Falling into gender roles

One of the more identity-warping aspects of parenthood is the way that it has pushed certain traditional gender roles into my marriage.  I didn’t expect this: I grew up in the “girls can do anything” generation and married someone who had no interest in being a stereotypical breadwinner.  But then BAM! societal structures whacked me in the face.

Some of it seems to make sense in the context of our family.  My husband is older than me; he has a real job and I’m a grad student.  Now that he’s working outside of academia, he makes a lot more than me.  My status as a student means that my hours are flexible, my vacation is not tracked, and, well, it just makes sense for me to be the one who stays home when the kid is sick.  To be the one who takes at-home days so that we can save money on daycare.  If we have a second kid after I finish my PhD, it’ll be totally logical for me to be the one to take “leave” for a few months or maybe longer.

But…  Would that calculation change if my husband’s new job offered paternity leave?  (It doesn’t.)  Would I have chosen to stay home as much as I did if daycare were more affordable?

What happens when we move somewhere where daycare costs even more?  Where the waiting lists are months long?  Who has to stay home then?

What happens if we have that second kid and I take some time off to parent—will I be losing forever the opportunity to have the kind of career I once imagined?  Am I doomed to be the secondary breadwinner, looking at a life of trying to sell jewelry and fake nails to my friends?

My husband and I had a fight the other day about money.  He’d started to say things that sounded like he thought of his salary as something he earned for himself and partially distributed to me for stuff, as opposed to something he earned for our family.  It turned out we were taking our worries out on each other: he felt bad about spending less time with our son (he’s had to work weekends recently), while I was worried (jealous?) that I made so much less.  It bothers me very much that we’ve been pushed in these directions.

Today is one of my at-home days, and I’m busy trying to fill the hours with dishes and knitting and crayons.  Likely my husband will be working again this weekend.  I feel unfulfilled, like I’m turning into the stereotype of a bored 1960’s housewife.

I’m not sure where to go from here.

A letter to my baby on our second Mother’s Day

This is my response to


My dearest child,

This is our second Mother’s Day.  You haven’t the foggiest idea what that means yet, except that Daddy will give you a pen and ask you to draw all over my card, which you will do with great care and enthusiasm.  Because that’s what Mother’s Day means: it means I’m part of a family.

Before you were born, for all those months that I carried you in my womb, we were a family.  Your Daddy and I laid our hands together on my stomach to feel your hiccups.  We worked together to prepare you a room, and we went to classes to learn about your arrival.  My body did the hardest work of growing, but your Daddy was always there to keep me (and you) close.

The day you came into this world, the moment we met, I smiled and told your Daddy to follow you to the nursery.  His bare chest comforted you; his heartbeat soothed you.  You came to me an hour later, tiny and pink, and I was astonished—how could something this amazing have come from me?  Your Daddy helped me carefully hold you, carefully bring your tiny head to my breast.

Your first few weeks, we learned together how this family would work.  My milk fed you, but your father and I shared the journey of staying up with you late at night when you didn’t understand the difference between night and day.  I learned to pump milk so that others could nourish you in my absence.

Soon, you started to take a bottle with ease, and I rejoiced to watch you snuggle with your father and your grandparents.  I read you books and played with your toys—and so did they.  We all watched together as you learned to focus, learned to smile, learned to reach, learned to roll.  It was always you, and me, and our family.

After six weeks, I went back to work part-time, trading shifts with your father.  We woke at night together when you stirred, he to change your diaper, I to offer food to soothe your rumbly tummy.  I remember snuggling in the quiet night with you, alone in the darkness.  I also remember the nights when you would not sleep, when I cried and your Daddy came out to take over.

And then, you began to sleep through the night.  You no longer needed me in the darkest hours and I rejoiced.

I rejoiced because it was never about you and me, and how you needed me.  It was about you.  About you growing, gaining independence.  Watched and loved by two parents.

You need me now much less than you did in that first year.  You run on your own, and you wiggle away when I try to hold you tight.  Someday your father and I won’t need to change your diapers, or pick out your clothes, or slice your food up into bite-size pieces.  Someday you’ll be reading on your own, truly reading and not just the nonsense syllables you make now as you turn the pages for yourself.  You have grown so much, and I am so proud.

It was never just you and me, and we are all the more blessed for it.  You have learned that many people provide safety and comfort, and you have learned that Mommy and Daddy always, always come back.  You are making friends at daycare, and I delight in the joy that shows in your face as you run around together.

