On Being a Postdoc and a Parent

Let’s talk about some complicated dualities…

Postdoc stuff.

Earlier in the year, I graduated, was removed from the pressure of a dissertation and hired by another lab, based on merit, to dedicate my days solely to conducting research in the burgeoning field of genomics. Reptilian genomics, at that. It’s a dream job! Very few early-career scholars in biology can lay claim to being literally handed the job they always wanted. A postdoc, while not exactly raining in the Benjamins like some high-priced lawyer or marketing exec, is a proud position to have – a GENIUS FOR HIRE. Right?

Well, it is great. But not all roses. Even though my current appointment is long by most standards, almost by definition it’s a temporary position. An “in-betweener” state. By golly, I’ll make the most of the resources given to me here (I aways have – I’m a practical man), but there is the stark reality that I am not that far from “I need a job” – a professorship, what grown-ups in my field have. The tenure-track faculty position will be elusive quarry for even my most competitive peers, and even though I just started my postdoc, every day in the back of my mind lay the specter of the fact that I need to plan for the day I face a search committee. All well and good, I knew what I was getting into, but then there is the weekly perusing of the progress of other postdoctoral scholars in my field, those who got their Ph.Ds in the last two years or so like me, but have slightly better academic pedigrees, or maybe nailed good fellowships, or got published in the REALLY good journals… Oooooh, when envy kicks in, it’s a bad feeling. How will I provide for my family? Also, how can I reconcile these uncertainties with my spouse’s own career ambitions? What to do?

Parent stuff.

We have a 2.5 year old daughter, who we love with all our hearts and is a pure gift. When I’m with her, I find myself concentrating on the real, true things in life, such as fairness, equality, lovingness, and patience. She is the best learner I know, and getting wiser everyday. She is a musician, naturalist, an artist. And a chatter-box, mama mia! She makes every day a joyous journey. Right?

Well, yes and no. Toddler-hood is a messy state of affairs. Zero to sixty in ten seconds with emotions. Tear-the-house-down kind of tantrums. Total lack of ability to follow instructions or obey warnings. Trouble staying in bed in order to fall asleep, and then actually staying in bed all night is another story all together. And then there’s the kid (ba-bum ching). But seriously, the way I have described the feeling of parenthood to others is this: imagine you are a muscle, and you’re always being flexed and flexed, no relaxing. Just one long, never-ending onslaught of work, an eternal set at the gym. And that’s it, that’s what it is, so imagine that if you can (plus a lot of good parts). What to do?

You need to relax.

At this point, I am who I am. Any shortcomings of mine as far as being a scientist or a parent are part of the same continuum. I’m still early in my career post-grad school and post-daughter-being-born. But my postdoc won’t last forever, and neither will toddler-hood. And as time goes by, I’ll get the hang of things. I’ll get a fellowship or a grant and a big paper, because I’m good at a lot of things, and I’ll keep on. We are both talented and savvy, and I’ll find a job that fits the life that we want to have. And our daughter will grow out of her current developmental phase, and with our loving care and guidance, eventually grow into a teenager.

Gulp


I Moved My Family Across the Country for a Postdoc

It sounds weird to make this confession, as if it represents a wrong act that no one should commit. Even before we got married, my wife and I agreed on the fact that we both wanted to move out West, and once we did tie the knot we remained certain that it was the cardinal direction for us to have the kind of life we wanted. We would have more space, more freedom of movement, most likely in a house rather than a one bedroom apartment, with a driveway to unload groceries without risking either our lives being double-parked or a ticket while at the fire hydrant. I would be done with grad school, and my wife could put her exhausting job behind her, and we could focus on the future and put our daughter into bed each night after tasting the orange bliss of western sunsets (sound of clinking Chardonnay glasses here).

I am exuberantly excited to begin work at Arizona State University, gain experience as a senior person in a productive lab and learn a whole new set of analytical tools that will make me a better scientist. Still, as most things in life, there is a complicated duality here. I’m native New Yorker who was born and raised in Queens, lived in Brooklyn, educated at NYU and CUNY, and almost all of my friends and relatives would remain on the East Coast. Other than my new colleagues and a few cousins (with a big Italian family like mine, there are always a few relatives in some state somewhere), we know barely anybody here. How will we fit into a state whose politics we basically abhor? The reality of this major life change is that it is very difficult to move a family across the country for a postdoc, and it is wrought with opportunity but also doubt, hardship, and confusion. In fact, the title of this post is derived from Google searches I have made in search of help.

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Velma on the flight to Phoenix. Is it too late to change our minds?

Through the Eyes of Our Cat

You probably can appreciate how difficult it is to put your whole family on a one-way trip with all your possessions either packed with you or on a moving truck somewhere else. If you haven’t done it, you’ve certainly marveled with horror watching other people do it in airports. So I will skip to the funniest part of the trip which would have to be the little side story of our obese cat, Tiny.
I have to start Tiny’s story with the fact that we acquired a prescription for Xanax to keep him calm during the plane ride. A vet wrote him up for eight 0.25mg pills, which is a human-sized dose. We tested him a week before for we left for any side effects, which means we currently still have six doses of kitty Xanax which may or may not come in handy someday.
The helpful folks at airport security told me I had to take Tiny out of his travel bag and carry him through the metal detector with me. There was huge collective gasp from all the other travelers when they gazed upon the one we lovingly refer to as Big Tuna. He was obviously mortified as we waited for the pink (yes, pink) bag to come through the X-ray machine, with him sitting upright on my lap like a giant fat furry angry buddha.

At that moment Velma decided to do a little of her patented kitty torture – comprised of horrible acts that cats hate, like cuddling and hugging and kissing, which of course made things even worse for Tiny. He made it clear he would rather be locked up in the bag and jumped right back in it and stayed there without a peep for the next 7 hours.

When we landed in Phoenix, we put a doggie harness on him and brought him to the “pet relief” area – really a dog run – with hopes that he would urinate and drink some water. He was too petrified to do either of those things, especially when the dreaded shihtzus began to show up. Anyway, he is doing fine now and enjoying the desert shade underneath our backyard oleanders so I think it will be a happy ending for Tiny.

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Enjoying some well-deserved patio time.

Other items of import:

Our Parents Have Been Living with Us Since We Moved

We love our parents. We would be nowhere without their support. So I am just going to skip this section and move on.

Our Daughter has Adopted Strange New Sleep Habits

By the time we were getting ready to leave NY, Velma had become a champion sleeper. Not every night was a breeze, but we all went to sleep fairly sure that she would be down for about 11-13 hours a night. This was after a typically rough first year of her life. Now it is all up in the air again, whatever gains were made in the sleep department have been lost. She falls asleep in her bed, but by 3am every night she has silently slipped into our room and joined us. At about 4:30am she starts to spin and kick. Imagine if someone yanked a large fish out of the sea, put it in toddler pajamas, and tossed it into bed with you. It would make a good punishment for a misdemeanor (“I hereby sentence you to one year in bed with kicking two year old”).

More anecdotes another time…

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Welcome to your new home…