Monday, December 28, 2009

15-minutes of fame

A week or so ago, the Chambana Moms contacted me and asked if they could interview me for the Chambana Moms To Know section of their website. I was totally honored and agreed to do it. In retrospect, I think one of my friends must have suggested me to them (a certain mom who has 4 young boys perhaps? J), otherwise how would they have heard of me? Through Twitter, I guess. But at any rate, they published my interview just before Christmas, and you can have a look at it here.

In other news. We’re about 2/3 of the way done with Christmas, but I’ll leave the blogging to Ragfield and William for that. I’m totally bah-humbug this year because our house is already completely overrun with clutter, and having more stuff enter this house is absolutely the last thing I need. I guess it’s the thought that counts, but still. I would like to stop having clutter-induced panic attacks. Last night after William went to bed, I cleaned out 3 cupboards and filled 3 big trash bags with crap. It still feels like we’re just one more item away from being featured on that TV show Hoarders, which I’ve never actually seen, but can imagine nonetheless.

Also. I am about 99% sure that Almost PhD is about to close down. I say this because Rob just got me a domain name for a new website. I’m not sure what the plan is exactly. I had thought I might keep Almost PhD going until I actually deposit my thesis, but most of the things I feel like writing about lately are about motherhood and not about the PhD. I know the world really doesn’t need another mommy-blogger, and I really don’t have the time for it anyway, so I’m not sure what I was thinking when I thought a new website might be a good idea. We’ll have to see how this pans out. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Solstice and Everything After

A year ago today, on the winter solstice, was the first time I felt sick. I remember it well—we were out doing some last minute Christmas shopping when the first waves of clawing nausea swept over me. And I thought, I can totally handle this. Morning sickness has nothing on me. This is doable.

On Christmas Eve, the nausea began rising to a nearly audible crescendo. I was chopping kale and making butternut squash risotto to take to Rob’s grandparents for Christmas Eve dinner. All of a sudden, I had to stop. I had almost never felt so terrible in my life. I couldn’t quite describe what it was—more than nausea somehow. Like the time I got sick on the crowded bus in Ireland and the time I threw up on the boat in Lake Nicaragua. Combined. Holding my breath and covering my face in the crook of my elbow, I dumped my half-prepared meals into Tupperware containers and put them in the freezer. I thought for sure that this was just temporary—your garden variety morning sickness. Little did I know! That was the last time I tried to cook anything for about 9 months. Just the thought of the kale and risotto made me so sick that I couldn’t even open the freezer. My mom finally got rid of them for me when she came to stay with us after the baby was born. I had to go to my room and shut the door and clench my fists through the nausea as she ran them down the garbage disposal. Even more than 4 months later, there are still so many things that make me sick.

That nausea was only the beginning. I feel like I’ve been to hell and back to have this baby and to sustain him thus far. All of it has taken it’s toll on me—it’s like I’ve been fighting tooth and nail for everything since this day last year. I guess I just wanted to take a minute to think back about it all, what a journey it has been and everything that has happened since then. I look at Will sometimes and think, really, what a miracle it is that he is here and that he made it through all of this. If I had more time, I think I’d write a book about it.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Still an Almost PhD

There are a million things that need to be done, but the baby has fallen asleep on my lap, and I’m afraid to move for fear of waking him and making him cry. We’ll see if I can blog while listening to his (adorable) snoring.

So I defended my dissertation a week ago, and since then, I have been getting cards, emails and even gifts offering congratulations. And I just have to say… seriously people, it is really not that big of a deal. All it takes to get a PhD is a little persistence, and I think (read Fig’s birth story, for example) we have established that I can be very persistent. After defending my thesis, nothing in my life has changed. I am still dealing with dirty diapers, mountains of laundry, a baby that wants to nurse 24 hours a day, and no time for anything. At this point in my life, the PhD just kind of seems irrelevant. And I feel really guilty… like I must have somehow misled all of you—to be getting such an influx of cards, emails, and gifts.

First of all, I’m not really a PhD yet. I still have to revise my thesis according to the loads of comments each committee member gave me, and deposit it sometime (hopefully) spring semester. Right after the defense, I half-jokingly asked Professor Pablo (my former cloth mother), if I could call myself “Dr” yet, or if I have to wait until I deposit the thesis and formally graduate. “You can call yourself whatever the hell you want,” was his smirking response.

And secondly, here is the truth: I am still not qualified for any job. My publication record sucks, and that is really what matters when you are on the job market. Seriously, the degree means next to nothing if you aren’t publishing loads of original research. PhD’s are a dime a dozen these days. For any given job, there will be hundreds of applicants. I am not exaggerating. If you don’t have a knock-their-socks-off publication record, you’re going straight into the garbage pile. I’m a long, long way from actually reaping any rewards from the PhD.

