Sunday, August 30, 2009

did you hear the one about the gas leak at the salami plant?

When a family has two jobs, three pets and two children under the age of four, the unexpected often throws a spanner into our carefully laid plans. On Friday we had a busy day. I set off for work, first ensuring that Geekygirl had her show and tell (tiny plastic Cinderella in sparkly latex ballgown), and that Geekyboy had his lunch and enough milk for the day. Geekydaddy intended to drop the kinds at daycare, then return home and take the cats, unhappily corralled in the house since the night before, to their long overdue vet appointment. After that he had a lunch meeting in Palo Alto, and was then charged with picking up all the groceries for our weekend in Tahoe.

I have my team planning meeting on Fridays at 10.00, and then was supposed to be organizing a surprise baby shower party for one of my team members. At least I was hoping that it was still a surprise, since I had moved another meeting via "Outlook" calender webmail, with the message "meeting rescheduled due to surprise baby shower" and was having the sinking feeling that I may have accidentally sent the message to the surprisee.

In retropsect, something smelled funky in the air as I got into my car. I noticed a pungent uriney smell, but I just assumed that Orangegeek cat had been spraying the car tires again. As I drove down 101, though, I noticed that the South San Francisco exits, one of which Geekydaddy takes to get to daycare, were all closed off and police cars and ambulances were blaring all around.

Geekydaddy, coming later with the kids, tried an alternate route, but found himself shunted into a railyard and stuck in traffic with hundreds of other bemused commuters. We learned later what the problem was. An explosion at the columbus salami factory in South San Francisco had had caused an ammonia leak. the whole area was being evacuated, or people were told to "shelter in place" in their buildings. This is biotech central, so Genentech, Amgen, and countless other companies were affected. The manager sensibly decided to close our daycare, so Geekydaddy was stuck with a car full of kids and nowhere to take them. We decided to bring them to my office.

I went straight to Target and picked up diapers, wipes, crayons and assorted small toys. Kids in the office are always a welcome distraction to the other employees, and it is rather nice to show them off; they were both looking particularly adorable, Geekygirl in a pink dress with butterflies and Geekyboy in a striped polo shirt and jeans. I have a nice big office, with fun swively chairs, a white board, and magnets all over my filing cabinets, so the kids settled in and turned the space into an impromptu daycare. Geekygirl played nicely with her new spangly latex attired princess (Snow white this time), and while geekyboy was not all that interested in his blocks and dinosaurs, he did decide that my office recycling bin made a great drum. I ran my meeting with the sounds of sesame st podcasts in the background (thanks iphone), and with a toddler on my lap, crayoning all over the data we were looking at, and occasionally bashing the table to emphasize one of my points.

I managed to get most of my work done before the baby shower party, which fortunately was still a surprise, my errant email had not gone to the whole team after all. The kids sat adorably at too large chairs in our conference room, incongruously tiny, colourful and sweet in the spartan, formal room, made only marginally less so by the balloon decorations. Their legs dangling from the large chairs, they made conversation with my co-workers, while stuffing their faces with cupcakes.

I was starting to enjoy myself, the mum-to-be was delighted, the kids were being adorable. Geekygirl even remembering her "pleases" and "thankyous" and not ordering me around like a drill sergeant (my tactic of resorting to sticker charts for unprompted politeness seems to have paid off, though something about giving material rewards for mastering basic courtesy doesn't sit right with me, I needed a quick fix and her rudeness was driving me crazy). I felt rather on display, mothering my two kids under the scrutiny of the entire company!

Of course, everything went horribly wrong when a colleague, a mother of young kids herself, came over to speak to my daughter. Geekygirl is rather shy, and this encounter caused her to fumble and drop her paper cup of water. All over herself. She hates to be wet, and has no inhibitions about nudity, so as well as bursting into floods of tears, she proceeded to strip down completely, discarding her wet frock and knickers right there in the conference room. Helpful co-workers offered oversized T shirts to no avail (too big, too blue). In the end I carried my howling naked child back to my office, leaving Geekyboy munching away at the table, crossing my fingers that he would not mind my absence if surrounded by food. My only spare clothing options for Geekygirl were her sweater and one of the diapers I had purchased for geekyboy that morning, so that is how she was dressed for the rest of the day, returning to the lunch party cheery and ready for more cake! If only I had the foresight to pick up a spare outfit on my preparatory shopping spree.