So this Mother’s Day, our second Mother’s Day, I am going to sleep in.  I am going to take Daddy up on his offer to watch you all day.  I don’t know what I’ll do yet with that time—maybe I’ll have lunch with a friend, or go shopping, or just curl up at home with a book.  Because I know that I need that break, and that I’ll be a better wife and mother for it.  Because I know your face will light up when I come back, just as it lights up when Daddy comes home from work.

Because I know you will always be my baby, even when I’m not around.

Love,

Mommy

4 introvert tips for surviving family events

Navigating family gatherings can be tricky for any number of reasons, but it’s an especially hard task when you’re an introvert.  You’re expected to be “on” for hours at a time, smiling politely and answering the same three small-talk questions over and over.  School is going fine, thanks.  I’ve got about one year left.  Yes, Little Boy is doing well.  He’s picking up more words.  Yes, my husband likes his new job.  Various groups of people that you only sort of know and only sort of like mill around doing nothing in particular.  It’s exhausting.

So how does one cope?

1.  Take frequent short breaks.

This one is the absolute #1 key to my survival at family get-togethers.  It’s amazing how just a few minutes of silence can be enough to power me through another hour of chatty performance.

Being an introvert means that you require alone time to recharge (versus extroverts, who are recharged by interactions with other people).  So to keep from running out of gas, you need to find some alone time.  At least in my family, disappearing for long periods is frowned upon and earns one the label “antisocial.”  But a 5-minute break slips under the radar.

Depending on where you are, there are different options for where to take these short breaks.  Best-case scenario is when you’re staying at that relative’s house and thus can duck into “your” room for a few moments.  Otherwise you can duck outside, or into the garage, or a quiet room.  When all else fails, the bathroom is your friend.

2.  Do something with your hands.

A few years ago, I discovered that I am much more tolerant of small talk when I’m knitting.  Doing something helps me through the weird party state of having to be on and attentive while nothing in particular is happening.

Knitting, crochet, and other handcrafts are perfect here because they’re portable, and because people don’t perceive them as negatively as, say, reading.  You will have to put up with a constant refrain of, “What are you making?”  But at least then you can talk about something that interests you.

If you’re not a crafter, helping the party host can be another good option to stay occupied.  Chop vegetables, set the table, do the dishes.  (Alas, this scenario assumes that the party host is someone you can stand to be around for any amount of time, which may or may not be a valid assumption in your family.)

3.  Eat regularly.

When it comes to making it through a lot of social interaction as an introvert, food is fuel.  Don’t skip the appetizers, especially if you know grandma won’t be putting the roast on the table until 8 p.m.

There’s a level of balance here—eat too much, and you’ll be sleepy and uncomfortable—but seriously, it’s not the time to go on a diet.  Imagine a multi-hour family party as a marathon: you need to keep your energy levels up over the long term.

4.  Drink.

In moderation, of course, and only at events where others are drinking.  No joke though: alcohol helps.  My ability to keep up pleasant small talk gets infinitely better after a glass or two of wine.

 
Any other good suggestions for me?

My approach to budgeting: the electronic envelope system

In our house, I am the Keeper of the Budget.  In the beginning, we opted for a simple yet vague “spend less than you earn” approach.  As our bills became more complex, I moved our finances to a spreadsheet system.  We’re sort of middle middle class, neither lower nor upper: we have more than enough money in the bank to cover bills at any given time, but lack complicated income streams from investments and such.  The system we use works really well for us, and I’d like to share it with you today.

The Electronic Envelope System

One of the simplest forms of budgets is something called the envelope system.  At the beginning of the month, you take out the cash you plan to spend, and put it into physical envelopes for each category of expenses.  You might have an envelope marked “Groceries,” for instance, and another labelled “Movie Tickets.”  Throughout the month, you spend what’s in the envelope; when it’s gone, it’s gone.  If there’s money left in an envelope at the end of the month, you can carry it over for the next month or stash it away as extra savings.

That, in a nutshell, is how my budget works.  Except there are no literal envelopes involved.  My “envelopes” exist as columns in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, while all the money stays mingled in our checking accounts.  Every dollar is allocated to a specific future bill or group of expenses.  When we use up all the “Eating Out” money in a given month, it’s done—even if there’s plenty more money in the bank, there’s no money left in that “envelope.”  (OK, I do move money around in the spreadsheet sometimes.  Flexibility is a benefit of the electronic approach.)  Money left in an “envelope” at the end of the month carries over to the next month, so if, say, we don’t eat out much in March, we can go out a few extra times in April.

