Tag Archives: insight

This working Mom thing? I think it’s working.

The calendar says it’s been a year. I’ve been a working mom for a whole year.

I took as much parental leave as my job would let me. Twelve weeks; some of it paid, some not. I spent almost three months with my son after he was born, and it wasn’t enough. I wanted so much more, but it’s awkward to say so when I know that many others don’t get that much. I feel equal parts grateful and cheated for what little time I was allowed.

My first month back was emotional, though I cried fewer tears than I was told I would. I was more out-of-sorts than sad. My brain was so slow, like I was having Benadryl for breakfast and lunch every day, and coffee hardly made a difference. I asked so many questions, over and over, about things I should have known well. It was embarrassing. My coworkers were kind and understanding, but my self-doubt imagined dozens of eyes rolling behind my back. I felt so hopelessly and terminally stupid.

I hid in an empty office three times a day to express breast milk, acutely aware that everyone passing in the hallway could hear the pump going. On my third day of pumping, the door creaked open just as I’d gotten everything hooked up and started – the facilities guy heard a “weird noise” and used his key to get through the locked door to investigate. I changed my “occupied” post-it note to an “OCCUPIED PLEASE KNOCK” legal-sized sheet and pretended his apology made everything totally fine and not embarrassing at all. Because I had to do it again the next day, and the next. Wash my pump parts in the break room sink, put my milk in a cooler in the fridge, and get over it.

Those weeks seem so far away now. A whole year ago. I measure that year by my son and not myself – inches and pounds and milestones and giggles. I rarely assess my own progress. I don’t stop often enough to take stock of how I’m doing and how I’m changing. But while I’m still figuring out the balance, things are improving. I still miss him every day while I’m at work, but I’m sleeping more and that’s definitely helping my brain function closer to its pre-baby capacity. I’ve taken on several projects that I’m very passionate about and very proud of, and I’m seeing glimmers of “me” under the “mom” now and then.

I’ve survived a whole year as a working mom. I’m still good at my job, and my son still loves me. I’m going to go make myself a cake to celebrate.

Why Do You Write?

Sometimes it takes a swift kick to get me moving again, and I can thank my friend Tasha over at Metacookbook for the boot to the backside this time. She’s taken on a challenge to write a post about writing, and I am going to follow her lead.

Why do I write? I write to get thoughts out of my head before they crumble. I write to inform, to rant, to record my family’s story. I write on this public blog, so I guess I write for recognition and attention, too. Look at me! Are you looking at me yet???!?!? Lately, I even write a little for money, and that’s kind of neat.

But it’s harder to explain why I don’t write. Because there are so many excuses.

My writing is an urge. An instinct. If you give a bird a string, she’s going to stuff it into a nest. It’s what birds are programmed to do with string. I’m the same with a good pen. When I hold a pen, I want to write with it, and if I don’t have anything TO write, I get anxious and uncomfortable. I feel like I should be writing, and I get mad at myself when I’m not. But I’m not good at managing my time (hello, parenting and full-time job), and I’m also weirdly hard on myself about what I write. It’s like I’m not allowed to write something until it’s all figured out, but I can’t usually figure something out properly until I can separate it from the hundred other things going through my head and pin it to a page. And if I wait too long for the thought to mature and straighten itself out, sometimes it fades away. I don’t know how many wonderful ideas I’ve lost to my perfectionism. It hurts to think about.

Like Tasha did (and, I suspect, like most others who write), I used to journal. But I wasn’t good enough at it. I’d judge myself for skipping too many days, and it felt odd to come back and have to explain to my journal or to my imagined future readers what had happened during my absence. “Dear journal: previously, on LOST…” I couldn’t commit. I felt like I had to catch up on every missed day, and the longer I waited to go back, the bigger the void. And then, of course, once I did go back, I had to start a new notebook from scratch. Because this one would be better. This one wouldn’t have any gaps. Except of course it did, because of life. Life is busy. Life doesn’t leave me time to write. I know I need to make time. Prioritize. But it’s hard.

I almost made writing my life. Every career aptitude test I ever took split me exactly down the middle, halfway between writing and science. I’ve always loved science, but I’ve also always been a “good” writer. Lots of gold stars on writing assignments, from stories to essays to poetry. Teachers told me I had a gift, and that kind of thing can get into your head and make you feel like you need to pursue it, or risk “wasting” the gift. I thought for a while I’d go into journalism, because journalism meant writing, and because I felt more personally attracted to writing as communication than as creativity. I’d be a reporter on a science beat, not a novelist or playwright. I even checked out an open house at a journalism program at one of the colleges in Montreal when it was getting close to application time. But after considering my options, it made more sense for me to pursue science as a primary career. I couldn’t teach myself about the lab, but I could probably improve my writing skills on my own eventually. Given what I’m seeing happening to the newspaper industry and the media as a whole, I think I made the right call. Except that I’m not writing enough, and I feel like I’m missing something.