Afterwards, one of our VP's said that he now saw me in a new light. I'm hoping he means that having seen me successfully negotiate the "screaming, naked, soaking child" situation he realizes that I am ready for a director role. What do you think?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ships that pass in the night

Geekydaddy and I have been having some communication issues. No, not the angst filled, not appreciating each other kind of issues. We have just failed to transfer important but mundane details of our day, resulting in some comical outcomes.

I pick the kids up from daycare. Geekyboy runs into my arms, he is the hallmark of adorable baby, always so delighted to see me. (Geekygirl was much more contrary at his age, and would run away from me, making sure that I had to chase her down to give her my much needed hug.) Geekyboy usually finishes the last of the milk as I carry him out to the car, so he always asks me for his "milkie" when I grab him, and I collect his sippy cup from the fridge. Recently there has been no milk left, resulting in great distress. There is nothing sadder than a baby crying for "milkie", so Kristen at the front desk of the center has been raiding the staff fridge and filling his cup with their milk, so he has something to drink on the way home.

This morning I mentioned to Geekydaddy, who is in charge of lunch boxes, that Geekybaby needed to take more milk to daycare. Geekydaddy was surprised. He had been emptying a half full sippy of milk down the sink every evening (the milk provided, unbenownst to him, by kind Kristen at the desk), and had therefore been reducing in increments the amount that he had been packing in the mornings! Poor Geekyboy was caught in a parent induced spiral of milk deprivation!

This was the second communication breakdown in quick succession. A couple of weeks back daycare had a barbeque. I borrowed a big barbeque from my work, and we also took our smaller one from home. In order to get the work monster grill into my car I had to dismantle parts of it with screwdrivers (also borrowed from work). The barbeques and tools were left at daycare until cooled and cleaned to take home. I returned the work one, but couldn't find the screwdrivers to assemble it again. Kristen informed me that they were inside the other barbeque, our own, now back in our possession. I made a mental note to collect the tools, and promptly forgot.

Two days later, Kristen handed me a bag containing the lost screwdrivers, which she had just found, mysteriously appeared, beneath her desk. I took them home and placed them in the garage in an obvious spot ready to put in the car to return them to my office. When Geekydaddy came home that evening he bounded upstairs, confused and armed with the mysterious items. From his perspective, he had found these strange screwdivers in our barbeque, and dropped them back off at daycare, where he thought they belonged, only to find them suddenly materialize back in our garage!

It appears that Geekydaddy and I are too tired to communicate properly. If we're lucky of an evening, after the kids are asleep we will have a nice dinner, a glass of wine, and a lovely chat about an article one of us read, a conversation at work, or something funny that one of the kids did. But we seem to be failing to transfer some of the important details of our day to day lives. I think the Geekyfamily need some kind of mind melding device, a human version of how you sync an iphone to a laptop to transfer any new information. It should preferably work while we are sleeping. Anyone know where I can get such an item?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Although I don't regret my choice to be a full time working mum, it does take a lot of effort. There are many days when I wonder whether it is all worth it, whether I am spreading myself too thin, slugging through each day getting the kids dressed and fed, and filling the car with gas, keeping my group of researchers at work cohesive, keeping track of the literature in my field, picking up diapers, feeding the cats and dog, remembering show and tell day, promoting the preschool fundraiser..... ad infinitum. Sometimes my life feels as if I am just checking items off my never ending "to do" lists (now on my iphone instead of on scraps of paper, but still getting longer and longer every day), and forgetting to enjoy actually being with the children and to take pleasure in working.

When I describe our lives to childless friends, I often hear "I don't know she does it" . It was after reading the book of that title by Allison Pearson that I realized how I do. If you have read the book you'll recall that the protagonist, Kate Reddy, has a high powered financial job, two young children, and an urge to 'distress' store bought mince pies at 4.00am in order to prove to the at home mums that she too can bake for the school bake sale. She eventually quits her job for a part time self employed contractor type role. She also has a completely rubbish husband. It wasn't until my second reading of the book (since it is an enjoyable and amusing read) that my niggling dissatisfaction coalesced into indignation. I realized that this fictional mum was actually doing it all alone. The book should be subtitled "The sorry tale of how a talented women had to quit a great job because her husband was totally useless."