Categories of Expenses

To keep things organized, there are five groups of “envelopes” in our budget:

  1. Regular Monthly Bills.  These are bills that come due every month, and that are either the same amount of money each month or something fairly predictable.  Examples: rent, electricity, car payment, health insurance.
  2. Regular Non-Monthly Bills.  Bills that are predictable, but that don’t get paid every months.  For instance, I pay $400 every summer for my yearly campus parking permit.  Thus every month I put $400/12=$33.34 in the “Parking” “envelope.”  (In practice I round it up to $35, just in case the price goes up next year.)  Other examples: car registration, trash pickup (billed every 3 months here).
  3. Stuff We Buy Every Month.  This covers things I know we’ll pay for every month, although they won’t always add up to be exactly the same.  Examples: groceries, toiletry products, gas for the car.
  4. Stuff We Pay For Occasionally.  This covers all other groups of expenses, things that might cost a lot or a little in any given month.  Like furniture, or office supplies, or vet visits for our cat.  There’s also a “Miscellaneous” category for me and my husband that acts as our monthly “whatever you want to do” allowance.  Other examples: health care, clothes, gifts, toys for Little Boy.
  5. Savings.  No budget would be complete without savings.  This includes money that gets moved to our savings account, and money put into our retirement funds.

The Spreadsheet

Because I’m not physically taking cash out of an envelope, I need another way to keep track of how much money has been spent in each category.  That’s where the spreadsheet comes in.  Each “envelope”/expense category is one column, with a row for every day of the month.  Something gets spent that day, I enter it into the appropriate cell in the spreadsheet.  It does the rest of the math for me.

This might sound like a lot of work, but it really only amounts to an hour or so every two weeks.  I keep all our receipts, and check them against our bank accounts as I enter the numbers.  This method has the added bonus of quickly alerting me to any suspicious transactions on our accounts.

Since showing is better than telling, I’ve created a version of my spreadsheet on Google Docs, linked below.  The numbers are all fake, but the basic set-up is the same.  Notice the difference between “Savings” and “Net Cash”—there are dollars left in our bank accounts at the end of the month that are not savings, but monies allocated to specific budget “envelopes.”

We’ve saved a lot of money this way, enough that we were able to put a solid payment down on a new car last fall.  In a few years, we’ll have enough saved for a nice down payment on a house.  Interestingly, I’ve also found this approach frees me up to spend a little more on myself: when I know that there’s a certain amount of money available, I’m more comfortable spending it than when I was just trying to spend less than I earned.

Any questions?  How do you approach budgeting?

Choices

My advisor offered me an unexpected choice this week: stay another year as a PhD student.  To clarify, I’m already planning to graduate in a year or so; he means stay another year after that.  “Don’t worry about funding,” he said.  “And don’t worry about whether your committee thinks you ought to graduate by some arbitrary deadline.”

He made the offer because, in following an offshoot branch away from my main thesis topic, we’ve discovered something really cool.  Cool enough to generate interest from local press, and cool enough to keep me motivated through the hard times.  There’s more we could do here, but it would take more than one year.

I am torn.  On the one hand, this is a wonderfully kind offer.  I have always appreciated that my advisor—my current advisor, not the awful one with whom I started out—has never put pressure on me to go faster, and has always seemed genuinely excited by the science I could do.  In his offer, I heard, “You are doing good work and I’d like you to keep doing it.”

And the science is really very cool indeed.  Significantly more interesting, frankly, than the analysis remaining on my primary dissertation topic.  I care about it, and letting it go seems a terrible shame.

But.

But I’m ready to be finished with the PhD.  With a bit over a year to go and some writing progress being made, I can see the end.  Putting my completion date off another year feels a bit like pushing it out of reach.  The farther away that date gets, the harder it is to believe I can actually get there.

And despite my advisor’s reassurances, another year would make me a very slow finisher.  This is my Nth year as a PhD student, where N is a number between 5 and 10 and is also the typical time it takes for students to finish.  I am on track now to finish in N+1 years, which is not uncommon.  Half the students who started at the same time as me are staying for that (N+1)th year.  Another year would mean N+2.  Not unprecedented, but rare.  I’m not sure my ego can take that.

There are also many personal matters at play.  My closest friends are already starting to graduate and depart.  My husband is not terribly enthused about staying in this town for additional years, although he supports my choices either way.   The house we rent may not be available to us for that long, and I very much don’t want to move and then move again shortly after.