I have thoughts bouncing through my head all day, every day, and when it gets overwhelming it can sometimes make me literally lightheaded. Like I’m carrying a huge balloon full of half-formed ideas instead of a head. But there’s only so much room in there for ideas, and new ones sometimes squish old ones before I’ve given them a chance. Or the thing I was going to yell about isn’t in the news anymore. Or my baby’s zoomed past a year and I never wrote a post to celebrate it and it’s too late now. All that makes me sad.

I’m not going to end this with a promise that I’m going to write more, because I don’t know if that’s a promise I can keep. But I want to promise it. I don’t want to keep starting new notebooks. I want to learn to accept the gaps and the disorganized mess of half-formed ideas without a real point. I’m happier when I write, and I like to think that sometimes another person somewhere is happier when I do, too.

And I just have so much to SAY.

Who am I?

It’s been almost a whole year since Liam was born. He’s such a different baby now than on that first day. The changes are remarkable and bring me so much joy. But he’s not the only one who’s spent this year growing and changing. I’ve stopped and looked at myself several times over the past year and asked “who am I?” Covered in gluey banana chunks, hair in a limp ponytail, eyes circled with exhaustion and frustration… through all of that, I think I still see me. I still like board games and cheese and windy days. I still swear too much and leave pretzel crumbs in my car and post Simpsons gifs to Twitter when appropriate to the discussion (spoiler: ALWAYS appropriate to the discussion).

I feel like I haven’t changed. But my entire life has. And I suppose that means that I have, too. I’m not just Jen anymore. I’m Liam’s mom.


My body is different. It goes so far beyond the stretch marks. None of my clothes fit quite right, but not in the ways I was expecting. I’m squishy and my boobs are too big and I have no idea where my ass went. My hair fell out and is growing back in very slowly in awkward little tufts at my temples. I find myself looking under my glasses when I’m trimming Liam’s nails, and I think that might signal the start of my bifocal years. The quality and quantity of my showers have declined. I don’t get to shave my legs as often as I’d like, and I haven’t had time to get my hair cut or paint my nails in months. My back is sore from hoisting a baby up from the floor multiple times a day, and from angling him just right so he doesn’t hit his head as I put him in the car seat. I have intermittently debilitating pain in my hip and pelvis that sometimes leaves me trapped on the couch in tears. I’m older. I feel older.

My brain is different. My attention span is shorter than it used to be, and I can’t seem to focus on a book or TV show for more than a few minutes at a time. When I’m tired from a long night of interrupted sleep, which is more often than I’d like, my brain isn’t working with a full crew. My memory is a mess and I rely on lists and reminders in my phone – which only work if I remember to note them in the first place. I can’t juggle as many thoughts as I used to, but I have more thoughts to juggle than ever before. It’s exhausting. Overwhelming.

My priorities are different. I wake up earlier than I want to, so I can feed him and get him to daycare. I wash dishes and do laundry and get lunches ready every evening instead of watching TV or catching up on sleep, because those things are more important. I commute almost three hours a day and work 40 hours a week because my salary and health insurance are necessary to my family’s well-being, even though that means that I only see my son awake for two hours every work day before it’s bedtime for him and dishwashing time for me. It’s hard. It’s so hard. But it’s what life has to be right now. Everything is about him and nothing is about me, and while I have a nagging feeling that it’d be healthier to pay attention to myself now and then, the guilt nags louder and keeps me from many flights of self-indulgence.


See? Told you. Always appropriate.

But it’s not all bad. I’m wiser now. I’m a calmer parent than I thought I would be. But I’m also a louder advocate and stronger fighter than I ever thought I could be. I’m much more bullshit-averse, and that seems to apply to everything, not just matters involving my son. My depression and anxiety did a number on me in the months after Liam was born, but I think I’ve gotten better at dealing with them. Not perfect – I still have my triggers, and it can still get pretty bad. Just ask my husband what happens when we’re running late for something. But I think maybe I’m more aware of the gray areas of life and working on accepting that sometimes none of the answers are completely right or completely wrong. And maybe it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. Maybe it just matters that I love my son and my husband and that they love me. All that’s really important is that my family is safe and happy and healthy, and that I’m trying my best. Maybe.

