Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The parenting experimentalist

I know not every woman is blessed with a gracious and helpful mother-in-law, so I'll refrain from bragging too much.  That being said: she's pretty cool and I'm lucky to have her around, especially since we live on the opposite coast from my parents.  She comes over once or twice a week to watch the baby so I can get some quiet writing time (rather than furiously drafting letters and posts while the little one naps).  Something she mentioned this morning got me thinking about the parallels between raising a well-scheduled baby and being a successful experimentalist.

First a caveat: I have been a parent for a little less than ten glorious months and am expressing my own opinions below (I am a doctor, but not the medical kind).

As far as I can tell, there are two major camps in the child-rearing arena: free-range parenting vs. rigid-schedule parenting.  I think both sides catch a lot of flack, mostly because sticking to extremes does not appear to benefit anyone.  I certainly do not advocate trashing a parent whose theories contrast with mine, unless of course that parent also feels strongly about how graphene is the material of the future, in which case I will semi-jokingly comment with a straight face that your ideas are garbage and you should rethink your belief system (more on this in a future post).  That being said, I will admit I fall in-line closer with those brave parents who stand up to their kids and strongly suggest to them that they are, in fact, tired and should go to bed.

The important factor for functionally scheduling a baby is learning how and when to be flexible, and how to appropriately react to deviations in schedule without melting down.  There are some days I feel like I should tape a picture of the Hitchhiker's Guide to my baby's onesie (the cover says "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters... for those of you who aren't huge nerds).  Overall, however, I think I do a fairly good job of balancing schedule with improvisation, and this I attribute to my background as an experimentalist.

How being an experimentalist prepared me for motherhood:

1) Never expect the same outcome for the same procedures
Expecting that an experiment will yield a positive result just because it worked last time is setting yourself up for failure.  Nothing makes a negative result more disappointing than banking on it working and then watching it fail.  Even routine procedures sometimes fail because of circumstances out of your control.  We used to joke in grad school that all you need to graduate is a "hero sample": the one time a device or major experiment works and rescues you from interminable grad school purgatory.  If all you need is for it to work once, then by all means, get your hopes up.  If you need repeatability, then buckle down because you're in for the long haul.

There seems to be a strong consensus among my mom-friends that a well-executed bedtime routine makes tucking the little one into her crib much, much easier.  However, just because I do everything exactly the same night after night, I can never guarantee that she is going to fall asleep and (more importantly) stay asleep for an extended period of time.  Consistency is important, but it does not mean that it will work.   And that is okay.

2) Adjust on the fly: be over-prepared and have a backup plan
Because outcomes vary, sometimes you have to make quick decisions to keep everything together.  In an experimental lab, equipment often times will (spectacularly) fail, even against your best efforts.  Remembering to breathe in critical moments can make the difference between rescuing the situation with dignity and absolute mayhem.  There was a moment in my last year of grad school when another member of the lab was moving a sample inside the vacuum chamber and it mostly slipped off the transfer mechanism.  We were very close to losing the sample and also potentially having to take the costly steps to open the chamber in order to unblock the transfer mechanism.  As the senior student in the lab, I had to step up and save the sample.  Even while I was working on this misalignment, I already had the backup plan thought out.  We could conceivably get the chamber opened, re-establish vacuum, and have it up and running again in a few days.  Standard operating procedures set in place ahead of time detailed the work to recover from this kind of error and prevented any sort of extended panic.

It would be easy to never leave the safe haven of the house with the baby, but then we might go stir-crazy.  A strategically packed diaper bag is the only reason I can take her anywhere and not worry about getting caught at the store during a meal time.  In anticipation of these circumstances, we taught her to eat from a squeeze pouch (which, incidentally, she loves) in order to gain one meal on the road at any given time.  Additionally, being prepared in advance is critical when planning a vacation away from home and familiar settings.  The last long road trip we took as a family, we ended up driving from D.C. to Atlanta in one long stretch.  I packed a big bag of her toys that I used to rotate a new distraction into her car seat every 30 minutes, and we managed to only have to stop three times in 11 hours.

3) Learn how to turn sh*t into gold (don't allow failures to phase you)
This is one of my advisor's favorite sayings in grad school, and it held true for a multitude of reasons.  Many, many aspects of an experiment are out of your control; sometimes you have to learn how to turn a bad situation into something useful.  In graduate school, this meant figuring out how to publish results when the systems were broken or under repair.  You had to be creative with samples and experiments that occurred in years prior, but I definitely got at least one conference talk out of this kind of situation.

There are plenty of examples of how to turn a bad moment with baby into something awesome, but I'm going to go with a literal one: my daughter has impressive bowel movements.  No really, they're epic. And I could certainly be phased by every time she busts through a newly-changed diaper and ruins an outfit, but I could also just enjoy the bath that necessarily follows and teach her how to splash in the tub and that her rubber ducky says "quack."  --As long as it doesn't get on my hands.  That really is the worst.

**And lastly**

4) Pay attention to the background noise, because it really really helps
I keep saying this, but I really think it makes a big difference.  The importance of mindfulness in the lab cannot be overstated.  Same goes for raising a scheduled, but flexible, baby.  Paying attention to small details helps notify me of an impending meltdown, or hunger, or an off-schedule nap.  My daughter may not be able to talk yet, but she communicates so much as long as I stay attentive.

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