Finally, there’s the question of a second kid.  I can’t let the idea go—and I know that the best time for us would be shortly after finishing my PhD.  We’d like Little Boy and his hypothetical sibling to be no more than about 3 years apart, though; another year after next would be too long.  It’s not impossible that I could take a few-month hiatus from research to give birth and then come back for another year, but that would mean paying for two small children in daycare, and that’s not really affordable on my grad student salary.

I know which way the decision is going on this—no—but not without a little bit of heartache.

Post-Halloween wrap-up

I was very pleased with how Little Boy’s pumpkin costume turned out.  And I finished it whole hours before it was needed, which is practically a sewing record for me.  For the curious, here’s what it looked like:

Toddler pumpkin costume and hat.

Now imagine this on an excited one-year-old.  It was adorable, if I do say so myself.  He even tolerated the hat for short periods of time.

This Halloween turned was a fun holiday for us.  We’d been apprised by the homeowners that this neighborhood is a prime trick-or-treat destination, and we were not disappointed.  I honestly don’t know the last time I did Halloween in the classic way, with the big bowls of candy and the doorbell constantly ringing.  I feel like it has to have been more recently than high school, and yet I can’t remember any year between now and then when it happened.

I do have one public service announcement for parents: please teach your wee ones a modicum of patience.  Sometimes it takes me a few seconds to get to the door.  Kids, you don’t need to (a) ring the doorbell repeatedly, or (b) turn away to leave if the door doesn’t open instantaneously.  I know that Halloween is thrilling, but if it can be a good learning opportunity for saying “thank you” (and I saw lots of parents helping their kids practice that, which was great), it can also be a good learning opportunity for door etiquette.

I’ll hopefully be getting back to blogging semi-regularly again here soon.  Focusing on a different hobby for a bit was beneficial in some ways, but I’m ready to switch back.

Costume update & a cute story

The making of Little Boy’s Halloween costume continues.  This weekend’s step was the cutting out and marking of all the pattern pieces, a.k.a. the most tedious step of any sewing project.

Pinned pattern pieces ready to be cut.

The pumpkin is lined, which means twice the pieces to cut out.

I can’t help but think back to this time last year, when I cut the pieces of an infant tiger costume with said infant strapped to my chest.  It was exhausting.  But that was back in the days of wildly unpredictable naps, so the fact that he stayed asleep for hours in the baby carrier was a blessing.  That was also back in the days of working on the kitchen table in a poorly lit apartment; today, as the above picture illustrates, we have a lovely glass desk in a bright office.

We’ve been taking regular family walks lately, in the space of time between Little Boy’s dinner and his bath, but this evening the adults were rather tired.

Husband: “Are we going for a walk tonight?”

Me: “It’s kinda dark… What do you think?”

Husband: “There are a lot of mosquitoes…”

Me: “We’re on the same page then.”

Little Boy: Crawls into hallway, where he picks up his shoes and sticks them in his dad’s face.

We went for a walk.

Halloween is the season for costume-sewing

If you don’t hear much from me this month, it’s because I’m using my spare time to make Little Boy’s Halloween costume.  I’ve never been very good at just throwing costumes together from stuff on hand, but I am decently good at using a sewing machine to follow a pattern.  This year, that pattern is Simplicity #2788.

Simplicity 2788: toddler in a pumpkin costume.

There’s no way my kid is going to pose this perfectly.

That’s right, if all goes well, Little Boy will be an adorably round pumpkin for Halloween.  Apparently our new neighborhood is full of trick-or-treaters, so we’ll be able to get into the spirit of things a bit more than we have in the past.

Orange and green fabric.

Current status of costume.

Don’t ask me what my costume is going to be, because I haven’t decided.  Zero-effort (i.e., costume already exists in my closet) options include cavewoman, Master’s degree graduate, calico cat, and Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek.

What are your plans for Halloween, readers? 

Things I would have preferred not to learn this weekend

Learning new things is fun and all, but there is some stuff I would have been much happier never knowing:

  • Our camp mattress fits in the downstairs bathroom.
  • Dehydration can cause your arms and legs to go tingly and numb.
  • The local urgent care center is equipped to give IVs.  (They also have an X-ray machine.)
  • Zofran dissolves under your tongue.
  • My husband’s new health insurance has surprisingly good prescription coverage. [OK, maybe that one is actually good to know in the long run.]

Food poisoning sucks, y’all.