Maybe when you add everything up, I’m a slightly better me than I used to be. Thanks for the nudge, kiddo.


In October of 2012, I lost two people I loved very much. One was my grandmother, who lived a fierce and fascinating life. One was a baby whose heart never had a chance to beat. I remember the news and the numbness. I was sure that I would run out of tears, that I would shut down. I was sure that the world would end. It didn’t, of course. The world always turns and we’re carried through another day whether or not we’re ready. I wasn’t. But I was swept along, with everyone else, into November, December, and a new year.

In October of 2013, after a hormonal assault on my ovaries and my pride, a little seed of hope was planted inside me. A fragile, beautiful ball of cells. October 2013 was anticipation and anxiety. It was joy tempered with caution. I didn’t dare imagine what might be. It’s hard to hold love in your heart when it’s a love that’s hurt you before. But there was room for the love, in between the pain and the guilt and the worry. There was room, and I held that love tight.

In October of 2014, I hold my son in my arms. He squirms against me, trying to burrow through my shoulder with his drool-soaked chin. He chatters and smiles and pulls on my shirt. This is love. This is more love than I deserve. I’m filled with wonder and gratitude. I inhale and take in his sweet baby scent. He smells like diapers and milk. He smells like Dave and me. He smells like home.

Liam’s Birth Story

Liam’s birth story begins with an ultrasound tech saying “Hmm.”

“Hmm” meant my amniotic fluid was very low. It meant an anxious phone call to Dave warning him not to leave for work. It meant they were getting a room ready for me in Labor & Delivery, because as the perinatologist put it, I’d be “having a baby this weekend, one way or another.”

Induction. What I’d most wanted to avoid. I wasn’t having contractions, my water hadn’t broken, and I felt absolutely fine (besides huge, sweaty, and sluggish). I’d read enough to know that pitocin’s no picnic, and that inductions before term had a decent chance of failing and sending Mom to the OR for a C-section. I wasn’t afraid of the C-section itself, but I dreaded the thought of being in pitocin-cranked labor for hours and hours and hours and then needing a section anyway.

I called Dave to confirm we were about to start the party early. I called work to tell them I wasn’t coming in for, oh, a few months or so. Then I drove home. I could have walked across the parking lot to the hospital, but I needed some time to come to terms with the induction plan. I was twitchy and distracted. I couldn’t make my eyes focus on anything. I pulled the hospital bag out of the car to check it and recheck it and make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Dave stood by patiently, knowing I’d already checked it two days ago. He was so calm. On the outside, anyway.

Then we went to Panera, because I wanted a chocolate chip cookie. Gestational diabetes be damned, if I was to be done gestating in a few hours. I wanted a goddamn cookie, and I was going to have a goddamn cookie. And it was THE BEST COOKIE EVER.

After the L&D receptionist gave us our armbands, a nurse brought me to a room and asked me to get changed into a hospital gown. I stood at the door, frozen.

“Don’t I start at triage?”

“Oh, no, we’re getting you started right away.”

Giant speeding truck of reality, meet my head. Head, meet truck. Ok, we’re settled, then.

A nurse took my vital signs, then strapped monitors to my belly. Whoomp whoomp, baby was still doing fine even though his swimming pool was down to a puddle. It took three tries and both arms to get my IV installed, because although the nurse was really good with her needle, my veins are full of valves. Good for doing their blood transportation thing, but bad for snaking a tube through. We laughed about it. I joke around a lot when I’m nervous.

Dr. Rojas came in, smiling as always, and explained what was going to happen. We’d be using a couple of waves of different medications, and we’d see what my progress was like after each one before moving on. That sounded fair to me. Slow and steady. I was relieved that they weren’t just going to fill me with pitocin right away. I was given Cervidil around 2pm and told to stay in bed for twelve hours while it worked its magic, opening up my cervix. 12 hours is a long time when you know you’re not supposed to move except to use the bathroom. I think we watched some TV. Dave went to get food, but I was only allowed liquids and jello and long wistful looks at his takeout. Sometime around 8 or 9, the nurse offered me Ambien so I could get a little sleep before all the craziness planned for the morning. I took it gladly, and drifted in and out of sleep for a few hours. Hospitals are hard to sleep in. So much beeping.

