Saturday, November 29, 2014

Overcoming "bitter"

This time of year is strange in so many ways. On the one hand, there's many reasons to sit back and reflect on all the good things that have happened and be offer thanks for family, be it whatever form one considers it. But with the good can come the bad. Though less-than-pleasant memories or moments we wish could have ended differently. Those interactions that ended badly.

I've been thinking a lot about this with all the transition that has been happening. Playing some harder moments through my head and wondering if some situations could have been different. In some cases, the answer is a hard and fast "no." But in others . . . .

The catalyst for these thoughts was hearing about Grey's sister's recent plight. How Thanksgiving dinner was about to be more interesting due to an unexpected guest who was arriving with a mountain of demands and expectations. Hearing only a sliver of what was about to unfold made my hair stand on end. But what got me thinking is when I heard someone accuse this person of being "bitter."

Bitter is a hard word for me. While living with infertility, all my loses and uncertainty for the road ahead, I found this label readily attached to me when people described my mental state. Later on, when the Beats first were home, I was again labeled when I dared to disagree about parenting choices.  I've found that "bitter" is one of those words that can get thrown around for various reasons. There's the classic labeling for someone who is intent on making everyone around them utterly miserable. But I've also learned that someone can accuse someone else of being "bitter" as a way to distract from the self-loathing they may be feeling. Then there's using "bitter" to describe someone who is simply a cornered animal, too wounded and/or scared to behave in any other manner after being attacked. Or someone is "bitter" when they dare stand up for themselves and establish boundaries. In short, "bitter" is one of those words that can easily be misused.

Upon reflection, one thing I believe causes this misuse is a failure to acknowledge different viewpoints. Be it the extreme, where someone sees a situation completely differently from another, to the simple that each and everyone of us views life through a different set of lenses. No two people will see the same event in the same way. Part of this is due to life experience and how we were raised. But the other part has to do with what we bring to that situation. Be it our history, our knowledge and even our morals. Our viewpoints are as individual as fingerprints.

 While in the trenches, I was acutely reminded of how different my viewpoint was from those around me. I found myself avoiding others or certain situations in an effort to guard my heart. The images of the "normal" happy family was at times too much as I was facing an uncertain path ahead due to infertility and repeated loss. The salt in the wound was hearing that my efforts made me "bitter." After all, why couldn't I just be happy that so-and-so easily achieved the family I so longed for? Why cloud their joy with my pain? Why couldn't I just get over myself?

What I've been trying to piece together is how to step away from the accusations and instead step to walk beside someone else. To actually learn to listen, learning from what each interaction. With Grey's sister, her viewpoint and actions are very different from my own, yet I also know that it's due to an upbringing, experiences and hurts that I never experienced. Understanding that is easy. What's hard has been trying to understand the relative she is dealing with in order to be a source of support. To try to understand where these actions are stemming from in order to help alleviate some of the anger and stress that is being experienced.

I'm the first to admit that I suck at this. I'm use to sticking up for myself and asserting myself on the world. Infertility and loss made me all the more so. But now, having the Beats in my life, I'm finding myself wanting to be aware. To truly be more empathetic. To overcome the label of "bitter infertile."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Where ever you are today

Where ever you are today.

Be it with family, friends or alone at home.

Be it following a recent diagnosis, another BFN or failed treatment cycle.

Be it holding the child(ren) you fought so hard for or grieving the loss of the ones you will not be holding.

Be it on the road to resolution or finding yourself still uncertain of the path ahead.

Please know I'm thinking of you all today.

I'm thinking of you during those moments where it feels impossible to keep the tears at bay, when someone says something that hurts your heart, or during those moments where it feels like you're on the outside looking in.

I'm thinking of you as you finally watch those first moments, of when you hold your child(ren) in your arms and when you look around and see the family you've worked so hard for.

And I'm thinking of you as you reflect on this year. All the good and the bad. All the fear and uncertainty and even those moments of hope.

Wishing you all find peace at some point today. And a moment to remember that you are not alone.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Finding new paths

Apologies in advance for the brain-dump here. It certainly is less than eloquent, but I'm hoping that writing will help. Or at help detangle all that is spinning in my brain.

Like many, I spent most of my young adult life building a career that I thought would be sustainable. Starting during my time as an undergrad, I spent a lot of time seeking out training options that would help prepare me for a career in science, both with networking and acquiring skills that would be needed in order to meet that goal. Not long after completing graduate school, I landed a rare position that afforded me an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on teaching experience while putting into practice new techniques I had learned. About a year into that position, more opportunity came in the form of a postdoc at an institution in Boston. Despite infertility and continual failure with fertility treatments, I felt like my career was at least moving forward. That my efforts towards building were at least being rewarded.