Scenes from a journey

It’s mid-afternoon, but the airport is nearly empty.  There is no one behind me to wait impatiently while I unload shoes, laptop, liquids into the security bins.

“Do you have a laptop?”

It takes me a moment to realize that she’s talking to me, but then, who else would she be talking to?

“Yes, I do.”

“You need to take it out of your bag and put it in a bin.”

I respond by lifting my silver laptop out of its bin on the table, wordlessly demonstrating that I am aware of this regulation.  It seems an oddly accusatory instruction, given that I am still in the process of taking things out of my bag.

My belongings slide slowly through the X-rays.  The agent running the machine stops the belt, leans in, and lifts with one finger the strap of my Medela Pump-In-Style Advanced.

“What is this?” she asks.

“Breast pump,” I answer, a touch too loudly, overcompensating for my nervousness by a fraction of a tone.

She says nothing, but replaces the squat black cube in its bin and restarts the conveyor.  I half-expect another agent to materialize and swab the thing for explosives.  None do, but with the rush of adrenaline, I forget to pick up my pocket lip balm and spend the next thirty minutes trying to reassure myself that I didn’t forget anything else.

The airport remains eerily uncrowded.  I scan for a family or single-stall bathroom—there are none.  I scout out the ladies’ room—are there any outlets in the stalls?  How is this supposed to work, exactly?  I opt to stand at the far end of the counter, pumping apparatus modestly hidden under a nursing cover.

The pump is loud in the quiet room.

The janitor enters, a pleasant-looking woman.  She waves away my attempts to shift position and systemically wipes down the sinks, changes the trash, flushes the toilets.  It is only as she is leaving that I realize that she had blocked the bathroom entrance when she arrived.  I am grateful for this small kindness.

I buy myself a novel in the airport shop.  I cannot remember the last time I did this.  Usually I stare interestedly at the books on display, telling myself that they’ll be much cheaper on Amazon—except I never get around to purchasing them on Amazon.  And usually, I’ve brought a book from home.  But my book at home right now is a hardback copy of the eighth Outlander novel and my backpack has no space for that monstrosity, so I treat myself to a paperback of Gone Girl.

Three separate strangers on two separate flights comment to me that Gone Girl is a great book and I’m going to love it.

They keep announcing that the flight is completely full (“there is no remaining space in the overhead compartments”), but the seat next to me is still unoccupied.  Finally, a woman staggers down the aisle, led by a flight attendant, whose directions indicate that the woman had somehow lost herself on the way to seat 12B.

She seems to recognize the guy across the aisle from me, a man who could only be described as a “bro.”  Then she turns to me.

“Would you move to the middle seat?”

That’s it.  No “would you mind moving?”, no “I would really appreciate being able to sit next to my friend,” not even a “I met this guy in the airport bar and want to keep flirting.”  Just “would you move.”

I stutter, but can’t think of a way to say no without becoming the jerk in the interaction.  I’m also getting a strong feeling that she would just talk over me, if I were to remain seated in her way.  So I move.

She sprints to the bathroom the minute we’re in the air, heedless of the flight attendant’s chastisement and the “please remain in your seats” announcement that follows.  Later, she cheerfully declines to get out of the way for me, forcing me to awkwardly climb over her knees to exit the row.

She and the bro exchange phone numbers—and names.  They spend the ninety-minute flight flirting in the most blatantly obvious of ways.  They trade headphones to listen to each other’s music.  Sometimes they don’t bother with the headphones, choosing instead to share their music with the whole plane.

I try to drown out their conversation with my own headphones, with limited success.  They have jobs: she’s a mechanic, he’s a civil engineer.  She might have a kid.  They both buy alcoholic beverages from the flight attendant and toast something across the aisle.

It’s not that the instructions from Google Maps are wrong, it’s just that they appear to be filled with a number of extraneous side roads.  In the dark, I don’t care that going from road A to road B via roads C, D, and E shaves off half a mile when roads A and B do in fact connect directly.

Somewhere around road Q, I give up on the map completely and opt for the “I think this is the right direction” approach.  For several minutes, I drive alone in the dark countryside.

Fortunately, I’m right, and a few minutes later I pop out on a major throughway.

My mother has stayed up to let me in, as I knew she would.  I tell her that she’s free to sleep now, that I can take care of food and dishes and bedding myself, but she doesn’t.  We sit at the kitchen counter and I eat and she talks, and I wish I could take some of the sadness away from her.  She misses him—her father, my grandfather.

I miss him too.