I started feeling contractions somewhere around midnight. They intensified steadily, and the nurses offered me some IV painkiller to take the edge off. It helped, and I drifted back in and out until Dr. Rojas came back in at 2am to check on me. He was happy enough with my progress to switch me over to pitocin. He told me things were going to start getting more intense, and that the medical team would do everything they could to minimize my pain – when I was ready for the epidural, they’d get right on it. He told me not to be a hero, to ask for it when it started to hurt. He squeezed my hand before he left.

It didn’t take long. By 3am, I was feeling contractions strong enough to make me whimper, groan, and squeeze the sides of the bed. I was making enough noise to wake Dave up, and I felt bad. After half a dozen contractions, I knew two things. One, I would never be the type to choose a medication-free birth. Two, it was epidural time. Well, it was ask for an epidural time. Took them an hour to get to me. That was a rough hour.

A needle into the spine is not fun. And the fact that they leave a little tube in place, similar to an IV in my back, freaked me out. But, you know, contractions. Pain. For how many more hours? So I leaned forward and tried not to move while the anesthesiologist did his thing. I flinched when the first medication went in, because it felt like my back was on fire. Pro tip: do not flinch during an epidural. You will be yelled at. Which may make you cry. Just saying, theoretically. He secured the tubing by taping my back up like he was shipping an international package in a questionably-constructed box, and then I got to lie down again and rest while my contractions continued. Or so the monitor said. I couldn’t feel them at all. Ah, pharmacology. I love you so much.

Fun fact: the epidural medication pump had an intermittent squeak that sounded so much like a tiny kitten that I was sure either Dave or I had changed the notification tone on a phone or tablet and we were getting lots of messages. I’d say it was just the drugs making me crazy, but a nurse confirmed the pumps squeak. Most people think it’s a bird. But it sounded enough like Horton that it helped me to smile through the pushing stage later on, so I’m grateful for it.

Dr Leak took over later that morning, and came in to check my progress. Three seconds into the exam, her eyes popped open wide.

“You don’t feel that?”

“…no…?” (Hello, that’s why I got the epidural!)

“His head’s right here! It’s pushing time!”

There was a whirlwind of gowns and tarps, some parts of my bed disappeared, and someone set the baby warmer to preheat in the corner. Before I had time to even think about it, they were hoisting my legs up and asking me to tell them when I felt pressure so I could push with the contractions. I did pretty well, or so they kept telling me. We laughed a lot through the delivery, which made me so happy. My son was coming into the world in a room full of laughter and silliness and joy. It helped tremendously that both Dr Leak and the nurse were incredibly relaxed and kept everything low-key and informal. It was like having three Daves in the room with me. I’d feel pressure, tell them “Maybe now?” And they’d say, “sure, let’s push.” Dave stood at my side and helped support my neck when I curled up for each push, and he encouraged me the whole way, telling me what a great job I was doing. After about an hour of that, Liam was born.

They put him on my chest and rubbed him down, suctioned the goo from his throat, and let me have a look at him. He was gross and squishy and beautiful. They didn’t leave him there long, because they didn’t like his breathing. They called in someone from the NICU to have a look, but they reassured me that it was almost always nothing, just a transition from goo to air that made them sound funny and struggle a little. I didn’t worry much. But then the specialist saw Liam’s hands shaking. They ran a bedside glucose test. His result was low. Very low. So low that they weren’t going to let me breastfeed him yet because he needed to get his sugar up ASAP. Before I knew what was going on she’d whipped out a bottle of formula and plugged it in his mouth. So much for avoiding bottles.

For the rest of the day, they checked his glucose every few hours, after nursing sessions. He was doing better by late afternoon, but not good enough for the NICU specialists, who decided he needed an IV with a steady sugar supply so he wouldn’t dip into hypoglycemia. They took him away around dinnertime. I was devastated. I’d just met him, and a few hours into our relationship, he was leaving me for the hectic bright world of the NICU.

We kept thinking they’d let him go as soon as his sugar looked good, but they were very cautious and wanted to wean him off his glucose drip very slowly, to be sure his body could manage sugars on its own after he left. So we spent three days visiting him there every three hours. Dave wheeled me down the hall 8 times a day so I could feed Liam, even if the little guy only got a few drops out of me and needed to be topped off with formula. We stayed for an hour each time, holding his hands and stroking his hair and trying not to notice the tubes and wires attached to our little man. The nurses were wonderful and he got the absolute best care from all of them, but Monday night became the hardest night in my life when I had to leave the hospital without my son. As we were packing up to leave, I saw the beautiful flower and balloon arrangement from my mother-in-law, and I fell apart. On TV, the woman being wheeled through the lobby with the happy “It’s a BOY” balloon is holding that boy in her lap. But I wouldn’t have my boy. And in my blind emotional state, I refused to entertain the thought of leaving this gift behind in the room. So Dave, wonderful, wonderful Dave, picked it up and walked three steps behind my wheelchair.