I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. If I want a successful academic career, I need to drop everything, put Will in full-time day care, and work like mad to get things published. In truth, I don’t even know how to go about doing that. And even if I managed to pull it off, the reward seems kind of grim: an extremely stressful academic career, involving coming up with and funding research project after research project, then publishing the results of this research, all the while teaching. Seriously, I look at the professors in my department and think that if I had to do all that they were doing, I would have a heart attack and die right on the spot.

I didn't really know all this when I started out in grad school years ago. If I had it to do all over again, I’d become a physical therapist. There. I said it.

Got to go, Will’s crying.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Almost PhD

So, I defended my dissertation on Friday. It went like this:

Earlier in the week, Will came down with a cold. Yes, a cold. I’m pretty sure he caught it from Rob, who caught it from the guy he shares an office with at work. I never got this cold, and I had assumed (or hoped?) that Will would be okay on account of the breastfeeding. The internet would have you believe that breastfeeding is this magical thing that protects your child from illness and makes them into a super baby. This is not entirely true, as evidenced by Will’s cold. So much snot. I did not know it was possible for so much snot to come out of one tiny little nose. He sounded like Darth Vader with every breath. And the poor dear could not sleep. He went from sleeping 8-10 hour stretches to sleeping only 2-3 hours at a time, max. And instead of going right back to sleep after his many night time feedings, he stayed awake and fussy—frustrated with all the snot he couldn’t breathe through. I called the doctor, but they said there was really nothing much they could do. Just keep using saline drops, the nasal bulb, a humidifier, and try to keep him upright to sleep. I think this cold also coincided with a growth spurt, because his sleeping disruptions actually started several days before the cold started and plus, the internet says that babies often go through a growth spurt around 4-months.

So that’s the backdrop to my dissertation defense. A fussy, snorty, baby who wants to nurse all the time (though there is nothing new about that part) and who isn’t sleeping well. It didn’t leave me a whole lot of time to prepare for my defense, but even so, I had no idea how to actually prepare for it. At this point, I realized that my dissertation was too long to re-read. As I mentioned in the last post, what I ended up doing was printing out Chapter 8, my discussion chapter, and reading it while walking around the streets of Urbana with Will bundled up and nestled against me in the Baby Bjorn. I also ended up printing off the conclusion sections of all of my chapters and pouring over those. It felt kind of like I was reading the “Cliff Notes” version of my dissertation. I realized that my committee members, who had probably all just read it over Thanksgiving break, were all a lot more familiar with it than I was. Plus, none of them had been going slowly insane from listening to a crying baby for the last 4 months. Plus, all of them are a lot smarter than me and would be able to easily ascertain that I have no idea what I’m talking about most of the time.

I realized I was scared principally of the following things:

  1. The questions they would ask. Like I said, they are all a lot smarter than me. I am a disaster when it comes to theory. And theory is pretty much what a dissertation is. Plus, I don’t always think so well on my feet. If I didn’t already have an answer memorized, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to say anything. (“What is life history theory?” “I don’t know… the thing my dissertation is about?”)
  2. One faculty member in particular being there and asking me something on purpose to make me look dumber than Sarah Palin in the Katie Couric interview. This particular faculty member has actually made me cry (afterwards, in the privacy of my office) following previous presentations I have given in the department.
  3. Will having a last minute digestive problem and leaving me to do the whole defense with his vomit or puke on me.
  4. My boobs leaking in front of everybody.

Because I hadn’t been getting very much sleep during the preceding weeks, I vowed to go to bed early the night before my defense. There were too many last minute things to take care of though, and it didn’t happen. It seemed like I had just gotten to sleep when Will woke up crying around 3am. He ate and then began crying again when I tried to lay him back down. I finally got him back to sleep, but by 5am he was fussing again and would not go back to sleep, so by around 6, I fed him again. There was no way he was going back to sleep after that. I was so tired, but there was not much else to do besides get up and get ready. Rob did his best to keep Will quiet and entertained.

By around 8, Will was too fussy to settle down, so I fed him again. As I began feeding him, I thought that perhaps I should be wearing a smock or some type of staging outfit in case he puked on me, but alas. Just as soon as he finished eating from Side A, he vomited everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except the burp cloth. I very irked that I would now have to come up with a different outfit to wear to the defense. Rob came to the rescue though and sponged off the vomit. There wasn’t enough time to dry my shirt in the dryer, so I just waved the hair dryer over it for a while and ended up putting it back on kind of wet.