I realized that no one ever says about my husband, or any man who is a full time working father "I don't know how he does it". Maybe because even the most liberal minded people assume, somewhere in the back of their minds, that even if a man has two kids and a full time job, his wife or partner carried the lions share of the domestic burden. However that phrase applies equally to him, because his hard work around the home is what enables me to continue the job I love. He is actually emptying the diaper pail, unprompted, as I sit here and type.

You see, I don't have a useless husband. I have a great husband. A man who believes fully and wholeheartedly in equality between men and women, and actually puts his money where his mouth is. When our daughter was about 10 months old I was back at work, exhausted from pumping milk and had fallen into the habit of doing most of the child related work in the household. I raised the spectre of trying to go part time, and instead of conceding that this was the way to go, he said to me "What can I do at home, so that you can stay full time?" And from that day on we have divided our domestic life.

Which gets me to the juggling. I had a wonderful day last week when all the balls not only stayed in the air, they danced with finesse.

Preschool was having a potluck lunch, where parents are invited to come and bring a dish and eat with the children. I had promised to go. Since preschool is closer to home than to my work (about 20 miles away) I don't often make it to these lunchtime events but my calender looked clear and I really wanted to go.

But of course, two days before the event a meeting appeared on my calender that clashed with the long planned potluck. The head of our Scientific Advisory Committee was flying in, and my boss had scheduled me to meet with him at lunchtime. I sat and stared at the meeting invitation for a while. This dilema comes up all the time. Divided commitments. I would be letting down my team if I didn't present our work, but that was nothing compared to letting down my daughter who was so excited about mummy coming to the lunch. So I bit the bullet, and told my boss, and his boss, the VP organizing the day, that the time wouldn't work as I had a commitment at preschool.

They were completely supportive and reworked the whole day around my schedule. I should mention that my boss, as well as being an all round great person, is also a working father of two (with a full time working wife). I would say this is possibly the best kind of boss for a working mum. He might be male, but he understands my life.

On the evening before the potluck I decided to go all out and actually cook something for it. Geekygirl and I made cous cous salad, a very simple but impressive looking dish involving cous cous (which is barely cooking, since you just have to soak it in hot water), feta, mint, peas, peppers, dried pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.

The potluck was fun, it is a nice opportunity to chat at length with other parents and children. The children take such pride in their parents contributions (yes, there were some dads there too). One little boy told me very seriously "You should eat my mom's broccoli risotto, it will make you grow!" (It was indeed very good). Geekygirl told the other parents and kids how she helped to make the salad. The wonderful ethnic mix of the families at preschool made for an eclectic mix of foods, from pot stickers to pizza to pakora, washed down with horchata (Nicaraguan honeyed rice milk).

I made it back to the office in time to give the presentation I had honed the day before. I was very pleased with how the meeting went, the work was well received and I was congratulated by people whose opinion is very important to me.

Maybe because of my elation, when I picked up the kids as usual at 5.30pm we had a fun evening, full of stories and laughter and devoid of squabbles.

I don't have many days like this one, but when I do I feel so strongly that I am doing the right thing. I may never make a huge scientific breakthrough that betters life for mankind, but I have a better chance of doing so if I go to work every day. That day felt perfectly balanced; I was great mum of adorable brilliant children, a talented scientist managing a team of motivated people. It is the support of my great husband, and considerate bosses that make it possible. I may not get there all the time, but when I do, that's how I do it.

Though in writing this I have realized that the salad bowl I have been hunting for all week has actually been left at preschool since the potluck. I had better add its retrieval to my "to do" list!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The language teacher

The geekykids share a bedroom, and I sometimes hear snatches of their conversation. Geekygirl lays in bed narrating dramas for her plastic princesses (Cinderella and Belle go to the balls together, sleep in the same bed, and are both married to the same prince, the daddy doll from her doll house set. ) I'm not sure who she is modeling this family set up on, but it is certainly creative. Geekyboy has started to babble to himself, and I sometimes hear giggled almost conversations between the two of them. My dad, as a student and teacher of education, used to tape record my siblings and I as we played alone. The tapes are wonderful glimpses back to things I do not recall, and a fascinating window into the minds of the children we were. Video has replaced tape for capturing those fleeting gems, but there is something to be said for old fashioned "fly on the wall" eavesdropping.