Liam won’t have any memory of the NICU, but we’ll never forget it. The sinks at the entrance, where 3 minutes of scrubbing with antiseptic soap stood between these babies and possible infections. Liam’s poor little feet covered in bandaids to hide the dozens of cuts from the lancets used for his blood draws. The tiny plank strapped to his arm to keep his IV in place. The care with which his nurses swaddled him up for the night. The shrieking of the heart monitor if we bent the wires the wrong way when picking him up from the plastic bassinet. The regular hum of the IV pump blending with Liam’s snorting and sucking as he was held to my breast. The sounds of other parents, getting news you can’t ever be ready to hear. We were so lucky that it was just a little blood sugar issue. He was only in the NICU because they were being extra careful. I can’t imagine the stress that other mothers must feel when their babies are stuck in the NICU with serious issues for days or weeks or months.

But Liam’s body just needed a couple of days to figure out how sugar works. We brought him home on Tuesday, healthy and happy and asleep. We got him into the house and let the cats sniff him. We put all of our bags in the front closet to be dealt with later. We took our son out of his carseat, looked at his scrunchy sleeping baby face, and wondered… what the hell were we supposed to do with him now?

Ruining everything, in the nicest way

My son is already a month old.


That went by fast.

I meant to write up his birth story and share it on the blog, but the thing with having a newborn around is that you very seldom get around to the things you meant to do. Instead you’re busy with all the new things you absolutely have to do. Like changing diapers and feeding a thrashing baby and driving to urgent care at 2am. And sleeping, if you’re lucky. We’ve been lucky. So far. When I find a small block of time for myself, I indulge in a decadent 5-minute shower. Sometimes, I make it 6 minutes, and break out the conditioner.

Life is so different now. Harder. More stressful. I miss my old life some nights, when I’m walking laps, bouncing my son and listening for the fart that means his gas pain has passed and his diaper needs changing. I could be sleeping. I could be enjoying TV. My husband and I could be out for dinner or a game night with friends. But it isn’t about us anymore. It’s not an easy thing, to find your entire life’s focus suddenly and irreversibly redirected to this tiny creature who needs you for everything.

I’ve been peed on, pooped on, and barfed on several times in this short month. The house is a mess, and will likely stay that way for decades. Outings are much more complicated than they used to be, and they revolve around his schedule. He eats almost constantly, so I’m never asleep for more than 3-4 hours at a time before my boobs need to deliver. And when he eats, he likes to clamp down and yank until it looks like he’s an early bird getting a worm. It’s hard to see this as the new normal. Hard to wear the “parent” nametag for this new job, knowing I can never clock out. It’s terrifying.

But this tiny creature needs me for everything. I’m so incredibly important. He’s so new and so small and so helpless. He’d never make it without us. He’s awe-inspiring and difficult and beautiful and frustrating. Soon he’ll start smiling and cooing and interacting with us. He’ll crawl, and walk, and have a favorite color and a best friend at school and want to be all sorts of things when he grows up. And it’s my job to get him there, to help him reach all the milestones and to guide him through every single day.

So after I change that horrible oozing diaper and pick him back up to help him with his next fart, I hold him tight to my chest while I pat his back. He’ll never be this tiny again. I lean in close to his little ears and I tell him Mommy’s got him. Mommy will always have him.


You should know
How great things were before you
Even so
They’re better still today
I can’t think of who I was before
You ruined everything
In the nicest way

-Jonathan Coulton, “You Ruined Everything”

2013 Review

It’s the first day of a new year. Tradition says that I’m supposed to present the world with a list of resolutions I hope to stick to for the next 365 days. I’m sure millions of people are putting resolutions into action today, and I hope that they can stick to them all year and make themselves happier and healthier by doing so. But I usually skip resolutions in favor of a look back at the past year to see what I’ve learned, experienced, and accomplished.

2013 flew by in a blur.

The year started with panic, as Mom’s heart attack and triple-bypass surgery had me rushing off to Montreal to help. Nothing will shake your sense of trust in the universe like having to go through advance directives forms with your mother, while you’re both trying to pretend that all of the terrifying possibilities on the page are purely theoretical. Thankfully, we were able to leave those forms in a drawer and never look at them again, because the surgery and recovery went well. She’s back to her old self now, but the strain of the experience has changed us both on the inside. We’re strong and we’re resourceful, but nothing, and nobody, can last forever. It’s not fun to think about, but it means that you need to hug your loved ones more. Right now. Go.