We left our house intending to catch the 9:13 bus to campus. It would be the first time Will had ever been on a bus. We stood there waiting at the cold bus stop for what seemed like forever, until finally we decided, “Screw this, we might as well walk.” Just then the bus came by and we caught it at the next stop.

We got to campus plenty early, but everything seemed to move so quickly after that. SL was there, with a fresh hair cut, wearing a sport coat and a tie that had hominin skulls on it. Everyone was hugging me and exclaiming about Will’s cuteness.

Then all of a sudden it began. My four committee members met in the room in private while everyone else waited outside. During this part of the defense, they discuss amongst themselves whether the thesis is defensible or if everybody should just go home. I was pretty sure this was just a formality. At least I was hoping it was just a formality, especially since my outside committee member had driven up the night before. In order to keep me occupied during this section, SL gave me a juvenile monkey skull that had had its teeth removed and told me my task was to correctly place the teeth back into both the jaw and maxilla and to identify the species. All I can say is that I am so glad my predecessor, Dr. G.B had forewarned me of this and that it was largely a joke that SL had devised based on his belief that manual tasks are soothing. I did not find the task to be soothing, but I threw myself into it with much gusto.

Melissa works to assemble the juvenile baboon skull

It was a juvenile baboon. SL later pointed out that I reversed the maxillary and mandibular premolars, and although he seemed disappointed, it did not affect the committee's decision on whether or not to pass me.

Monkey skulls and cookies

Eventually, SL emerged and said that the committee had decided we could proceed. Everybody filed into the room, and when the door closed behind us, I was much relieved to find that the faculty member I feared was not among us. Then all of a sudden I was up there at the podium, beginning my presentation. Will started crying soon after, and Rob took him out of the room. I was sad that they left, but I just kept going. I could hear Will crying for a while in the next room, and when he stopped I figured that Rob must have gotten the bottle ready for him (more on this later).

When the presentation was over, it was time for the committee to begin questioning me. I think that the idea is that they go around the table and each committee member has a turn to ask his or her questions. It started out that way, but then ended up just kind of being a free for all, with everybody kind of jumping back and forth and even a couple of questions from non-committee member faculty in the audience. It did get pretty intense for a while (particularly when SL asked me to define “positive allometry” and explain why it was important for my results), but nobody was unnecessarily harsh on me. In fact, it was a lot more like a big, open discussion of my thesis instead of me having to defend it to the world. I was definitely pretty out of it during the questioning period though, and felt like I wasn’t answering the questions very well. Time was passing in a way that could have been minutes or hours. At some point, Rob and Will came back in, and I was really happy to see them both.

Eventually it started winding down. SL asked if there were any further questions and when no one had any, the whole thing was done. Just like that. It hadn’t been great, but it really wasn’t that bad at all. I mean, it was nothing like giving birth. Maybe its because it’s only been 4-months since my 23-hour unmedicated labor, but seriously, everything else in life just seems so pale in comparison to that.

Everybody had to wait outside again while the committee deliberated on whether or not I would pass. The other students in the department who came to the defense were amazing. They were so encouraging and supportive as we stood waiting for the verdict. I was so glad they were there (thanks so much, guys).

I asked Rob if Will had eaten, and he told me he had given Will a bottle. I asked him how much Will ate, and he said Will ate the contents of one of the bags of breastmilk I had pumped. My jaw dropped. There was 7 ounces of breastmilk in that baggie. According to the internet, I estimated that Will should be eating more like 4 to 4.25 ounes per feeding. I had put more milk than that in each of the bags I had stored, telling Rob to only pour out the appropriate amount and also leaving a note inside the bag with the milk and bottles. Well, apparently Rob misheard my instructions and didn’t read the note, so he just gave Will the whole thing. And Will took it. The boy is an animal. I instantly had visions of him growing up to be a competitive eater—winning contests for how many hot dogs he can eat in an hour or whatnot. He looked a little stoned.

So there I was, instead of freaking out about how my defense had gone and whether or not I had passed, I was freaking out about what must be going on inside Will’s digestive system at the moment. I was also a little bit paranoid that maybe the internet was wrong, and Will just needs 7 ounces of milk per feeding. I thought there was no way he was getting that much each time—the 7 ounces I had stored was from 2 pumping sessions.

In the middle of this freak out, SL and the committee members emerged, told me I had passed, and we all went out to lunch. I vaguely remember everybody ceremoniously signing the form saying that I had passed (with revisions), but it was all really a blur. All I could think about was the sheer quantity of breastmilk my son had just gulped down in one sitting and wondering what was going to happen.

