Posts tagged "balance"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

my slow cooker

How a special appliance has saved me both time and sanity

I want to thank one special appliance
Whose dedication and trusty alliance
Have been a time saver for a busy grad mom.
You snuck into my kitchen with quiet aplomb,
Arriving, in a box, some years ago—
Black and sleek. How was I to know
That you would save me countless hours?
Minimizing meal prep with your heating powers.
And you save me, too, from decision fatigue!
Other kitchen gadgets just aren't in your league.
So, on Sunday mornings, that was our routine!
Chopping veggies, carrots, and sometimes green beans.
Toss in some lentils, barley, or peas!
We varied by week: soup or Chinese?
Chili, orange chicken, sometimes a stew,
Rice with beans; often barbecue.
By evening, the apartment always smelled great.
My spouse and I filled up our plates.
And leftovers! Man, were those our goal!
We dished them straight into jars and bowls.
Dinners for a week—for two, no less!
No need to prep or make a mess.
Your 6-quart volume held just enough
To keep us fed when nights were rough.
'Cause let's face it. Grad school's no joke.
You're stressed and tired and sometimes you're broke.
Between classes, field studies, and paper writing;
Managing undergrads, coding, and citing...
A grad student's work never feels done...
(Even if I think some of mine is fun!)
So when I'm at home at the end of the day,
When I want to sleep and my kid wants to play,
Finding that dinner is ready! Already! It's nice.
Microwave a bowl and eat in a trice.
So as I reflect on what helped me through grad school,
I'd say you, dear slow cooker, were a most useful tool.
Food fuels the brain and the body too...
So I wanted to say: Dear slow cooker, thank you.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, May 2019


Why is having kids, moving out of the city, and following an unusual path a waste?

Randy, Elian at 8 months (sporting his lab t-shirt!, and I

"She's worried you'll waste your degree."

My friend (let's call her Anna) relays this message to me as coming from another friend, but I can tell from her tone of voice that she's clearly worrying about the same potential waste. That makes the question doubly irritating. As if pretending to be merely the messenger could disguise the passive-aggressive way of questioning my life decisions. Decisions which, I might add, I'm pretty darn happy with.

The primary decisions in question are these:

First, I had a baby in grad school. I'm growing another tiny human now, in fact—I gave my defense talk while 6 month pregnant! Evidently, instead of seeing this as a badass feat of time management and life balance, Anna took it as ultra-clear proof that childbearing, not science, is my ultimate goal in life, since the two clearly aren't compatible. As if there aren't amazing examples to the contrary, like two of my committee members, who are inspiring women with three kids apiece.

Second, while finishing my last semester of writing, I moved to a town that Anna has frequently referred to as "the middle of nowhere," despite it having a regional population in the 200,000's, as well as a branch of a state university. Maybe she thinks "middle of nowhere" really refers to how far you are from a large number of appropriately ethnic restaurants? Being out west, up in the skinny part of Idaho with the abundance of beautiful clear lakes, pine-filled mountainsides, and a peaceful pace of life has been wonderful. Less stressful. It's a nice place for writing, and a nice place for families.

And then, there's the somewhat non-traditional plan for my post-MIT life. It's not perfectly mapped out, but it will certainly involve my husband and I homeschooling/unschooling our kids, coming up with flexible work arrangements so we can travel more and spend more time with family, and having a high degree of independence. My husband's current software-as-a-service company is a good start. We have some other ideas, too—after all, leaving MIT and Boston doesn't mean I'm leaving research or a creative, intellectual life.

Given those decisions, well, of course! Getting a degree is a waste! If my life plan does not follow the norm, if it does not include seeking out a high-paying industry job in a big city or a prestigious professorship at an R1 school while placing my kids in daycare and coercive schooling for upwards of 14000 hours, then of course, I'm wasting my degree.

But isn't a big part of the point of grad school learning? Learning about project management. Developing writing skills. Doing independent research. Asking interesting questions. Pursuing ideas. Managing time, balancing multiple commitments, and being involved in many activities I care about. Whether or not I then use those skills to pursue any of the most common paths out of grad school isn't the point. What I learned will still serve me well in future endeavors—writing papers and essays, consulting, hiking in the mountains, self-funding our startups, blogging, gardening, reading philosophy, advocating for self-directed education, or spending time with the people who really matter to me.

The implicit assumption Anna had that "wasting my degree" is even possible is, frankly, an insult. She identifies as a feminist. Isn't feminism supposed to be about empowering and supporting women in making life choices that are right for them?