There was beauty and joy in this year too, in the form of weddings, and babies born to so many wonderful people. My little niece joined us in August, and she’s precious. Watching her and her brother change from month to month has been a source of so much of my happiness this year. I’ve been having conversations with my nephew. Conversations! Kids grow up fast.

Dave and I went on another cruise, with many of the same fabulous people as last year. We met several new fabulous people we’re delighted to have met. We’re so thankful to be part of something so great. There was snorkeling and music, laughter and tropical drinks, karaoke and board games. I was able to find a level of comfort with this gang that I seldom achieve.

I changed my name. I Tweeted a ton. I cheered a dear friend through NaNoWriMo and cheered even louder when she succeeded. I nearly peed my pants in a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a tornado. I started watching Doctor Who, and I experimented with crochet and other crafts. I cleared out some space in the house by donating things to goodwill and the book sale. I put my profession on display with special blog posts during Lab Week. I used my blog to speak up about things that mattered to me, and tried to keep quiet when I had nothing to add to the discussion. I even moved my blog to a new site and did it (mostly) on my own.

I proved my strength to myself through invasive medical procedures and weeks of injections as I went through a cycle of IVF. I came to terms with the reality of it, and accepted that science has its uses. It was an emotional month, and my husband was the most incredible support through all of it. Best of all, it worked, and we’ll be meeting our first child in July.

Such a mixed year, and so hard to decide whether it was a “good” one. Between the good moments, this year was hard on many of my loved ones, with serious illnesses, breakups, and deaths of people close to us. But family and friends came together, as best we could, to help each other through it all. We all earned grey hairs this year, and I can only hope that karma balances out for everyone in the coming year.

October is coming

October is coming. It used to be my favorite month, but after last year, my mind will always associate it with grief and loss. I expect it to be a difficult month, and I’ve tried to do all I can to build up strength to face it. I’ve heard that gratitude is a good defense against depression, so I’m going to try a little exercise here.

A friend started a Twitter game last week, called #inever, in which we confessed to little things we’ve never done. Inconsequential things, like never watching The Godfather, or never getting detention in school. Things that we felt a little silly about having missed out on, because it seemed like everyone else in the world had been there and done that. After an hour’s worth of responses, the game became something else for me. As we connected over the experiences we’d missed, I started to think about how wonderful and uplifting the opposite game would be.

If I look at my life from the perspective of all the little things I have done, it’s such a beautiful picture.

I’ve earned a gold medal raising money for MS research in a Read-a-Thon. I’ve been featured in my local newspaper (I placed 5th in a province-wide art competition). I have been a teacher’s pet. I have been an elementary school valedictorian. I’ve worn out a VHS tape and a pause button trying to transcribe all the dialogue from The Return of the Jedi. I’ve lost my voice at Backstreet Boys concerts. Plural. I have tried out for sports teams and played badminton and thrown javelin with much more heart than skill. I have gotten a tattoo. I have helped to put together a high school yearbook, and I have had angsty poetry published in my university newsletter. I have traveled miles to surprise friends who went away to college.

I have withdrawn from university, signed back up, and graduated. And been back again for more. I’ve saved lives in the lab. I’ve given blood and I’ve taken it from veins. I’ve learned to give myself injections. I’ve asked for a raise. I’ve quit. I’ve fought for change. I’ve started a blog and used it to promote what I do and what I love.

I’ve made pasta from scratch. I’ve dyed eggs and carved pumpkins and thrown a dried-out Christmas tree from a balcony. I have let babies grip my pinky in their tiny hands. I have hugged family more often than I can count.  I’ve started my own holiday traditions. I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner all by myself. I have moved to a whole new country on faith that the relationship was worth it. I’ve installed a light fixture, assembled bookcases, bought a car, bought a home. I’ve rung in the new year with those I love, and I’ve whispered Happy New Year to myself while driving home alone, watching fireworks in my mirrors.