What happened was, he fell asleep while we were out to lunch. That was a good thing, because he’d been for about 7 hours or so without taking a nap. Later in the afternoon after we got home, he pooped and it was very strange indeed. (WARNING: GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF POOP AHEAD). It looked kind of like pale green cottage cheese. Very unlike his typical poop. His poop stayed varying shades of green for the next day or so (actually, it is still a little more green than normal). I don’t know what the deal is. I’m starting to wonder if green poop is common for babies fed pumped breastmilk? All those many weeks he had green poop when he was a newborn, we were told he had a cow’s-milk allergy, so I went back to being vegan and I also gave up soy for a month or more when the green poop would not go away. Much of that time I was also giving him pumped milk because they told me I had a low milk supply which left him hungry all the time. Eventually, I had more milk and I stopped giving him pumped bottles. His poop stopped being green, but his behavior (the crying, oh the crying) didn’t change. So. I don’t know. Does anybody out there have experience with pumping and the kind of poop that results? And also, how much pumped milk did your baby take at a feeding? I would love to know. The thing that’s killing me here is that maybe he wants 7 ounces of milk per feeding and I feel like there is no way I am making that much for him every 2 hours, so…my God, is the crying still because he is hungry?!

So proud of Momma

A very full boy, happy for mama

At any rate. After an afternoon of worrying about my milk supply and Will’s poop, it was time for the big party at SL’s that night. I’d been planning on taking Will with us, but Rob had called his parents and asked them to come and babysit. This was going to be a big deal for me, because for the last 4 months, the maximal amount of time I have been away from Will is 1 hour. He has never been babysat by anyone other than Rob. I did not know if I could do it. But I also knew that it would probably be best for Will to stay home and skip the party. He goes to bed around 7:30, and I had been becoming increasingly worried about loading him into the carseat (which was sure to wake him up) and then having him awake and mad at the party. So I fed him and put him to bed before we left, and according to Rob’s parents, he never woke up the whole time we were gone.

One more thing, and then I promise I’m finished. Back when I took my prelim exams a million years ago, I brought a bottle of champagne to the party at SL’s house afterwards. It was a bottle of “Taittinger” I had bought in 1999 when I was studying abroad in Paris, but had never had an occasion to drink. Well, apparently SL did not think my prelims were a big enough occasion for it. He said he would keep the bottle for me and we’d drink it at my dissertation defense. He placed a duct tape label on the bottle and wrote in a sharpie “Save for Melissa’s dissertation defense.” Well, at the party the other night, he produced the bottle. And just as we were about to open it, he balked and decided that even my dissertation defense wasn’t a big enough occasion. He opened a bottle of Korbel instead and said that I should save the Taittinger until I got a job… no, until I got tenure… no… until Will got his PhD. At any rate, we drank the Korbel and I’ve got the Taittinger back in my possession, on hold yet again.

Okay, miles of laundry to fold. Thanks to everybody for all your calls, emails, cards, etc. I'll write more later.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

How I Prepared for my Dissertation Defense

Preparing for one’s dissertation defense while also caring for a newborn is hardly ideal, but I’m trying to do the best I can. Mainly I am just in denial about the looming defense date. Now that it’s less than a week away, there is not much more denying I can do.

Most days I nurse Will for hours on end, only to have him start fussing and crying every time I try to take him off. A lot of the time he isn’t even eating, but he doesn’t care—he just really, really likes to suck. Yes, yes, I’ve tried pacifiers, but the boy accepts no substitutes. I’ve become pretty good at working on the computer while nursing him. In fact, I wrote my entire defense presentation while nursing him. I suppose it was kind of apropos, considering that the majority of my dissertation is about lactation and maternal investment. Sometimes I just really need a break from the constant nursing though. The other day I bundled him up and loaded him into the Baby Bjorn*. I took a print-out of the Discussion chapter of my dissertation with me, and we walked the streets of Urbana for around an hour while I read and ruminated. Will fell asleep the instant I stepped outdoors, so he managed to get in a good nap, and I managed to not trip on any cracks in the sidewalk as I was reading. I actually got a lot of work done in that hour. Plus, I got fresh air and exercise.

I kind of wondered if there had ever been anyone else in the history of dissertations who had ever prepared for their defense this way. We’ll find out on Friday whether or not this was an effective preparation tactic.

*Of all the baby slings I have tried, the Baby Bjorn is by far the best!! I was lucky because my sister loaned me hers so I didn’t have to shell out ~$90 for one. But even if I would have had to pay full price for one, it would have been totally worth it! The Baby Bjorn is probably the most used baby item we have!