Grad school was one step that was right for me. Having kids I actually spent time with, moving out of the city, pursuing whatever creative, intellectual, maternal, or domestic activities I happen to want to do next...? Also right for me. Sorry to disappoint, Anna.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, March 2019


Randy, Elian at 8 months (sporting his lab t-shirt!), and I

Starting a family in grad school

I wasn't married when I got to MIT, but I had a boyfriend named Randy who moved up to Boston with me. Two years in, we discover that it is, in fact, possible to simultaneously plan a wedding and write a master's thesis! Two years after that? I'm sitting uncomfortably in a floppy hospital gown at Mt. Auburn Hospital using my husband's phone to forward the reviews I'd just received on a recent journal paper submission, hoping labor doesn't kick in full force before I finish canceling all my meetings and telling people that I'll be taking maternity leave a month sooner than expected.

Baby Elian is born later that night, tiny and perfect. The next three weeks are spent writing my PhD proposal from the waiting room while we wait for Elian to grow big enough to leave the hospital's nursery.

Our decision to have a baby during grad school did not come lightly. For a lot of students, grad school falls smack in the middle of prime mate-finding and baby-making years. But my husband and I knew we wanted kids. We knew fertility decreases over time, and didn't want to wait too long. In 2016, I was done with classes, on to the purely research part of the PhD program. My schedule was as flexible as it would ever be. Plus, I work with computers and robotts—no cell cultures to keep alive, no chemicals I'd be concerned about while pregnant. Randy did engineering contract work (some for a professor at MIT) and was working on a small startup.

Was it the perfect time? As a fellow grad mom told me once, there's never a perfect time. Have babies when you're ready. That's it.

Okay, we agreed, now's the time. It'd be great, right? We'd have this adorable baby, then Randy would stay home most of the time and play with the baby while I finished up school. He'd even have time in the evenings and on weekends to continue his work.

Naiveté, hello.

Since my pregnancy was relatively easy (I got lucky—even my officemate's pickled cabbage and fermented fish didn't turn my stomach), we were optimistic that everything else would go well, too. The preterm birth was a surprise, sure, but maybe that was a fluke in our perfectly planned family adventure. Then it came time for me to go back to the lab full time. I'd read about attachment theory in psychology papers—i.e., the idea that babies form deep emotional bonds to their caregivers, in particular, their mothers. Cool theory, interesting implications about social relationships based on the kind of bond babies formed, and all that. It wasn't until the end of my maternity leave, when I handed our wailing three-month-old boy to my husband before walking out the door that I internalized it: Elian wasn't just sad that I was going away. He needed me. I mean, looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, it made perfect sense. There I was, his primary source of food, shelter, and comfort, walking in the opposite direction. He had no idea where I was going or whether I'd be back. If I were him, I'd wail, too.

Us: 0. Developmental psychology: 1.

Finding a balance

This was going to be more difficult than we'd thought. For various financial and personal reasons, we had already decided not to put the baby in daycare. Other people's stories ("when he started daycare, he cried for a month, but then he got used to it") weren't our cup of tea. But our plans of me spending my days in the lab while the baby was back at home? Not so much. In addition to Elian's distress at my absence, he generally refused pumped breast milk in favor of crying, hungry and sad.

So, we made new plans. These plans involved bringing Elian to the lab a lot (pretty easy at first: he'd happily wiggle on my desk for hours, entertained by his toes). Coincidentally, that's when I began to feel pressure to prove that what we're doing works. That I can do it. That I can be a woman, who has a baby, who's getting a PhD at MIT, who's healthy and happy and "having it all". "Having it all." No matter what I pick, kids or work or whatever, I'm making a choice about what's important. We all have limited time. What "all" do I want? What do I choose to do with my time? And am I happy with that choice?

Now, Elian's grown up wearing a Media Arts & Sciences onesie and a Personal Robots Group t-shirt. I'm fortunate that I can do this—I have a super supportive lab group and I know this definitely wouldn't work for everyone. Not only does our group do a lot of research with young kids, but my advisor has three kids of her own. My officemate has a six-year-old who I've watched grow up. Several other students have gotten married or had kids during their time here. As a bonus, the Media Lab has a pod for nursing mothers on the fifth floor, and a couple bathrooms even have changing tables. (That said, it's so much faster to just set the baby on the floor, whip off the old diaper, on with the new. If he tries to crawl away mid-change, as is his wont these days, he can only get so far as under my desk.)

Randy comes to campus more now, too. It's a common sight to see him from the Media Lab's glass-walled conference rooms, pacing the hallway with a sleeping baby in a carry pack while he answers emails on his tablet. I feed the baby between meetings, play for a while when Randy needs to run over to the Green Building for a contractor meeting, and it works out okay. We keep Elian from licking the robots and Elian makes friends from around the world, all of whom are way taller than he is. The best part? He's almost through the developmental stage in which he bursts into tears when he sees them!