I’ve had lunch in the crater of Mt Saint Helens, and I’ve tasted the salt of both the Atlantic and Pacific. I have volunteered and I have voted. I’ve been caught in the rain and I’ve been caught in the sun. I’ve been caught singing in my car. I’ve walked in the Blue Ridge, the Adirondacks, the Alps and the Rockies. I’ve seen the Eiffel tower sparkling at night. I’ve seen Salzburg at daybreak and Prague at dusk. I’ve eaten croissants in Paris and gelato in Rome. I’ve been in the same room as a Pope, and I’ve been shushed under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve snorkeled with turtles on Valentine’s Day, holding my husband’s hand underwater. I’ve ridden a camel, watched whales, and hugged a dolphin. I’ve seen eclipses and transits and Mars landings, and I’ve stood in the cold night to watch the Space Station race across the sky. I’ve been on a giant boat with a thousand friends and I’ve become part of a wonderful community.

I’ve talked people out of suicide. I’ve talked myself out of it, too. I’ve learned when to ask for help. I’ve learned when to fight, when to refuse to accept “no.” I’ve smiled when I was expected to, even when I was sure I didn’t have it in me. I have grown. I have changed. I have survived and accomplished and flourished, and I will continue to do so, whatever may come.

The Obligations of a Scientist

As much as I wanted to, I initially decided against answering Dr. Stemwedel’s questions about scientists’ obligations. She split the respondents into two groups – scientists and non-scientists – and I was uncomfortable with choosing a side because I wasn’t sure where I belonged. Yes, the word is in my job title (I’m a Medical Laboratory Scientist), but I always imagine “a scientist” running experiments and curing cancer and discovering quasars and writing papers that will earn them a Nobel prize. I don’t do any of that. I just play with blood. I used to work in a hospital blood bank. These days, I work in manufacturing.  I make specialized reagents for reference immunohematology laboratories to use in solving complex cases and finding rare blood types for transfusion. I work in a scientific field, but am I a scientist? I don’t think Dr. Stemwedel intended for her questions to open up cans of introspective worms in her readers, but they gave me a lot of thinking to do.

After discussing my dilemma with friends who feel the same way, I finally decided that I am comfortable saying that I am a scientist1. Wearing that badge, I will offer up my thoughts, even if I’m late to the game by a couple of weeks.

Note: Because of my background, I’m biased towards biological and medical sciences. There are many different species of scientist, of course, and I can only speak for myself.

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

As a person whose daily work affects the lives of others, I think I have a general obligation to give a damn about the work I do, and take pride in doing it well. I’ve written about professionalism before, and I still think it’s a critical quality for a scientist to have. That said, I don’t think a commitment to quality is in any way restricted to scientists. I think that any human being who’s taken on a career of any sort has that same obligation, although laziness and corner-cutting will have a greater impact in some fields than in others. A bolt missing in a box of Ikea furniture, while annoying, isn’t as bad as a bolt lost in the assembly of a helicopter.

Scientists are held up to a different standard, I think, than the average person. The title of “scientist” often carries with it an presumption of intelligence and authority, which is why an answer from a scientist on a scientific topic will carry more weight than the same answer from a bus driver. The same can be said of anyone who’s an expert in a field, from law to medicine to electrical work. We need to be aware of the fact that people will trust our answers, and we must be comfortable with admitting ignorance instead of making guesses. As scientists, we should be the very last people pulling answers out of the air (excepting, of course, the atmospheric scientists among us) when we’re not entirely sure. Our training urges us to do the research, check sources, and back up our assertions with facts2.

Over and above avoiding statements we can’t back up, I think we have an obligation to call out bullshit science when we see it. Homeopathy, wacky diets, “OMG the moon will be BIGGER THAN MARS tonight” Facebook posts, and that sort of thing. If those of us who know better don’t step in and replace false claims with correct information, then the level of scientific literacy in this world will keep declining. That would make for a sad and ignorant world, and i’d very much like to avoid it. We get bonus points if we can make the real science as exciting as the fake science, because then people will be inspired to share the good stuff, and it will get out there faster and crush the forces of bullshit. I hold up Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, as an example we should all aim to follow.

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

I was raised believing that we all have a duty to contribute to the world in some way, and to live and work with integrity. My teachers in the medical technology program reinforced the importance of quality in laboratory work, and I’ve taken that to heart. Thanks to those teachers, I’ve always felt very strongly about promoting my profession. I don’t scribble fun lab facts on a sandwich board and stand in the park with a megaphone, but when Medical Laboratory Professionals Week comes around, I put in a lot of effort to get information out there.

We need a scientifically literate society if we want to keep making progress as a species. If I don’t support and promote science when I’m given an opportunity to do so, then I’m not contributing to that end.

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world have to you?