All of that came to an end in 2013. Despite applying for five separate fellowships and reviewing a grant by my future postdoctoral mentor, I was unable to secure funding. And without funding, the position I had planned on disappeared. In addition, because the institution assumed I would be starting a postdoc and then later learned I was pregnant, my contract with them was not renewed. Meaning that within a blink of an eye, I was facing unemployment. While most women spend their maternity leave focusing on their new bundle of joy, I was craving out time to apply for jobs and make connections. I've been fortunate to be able to piece together short stints of employment since January, but nothing that is permanent. All of which has left me feeling like a complete failure.

The problem with being a scientist in today's world is there is a severe lack of funding. Particularly for basic scientific research. Though there was a boom in the 1990s, since 2000s there's been continual cuts to funding. The recession has only exacerbated the problem, with deep cuts to both NIH and NSF funding making so that even the most needed research is no longer getting done. Over the last 5 years, I've watched labs close, research buildings become almost vacant and promising young scientists completely abandon the field. Those who have hung on have had to make huge sacrifices, some of which include drastic pay-cuts, delaying family expansion, enduring relocations and playing games just to secure funding. Many of us feel lied to and undervalued. After 5-6 years of graduate training, where we were promised a future, we're finding that not only is the well dry, but there are many fighting for those few remaining cups of water.

Part of this issue has to do with the current way we train scientists. An editorial by Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschnerb, Shirley Tilghmanc, and Harold Varmusd outlined some of the systematic flaws that exist in the field, calling for change at all levels for change. But equally problematic that many of us were promised something that no longer exists. We were told if we worked those long hours, made those connections, made huge sacrifices and just "wanted it enough," we could achieve our dream. What has become evident is that none of this was true. That working one's self to the bone won't resolve the lack of funding or lack of value.

What I realized recently is that since losing that postdoc in Boston I've been grieving. There are moments where I scheme for ways to resurrect the project that I proposed or somehow piece together enough funding to actually do this work. But the problem is that doing so will require sacrificing my family in the process and even if I find a short-term solution, the long-term goal is still nonexistent. So I've been frustrated on my good days. Incredibly angry on my bad ones. All the while feeling like nothing I do matters and internalizing this failure as a personal flaw. The realization that I am grieving shocked me. After all, you're not suppose to grieve for something like this. It's unbecoming and selfish. And yet, after years of infertility and being in the trenches, I know the signs and symptoms all too well.

Last week, I finally allowed myself to internalize all of this and begin to let go. I've slowly been contacting people within my network and reaching out to those who can help provide advice as I try to find a new career path. It's been slow going, particularly with applying for jobs and considering options I never would have before. But, there are meetings on the horizon that show potential. There's people who have already come through in a big way with introductions and opening doors I never knew existed. Still it's scary. It's scary because I don't know what the outcome of all of this will be and my confidence is shaken.

But if I learned nothing else from infertility and loss, the one lesson that still rings true is sometime the scariest part is being willing to try again or try something new. That we can be our own worst enemies with assuming it all has to come out a certain way in order for it to be okay.

Wish me luck for the journey ahead.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: Choosing to be Thankful

Sometimes its easy to get caught up in the negative. To succumb to the stresses and pressures from everyday life. There's been a lot of negatives lately, with me struggling to find permanent employment, Grey trying to wrap up his postdoc and transition to the job market, financial worries from raising twins and the fact we've all been sick in some form for almost a year. All of it draining.

Jos post today was the kick in the butt I've been needing. I reminder that even when things are tough, especially with this time of year, there is still so much good in the world.

So, inspired by Jos, here's a brief list what I'm thankful for today.

  • Grey. For being an amazing life partner who has and continues to stand by me through thick and thin. For believing in me during moments when it feels like no one else does. For seeing the good when I'm surrounded by the bad.
  • The Beats. For reminding me how crazy/wonderful this world can be. For helping me remember to find joy in the simplest things.
  • Our support system. Who help keep us fueled with love, weekly meals and excuses to get outside. These friends and family members have been invaluable and I hate to think where we'd be without them.
  • Our home. Though Seattle is gray this time of year, it's still amazingly beautiful here. The Beats and I have walked this city up and down and are still finding new wonders (like the Sea Lions at Alki Beach) at every turn.
  • Connections and unknown opportunities. I currently have so many irons in the fire at the moment. Yes, I've been burned at times, but the fact that my connections are working with me as I work on finding a new path career-wise, I know I'm fortunate. 
  • Finally, for these two amazing souls. Who know just the right moment to cuddle in when all seems wrong in the world. Who tolerate not-so-gentle pets from the Beats (we're working on correcting this) and remind me that sometimes the best cure is a good meal and a long nap.

Monday, November 17, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: Feeding the ducks

There are days when all seems wrong in the world. That no matter what you do, you feel like you can't get ahead. I've been feeling that way a lot lately with my career. I won't go into the details now, but needless to say the path I originally started on has become incredibly rocky, if not completely disappeared under my feet.

