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


0 comments

A poem to celebrate my year

2018: A year defined by a PhD,
A study, analyses, and a writing spree.
A kid who’s growing; a family, moving.
Always learning, ever improving.

In January, I was glued to a laptop,
Programming robots and testing nonstop.
I recorded dialogue; recruited schools;
Prepped assessments; built software tools.

snow-covered front steps of a house

February is a wild, snowy blur
Of consent forms, paperwork, and red and blue fur.
Kids signed up!
The robot was ready!
All this made me happy, since progress was steady.

the robot tega's face

As March snow melted, the study began!
I drove to schools and followed my plan.
Eight sessions each, plus pre and post;
The robot was keeping the kids engrossed.

In April, one kid, who wasn’t too shy,
Told me he was “actually part robot, so I can fly!”
(Tega, our robot, it’s worth pointing out,
Just talks, and sits, and looks about.)

By May, I was glad if the robots didn’t break,
But why oh why did I choose this headache?
Long-term studies will be my demise
Why oh why do I do this, you guys?

Oh wait, it’s June, long-term studies are the best!
Look, I have data, totally worth being stressed!
Learning with robots over time—this is nice!
Awesome research, look: data! Worth the price.

sunny blue couer d alene lake

In July, let’s mix it up and buy a home,
Way out west where there’s space to roam,
More lakes, more space, and bonus, it’s cheap!
Less traffic, more mountains; more yard upkeep.

In a haze of boxes and packing tape,
The month of August and ggplot graphs take shape.
Let’s leave the humidity and Boston’s heat:
Analyze data; start writing; retreat.

light coming through leaves

September is data, papers, and writing.
And writing, revising, and then some rewriting.
I find getting three great professors to be
In the same place at the same time isn’t all that easy.

yellow leaves on a maple tree

I like watching the colored October leaves from my chair.
They dance and they spin, red and yellow in the air.
Oh wait, I’m still writing. I need a new graph…
Add to this chapter; fix that paragraph….

me hugging little Elian in front of evergreens

My baby is two! He’s as tall as a table!
He’s finally stopped trying to eat all our cables!
I’m still writing. Time to start my talk prep.
Defense Day is looming on the doorstep.

my PhD committee and me, post-defense!

Now here’s a day that I’ll remember!
Dissertation defense on the 12th of December.
Crazy year it’s been, that and then some…
But hey: Dr. Jackie, here I come!

This article originally appeared on www.media.mit.edu, January 2019


0 comments

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


0 comments