To ask questions, even if it means challenging a scientist. It’s just like the “Ask me if I’ve washed my hands” buttons you may have seen nurses wearing – just because we know we should be doing it the right way doesn’t mean that we always are. And it’s okay to remind us of that.

1.  That discussion deserves a post of its own, and it will get one soon.

2. I’m looking at YOU, “Doctor” Phil.

Bert and Ernie and the Weeping Angels

Warning: This post contains mild Doctor Who spoilers. Just a few out-of-context names and photos of monsters; nothing that would ruin the experience for a newbie. Also, you’ll find some classic Sesame Street spoilers. So if you don’t want to know what comes after the letter B, stop reading now.

Geek peer pressure has led me to some great things.

For example: I am now in love with Doctor Who. It is a wonderful, wonderful show. I should have started watching it years ago, and now I’m catching up with the recent seasons via Netflix streaming. I’m devouring it: I sometimes go through three or four episodes in a day. I waited so long to get started because I was warned that there were monsters and deeply unsettling episodes, and that gave me pause. I’m not good with scary movies at all, and I avoid them altogether. With that in mind, I stepped gingerly, almost reluctantly, into the Doctor Who world. I was unsure what to expect from it, and from myself.

After three seasons, I can safely tell you: I’m not afraid of the monsters. And I think I’ve figured out why. Monsters aren’t real. That means they can’t be a real threat to me. Creatures with teeth and tentacles, wings and claws – they’re completely imaginary and therefore not taken too seriously by my brain. Sure, maybe I’ll flinch a little as they fill the screen, and I’ll fear for our dashing hero and his companion, but monster-filled nightmares don’t keep me up at night.

A monster with wings and screeching and nasty pointy teeth. Image from Tardis Data Core (Doctor Who Wiki)

The things that truly scare me, and leave lingering feelings of anxiety and dread, are people (or things) that have been transformed from something familiar into something terrible. And Doctor Who is full of monsters that are normal people whose bodies have been taken over by demons or telepathic aliens or angry energy-based life forms. Those are the ones that keep me from falling back asleep at night after I wake with a start. Because if the devil can take over someone’s body, how can I know that the shape sleeping beside me is really my husband? (I’ve already warned him that pulling out a raspy “devil voice” in the dark is grounds for divorce, no matter how much it seems like a good joke at the time.)

I realize that it’s a completely irrational fear. And it’s not like I spend every day sneaking glances at everyone for evidence of demonic possession. But those episodes leave me jumpy and agitated for hours, so I’ve had to ask my husband to warn me when one’s coming up. That way, we can wait until a weekend where I can recover properly if I don’t get a good night’s sleep after the credits roll.

This week, I met the Weeping Angels. They’re otherworldly assassins who take the form of angel statues, and who turn to stone if someone is looking at them. Look away, though, and they get you. You can’t even blink.

Weeping angels coming to get you. Image from Tardis Data Core.

It doesn’t help that vicious fangs and claws come out when they’re sneaking up on you, but even without those, the Weeping Angels are statues that move, and that freaks me right out. Inanimate things are not supposed to be animate and are especially not supposed to sneak over and get you while you’re not looking. It’s like possession, but of things instead of people. Just as scary.

My terror didn’t begin with the angels, though. My worry that inanimate objects may come to life started long, long ago, and this episode of Doctor Who woke up some very old and very strong memories. As I watched the angels move with each blink of their victims’ eyes, all I could see was Ernie.

When I was very young, maybe six years old, Bert and Ernie visited the Egyptian pyramids. Such intrepid explorers, wearing their explorer hats and explorer trench coats! Deep in the gloom of the pyramid’s inner chambers, they found statues that looked exactly like them. Ernie, sensibly, tried to turn back and leave these unsettling doppelgangers behind in their tomb, but Bert mocked him. Mocked him and left him alone with the statues.

Of course, what happens next is that the Ernie statue wakes up and bonks Ernie on his head. It happens twice, and both times he calls for help, only to receive sarcasm and ridicule in return. It’s his imagination, Bert tells him, running out of control and creating monsters where there are none. Well, he’s wrong, and it’s all true, and Bert sure as hell isn’t blaming his own imagination when the statue finally speaks to him, terrifying him and sending him running.

Even as a kid, I saw through the superficial message of the episode – control your imagination, and it will take you to wonderful places instead of scaring you – and internalized the darker subtext. There are times when people you trust will tell you something you fear, something you’ve heard or seen in the shadows, is “just your imagination.” And they will be wrong.

I was afraid of my stuffed animals for months.

And now I’m not so sure about statues.