I also have the luxury of working from home a lot. That's helped by two things: first, right now, I'm either writing code or writing papers— i.e., laptop? check. Good to go. Second, my lab has undergone construction multiple times the past year, so no one else wants to work there either with all the hammering and paint fumes.

Stronger, faster, better?

But it's not all sunshine, wobbly first steps, and happy baby coos. I think it's harder to be a parent in grad school as a woman. I know several guys who have kids; they can still manage a whole day—or three—of working non-stop, sleeping on a lab couch, all-night hacking sessions, attending conferences in Europe for a week while the baby stays home. Me? Sometimes, if I'm out of sight for five minutes, Elian loses it. Sometimes, we make it three hours. Some nights, waking up to breastfeed a sad, grumpy, teething baby, it's like I'm also pulling all-nighters, but without the getting work done part.

Times when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I remember a fictional girl named Keladry. The protagonist of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet, she was the first girl in the kingdom to openly try to become a knight—traditionally a man's profession (see the parallel to academia?). She followed the footsteps of another girl, Alanna, who opened the ranks by pretending to be a boy throughout her training, revealing her identity only when she was knighted. I remember Keladry because of the discipline and perseverance she embodied.

I remember her feeling that she had to be stronger, faster, and better than all the boys, because she wasn't just representing herself, she was representing all girls. Sometimes, I feel the same: That as a grad mom, I'm representing all grad moms. I have to be a role model. I have to stick it out, show that not only do I measure up, but that I can excel, despite being a mother. Because of being a mother. I have to show that it's a point in our favor, not a mark against us.

I remember Keladry's discipline: getting up early to train extra hard, working longer to make sure she exceeded the standard. I remember her standing tall in the face of bullies, trying to stay strong when others told her she wasn't good enough and wouldn't make it.

So I get up earlier, writing paper drafts in the dawn light with a sleeping baby nestled beside me. I debug code when he naps (even at 14 months, he still naps twice a day, lucky me). I train UROPs, run experimental studies, analyze data, and publish papers. I push on. I don't have to face down bullies like Keladry, and I'm fortunate to have a lot of support at MIT. But sometimes, it's still a struggle.

When I was talking through my ideas for this blog with other writers, one person said, "I'm not sure how you do it." I didn't have a good answer then, but here's what I should have said: I do it with the help of a super supportive husband, a strong commitment to the life choices I've made, and a large supply of earl grey tea.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, February 2018


metal teapot on a table next to two matching round teacups

Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

A quiet sip of tea. Warmth and sweetness. Tang of raspberries. Familiar scrape, chink of ceramic mug lifted, returned to the tabletop.

A reminder to pause. Absorb this moment, this breath, this sip of tea.

A reminder to take time.

Your work may be your life, but your life is more than just your work. Sometimes, in the midst of paper revisions, running studies, writing code, it's easy to forget. But your life is more than your studies. It's more than your art, your hobbies, your sports, your relationships. Your life is all of these. Sometimes, you have to take time away from one facet to tend another. And that's okay.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about balancing my life came from a fencing coach, when I was a teenager. He'd say, come to practice. Train hard. Care about the sport. But he'd also say, "at the end of the day, it's just fencing." At the end of the day, it's only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

The hard part is knowing what should take precedence, now or in the long-term. The hard part is taking time when you need it. The hard part is not just taking time once, but continuing to take time. After all, time taken for one part of your life is time lost in another. Right?

Yes and no. I find I'm more myself when I take time for hobbies and relationships. I find I'm more productive in my work when work is not the only thing I do all day, every day. So I use little things to remind myself to take time. I use little things to take time.

A mug of tea becomes a reminder to stay present. I take that moment to pause, relax, re-focus.

A commute on Boston's subway, the T, becomes a reminder to take time for things I enjoy, like reading. I bring a book, fiction or otherwise unrelated to my usual research-related reading, to pass the time.

A walk across campus becomes a reminder to spend more time outdoors or exercising. I remember to relish the mile walk from my apartment to the T every day -- a walk I could easily dread, especially in January. But it's a reminder to see the world. In walking through the city every day, I see its small changes. I notice the first buds in spring. I see the snow fall, stick, and melt away. Sometimes, I use the walk as time to call family or keep in touch with friends. A reminder that relationships matter.

Find small moments to take time. Be present in your life. We all know how easy it would be to spend all day and all night in our labs and offices.

But sometimes, other stuff take precedence. Other stuff matters too.

I use little things to remind me of that.

What are your reminders?


Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.