuff as I go, and hopefully by the time I retire it will be so big I can even stick things like WHOLE PEOPLE and cars and stuff. Right now it is real tiny, so we can only pick up little additional methods and small observations and such, but with some luck and luck I make myself by being sufficiently strategic, it will grow fast enough.

(**you can find the sources for all my images by looking at their links with right click, thanks to the people who gave them homes on the internets for me to find**)