On days like this, the only cure is simple pleasures. Today, I decided it was time the Beats learned how to feed the ducks. Packing up some oats and defrosted peas, we made our way to a local park that has a fountain populated by resident ducks.

Amid lots of quacking and splashing, you could easily hear happy shrieks and coos from two very entertained toddlers. That happiness chasing the grey clouds hanging over my head away.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nature vs. Nurture

This past week has been one filled with middle-of-the-night wake-ups, piles of snotty tissues, lots of coughing, many bottles of Pedialite and an unpleasant diagnosis of influenza for Grey (he was the only one in the family who didn't get a flu shot). The only highlight was hearing that the ear tubes were doing their jobs and ear infections have been avoided.

Due to all the sickness, I've had an unusual amount of time to linger on grading this week. This quarter, I am teaching a genetics course to non-science majors, focusing on topics like GMOs, genetic testing and genetic determinism. Unlike the courses I've taught in the past, this course is meant to explore specific examples, providing my students with basic information necessary to make informed arguments about the ethics behind these issues. So far, we've had a very lively debate as well as a couple of interesting discussions focusing solely on GMOs. But this last week we've shifted our focus to genetics and health. And to prepare them for the topics ahead, I assigned them to watch "GATTACA" and answer a set of homework questions.

For the past two days, I've been slowly grading these questions. Though normally I read through every assignment, I usually get on a roll with grading and don't have much time to truly reflect on what my students are saying. But this time around, particularly with the nature of the assignment and the my foggy thinking, I finding my thoughts are lingering as they are tackling questions about genetic determinism and societal expectations.

If one is to do a Google search for "Nature vs. Nurture," you'll quickly find yourself inundated with various articles exploring genetics vs environment. A nice thought piece from NPR in 2007 explores this a bit, recounting a story of identical twin sisters who were separated at birth and reunited years later. Overall, the data is incredibly clear that who our genetics plays a big role in determining our make-up, our environment plays an equally large role shaping not only who we are, but the potential for what we can become.

All of this has been swirling through my head as the latest round of "mommy war" attacks and arguments have been circulating. Last year the stir was a study that came out showing the long-term benefits of breastfeeding had been drastically overstated. Most recently has been the discussions about extended breastfeeding and how society views it. Later on, a woman finds herself entrenched in arguments about introducing solid, sleep, transportation (stroller vs. baby wearing) and finally, the mother of all arguments, staying at home vs. working. In every single case, there are advocates on either side, with strong opinions for why their choices and views are correct and should be embraced. All while the other side is not only dead wrong, but is *gasp* harming their child(ren).

The universal thing missing from these arguments is the same acknowledgement that researchers tackling the "nature vs. nurture" question failed to address and finally had to acknowledge: for each issue and topic, there's more to the equation than initially considered. For example, with heritable diseases, geneticists point to examples like Cystic Fibrosis or Sickle Cell anemia for how single mutations can drastically alter protein function and cause disease. Based on these examples, it is easy to assume that genetics is the end all be all of causing disease. Yet we know that simple heritable diseases are rare, with most diseases being influenced by both genetics as well as environmental impacts. Example, we know there's a strong link between cancer survival and socioeconomic status, suggested links between neurodegenerative diseases and ethnicity and even a link between one's mental health and their waistline. Equally talked about is the impact of stress, familial, work and even financial on one's lifespan and mental health. In short, there's a lot more at play with human development and homeostasis and a lot of these issues are one's that reach up to a cultural and global mindset.

So why is it, then, that given all this complexity, we still apply simple arguments to the "mommy wars?" Why is it assumed that because something worked for one family in one situation (remember, each child is different), that it would somehow be universally true? Why is it that these debates continue to rage, with people on both sides belittling the other side instead of agreeing to acknowledge that it just might be possible to do things differently without drastic consequence? Yes, there are some things that are crystal clear for causing harm (abuse, neglect, starvation and incest/rape hit this list), but for other things, is it really worth the fight.

One question I asked my students has given me a lot of insight into how drastically different people view the world: " One of the chief arguments of GATTACA is that genetics determines everything about you. In the movie the main character’s family is mostly pictured as holding him back. In this situation how would you, as a parent try to balance between encouraging your child, and giving them a realistic set of expectations?" The answers have ranged and I'm certain would cause some bristling. But given that my students come from diverse backgrounds, with some being first generation students, to older students, to having veteran status to various cultural backgrounds, these answers have been windows into their upbringing and daily challenges. Given that, it's made me reflect more on why I made the decisions for how we brought the Beats into the world, how Grey and I have cared for them and the values we are teaching them. And it's helped affirm that there will never be a "right" answer for any of this as a society, just a "right" answer for our family. 

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