Our mountain cabin has two loft rooms, one for us and one for the kids, divided by a single door, which we leave open. In such close proximity we are privy to more of their conversation. This morning as I drifted out of sleep at the almost reasonable hour of 6.45am I heard geekygirl saying " geekyboy , say "blanket" " He obliged with "ban key". Geekygirl continued her coaching with "paci", "window" and "princess" , geekyboy performing very well on these drills and enjoying the attention. "ah oo ah" (aurora) he said, presumably pointing at one of geekygirl's plastic bedmates. "no, that's Cinderella" geekygirl corrected. I think our son will soon be the only eighteen month old boy fluent in Disney princess naming.

Geekydaddy and I were smiling indulgently at each other by this point, when we heard "geekyboy, say pee pee". "pi pi" his baby voice piped back. "say poo poo" she continued. He indulged her. "say "head" she continued. "head!" he exclaimed, and we heard him batting himself on his head for emphasis. "now say 'poo poo head'" geekgirl commanded. "poo poo Edd" we heard. Then there was a pause, and I knew our quiet lie in was over. "Mummy! Geekyboy called me a poo poo head" geekygirl yelled.

Maybe this was a parenting moment that could have been used for teaching "not to manipulate others", but we were too busy laughing. I suspect geekyboy will give as good as he gets soon enough.

Monday, August 10, 2009

young conversationalists

I love, love observing the kids learn language. I never tire of their new phrases, this window into their developing minds. Geekybaby wants so much to convey his thoughts. "Mummy head" he says, patting me on the hair, at least ten times a day. And this evening "Bye Bye Tub" he said, waving as I took him out of the bath!

Geekygirl, and three and a half now, surprised me in a new way last weekend. She loves to talk, and has a rich and varied vocabulary, but on a walk back from the lake with friends last weekend I realized how much of the conversation going on around her that she understands. My friend and I were discussing the vacations we took growing up, she escaping the heat of Phoenix for milder San Diego, I escaping British rain for French sun. Both enduring long car trips. We bantered our experiences back and forth, listening, laughing, and recognizing common threads in our experience.

As we chatted, oblivious to the kids sitting in their strollers, Geekygirl piped in "It was really hot in South Africa, and that is a long way away too". I was suddenly aware that my little girl listens to everything that goes on around her. I was impressed that she was able to come up with such a relevant experience, our recent vacation, to share. There is such a strong human desire to connect through conversation, I suppose, since that is what our relationships are founded upon. It was lovely to see in Geekygirl this desire to join in our conversation. She sounded so serious and adult, confident in her statement and its appropriateness.

Lovely this may be, and I look forward to many conversations in the future, but for now I must also remember that little ears are always listening when we least expect it!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

what's the weather?

Geekygirl loves to wear what she calls "summer short sleeves". This means tank top style spaghetti straps. It is rarely warm enough here to wear such skimpy clothing, so I usually insist upon a T shirt underneath her sundresses.

Every morning she checks the weather out of the window to help her decide what to wear. In Tahoe it is invariably warm with blue skies during the summer, so she excitedly exclaims "it is a beautiful blue sky day, so I can wear summer short sleeves", and proceeds to rummage through the bag of clothes we packed the night before (with at least 6 different outfits even though we are only gone for two days) for a favourite sundress.

Back here in the city, August has been a Mark Twain summer (some say he once wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was the summer in San Francisco), so when Geekygirl twitched her curtains for a glimpse of the outdoors this morning before choosing her outfit, she said to me sadly "Mummy, it's really froggy today".

I'm sure there are many folks in other parts of this country who believe San Francisco is overdue some kind of biblical plague of amphibians, but I'm happy to report that the weather is just the usual low, damp, maritime layer of cloud!